Training camp is less than a month away, and many position battles are shaping up. The Philadelphia Flyers are no exception, as new faces battle to make their mark on their new team. Center Kevin Hayes, acquired via trade with the Winnipeg Jets, is looking to beat out former second-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Nolan Patrick, for second-line center and Justin Braun, also acquired via trade, will try to win the right-defenseman position on the first pair. But, the position battle to watch out for in training camp and preseason is between right-wingers Travis Konecny and Jakub Voracek.
The former late first-round pick back in 2015 is a cornerstone for the Flyers franchise moving forward, and it’s not hard to see why. At just 22 years old, he is already averaging 41 points a season, nearly reaching 50 in back-to-back seasons. Unlike Voracek, where most of his points come off of assists, Konecny is well-balanced, tallying as many assists as goals in the past two seasons. He can pass the puck to Sean Couturier or Claude Giroux or, if they’re having an off night, can be the offense for the Flyers. Not to mention he got some time on the first line, and when he did, he broke out offensively. The chemistry is there and the stats are there, Konecny certainly makes it hard to put him anywhere else other than the first line.
In addition, Konecny is trying to make a case to the Flyers that they should sign him to a long-term extension. He and fellow 2015 first-round draft pick Ivan Provorov are the Flyers’ last two restricted free agents (RFAs) who have yet to sign new contracts. According to Flyers Radio Host Jason Myrtetus, a source near to the team says the Flyers are close to signing Konecny to a two-to-three year bridge deal worth a maximum $4.5 million a year. If he signs said deal, he’ll still be an RFA when the contract is about to expire, at which point he’ll want the Flyers to lock him up long-term. To do that, he will have to continue his improvement, breaking that 50-point mark this season. There’s no reason to think he can’t do it since he was close the past two seasons (47 in 2017-18, 49 in 2018-19). But the real challenge will come after that as expectations will be high for him. For now, though, he needs to re-sign and get ready for training camp
On the other hand, Flyers fans can’t deny the impact that Voracek has had on the team since he and the draft pick that became Couturier were traded to Philly back in 2011. He’s only played in less than 50 games in one of his eight seasons as a member of the orange, black and white, and that was during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Not to mention the camaraderie he has with Couturier, which has translated well on the first line for both men, and Giroux as veterans on a relatively young roster.
If that’s not enough, Voracek has the stats to back up his case for first-line right-winger. He’s tallied no less than 55 points in each of the last five seasons, with a career-high 85 points in the 2017-18 season. Albeit most of those points came off assists, but that speaks volume to Voracek’s leadership skills and value of team success over his own stats. If the Flyers are looking for a winger who could set up his teammates and shares a strong chemistry with Couturier and Giroux, then no doubt Voracek is their guy.
But obviously the Flyers will be looking at more than just chemistry and point totals as they choose their first-line right-winger, and some of those points we touched upon when discussing Konecny. Voracek is certainly not a spring chicken; he turned 30 on Aug. 15. Some would argue that players entering their 30s are still in their prime and, to be fair, up to this point, his age hasn’t forced him to miss many games, but that doesn’t mean he’s immune to getting hurt or slowing down. It’s part of the game, so coaches will have to keep on eye on him as well as Giroux, Braun, James van Riemsdyk, and Michael Raffl as the season wears on.
Not to mention Voracek isn’t the guy the team will rely on to score many goals. He’s mostly concerned with putting the puck on his teammates’ sticks and letting them shoot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; some players have based their careers on getting assists, including Hall-of-Famer Adam Oates. However, if Couturier and Giroux have an off night and the coach looks to either Voracek or Konecny to get the offense going, chances are Konecny will get the call since he’s put up 24 goals in each of the last two seasons, including nine game-winning goals and three overtime goals, while Voracek has scored 20 goals each in the last three seasons.
Who Wins the Battle?
Despite being older and not being known for his goal-scoring ability, I’m having a hard time finding other reasons to put Voracek on the second line. He has chemistry with both Couturier and Giroux that Konecny doesn’t. If you put Konecny on the second line with Hayes, there’s potential for Hayes to act as a mentor for the young winger and develop a chemistry that could last multiple seasons. Over the last three seasons, Voracek’s tallied over 60 points, again with a career-high of 85 in 2017-18, while Konecny has yet to break the 50-point mark, albeit he’s been very close. As a coach, I don’t know how you could justify letting a guy who’s recorded over 60 points in back-to-back-to-back seasons ride the bench at the start of the game.
With that said, however, it’s a very slim edge I’d give Voracek over Konecny. As I mentioned before, Konecny broke out when he played on the first line, all while getting his goals and assists against the best players other NHL teams have to offer. He’s also improving steadily, which is something teams and coaches like to see from their young players.
Don’t be surprised if we see Konecny getting more time on the first line if Voracek starts to struggle or gets hurt. Once Konecny is on the first line, though, it’ll be a tough challenge for Voracek to reclaim his spot, but that’s the beauty of competition. This position battle will push each player to be better than the other and the Philadelphia Flyers will reap the benefits of their two wingers playing at the top of their game.