With the Flyers season opener a mere 8 days away, it’s time to start looking a little closer at how the line combinations are going to shake out to start the year. I’m operating under the assumption that the top line is going to be Michael Raffl (supposed to be available for the opener) and Jakub Voracek on Claude Giroux’s wings, and while I’ve advocated splitting up Giroux and Voracek in the past there is something to be said for having a dominant top line. Combined with Raffl’s ability to drive possession with Giroux and Voracek at an elite rate and it’s easy to understand why Dave Hakstol wants to put this trio together.
The more interesting discussion, however, comes in the middle-6. Sean Couturier seems like he’s going to get every opportunity to play 2C and Wayne Simmonds seems entrenched as the 2nd-line RW. Hakstol has also pretty consistently kept the Vandevelde-White-Bellemare group together on the bottom line this preseason, and that 4th line figures to be able to play defensively sound and responsible 2-way hockey while potentially chipping in some goals. The big question is what happens at the 2nd-line LW spot and on the 3rd line. Hakstol has kept Vinny Lecavalier at center for most of the preseason, and appears to be giving him every chance to win the 3C spot. However, keeping him at center (and in the lineup) means that Brayden Schenn and Sam Gagner are both playing on one of the wings, leaving Schenn, Gagner, Matt Read, and a somewhat-revitalized RJ Umberger to fill 3 wing spots. The obvious move based on last year’s play would be to scratch Umberger, but I think Hakstol is going to give him every opportunity to play LW on the 3rd line. When push comes to shove, I don’t really believe he’ll keep Lecavalier in the lineup over more talented players, and the debate really should be whether to scratch Lecavalier or Umberger while sending Scott Laughton to the AHL. I’m guessing they play Schenn or Gagner at 3C with sheltered minutes, and Ron Hextall’s comments from after practice today about it being too early to tell where Gagner plays (and praising Schenn’s versatility as well) speak to this. If I had to guess, I’d say Hakstol will put Matt Read with Couturier and Simmonds and go for a more offensively-oriented 3rd line of either Umberger-Gagner-Schenn or Schenn-Lecavalier-Gagner.
Interestingly enough, Simmonds (49.5% CF%) and Couturier (49.2%) have both fared better away from each other than they have together (47.3%) since both joined the Flyers in 2011. Read is actually Simmonds’ second-most common linemate besides Brayden Schenn since coming to Philadelphia, and there hasn’t been a noticeable difference in performance for Simmonds (49.3%) or Read (48.6%) when they are apart compared to when they play together (49.0%). Couturier has played with Read for just under 60% of his NHL minutes, and their 49.0% CF% together is similar to Read’s 48.3% and Couturier’s 48.7% when separated. This line as presently constructed doesn’t have an elite possession-driver on it, but given Read and Couturier’s deployment so far in their careers there is potential for some better possession play in the future if they’re given a more favorable deployment. It will be interesting to see how much defensive responsibility Hakstol delegates onto this line if it stays together.
The third line has less historical data to support it, but what we do have looks shockingly promising. Umberger and Schenn only spent 112 minutes together last season so it is an incredibly small sample size, but their 51.2% CF% when together was better than Schenn’s 49.5% away from Umberger (a good chunk of which was spent with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek) and miles better than Umberger’s atrocious 45.6% away from Schenn. Gagner’s been a roughly average possession player relative to his teammates (-0.1 CF RelTM) in the past 4 years, but his 1.60 points/60 over that same span would have ranked 3rd on the Flyers last year behind Voracek and Ryan White last year and 5th behind Voracek, Giroux, Lecavalier, and Read over that 4-year time frame. Gagner can hopefully add some scoring punch and skill in a sheltered 3rd-line role and could be a way to get Schenn (1.39 points/60 last year) and Umberger (1.02) going at even-strength. Gagner only had 1.41 p/60 in Arizona last year, but that was tops among all Coyotes who played at least 60% of the team’s games last season.
It remains to be seen how the Flyers will utilize their forward corps going forward, but there’s no denying there’s a bit of a numbers crunch right now. This group could potentially look a lot different come next season, with Michael Raffl a UFA, Brayden Schenn an RFA, and RJ Umberger and Vinny Lecavalier’s deals only having 1 and 2 years left on them (respectively) that could lead to a trade. Pending potential moves, there will be spots for Scott Laughton and potentially Nick Cousins or (more excitingly) Travis Konecny next year. For now, though, the sad reality is that Vinny Lecavalier and RJ Umberger are still here clogging up both the salary cap and the middle-6, and the Flyers will have a logjam there until they get rid of them. Read-Couturier-Simmonds and Umberger-Gagner-Schenn may have success all year, they may get broken up before the home opener, or Vinny Lecavalier or Scott Laughton or a Brayden Schenn trade could change things. For now, though, I see those as the most likely combinations, and there is potential there for the Flyers to have increased middle-6 scoring depth if some combination of a Couturier and/or Schenn offensive breakout, healthy seasons from Read and/or Umberger, and a bounce-back season for Gagner occurs. Until October 8th, though, it’s all really just a guessing game.