The 2015-16 season for the Philadelphia Flyers will likely represent another significant transition period in the team’s mini-rebuild. The team’s forwards and goaltending are good enough to contend for a Stanley Cup, but the defense at the NHL level leaves a lot to be desired.
The “Big 5” (Morin, Sanheim, Provorov, Hagg, and Gostisbehere) will be a huge facelift for the team’s rearguards, and will give the team a Cup caliber defense in 2-3 years. The hope is that the forwards and goaltending will still be of an elite caliber by the time the defense is ready.
The beginning of the Dave Hakstol era is just another part of the rebuilding process that needed to happen. Hakstol brings in a fresh mind compared to the recent in-organization head coaching hires, and demands accountability from his players which is something Craig Berube failed to do.
With the change should come a shift in how the team’s forward lines are composed. The lines have been mostly the same over the past few years, and they need a shakeup.
Distributing the Talent
The Flyers have a plethora of talent up front, but their defense struggles to effectively break the puck out to them in their own zone. As a result, the team’s 5-on-5 GF/GA was a mediocre 1.01 last year, 19th in the league. They thrived on the power play, where they finished 3rd in the league despite having a putrid second unit.
Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek finished 1st & 3rd in the league in power play points last year, combining for 70 total points on the man advantage.
In the playoffs, games are won and lost at even strength. Special teams are nice, but they can’t carry you. If the Flyers are going to be a contender any time soon, their play at even strength has to be much better.
The Flyers have attempted to split Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek up at even strength at points over the past few years, but the offense sputtered so badly that the coaches quickly put them back together. Hakstol should not only give it a try, but stick it out for a prolonged period.
The Flyers’ forwards have enough talent to form an effective top six with Giroux and Voracek on separate lines. With those two on the same line, every other group was quite poor at even strength. Surrounded by the right players, Giroux and Voracek can both carry a line by themselves.
The New Lines
Here is how I would begin the lines at training camp:
Matt Read – Claude Giroux – Wayne Simmonds
A big problem with Giroux at even strength last year was that Berube’s system forced the center to sink very low in his own defensive zone to help out the defense in breaking the puck out. As a result, Giroux was unable to drive possession like a star of his ilk should. Read has the wheels to keep up with Giroux, and Simmonds serves the Scott Hartnell role as a physical goalscorer.
Michael Raffl – Sean Couturier – Jakub Voracek
It’s time to take the shackles off Couturier. He’s locked into a long-term deal and if he breaks out offensively, he’ll be a bargain considering what he brings on the other side of the puck. Here’s what I wrote about his 2014-15 season earlier in the summer:
Among forwards who have played at least 750 minutes at 5-on-5 over the past five full years, and started less than 40% of their shifts in the offensive zone, only Tyler Bozak and Tomas Plekanec in 2013-14, and Mike Fisher in 2011-12 scored more points at even strength than Couturier did this season.
Put a player of Voracek’s skill on Couturier’s wing, give him more offensive zone starts, and reap the dividends.
RJ Umberger – Brayden Schenn – Sam Gagner
This line won’t bring a whole lot defensively, but they should be able to chip in some goals. Brayden Schenn has proven to be most effective at center in his career, but the team has repeatedly forced him to the wing over the past few years. Umberger played hurt for nearly the entire 2014-15 season and should bounce back to at least be a competent 3rd line player.
Gagner is a wild card that has the talent to be a top six guy, but is too poor defensively to play center (his natural position). On top of that, he has Voracek and Simmonds ahead of him on the depth chart at RW (his secondary position).
Ryan White – Pierre-Edouard Bellemare – Chris VandeVelde
For the first time in seemingly forever, the Flyers don’t have a useless goon trolling their 4th line. This energy line should be very effective on the forecheck and the cycle.
What About Vinny?
Astute readers will notice a lack of Vinny Lecavalier in the above projected lines. That’s because I honestly don’t think he’ll earn the ice time. He’s not a top six forward anymore, and hasn’t shown a willingness to change his game to play in the bottom six. Hakstol demands 100% from his players, and last year it did not appear Lecavalier was giving 100%.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, it’s going to be an interesting year in Philadelphia. They’ll score a lot of goals and Steve Mason will be strong, but it will ultimately be up to the defense to determine whether the Flyers are able to sneak into the playoffs with a wild card.