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System Analysis: Yeo on Defense and PK

Flyers contributor breaks down the new coaching staff and systems they will implement

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer /

When former Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues head coach Mike Yeo was offered an assistant coaching position with the Flyers this offseason, it did not take much cajoling to get him to come aboard as the assistant in charge of the blueline corps and penalty kill.

"For me it was a no-brainer to come to the Flyers. As long as I can remember in my life, I've idolized the brand of hockey they've played over the years. It's an organization with a lot of pride, and one of the best traditions around the league. The fit here felt comfortable right away. I like the mix on the roster: the depth, the young group that has a chance to be very good, the vets who are coming in to add stability. I'm excited to join the coaching staff that Chuck Fletcher and Alain Vigneault have put together. It was a very easy decision to come here and be part of it," Yeo said.

"I've worked together with Chuck before, in Pittsburgh and Minnesota, so I know him very well. I worked with Michel Therrien as his assistant in the American League and the NHL in Pittsburgh. I always respected Alain immensely from coaching against him because of how well-coached his teams are in the way they execute their systems. With Lappy [Ian Laperriere], after five minutes, you feel like you've been friends with him for 25 years. So I'm really excited to work with all these guys." 

Before becoming a head coach for the Minnesota Wild, where he was hired by Fletcher, Yeo gained a reputation as an assistant coach with a knack for coaching PK and defense. In most cases around the NHL, the assistant in charge of the defense is himself a former defenseman. In Yeo's case, he was a forward during his playing days in junior hockey and the minor leagues.

"I had to learn in a hurry on the job. I was 26 years old when I retired and became the assistant coach in the American League for Wilkes Barre/Scranton. There were adjustments for sure. But when I was playing, I wasn't much of an offensive guy. I was a checking forward. So I tried to get in the mindset of the defensemen," Yeo recalls.

While with the WB/S Penguins, Yeo served, among others, under head coach Therrien. During the 2005-06 season, with WB/S off to a sparkling 21-1-3 start but the parent club Pittsburgh Penguins struggling under Ed Olczyk, Pittsburgh management (with Ray Shero as general manager and Fletcher as an assistant GM) made a change behind the bench. They moved Therrien up to the NHL team as its new coach.

After the season, Therrien spoke with Yeo about where his next-step interests lay for the immediate future.

"Mike did a tremendous job for me in Wilkes Barre; very smart, hard-working, well-organized kind of coach. Young guy, learned fast. I asked him if he wanted to come with me to Pittsburgh to be an assistant or if he wanted to become a head coach at [the minor league] level. Mike wanted to be in the NHL, and he came with me," recalled Therrien.

Yeo was an assistant coach on the Penguins teams that reached the Stanley Cup Final in both 2008 and 2009; losing to Detroit the first year in the Final and winning over the Red Wings the next. During this period, Yeo stayed on as assistant with Pittsburgh after a midseason head coaching change in 2008-09 from the tough-love styled Therrien to the more laid back Dan Bylsma. In the summer of 2010, Fletcher (by now Minnesota's general manager) hired Yeo for his first head coaching opportunity in the NHL.

While in Pittsburgh, Yeo was considered something of a wunderkind who would eventually get an NHL head coaching opportunity. Partially, this reputation was built off helping the Penguins turn around a struggling PK. 

During the 2005-06 season, the Penguins ranked 29th in the 30-team NHL on the penalty kill. One season later, as part of the team's breakthrough to Cup contender status after five seasons of playing non-competitive hockey, Pittsburgh jumped up 12 spots in the PK rankings and cracked the 80 percent success mark (82.5 percent) for the first time in several years. From there, the club continued to gradually progress, reaching a high-water mark of 84.1 percent in 2009-10.

"To me, the PK is very much about a philosophy of pride and commitment. Your goaltender is the single most important component of a good PK. That's never going to change. But you've also got to have personnel in front that takes pride in blocking shots, working in synch and taking away time and space. Make it tough to enter your zone; generate some up-ice pressure. In your zone, don't be reckless but pressure the puck because the players in this league today are too skilled to give them time to make plays even if, structurally, your guys are in the right spots. 

