Through the first four games of the 2015-16 season, the Philadelphia Flyers have gone out of their way to ice four competent lines. They have been unafraid to bench Vincent Lecavalier and they traded Zac Rinaldo over the summer. As it stands now, each player in the Flyers top nine is a capable, skilled player.
Their top three lines look something like this:
Michael Raffl – Claude Giroux – Jakub Voracek
Brayden Schenn – Sean Couturier – Wayne Simmonds
Matt Read – Scott Laughton – Sam Gagner
This is an improvement over last season and has looked good for the team overall. However, based upon ice time and usage, the teams fourth line seems to have supplanted the third line.
Chris Vandevelde, Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare, and Ryan White played together at the end of the 2014-15 season and have since proven to be a solid trio. During the Flyers 3-0 win over the Blackhawks on Wednesday night, they played for 12:49, 12:05, and 12:46 respectively at even strength.
The Flyers third line of Matt Read, Scott Laughton, and Sam Gagner on the other hand, played for 7:56, 6:09, and 6:25 respectively at even strength. The fourth line even out skated the second line at even strength with Brayden Schenn skating for 10:34, Sean Couturier skating for 11:38, and Wayne Simmonds being on the ice for 9:57, showing just how much Hakstol trusts the fourth line.
Even when taking special teams ice time into considerations Vandevelde, Bellemare, and White had much more ice time than the third line (Lowest 4th liner, White-14:26; Highest 3rd liner,Gagner-9:51).
There was a similar trend to the numbers in Monday’s game against Florida, but the Flyers excessive penalty killing skewed the numbers slightly.
What this trend shows is that Dave Hakstol trusts his fourth line. On Wednesday he gave them quite a few offensive zone face-offs at even sterngth, while starving the second and third line for those starts. To their credit, each member of the fourth line registered positive possession numbers in the game.
So what does this say about the Flyers moving forward?
It shows that the Flyers are willing and able to roll four competent lines. There is little doubt that Matt Read, Scott Laughton, and Sam Gagner can hold their own at the NHL level. As they play more games together, they should click.
The Flyers top six forwards are all relatively proven players who can be counted on to give the team the scoring necessary to win games. But if the Flyers have found themselves a fourth line that can handle a lot of minutes and occasionally chip in some goals, that will be crucial for the future.
The line of Vandevelde, Bellemare, and White is the only line that came with serious questions about their skill level and competency. If they continue to put those questions at ease, the Flyers will be better for it.
Right now, both Vandevelde and Bellemare rack up a fair amount of ice time on the penalty kill, 3:23 and 3:48 per game. Assuming they can continue to lock down decent even strength ice time and a lot of penalty killing time, they will leave players like Giroux, Voracek, and Couturier much more rested.
At the end of last season, much was made about the Flyers ability to beat those teams that were destined for the playoffs while they carried an abysmal record against teams that did not qualify for the postseason. Although this does not make sense on the surface, it can be easily explained.
The Flyers were just not that good last season. They had to expend quite a bit of energy and rely completely on their top tier players to carry them during the big games. When they then went to play struggling teams, their stars were tired and the other players were just unable to keep up.
But, if the Flyers can roll four lines with even ice time, and give players like Giroux and Couturier moderate penalty killing duties, they should be more fresh down the stretch.
The Flyers proved on Wednesday night that they can beat the Chicago Blackhawks while relying heavily on their fourth line. If they continue to play well and Dave Hakstol continues to trust them, the Flyers will be in good shape.