The Flyers have a dilemma and Brayden Schenn may have a solution; at least they hope so. After trading a piece of their top line to Columbus in Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia’s limited salary cap leaves the vacant left wing position… well, vacant. But after signing a two-year bridge contract before July 1st’s free agency season, Schenn and the Flyers not only need the 22-year-old forward to occupy Hartnell’s old position, but they mutually need a favorable outcome.
The Bridge To Stardom?
Shortly after breaking out the golf clubs in April, newly named GM Ron Hextall left no one guessing, stating publicly that re-signing the younger of the two Schenn’s topped his priority list.
But even after Hextall’s candid assurance that Schenn would be returning, the current state of the team breathed life into rumors and scenarios that involved either trading the restricted free agent’s rights, or collecting compensation and clearing cap space by letting him walk. Needless to say, Schenn’s on and off season overshadowed the fact that his 41 points were totaled in a season riddled with instability and inconsistency.
“I think Brayden had a good year last year,” said Hextall. “He’s a good young player. Can he be more consistent? You could probably say that about every player on our team, but yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment. I certainly wasn’t disappointed in Brayden’s performance but the consistency is something that most players over an 82-game season can get better at.”
Luckily for the Flyers, Schenn was eager and willing to accept a two-year contract; one that will pay him a total of $5 million over the course of that time. And for all the negativity surrounding Philadelphia’s cap issues, Hextall made quick work in joining Schenn with Sean Couturier and Michael Raffl as the other current Flyers on bridge contracts.
“This gives me another two years to keep on proving myself to be a productive player for the Flyers,” added Schenn. “Two years is a pretty short contract.”
With the new deal, Schenn now gets the opportunity to earn upper-echelon type money, while the Flyers keep their promising forward hungry. If this year’s free agent signings throughout the league are any indication, it’s not a matter of “if” Schenn will choke a mule with his bank account, but “when.” And considering the cost, both parties stand to benefit.
“You’ll remember that Ron Hextall called Schenn’s signing a “top priority” for the Flyers this offseason. Now it’s done, and it’s not bad at all. Schenn actually winds up costing slightly less against the cap than he did on his entry-level contract, which was loaded with bonuses that carried his cap hit up north of $3 million per season.
“Now he’s at just $2.5 million for the next two years, which is a solid bridge deal. (For an example of a similar sort of deal, see Claude Giroux’s bridge contract signed in 2010; he then cashed in on his next contract in 2013.) He’ll still be under RFA control after those two seasons, so that’s good for the Flyers.” — Travis Hughes, Broad Street Hockey
Who knows what the salary cap will look like after the 2015-16 season for the Flyers? But even without knowing, Schenn’s restricted free agency status is an added bonus for insurance purposes. In light of the inconsistency criticism, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Schenn was volleyed between the wing and center last season, much like Vincent Lecavalier was. And if 41 points isn’t admirable with everything being equal, maybe his six game-winning goals last season are.
“He’s the kind of ‘big-game’ player that coaches love,” said Schenn’s former coach in Los Angeles, Terry Murray back in 2012. “I can put him out on the ice in critical situations and know what I’m going to get out of him. He knows when he needs to step up; he knows the critical times and critical situations.
“Not all players recognize that. I’ve always believed the toughest thing in pro sports is to win when you’re supposed to.”
As Schenn continues to mature into the type of player Paul Holmgren envisioned when trading Mike Richards to Los Angeles for him, he’ll do so as the type of player Hextall targets to carry out his team’s design.
Schenn And The Flyers’ Top Line
With all signs indicating that Schenn will begin the year on Philadelphia’s top line, there are components as to why the team remains mum on the status of the vacancy.
For starters, should Schenn get the expected nod, it won’t be his first crack at it. After losing star forward Jaromir Jagr to free agency in 2012, Schenn earned consideration heading into the following season’s camp. And although he performed excellently in the 2012 playoffs, collecting nine points in 11 playoff games, he did so as a center – not on the wing.
Sure, Schenn saw plenty of time at right wing down in the AHL before that, but that was done at a different level. And as evidence to that fact, some players adapt differently to positional changes. Just look at Vinny Lecavalier.
Schenn did, however, get another chance with the top forwards this past spring. But the time spent with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek was short-lived, deeming the sample size too small. The result, though, was at least something to build on.
“The switch seemed inevitable, just based on the Rangers’ ability to shut down the Flyers’ top line through the first four games and two periods.