"As I said, shot blocking is a big part of it. When you get the puck with a chance to clear, you've really gotta bear down and do it. Do those things, and you'll be successful. It isn't magic. It's a lot of hard work. When you defend, it's harder work. Killing too many penalties, even if you don't get scored on, can wear your team down and it takes your non-PK guys out of the game. So these are all things that are very important. It's really not just about a [PK success percentage] stat," Yeo said.

The Flyers penalty kill in 2018-19 was almost a tale of two different seasons hidden within a poor overall total of a 78.5 percent success rate and 26th overall ranking in a 31-team league. 

Over the first quarter of last season, the PK clocked in at below even 70 percent; a disastrous number. While up-ice pressure and entry denials were much improved, the team's own zone play and goaltending were far below the bar. For the rest of the season, the PK improved and actually became a strength. This was especially true after Scott Gordon took over as interim head coach and worked in conjunction with Laperriere on a systems tweak, the PK numbers were north of 80 percent the rest of the way. 

Specifically the Gordon-Laperriere tweak was an emphasis on sealing off the strong side (i.e., the side where the puck is) in the defensive zone. Previously, there had been more own-zone focus on taking away the middle of the ice. That strategy had worked well during the second half of the 2015-16 season, when a strong second half (nearly 84 percent) pulled up the team's overall season totals above the 80 percent mark (80.5 percent). More recently, however, the team had limited PK success.

Come August, the Flyers new coaching staff will have intensive meetings about systems. During that time, they will exchange more specific structural ideas for being a better 200-foot team at even strength as well as more effective on both ends of special teams.  

On the PK side, Yeo said that he thinks puck pressure in all three zones -- and reliable goaltending -- will be the crux of the system. At five-on-five, the name of the game is tight gaps off the rush and layered "waves" of defense with everyone in the right position. In the bigger picture, it's also vital as a team to spend less time defending and more time attacking.

"Plain and simple, the best way to not get scored on in today's game is to get possession of the puck and take care of it. Recognize when you can make a play and when you have to just live to fight the next battle. When you don't have the puck, don't panic. Go to the right spot. Give your goalie a chance to make saves. Be quick on retrievals and bear down on breakouts and entries. When we talk about 'playing the right way', these are the kinds of things we look for. Ultimately, it gives you more opportunities to attack," Yeo said. 

On the offensive side this past season, the Flyers ranked 18th in the NHL with 241 goals (an average 2.94 per game). That was clearly a disappointing result. However, the team was not as far off as it may seem. The difference between 13th -- Vegas and Montreal tied at 3.00 goals per game -- and the Flyers at 18th was a mere five goals over 82 games. The gap between 10th (Colorado, 3.15) and 18th was 17 goals as a team, which was largely accountable to the Avalanche power play clicking at 22 percent and the Flyers having an especially down year (17.1 percent) on the man advantage.

Finishing in the middle of the pack offensively needn't be a fatal blow to a team's playoff hopes. The Stanley Cup winning Blues were 15th (244 goals, 2.98), Carolina's run the Eastern Conference Final was preceded by ranking 16th offensively (243 goals, 2.96) during the regular season. 

What is fatal to a team is ranking too low in team goals against average. Each and every one of the teams ranked 21st to 31st this past season -- the Flyers were 29th (280 goals against, 3.44) -- failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2018-19. Conversely, the New York Islanders went from dead last in GAA in 2017-18 but 7th ranked offensively to top-ranked in GAA in 2018-19 but (following the departure of John Tavares) down to 22nd ranked offensively. The Islanders missed the playoffs by a mile in 2017-18 while the Barry Trotz coached version this past season not only qualified for the playoffs but swept Pittsburgh in the first round.

