Key lineup deployment changes have helped the Philadelphia Flyers earn 22 of a possible 24 points in their past 12 games and move into the heart of the race for first place in the Metropolitan Division.
Being among the leading contenders for the Stanley Cup was not a situation that would have been predicted Dec. 2, after the Flyers lost 3-0 to the Boston Bruins. It was their 10th consecutive loss (0-5-5), and they were 29th in the NHL standings at 8-11-7.
That's when Philadelphia's season reached its turning point. Coach Dave Hakstol made his first important deployment change by separating linemates Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek to spread out the offense. Since that date, Giroux is second in the NHL with 46 points (11 goals, 35 assists) in 37 games, Voracek is tied for 12th with 39 points (six goals, 33 assists) in 37 games, and the Flyers' record of 26-8-3 is second to the Boston Bruins' (26-7-4).
Hakstol's adjustments have helped Giroux toward his best NHL season. With 74 points (22 goals, 52 assists) in 63 games, Giroux is on pace for 96 points. That would be a 38-point improvement from last season, when he had 58 points (14 goals, 44 assists) in 82 games, and would exceed his NHL career high of 93 points (28 goals, 65 assists) in 77 games in 2011-12.
Video: PHI@OTT: Giroux dangles past Anderson, scores beauty
In addition to his scoring, the Flyers have improved their share of shot attempts from 47.67 to 53.56 percent when Giroux is on the ice at 5-on-5. That works out to a Relative SAT of plus-5.89 that is 19th among NHL forwards who have played at least 20 games and is just shy of his NHL career high of plus-5.94 in 2010-11.
Giroux's comeback season could be explained by having additional time to fully recover from his May 17, 2016 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip and bilateral abdominal tears. It also may be a consequence of being moved to left wing from center and finding instant chemistry with underrated two-way center Sean Couturier.
With 61 points (29 goals, 32 assists) in 63 games, Couturier has exceeded his previous NHL best of 39 points, which he had in 2013-14 and 2015-16, and nearly doubled his previous high for goals, which was 15 in 2014-15. His Relative SAT of plus-6.70 also is a personal NHL high and 11th among NHL forwards to have played at least 20 games.
Another key coaching decision was made Dec. 23, when Hakstol chose to play his two top young defensemen together, Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov.
Gostisbehere is the more offensive-minded of the two and is tied for third among NHL defensemen with 50 points (10 goals, 40 assists) in 59 games. His offensive-zone start percentage of 56.46 percent ranks second among Flyers defensemen to play at least 20 games, behind Travis Sanheim's 56.86, and he is the defenseman in Philadelphia's four-forward, one-defenseman alignment on its top power-play unit.
Video: PHI@NJD: Gostisbehere rings home slick one-timer
When the Flyers use that formation on their second power play, the defenseman is Provorov, who is their No. 1 defenseman in all other manpower situations. In his second NHL season, Provorov ranks 10th among NHL defensemen with an average ice time of 19:48 per game at even strength, and he's the only Flyers player to average more than two minutes per game shorthanded (2:40).
This defensive deployment was made possible by Philadelphia's consistent success in finding and developing effective young defensemen to fill the balance of the lineup. While most organizations would be fortunate to have added one or two young defensemen during the past three seasons, the Flyers have added five. Gostisbehere and Brandon Manning joined the lineup full-time in 2015-16, Provorov last season, and Robert Hagg and Sanheim in this season (Sanheim played 35 games before being returned to the American Hockey League).
To provide more veteran depth, Johnny Oduya was claimed on waivers from the Ottawa Senators on Monday. With 849 NHL games, he is the Flyers' most experienced defenseman, ahead of Andrew MacDonald (521) and Radko Gudas (320). That additional flexibility should help Hakstol keep Provorov and Gostisbehere together.
There is always the risk that opponents will soon develop a counter-strategy to Philadelphia's effective new deployment and force Hakstol to try something different. Until then, the Flyers serve as an example of how seemingly minor lineup optimizations can turn a season around.