“Prior to the switch, the line had combined for just two goals, both by Voracek. Schenn was also quiet with just four shots on goal and two assists. Defenseman Mark Streit had as many points as Hartnell, who did not seem pleased with the temporary demotion.” — Frank Seravalli, philly.com
Schenn’s presence on the top line may have lit a spark in the moment, but can it last moving forward? Or is it a sign that the lighter is out of fluid? According to advanced stats, the answer may surprise you.
Among forwards who played in a minimum of 62 games, Schenn’s ranked eighth in possession in situations of five-on-five even strength. His Relative Corsi was even more disappointing, dipping to a -2.9%. In fact, only Zac Rinaldo, Vinny Lecavalier, and Adam Hall were worse in this category. But why would the Ron Hextall commit such focus towards re-signing the 22-year-old with underachieving advanced stats?
For starters, those unimpressive numbers still led to 41 points. So there’s that. But secondly, and maybe equally as important, is Schenn’s quality of teammates he skated with. His 28.9 percentage in that department shows that a promotion to the top line may offset some of the other findings. After all, the top three forwards he spent the most time with were Wayne Simmonds, Vinny Lecavalier, and Scott Hartnell.
Regardless, Schenn’s deployment is nearly identical to Lecavalier’s, the toy that everyone is now willing to share with their friends. But that’s not necessarily a blow to the argument for bumping Schenn to the top line. It’s merely proof that both Schenn, and Lecavalier, need stability moving forward.
Since Schenn hasn’t been deemed a lock for the top spot on the left side, other options are available. Other candidates on the roster now, include Michael Raffl and Jason Akeson.
“It’s hard to say,” said Hextall shortly after re-signing Schenn. “If you look at the left wing spot, you are alluding to (Claude) Giroux’s [line] and there are three candidates there. Brayden spent a little time there. (Michael) Raffl spent some time there. In the end, that’s up to the coach.”
Of the three, however, Schenn possesses the most experience playing on the top line. But if that mattered as much as it sounds, it wouldn’t be an unanswered question.
Michael Raffl earned a two-year extension by jumping lines and producing 22 points. And as evidence of the chart above, his possession statistics are more favorable than Schenn’s. To counterbalance that, however, Schenn was used significantly more. That could change, since Raffl appeared in only 68 games to Schenn’s 82. And it’s not like the 25-year-old Austrian would jump to the top unit with no prior experience.
“When Raffl debuted on the top line, he certainly didn’t look out of place, which is good news, obviously. It seemed like he was helping to generate opportunities, but it also seemed like he had trouble burying some of those opportunities. Instinct, hockey sense … these things are wonderful, necessary even, but a player capitalizing on the chances he creates is important. That will need to improve if he’s to move up the lineup.” — Broad Street Hockey
Jason Akeson, however, has to survive training camp before legitimately throwing his name into the hat of contenders. Akeson was signed to a one-year, two way contract earlier in July, and with the state of Philadelphia’s salary cap, all indications show he’ll make the team. But even if he skates with the big boys to start the season, he’ll still have an uphill climb.
“Originally an undrafted free agent signed in 2011, Akeson has shown that he has NHL caliber offensive skills. The problem is that he’s considered suspect in several other key areas. As such, he will have to put up points regularly to remain in an NHL lineup for the long haul.
“Flyers coach Craig Berube put faith in Akeson by dressing him in all seven games of the team’s first round playoff series against the New York Rangers. He played on the third line, along with Sean Couturier and Matt Read. Akeson played well, scoring two goals in the series and rebounding from a costly double-minor in the third period of Game One.” — Bill Meltzer, Hockey Buzz
Should nobody make a monumental leap out of training camp for the top line, Brayden Schenn stands to be the most logical choice. His attributes, as well as his flaws, make him the best option to play left wing alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. He’s shown terrific puck handling skills to accommodate a scoring touch that will likely grow next season.
Schenn’s defensive liabilities, along with his faceoff struggles will be easier to hide with Giroux taking the draws and Umberger’s back checking on a different line. Lecavalier will get to stay put down the middle, equaling a happier and (more than likely) more productive player. And should an injury occur, or Schenn struggles, Craig Berube has other ingredients to mix and match.
Brayden Schenn isn’t the ideal option to play left wing. But in the harsh reality of the Flyers’ current state, he now becomes the ideal option.