By: Wes Herrmann (@Wes_Herrm)
At 5-on-5 play, the losses of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde, Roman Lyubimov and Michael Del Zotto from the Philadelphia Flyers’ lineup this year will not be missed much. In fact, some will be celebrated.
Bellemare and VandeVelde were offensive black holes and Lyubimov appeared in only 47 games. Del Zotto was about as inconsistent as possible on the blue line after a terrific 2015-16 season.
But on the penalty kill, most will be missed in ice time, at bare minimum. The four players combined for over 516 shorthanded minutes over 261 man-games last season with Bellemare and VandeVelde leading the way at 226 and 202 minutes, respectively.
That’s a lot of minutes to replace from two forwards, but filling that time isn’t the hard part for the Flyers. It’s improving the penalty kill along with it.
Bellemare and VandeVelde had been fixtures on Philly’s shorthanded units for the past three seasons. In that time, neither have been below eighth in shorthanded ice time on the team per season and the Flyers have never ranked higher than 20th in penalty kill percentage.
Last season, the team finished 21st (79.8 percent) while making an effort to be more aggressive on the kill. It didn’t help much, but assistant coach Ian Laperriere, who runs the penalty kill, was kept around.
So it will be up to the new on-ice personnel to turn around the previous failings of VandeVelde, Bellemare and Laperriere. Not by coincidence most likely, general manager Ron Hextall brought in a few players that can help kill penalties.
Valtteri Filppula saw less than a minute-per-game of penalty kill time after the Flyers acquired him at the trade deadline last season, but played 120 minutes of it in the previous 59 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Philadelphia, with much less offensive talent than the Lightning, needed the Finnish center rested for even-strength play last year.
But with the additions of Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom, plus a full season of Jordan Weal, Filppula’s responsibilities will diminish at 5v5. However, his shorthanded minutes should increase.
It’s also possible that fellow Finn Jori Lehtera, acquired in a deal for Brayden Schenn at the draft, will also assume a bottom-six role with heavy penalty kill time. He never played more than 65 total minutes a season on the PK with the St. Louis Blues, but is also unlikely to see the 15 minutes of ice time that he did last year.
Patrick could play on the penalty kill, but as a rookie, it wouldn’t be smart to throw him to the wolves. If he does, don’t expect a regular appearance from him until a few months into the season.
Other youngsters, Scott Laughton and/or Taylor Leier, depending on who makes the team, will likely kill some penalties. After some disappointing defensive play in the NHL, Laughton honed his game last season with the Phantoms in the AHL. Leier has been a responsible defensive winger since juniors and played some shorthanded minutes last season in his 10 NHL games.
Besides them, Matt Read could be counted on for more minutes and Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds will have to play a similar amount as they did last year. Another possibility is returning Claude Giroux to the penalty kill after taking a break from it last season.
On defense, Del Zotto and Nick Schultz didn’t kill penalties often, but accumulated 116 combined shorthanded minutes last year. If Sam Morin makes the roster, he should be able to handle those and more.
At 6′-7″, Morin is a pure defensive defenseman and the Flyers hope they can count on him to kill penalties and be a shutdown blueliner for years to come. Despite being a rookie, the 2013 11th overall pick, should be able to make penalty killing his forte.
In net, they say a goalie is your most important penalty killer. For the Flyers, the goalies haven’t helped that cause.
Despite some strong even-strength numbers, Steve Mason never had a shorthanded save percentage that eclipsed the .900 mark in his five seasons in Philly. Michal Neuvirth hasn’t excelled either with .898 in 2015-16 and .824 last season.
Since the 2013-14 season, new Flyer Brian Elliott has had penalty kill save percentages above .900 in two seasons and higher than .873 two more times. Mason had a greater save percentage than .873 just once in his career as a Flyer.
Elliott, along with other new players, will have to replace and improve the Flyers’ penalty kill that has floundered over the past few years. Luckily for the team, Hextall has set them up better than with VandeVelde and Bellemare.