Fletcher entered the offseason with his priority No. 1 being to lower the Flyers goals against average significantly in 2019-20. Part of this was focused on getting deeper down the middle (i.e., at center and the blueline corps) with the addition of Kevin Hayes and veteran minutes-eating defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun. Another facet was assembling a very experienced NHL coaching staff to implement structure and accountability to 200-foot play.

Last but not least, the Flyers are banking on the continued emergence of 21-year-old Carter Hart as an NHL goaltender as well as the belief that Brian Elliott's late-season return to sounder health in the final quarter of the 2019-20 season will continue after having a training-oriented (rather than injury rehab-oriented) full summer. 

Yeo addressed his views on all of these areas. In regard to the roster additions, he said that he believes Niskanen and Braun will have a major positive impact on the team's group of younger, less experienced defensemen. They both will be asked to take on shutdown responsibilities. Braun may absorb a lot of defensive zone starts, while Niskanen will be asked to add his own puck-moving ability on top of providing added defensive support.  

"First off, we have guys here who are going to have to grow into positions. It's a huge help when you're slotting young players to have veterans who lead by example. On the bench, you can tell when players are panicking. It's huge when there are guys who've been through the battles before and calm everyone down because they stay calm. Other players pick up on it. It's not so much about what they say on the bench or the room. It's about what they show in different situations when there's pressure or adversity. Guys like Matt and Justin know how to handle these situations and they've done it for some very good teams," Yeo said.

The additions of Niskanen and Braun add another potential benefit: both are righthanded shooters, as is youngster Philippe Myers. Vigneault and Yeo will have the ability, if they so choose, to pair three lefthanded defensemen with three righthanders; all on their natural side.

"The lefty-righty thing is valuable. It's something that teams have analyzed. There's a benefit on your retrievals and first pass against a forecheck when you're able to have two guys on their natural side," Yeo said.

There is also a defensive advantage. A defender who already has his stick on the strong side as play moves down the wing may have an easier time neutralizing an attacker's stick; a quick defensive stick is a primary resource in breaking up plays before they develop into high-danger opportunities. While some defensemen excel on their off-side and feel equally comfortable on either side, others tend to prefer their natural side.

In terms of the coaching component, Yeo said that one part of a staff's job is to implement a clearly defined system. Another is to establish accountability.

"I know from coaching against Alain that his teams are hard to play against. His players know what they are doing and what's expected from them, and he gives them room within that to do their thing. Michel and I have similar defensive philosophies. With Lappy, he's strong with communication and, from our conversations so far, he's got a good read on players," Yeo said.

"In terms of the accountability side, there are different ways to do it. Not every conversation is going to be easy. I suspect that Michel will be the most direct and intense in his style, but there are times any coach has to know when to push and when to step back a little. I think, as a staff, we're going to have a lot of trust in one another, and to have good chemistry as a group."

The goaltending part of the equation is the purview of returning coach Kim Dillabaugh in conjunction with Vigneault. Yeo said that both sides of the tandem of youngster Hart and veteran Elliott are vital to the team's prospects for returning to the playoffs and then pushing for a run come the postseason.

"You can't have success anymore with just one guy in net, night after night after night. The league is too demanding, the schedule is too condensed. We have a lot of potential to have a great mix. There will be times where one guy has to pick up for the other, because that's just the reality of the game. In the best situations, both guys are pushing each other to play at the top of their game. I think Carter and 'Ells' are very capable of that sort of dynamic," Yeo said. 

In the big picture, Yeo said that the overriding goal is for the team to take a major step forward next season. He shares Fletcher's vision of a team that is ready to move beyond "bubble team" status and habitual streakiness of extended losing streaks alternating with some extended winning streaks. The highs have been fine but there have been too many extended lows. 

"When I was talking about coming on board as an assistant, both Chuck and Alain said that winning now is the goal and the pieces would be there to do it. That was exactly what I needed to hear. From a coach's standpoint looking at the roster and the systems we'll probably run, I really like what Chuck has done this offseason. Now we've got to roll up our sleeves and get to work," Yeo said.

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