Credit the Flyers for being resourceful. How else would you explain their circumvention of a cap space thinner than Jude Law’s hairline? Philadelphia has appeared to have struck gold in not one, but two undrafted free agents from across the pond. Much like the Beatles stormed the States on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Flyers invaded Europe and have Michael Raffl and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to prove it.
The 50/50 Raffl
Despite spending nearly a decade playing in Austria and Sweden, Michael Raffl found himself on the radar of several NHL scouts throughout the 2012-13 season. Raffl’s 46 point season for Leksands IF of the HockeyAllsvenskn league in Sweden resulted in a two-horse race, pitting the Flyers against the Nashville Predators. Raffl, of course, added to his stock with a standout performance in international play that year as well.
“Both (Director of Player Personnel) Dave Brown and myself as well as (European Scout) Ilkka (Sinisalo) saw him at the World Championships and he’s a good player,” said Director of Hockey Operations Chris Pryor. “You noticed him over there. He’s got skill. He thinks the game. He’s a versatile guy and can do a lot of different things.”
The Flyers signed Raffl with the expectation of the six-foot Austrian adjusting to the new ice dimensions in the AHL. But the versatility that caught the eyes of Philadelphia’s brass forced the Flyers’ hand, calling up the 192-pound forward after just two games with the Phantoms in 2013.
Once again, Raffl gets himself wide open for a great chance on goal. He always gets open
— Bob Roberts (@BobRbrts) October 29, 2014
After notching three points in two games for Adirondack, Raffl was plugged into the Flyers’ fourth line, where he would go onto flourish. Raffl’s combination of size, speed, and toughness not only led to a cup of coffee on the top line, but a two-year contract extension as well. Raffl’s $2.2 million extension garnered this response from Broad Street Hockey:
Given that Raffl’s positives — solid penalty killing, positive impact on teammates, and overall good possession stats — strongly outweigh the negatives, it’s hard to come out and say this contract extension was a bad move. — Al K., Broad Street Hockey
In his first season on North American soil, Raffl finished up with nine goals and 13 assists in 68 games. And although he was only able to dial up a single assist in Philly’s quarterfinal round against the New York Rangers, the Flyers knew they found a key component to their already dangerous offense.
After just two games this season, Raffl was bumped to the top line, replacing Brayden Schenn, who just couldn’t seem to gain any sort of chemistry with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. The natural left winger was an instant fit, finding the back of the net in his first game with his new linemates. As the new look top line continued to gain cohesiveness, Raffl went on a scoring binge of three straight games with a goal, including his first career multi-goal game against the Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 25th.
“If you asked me if I thought he’d have six goals at this point, I would have said no,” said Flyers GM Ron Hextall. “But I will say that when we talked about things over the summer, probably the best player last year with [Giroux] and Jake was Michael. The one missing ingredient was the finish. He had a lot of chances, but just didn’t finish. But if you watched the line and the way they executed and their chemistry, he was our best left winger.”
The 25-year-old has also reaped the benefit of an increased workload, which is an obvious result of skating on the team’s top line. And despite seeing only 11:37 worth of ice time in Saturday’s loss to Florida, Raffl has logged 15:00, or more, in eight of Philadelphia’s first 11 games.
Michael Raffl’s initial signing may not have turned many heads, especially with Vinny Lecavalier joining the team that summer. But even with the $2.2 million extension, Raffl has found his niche with the Flyers, with his team-leading six goals through 11 games as evidence of his accelerated development in motion.
While rookie GM Ron Hextall was limited in the free agent market last summer, the signing of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is making Hextall look like a mad genius. The 29-year-old Frenchman has been anything but irrelevant through Philadelphia’s first 11 games, providing a spark on whichever line he’s assigned to.
Although Hextall was savvy enough to acquire Bellemare as an undrafted free agent, his rise to NHL prominence comes as no surprise. In five seasons playing in the Swedish Hockey League, the six-foot forward displayed consistent productivity, giving Skellefteå AIK 64 goals and 61 assists in 238 games.
“I came (to Philadelphia) as a guy who you can rely on, maybe, defensively. There is no better league than Sweden for that — they (broke) me down when I came to Sweden when I was 21,” said Bellemare. “If I’m a part of this team today, it’s a great deal because of the way I played and learned over there.”
Put B. Schenn-Bellemare-Simmonds back together.
— Flyers Nation (@FlyersNation) November 2, 2014
With Vinny Lecavalier in and out of the lineup, and back in, Bellemare has moved back and forth between the fourth and second lines. And even though his scoring totals through 11 games come out to just a goal and an assist, the Le Blanc-Mesnil native has earned his keep with outstanding skating and two-way play.
With Skelleftea, he was a top-line winger and scored 20 goals in 52 games last season. He was also building the two-way skill set he’ll need to show if he wants to stick around in North America. Berube has given Bellemare, a center, time with more offensively minded players like Wayne Simmonds and Matt Read, but speed, faceoffs, PK aptitude and defensive reliability are his foothold. — Sean Gentille, The Sporting News
If defense is what the Flyers were starving for, Bellemare has fed his team. Bellemare’s plus-three rating on a team with a minus-five goal differential gives just a glimpse of how sound he’s been. And to this point, the player fans call, “Pebbles,” has made each of his two points in the NHL count.
Bellemare scored his first NHL goal in a pivotal spot on Oct. 22nd in Pittsburgh. The first-year Flyer broke a 1-1 tie in the first period by beating Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the first period, stunning the Pittsburgh crowd. Eight days later, Bellemare added his first NHL assist on Wayne Simmonds’ first period equalizer against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With Lecavalier returning to the Flyers lineup, Bellemare has now been demoted back down to Craig Berube’s fourth line. But even with the decrease in ice time that playing on the fourth line brings, Bellemare still brings value in providing energy alongside Zac Rinaldo and Chris VandeVelde. But while Bellemare’s limited NHL sample size brings praise, the two-way center is anything but satisfied with his short body of work to this point.
“I’m not really impressed with the way I’ve addressed the chance,” said Bellemare. “It’s a process, and those guys (Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn) are so skilled that they need to get more pucks out of me.”
While Bellemare may be his toughest critic, his light scoring is easy to overlook with everything else considered. His 51.8% faceoff percentage is second only to Claude Giroux among teammates who have taken a minimum of 100 draws. And when it comes to defensive zone starts, only Sean Couturier and Matt Read have a higher percentage.
“He’s played great,” said Simmonds. “He’s a really hard-working guy and you can tell he’s really intelligent. He makes a lot of smart plays. He’s been good for us. Really good.”
Leading up to Nov. 4th’s game against Edmonton, Bellemare has seen his ice time reflect the action of a yo-yo. And although it’s not stunning, since he’s been volleyed between the second and fourth lines, his average time on ice of 13:37 is likely to climb with the combination of adjusting to the NHL’s style of play, and the team’s latest increase in penalties.
On the surface, the Flyers were bystanders in last summer’s free agency period. But with Raffl already on the roster, adding Bellemare has given the Flyers a chance to compete in a division that doled out top dollar for better known names. And while the household name looks really nice on paper, the Flyers are more interested in value. And with Raffl and Bellemare, value is exactly what they got.