How Should The Flyers Organize Their Forward Lines Next Year?

With the 2014-2015 season coming to a close with two more meaningless games before Saturday, it’s a perfect time to look towards the future. One big topic of debate is how to organize the Flyers’ forward lines. It’s certainly an understatement to say that people have been critical of how Craig Berube has organized his forwards this year, and that’s part of the reason why he may not be the one deciding on line combinations next season.

In order of descending cap hits, the Flyers have Claude Giroux, RJ Umberger, Vincent Lecavalier, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Michael Raffl, Scott Laughton, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Nick Cousins under contract for next season. That’s 12 forwards already, with Chris Vandevelde and Ryan White set to hit unrestricted free agency. I would imagine the Flyers try to bring back at least one of those guys, even despite options like Taylor Leier and Petr Straka in the AHL.

When I’m evaluating potential line combinations, I’m looking to provide multiple lines that can both score and drive possession. That’s why I want to split up Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. I realize it’s not a popular opinion among some circles of Flyers fans, but I view it as a similar situation to Chicago splitting up Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. It forces the defense to defend multiple options. Putting Michael Raffl on Claude Giroux’s line has proven time and time again to help dramatically in driving possession forward.

Player CF% together Player CF% w/o Raffl CF% w/o
Giroux 56.00% 51.10% 54.30%
Voracek 58.20% 51.50% 52.30%
Streit 56.10% 47.30% 54.80%
Schultz 51.20% 46.40% 57.20%
Del Zotto 56.10% 46.40% 55.10%
Simmonds 55.80% 48.90% 55.20%
Grossmann 51.90% 44.50% 56.40%
Schenn, L. 57.10% 48.40% 54.80%
MacDonald 54.90% 47.50% 55.50%
Coburn 59.40% 48.30% 54.60%

Actually, it helps everyone. Every single player Raffl has spent at least 100 minutes with this season has seen their possession increase with him, and Raffl’s possession numbers are better than each of these players when they’re separated. He’s an elite possession driver on a team that simply doesn’t have many of them–only 7 out of the 22 Flyers who played more than 100 minutes at 5v5 this season have a CF% better than 50%. Raffl’s ability to push play forward gives the Flyers the luxury of splitting up Giroux and Voracek at 5v5 because you can put him with Giroux and let Voracek handle the primary possession driving on the other line. Factor in Raffl’s elite even-strength production this year (3rd on the team with 1.49 ES P/60; leads team with 14 5v5 goals despite missing 16 games) and it makes perfect sense to keep him with Giroux next season to hopefully put an end to all the beat writer bellyaching about Giroux’s even-strength home production.

With a possession driver like Raffl on Giroux’s left wing, it makes sense to put a finisher on the right wing. Enter Wayne Simmonds: he’s second on the team in G/60 and 6th in P/60, but even more than that you know exactly what Wayne Simmonds is going to do: go to the net, finish chances, and fight for rebounds. He’s not going to be the primary driver of play on any line, but he did well when with Raffl (55.8% CF%) and Giroux (54.3% CF%) in their limited stints together this year.

With Raffl-Giroux-Simmonds set and Voracek on the 2nd RW, it’s time to fill out the rest of the top-6. It should go without saying that Sean Couturier should be the 2C next season. He’s taken some heat this year for his perceived lack of scoring touch, but his 10 5v5 goals this year are tied for 3rd on the team (with some scrub named Claude Giroux) and his 23 5v5 points are good enough for a 4-way tie for 3rd place on the team with Simmonds, Schenn, and Matt Read, only behind Voracek and Giroux. Putting Couturier with Voracek does a couple of things: it helps drive possession forward (54.3% CF% together), it helps distribute the scoring more evenly throughout the lineup, and it should help develop Couturier’s game even more. Playing consistent minutes with a player like Voracek would be a boon for Couturier when considering his 6 most common linemates in his career are Read, Simmonds, Max Talbot (!), Zac Rinaldo (!!), Steve Downie (!!!), and RJ Umberger (!!!!). Playing him with Voracek would also likely decrease his defensive burden somewhat, as the line would start a higher percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone than he does now.

