On Thursday night, the Philadelphia Flyers matched Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and his line against burgeoning superstar Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers in an attempt to contain the NHL’s points leader. Usually that assignment would go to Sean Couturier, but the center is still on injured reserve while recovering from a sprained MCL. Almost surprisingly, Bellemare was up to the task.
He, Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov were able to clog the neutral zone enough to stymie McDavid’s speed and creativity for most of the night. More importantly, Bellemare even won the even-strength scoring match, burying his first of the season. The Oilers’ captain scored once and added an assist, but both were on the man-advantage.
The reason why that’s surprising is that Bellemare has been a dud in the shutdown role in place of Couturier’s absence. He’s sporting a Corsi-for percentage of just 47.95 percent this season, third-lowest on the Flyers according to Corsica.hockey, and hasn’t done much offensively. He scored his first goal 29 games into the season and has three assists. Even before Couturier was injured, Bellemare was regularly the third-line center and drew tough matches almost every night.
Coach Dave Hakstol’s methods have called for a shutdown center behind Couturier, but Bellemare has been a disappointment there, even though it’s not his fault.
Hakstol has him playing above his level. That’s why it’s important that the Flyers find a better third-line center option.
A strong World Cup showing, plus a decent defensive and forechecking year last season earned Bellemare the center spot on the third line to start the year. Despite that success not carrying over, Hakstol has been persistent in using the 31-year-old.
He tried using Brayden Schenn at center, but if Bellemare is having a disappointing year, then there’s no bigger disappointment in Flyers history than Schenn. He has a lower Corsi-for percentage than Bellemare at 47 percent, and 16 points in 26 games after a breakout 59-point campaign.
Another player with a breakout 2015-16 was Nick Cousins. He centered the third line last year and at times this year, but he’s also underwhelmed in shutdown matchups.
Looking even further down the lineup, the goal for Scott Laughton was to develop into a two-way center. So far, he’s shown nothing of that in 109 NHL games.
After some defensive struggles last season, the 22-year-old has played in just two games with the Flyers this year. Laughton’s back with the Phantoms where the organization hopes he can round out his game.
Michael Raffl has played center during Hakstol’s reign and Boyd Gordon is healthy again, but neither can be regular shutdown centers.
Within the organization, there are really only two hopes: Schenn returning to form or Laughton quickly taking a step in his development. However, both seem unlikely.
Schenn excelled the most at wing, despite being drafted as a center. Ditto for Laughton, but developing in months after plenty of hardships last season seems unlikely.
Bellemare is done developing at his age. Cousins isn’t, but it’s hard to imagine him turning into a strong two-way player – at least this year.
That means the team would have to look outside the organization, and it’s hard to imagine that general manager Ron Hextall is too interested in that.
Hextall has repeatedly said he isn’t interested in trading future assets for quick, short-term fixes. So far, that’s been the smart move for the Flyers, but as the team moves into regular playoff contention, maybe it’s not such a bad move – if they can get someone with contract length.
Even when Couturier returns, added depth down the middle would be huge for the team. Contending teams typically have strong center depth.
But scouring the trade market, it doesn’t seem like much is available. The Arizona Coyotes are reportedly interested in dealing Martin Hanzal, but he would probably cost a lot and would be a short-term fix.
Tyler Bozak of the Maple Leafs has term, but has had a good season on a young Toronto team. He may have been available before, but the club may want him around now to help guide its youngsters.
From there, the easiest way to acquire someone might be to wait for the trade deadline and see who becomes sellers or who wants to trade someone to make room in the expansion draft. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Minnesota Wild might fall under that umbrella with a number of quality forwards.
Hextall has been unwilling to trade for help now thus far in his managing career. It’s easy to see why with the limited trade possibilities, but a third-line center is easily the team’s biggest need.