Welcome to a weekly feature where we have some fun with underlying numbers. We highlight a couple of trends, then dig beneath the surface to get a better sense of what these trends ultimately mean, what’s causing them and how likely it is that they’ll continue. Think of these analyses as bite-sized deep dives.
In the recent past, we’ve used this space to look at various things like why defensemen should shoot less, the best lines in hockey, and the effects of the Barry Trotz defensive system. This week, we’re going to focus on how the unprecedented run Carter Hart is on saved the Flyers’ season — and what that means looking forward — as well as a dark-horse candidate for the hypothetical Most Improved Player Award. Any data referenced is mined from either Corsica or Natural Stat Trick.
The Hart and soul of the Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers are many different things to many different people, but one thing that we can all agree on is that no one will ever accuse them of being boring. Over the years they’ve been a franchise that’s been an endless source of entertainment. What’s particularly amazing is that their end results in recent seasons have been wholly mediocre, but the path they’ve taken to get there has been a dizzying roller-coaster ride worth the full price of admission.
They’ve somehow managed to check off boxes on both ends of the spectrum, fittingly becoming the first team to ever make the playoffs after losing 10 straight games just one year after becoming the first team ever to miss the playoffs after winning 10 straight games. If there’s some sort of record out there, good or bad, that no one has ever accomplished, rest assured that the Flyers will eventually find a way to stumble into achieving it.
This season has been no different. After stumbling out of the gate and falling well short of preseason expectations, they axed both their general manager and head coach within the span of a couple of weeks. On Jan. 9, they plummeted all the way down to 31st place in the league. As of the All-Star break, they were a seemingly insurmountable 14 points out of a playoff spot.
Since Jan. 9, they’ve won nine of 10 games, including their current eight-game win streak, rallying back from the dead and right into the outskirts of the playoff race in the East. For as much as we like to make about hockey being the ultimate team game, the Flyers’ turnaround over the past month is just the latest example of how important goaltending is in the NHL.
The performance they’ve received from their netminders in those two stretches has been night and day. Prior to Jan. 9, they were 27th in five-on-five save percentage (.903) and 30th overall (.896).
In the month since, they’ve seen those totals jump up to sixth (.938) and third (.943), respectively. The shot metrics and other underlying skater performance indicators have actually taken a dip during this winning spell, but it’s been completely irrelevant because the Islanders and Canadiens are the only teams that have enjoyed the luxuries of better overall goaltending.
While being so reliant on goaltending can be a slippery slope, it’s clear that the baseline level performance at the position has dramatically increased for the Flyers with the call-up of Carter Hart. In his first spin around the league, he’s lived up to every drop of digital ink that was spilled anointing him as a top prospect, a particularly impressive feat for a young goalie. The list of goalies to see any sort of sustained action at this level before their 21st birthday is a short one, and the list of ones that excelled in that time of their career is even shorter. Hart looks like a different breed than your typical young netminder, already polished enough to handle the rigors of a pro league that features the world’s most accurate shooters and an equally unforgiving schedule. Considering the resume he’s already put together — which includes backstopping Team Canada to gold at the World Juniors, being named the top goalie in the Canadian Hockey League twice, and being named the top goalie in the Western Hockey League three times — this only seems like the next logical chapter for him.
The fact that he’s looked as good as he has early on only further highlights the team’s questionable decision to wait as long as it did to give him a chance. By starting the season rolling through a record number of stop gaps, the team dug itself into a hole. The list of goalies the Flyers auditioned while punting the first half of the season is a lengthy one, and not a particularly inspiring one at that:
On the one hand, former GM Ron Hextall deserves some credit for being the one to bring Hart into the organization in the first place, showing the foresight to be the one to start the goalie run that ensued in the second round of the 2016 draft after Hart went off the board 48th overall.
On the other hand, it’s hard to be too sympathetic about the team’s woeful goaltending to start the season being the main reason for his and head coach Dave Hakstol’s termination, because it was of their own doing. They fell on their own swords in a way, ultimately being the ones who watched the goalie carousel keep spinning because of their reluctance to call Hart up from the minors until the organization had exhausted every other possible option.
If Hart can somehow manage to keep anything remotely approaching this pace up while dragging the Flyers back into the playoff hunt, we will be forced to re-litigate a Calder Trophy conversation that seemed to have already been settled in favor of Elias Pettersson. Ultimately, he’s fighting an uphill battle there for a variety of reasons. The fact that he was late to the party even though it was out of his control is one thing, as is how bright Pettersson’s own star shines. There’s also the fact that history isn’t exactly on his side either. In the past 35 years, there have been just five goalies to take home the Calder: Ed Belfour in 1991, Martin Brodeur in 1994, Evgeni Nabokov in 2001, Andrew Raycroft in 2004 and Steve Mason in 2009.
