Balancing The Top 9 In 2015-16

Photo via Amy Irvin/38 Photography

Photo via Amy Irvin/38 Photography

With Flyers training camp less than a month away, it’s time to start discussing just how the Flyers lineup might look come October. New head coach Dave Hakstol is beginning to take the reins, and he’s got some important decisions to make when it comes to his group of forwards. With a talented and yet limited group of forwards, Dave Hakstol will hopefully look to add something that the Flyers lacked for most of the last season: Balance amongst the top 3 lines.

PROJECTED TOP 9 FORWARDS – WHO IS GOOD AT WHAT?

In the quest to achieve balance amongst the top 3 lines, it’s important to determine what a player’s strengths and weaknesses are in terms of puck possession. More and more data points to the fact that shot suppression and shot generation are two skills that are completely independent of one another. Let’s take a look at our projected top 9 forwards over the past three seasons and see who excelled at which aspects of the game.

(All Data From Puckalytics.com)

(All Data From Puckalytics.com)

A couple takeaways here:

  • I’ll just get this out of the way now: I’d expect RJ Umberger to be in the top 9 on opening night. The 4th line seems to be pretty well set, and I think the Flyers would like to give RJ one more chance to be useful as he returns from a season ending abdominal injury. It’s never set in stone, and he can easily be replaced by someone like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare if things go poorly.
  • It’s a bit surprising to see that Claude Giroux’s impact is mostly offensive. He has had a slightly positive impact in terms of shot suppression, but not quite as much as some might think.
  •  Jakub Voracek and Michael Raffl are very strong possession players on both sides of the ice.
  • Sean Couturier and Matt Read are both positive players when it comes to shot suppression. Read’s 3-year defensive numbers are weakened significantly by his struggles from last season. From 2011-2014, Read’s positive impact on suppression was over four times as large as the number shown above.
  • Sam Gagner and Brayden Schenn are both decent offensive players who struggles to suppress shots.

HOW SHOULD THINGS PLAY OUT?

Keeping this data in mind with the goal of balancing the lineup offensively, here is how I’d arrange the top three lines to start the season.

Michael Raffl – Claude Giroux – Matt Read

Wayne Simmonds – Sean Couturier – Jakub Voracek

RJ Umberger – Brayden Schenn – Sam Gagner

Let’s talk about some of the reasons that I think this works best.

  • First off, yes I want Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek playing separately. The Flyers’ biggest problem offensively last year was that they only had one consistent line on both the score sheets and the possession charts. Dave Hakstol needs to come around to the fact that his two star players are each capable of carrying a line, and the team is simply not deep enough to be well balanced if they are playing together. Hakstol can still occasionally play them together, especially in the final 10-15 minutes of close games, but the Flyers will be a better puck possession team with Giroux and Voracek on separate lines.
  • Michael Raffl is a good winger for Claude Giroux. As we noted earlier, Giroux’s positive impact was mostly offensive. Raffl’s strong shot suppression ability will create a good balance of talents on the first line
  • Pairing Jake Voracek with Sean Couturier will be beneficial for many reasons. Couturier will finally get the chance to maximize his offensive potential with one of the top players in the league on his wing. It will also open the door for Voracek to play a few more defensive minutes, allowing him to better utilize his talent for carrying the puck up ice.
  • All indications thus far seem to point to the fact that Sam Gagner will be moved to the right side. This means that Brayden Schenn will most likely be moved back to the center. Having a balanced top 6 that is capable of eating some defensive minutes will pave the way for Schenn and Gagner, who struggle with shot suppression, to play fairly sheltered roles.
  • Someone is going to have to move to the left wing. I’ve got Wayne Simmonds doing it here, simply because his offensive talent balances well with the suppression abilities of Couturier and Voracek. It’s also a distinct possibility that Matt Read will move. Whichever one of them moves will get by alright on the off-wing, especially given that they will be playing with two capable puck carriers in Couturier and Voracek. I do believe that it’s important for Read or Simmonds to be playing on this line if they are going to make the move to the left side.

As a team that will be playing with a below average defensive corps this season, the Flyers need to make sure that they get the most they can out of a strong group of forwards. Using possession stats to try and balance the top 9 forwards would go a long way towards maximizing their potential. By putting his forwards in a position to succeed based on their strengths and weaknesses, Dave Hakstol would take a big step towards a successful first campaign as head coach.

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