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How Dave Hakstol Beat the Devils Using One Matchup

Flyers’ coach Dave Hakstol has the benefit of possessing one of the better 5-men units in the NHL. But attaching them at the hip to Hall-Hischier-Bratt, Hakstol dared the Devils depth to beat him, and it payed off.

Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

As the Devils were playing the Flyer’s last week in Philly, I couldn’t help but notice a few things. First of all, the Philly team looked totally different than the last time we played them — they were generating pace shift after shift and we could never dig out of our own zone. They got Shayne Gosthisbehere back from injury, but he shouldn’t completely upend the effectiveness of their entire lineup should he? The other thing I noticed was that some of our elite guys — Hall and Hischier, in particular — seemed to disappear. What happened between January 13th and January 20th that made the Flyers seem like they became suddenly invincible?

What Happened In the Games?

So first of all, why am I making a big stink about how much the Flyers adjusted in the second game against the Devils? They beat the Devils by 2, then they beat the Devils by 2 again a week later, so basically nothing happened right? In fact, the first time the Devils were home, so, really, wasn’t the first game more disappointing? Well, “goals” is a fickle statistic. A few lucky hops, nice shots, goalie mistakes, can make goal totals misleading (as we’ve seen in these last two games this week). Enter “Expected Goals.” A lot of analysts have their own expected goals models, so it’s difficult to get a real precise definition of it, but it’s essentially a way of weighting shot attempts by how likely they are to result in a goal. One ubiquitous aspect of it is some form of shot location. There are other elements like shot types, rebound/rush shots, shooter talent, situation, etc. that are sometimes included as well. Two of the more well known models are from in-game updaters, Corsica and MoneyPuck. Let’s see what they had to say about the two games

So as you can see from these games, despite the similar scoring differential, the Devils were significantly outplayed in their recent meeting, whereas they were likely slightly better in run of play in the previous meeting. According to the Corsica model, the Devils went from leading expected goals 3.02 - 2.32 to trailing 1.62 - 3.78. That’s just shy of a 3 expected goal swing! What changed? How did we lose so much ground?

What Was The Difference?

Matchups. It’s all in the matchups. Why did that change? Well, for those who don’t know, hockey is one of the few sports that has actual baked-in benefits for the home team. One of those benefits is something called “last change.” When play stops and the teams have to decide who goes on the ice, the away team has to play their cards first and the home team gets to play the matchup game.

The thing to look at in these two games is who the Flyers had on the ice against the Devils top line when they did and didn’t have last change. In this article, I’ve decided to use Nico as the representative of the first line, seeing as he centers it. I will similarly use Couturier and Zajac as representatives of their lines.

These are from the game pages on Natural Stat Trick (1/13 and 1/20). If you want more example of the game, check out Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz as it also has gamecards for every player {Nico gamecard(1/13), Nico gamecard(1/20), Matchups(1/13), Matchups(1/20)}.

As you can see from the charts, the Hall-Hischier-Bratt played against a pretty wide array of Flyers in the first game and fared decently well against them — seems to be about a 7-5 CF split in the Devils favor including 2 high danger chances for and none against.

Then, the second game happened. Two big things changed about this game as opposed to the first. One is that Shayne Gosthisbehere returned from injury and started playing on a pairing with Ivan Provorov, creating likely one of the best D-pairs in the NHL. And the second, is that the Flyers and Head Coach David Hakstol were home where they get last change.

Hischier went from no time against Ghost and 4 minutes against Provorov, to an absurd 7:18/8:45 (83%) of his ice time against the pair. But it wasn’t restricted to an injury-induced defensive change. After playing only 2:13/11:54 (19%) of his minutes against the Couturier line in the first game, Hischier saw them in 7:18/8:45 (77%) of his minutes in the second game. Unsurprisingly, going up almost exclusively against a lineup of Provorov, Gosthisbehere, Giroux, Couturier, and Konecny, Hischier & Co struggled mightily, garnering only around 20% of the shot attempts.

The last few games, Hynes had used the Zajac line to attempt to mitigate the danger of the other teams top unit. This would allow Nico and Hall to get a pretty even split of whatever’s left, and guys like Zacha and Wood would feast on the scraps remaining. When Hynes couldn’t/wouldn’t implement that plan, the whole team suffered as a result.

Why Was This So Effective?

If the opposing team uses all of their studs against one line, then they don’t have all those guys to use against the rest of our team, right? So shouldn’t the net effect not matter much? The reason that this matters so much against this Devils team is because the Devils are a deceptively shallow team. Although our top 3 players contribute the 5th lowest percent of our toatl team goals, we are in the middle of the league in percent of total points contributed, and they have contributed the 6th highest percent of our total HDCFs in the NHL. Also, our team struggles a lot to move the puck through the neutral zone when the top line is off the ice.

Last week, I showed visualizations of the Devils in All-Three-Zone Data. In it, I presented an image of all our forwards in the statistics. The Devils are a top-heavy team, and the top players are all on the same line. In particular, Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall have been our two best players by far. As of right now, at 5v5, we are simply not getting anything from the second tier of forwards on this roster. As an example, Palmieri and Zajac each have only 5 points at evens so far. For some context, Jimmy Hayes has 8. Now, Philly is pretty top-heavy too, but when you win the matchup with your elite guys, then lacking depth matters less. It’s when the top guys get buried like ours did in at the Wells Fargo Center that you need to start to get production from other places.

The difficulties our roster is experiencing at the 2nd level makes it an easy decision for an opposing coach with a line containing the 4 all-stars, 2 of whom can take faceoffs, including the current Selke-favorite. Couturier and Giroux won all 4 draws the took against Nico, and they never gave the puck back after winning it every time.

Concluding Thoughts

If Hynes isn’t careful, this is a legitimate blueprint that the elite teams with strong top units can use to neutralize the Devils best players when the come to town. I believe this game exposed how much this team struggles when you take out one line. I liked seeing Hynes experiment with depth and line flexibility in the game against Boston last night. They have a, what some people have called, the best forward line in the NHL right now. Going to visit a team with that line sans Hall, Hynes was forced to spread the talent around so that none could be taken out by Bergeron & Friends, and it worked. Hopefully the coaching staff continues to be creative in how they spread around the talent moving into this critical portion of the year.

If you disagree with anything that I’ve said about how the Flyers adapted to the Devils and took it to us in the second game, feel free to say so in the comments. Do you think this is a dangerous thing? Can other teams do the same thing to us that Hakstol did? Does Hynes need to distribute the talent up and down the roster when we’re away to protect against this type of strategy? Leave your thoughts on any of these questions below, and as always, thanks for reading!