But that’s a topic for a later date. The more important thing right now is that the Flyers finally have a legitimate No. 1 goalie, and he’s almost single-handedly breathed new life into both their franchise and their fan base after it looked like all hope was lost. And what’s more, it looks like they’ve finally reached the end of a decades-long quest to find such a netminder.
Holding true to form, all they had to do was take the most roundabout path to getting there this season.
A dark-horse candidate for Most Improved Player
Let’s play a little guessing game. Here are the players who take the highest percentage of their team’s shot attempts whenever they’re on the ice this season. Aside from the odd name here or there, it’s a list that you’d reasonably expect to see heading in. It’s one that’s littered with big stars, annual shot-volume kings, and top-flight snipers.
And then there’s the one mystery name that appears seemingly out of nowhere near the very top of that esteemed company, having quietly cobbled together what’s become a stunningly impressive individual season. Player X is someone who could presumably walk by you on the street without detection, is usually not written about at any real length by anyone who isn’t covering the team he plays on, and not only isn’t a household name but is one that all except the true diehards likely aren’t familiar with.
Things obviously haven’t gone according to plan this season in New Jersey. Essentially everything that could’ve gone wrong for the Devils in the first 50-plus games has gone wrong: Keith Kinkaid turned back into a pumpkin after his magical run, defending Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall has been out of the lineup since the Christmas break, and, as a result, only the Ottawa Senators are occupying real estate below them in the Eastern Conference standings.
Bright spots and silver linings have been few and far between this season, but one of those has been Coleman, whose play has been a necessary breath of fresh air on a team that’s been starved for reasons for any sort of sustained excitement.
It’s understandable that it’s gone relatively unnoticed because of the circumstances, but there’s been so much to like about his game. From the eye test, he’s routinely popped off the screen, constantly creating chances and finding himself in the middle of the action. He’s listed at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, but he’s an absolute bulldog on the puck, constantly using his wheels to create separation in the neutral zone and drive to the net in traffic. The combination of Coleman and Miles Wood have been a delightfully entertaining duo, using their speed and tenacity to hound opponents all over the ice. In the 250 or so minutes the two of them have played with Travis Zajac, on what’s become the team’s most reliable line with Hall out, the Devils have controlled 55.4 percent of the shot attempts, 56.4 percent of the shots on goal, and 53.4 percent of the expected goals.
He’s been just as impressive on the stats sheet, with the numbers backing up his profound involvement. He’s on pace for just short of 30 goals, despite the fact that he hasn’t had the benefit of many power-play opportunities until recently. While he hasn’t been utilized much on the man advantage, he’s been heavily relied upon on the other end of the special-teams spectrum. No forward has eaten up a larger cumulative workload than Coleman has on the penalty kill, where he spends 2:49 per game on average. Considering the volume, it’s no surprise that he leads the league in shorthanded shot attempts (30), shots on goal (24), and scoring chances (16).
However, his best work has been done at five-on-five, where he’s been a demon when it comes to generating looks. He’s:
16th in attempts per minute, right behind Auston Matthews
Not bad for a player that was a relative unknown prior to this season, and still is in a lot of circles. For Coleman, this is just the latest chapter in what’s become a fascinating, unconventional career arc. After spending the full four years in college at Miami University, he spent some time in the AHL, not becoming an NHL regular until his age-26 season. Yet maybe it shouldn’t be a complete shocker that he’s turned into an effective player at this level, because he’s eventually bloomed into a productive contributor at every turn on his way here.
For the Devils, they seem to have stumbled into an immensely valuable asset. By inking him to a three-year, $5.4 million deal just prior to this breakout campaign, they’ve now got him locked up at a cost-effective price for each of the next two seasons. Even if he’s playing over his head right now out of necessity, he should still comfortably settle into a frisky bottom-six, penalty-killing specialist role moving forward, for a team that’ll gladly take that offense wherever it can get it.
The NHL doesn’t officially have an annual award for the league’s most improved player. If it did, it would likely go to a young player like Timo Meier or Elias Lindholm, both of whom have made huge strides in their development and finally started realizing their vast potential. But their natural progression is to be expected.
From the pool of veterans that have suddenly improved out of nowhere, none has taken a bigger jump from one season to the next than Blake Coleman has in 2018-19.