The 2nd line LW is a more interesting debate. You could put Brayden Schenn there, but his recent success (4 goals, 7 points in the last 4 games) suggests he may be more comfortable at RW than LW, and his possession numbers with Couturier (42.3%) are atrocious. Voracek also sees a 4.4% CF% increase away from Schenn. Matt Read was used on that line when it was put together earlier this year, and he had good results with Voracek (55.1% CF%). However, I thought it was interesting to see the WOWYs for him with Couturier. Together in 905 minutes they had a 47.1% CF%, however in limited minutes apart Couturier’s CF% jumped to 52.6% while Read’s cratered to 42.5%. This is a spot I wouldn’t mind looking outside the organization for help. If they can find the salary cap space, Justin Williams makes a lot of sense to me for that spot. He’s an elite driver of play and would fit well with Couturier and Voracek. If he was acquired, the Flyers could then have Read-Laughton-Schenn as the 3rd line and have a top-9 with three lines who are legitimate threats to score. However, assuming we’re only using internal options, Read is probably the best choice available.

That leaves 2/3 of the 3rd line very obvious: Scott Laughton at C, Brayden Schenn at RW. The LW spot is more problematic. RJ Umberger is the 2nd-highest paid forward on the Flyers, but had a disastrous season this year. He was apparently playing hurt for much of the season, and the important question coming from that is whether or not the Flyers blame the injuries for his struggles and expect him to rebound next year. If they do, they’ll almost assuredly give him a top-9 spot and let him drag everyone else down around him. If they realize he’s a sunk cost, they’ll try to bury him on the 4th line and fill the 3rd-line LW spot with someone else. This is where I wouldn’t mind seeing a cheap, in-house guy like Petr Straka, Nick Cousins, or Taylor Leier.A dark horse would be Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who has torn up the QMJHL this season in his first post-draft year but will likely be given another year of seasoning before making his professional debut. However, it’s far more likely that they’ll go with someone on the team already. If I had my druthers, I’d bump Pierre-Edouard Bellemare up to that spot. He’s had a very solid season this year, and he showed the ability to play higher up in the lineup during his very successful stint with Schenn (54.4% CF%) and Simmonds early in the year. LW isn’t his natural position, but I think he’d be able to adapt and play a smart, creative 2-way game with Laughton and Schenn.

That leaves the dregs of the roster for the 4th line. Something like Umberger-Cousins-Lecavalier/Rinaldo would seem to be the most likely combination given Chris Vandevelde and Ryan White are both UFAs, although I’d love to see Rinaldo in the press box or AHL full-time and get some new blood in the bottom-6. Especially compared to some of the 4th lines iced around the league, having a 4th line that can chip in some scoring and hold its own possession-wise is a massively underexploited competitive advantage. We saw it earlier this year when the Vandevelde-Bellemare-Lecavalier line got hot and dominated opposing 4th lines for a few weeks. Of course, it’s not anywhere near ideal roster construction to have your 2nd and 3rd-highest paid forwards in Umberger and Lecavalier on the 4th line, but that’s the reality the Flyers are stuck in unless they’re somehow able to move one of them.

So, to review: if I were making the Flyers’ lines for next season, I would use

Raffl-Giroux-Simmonds

Read-Couturier-Voracek

Bellemare-Laughton-Schenn

Umberger-Cousins-Lecavalier

while also making plans to look into signing Justin Williams. If they can clear some cap space and give him an affordable deal that won’t cripple them when they need to give Voracek, Raffl, Couturier, and Schenn extensions next summer, the forward corps would look like this:

Raffl-Giroux-Simmonds

Williams-Couturier-Voracek

Read-Laughton-Schenn

Cousins/Umberger-Bellemare-Lecavalier

Your thoughts? How would you construct the Flyers’ forward lines next season?

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