Going into the summer, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said that the team’s top priority would be an increase in scoring.
Hextall was merely stating the obvious. The Flyers’ offense was anemic last season, ranking 22nd in the league in scoring with a meager 211 goals. But the Flyers’ cap woes prevented them from making any kind of serious offer to high-scoring free agents like Steven Stamkos or Kyle Okposo — even though the Flyers probably would have been more interested in a player like Milan Lucic. So the increase in scoring that Hextall desired was going to have to come from players who were already within the organization’s ranks.
Speaking of ‘Within the Franchise Ranks …’
That brings us to Jake Voracek. Voracek had upped his point total in each of his four seasons with the Flyers prior to last year, culminating in a stellar 2014-15 season in which he posted 22 goals and 59 assists. As a result of this continued progression, Hextall rewarded the winger with an 8-year, $66 million contract in the summer of 2015. And while it would certainly be difficult for Voracek to exceed that impressive 2014-15 point total, the Flyers had every expectation that he would at least maintain those kinds of numbers.
Instead, Voracek regressed significantly, finishing last season with 11 goals and 44 assists in 73 games. A number of explanations were given for these decreased totals. Voracek came into camp out of shape and he may have been feeling the pressure of living up to his huge new contract. Voracek also struggled with some injuries later in the season, but that would hardly account for his performance early in the year.
Regardless of the reason(s) for his depleted output, Voracek and the Flyers both knew that he would have to produce at a much higher level this year if the club was going to take the next step in its evolution under head coach Dave Hakstol.
Much to the club’s (and fanbase’s) relief, Voracek seems to have bounced back from last year’s disappointing performance by posting three goals and five assists in eight games as of October 29. In comparison, Voracek didn’t score his second goal of 2015-16 until December 15, in the team’s 31st game of the season.
Voracek also looks much quicker, likely due to the fact that he played for his native Czech Republic in this summer’s highly competitive World Cup of Hockey. Voracek himself has been vocal about how much the tournament has helped his conditioning heading into this season.
His speed and moves were on full display during this nifty end-to-end sequence against the Carolina Hurricanes on October 22:
He also seems to be gelling very well on the Flyers’ second line with center Sean Couturier and rookie Travis Konecny manning the left wing. Konecny’s presence has benefitted Voracek so far; opponents are forced to account for the rookie’s speed and skill, which helps to open up some playmaking space for Voracek on the other side of the ice. Voracek is one of the Flyers’ most skilled playmakers, so he should be able to take full advantage as Konecny draws defenders away from his linemates in the offensive zone.
Tweaking the Power Play
Despite an inconsistent 2015-16, Voracek still skates with the Flyers’ top power-play line. Last year’s disappointing numbers look even worse when you consider the fact that he manned the right side on the team’s top power-play unit for most of the year.
This line basically employs two main strategies: Get the puck to Claude Giroux for a one-timer from the left circle, or let Shayne Gostisbehere take a slap shot from the point and hope for a screen or a deflection in front of the net from forwards Brayden Schenn or Wayne Simmonds.
This was old news last season as the Capitals did a great job of shutting down the Flyers’ power-play in their first-round playoff series. This season opposing penalty-kill units are following the Caps’ example by keying heavily on Giroux and Gostisbehere. This emphasis on shutting down those two often leaves Voracek with a fair amount of room to maneuver on the right side of the ice. The problem is that he still seems a little hesitant to take advantage of it, either by ripping a quick shot from the top of the circle or by skating to the net and forcing opposing players to collapse on him, which would subsequently open up space for his linemates to receive one of Voracek’s pinpoint passes.
Of course, Mr. Voracek himself may disagree with this assessment:
Love people who sitting at home,drinking beer or coke,scratching their balls and yelling ''shoot the puck u idiot''!!!#hugewin!
— Jakub Voracek (@jachobe) December 31, 2013
Touché, Jake. Touché.
Desperately Seeking Jakub
The Flyers are going to need Voracek to keep producing at a high level if they hope to get off to the strong start they so desperately desire. The team has struggled early the past few years, and have found themselves playing catch-up as the season progresses. This failure to compile points early in the season means that they’re generally playing must-win hockey from February onward.
That kind of mentality can grind a team down before the playoffs even start — if the team is able to make the playoffs at all, that is. But if Voracek can keep producing at a high level throughout the course of the year, maybe the Flyers won’t be fighting so hard for a playoff spot in March and April next year. A well-rested Flyers squad could make for an especially dangerous opponent once the postseason kicks off in earnest, one that could give any team in the East a run for its money.