As the 2015-16 NHL season approaches, there are still some question marks that may affect the Philadelphia Flyers roster. Will Vincent Lecavalier still be in orange and black when the Oct. 8 opener comes around? What will become of the logjam on defense, an area that was the Achilles’ heel last season? Will prospects such as Scott Laughton and Ivan Provorov push for spots, and if so, who gets bumped? Lastly, what will coach Dave Hakstol do on the left side of the two-headed monster known as Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek? While most of these questions will not be answered for another month, the last should not be a question at all; Michael Raffl makes sense on the top line.
Raffl The Goal Scorer
Last season, Raffl spent almost 46% of his even-strength minutes playing on the top unit with Giroux and Voracek, a potent duo that combined for 47 goals and 154 points. As a result of playing with premier playmakers, Raffl found the back of the net 21 times despite only averaging a little over 14 minutes per game in 67 contests. With that kind of offensive production in just his second full NHL season, he satisfies the need of having a goal-scoring winger to compliment the team’s two biggest draws. Flyers GM Ron Hextall has made it known that if the club was not struggling with the salary cap, he would ideally target a top-notch winger to round out the unit. As Raffl’s advanced statistics show, that really isn’t necessary.
— Bob Roberts (@BobRbrts) February 3, 2015
In seasons past, the left-wing spot was almost an open competition. Former coach Craig Berube tried Brayden Schenn there, but the 23-year old had a difficult time adjusting to the move from center. Wayne Simmonds was a logical choice from a statistical standpoint, however, his comfort level is naturally on the right side of the ice, and Voracek has that side cemented up top. Even fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde had a chance up front due to the impression he made on the coaching staff, but that experiment didn’t make it through a full game.
It’s not that these guys are bad players or that Giroux and Voracek are difficult to play with. Rather, it comes down to chemistry. Raffl has formed that chemistry and his style of play actually opens the ice for his linemates, a move that pays dividends when cleaning up the ‘garbage’ in front of the net.
When Raffl returned to the top line last season, Berube commented:
“What this will do is make Voracek and Giroux shoot the puck more. Raffl needs to be a real simple player. Get in there, take the body and create loose pucks and go to the net. Giroux and Voracek have to shoot the puck more.”
The same ideology should be what keeps Raffl on the top line this season as first-year coach Hakstol requires his players to be physical, get pucks on the net and battle for rebounds in front. Raffl has molded his game to know where Giroux and Voracek are going to be, and when the twosome make a play with puck, the Austrian native is right there to bury the opportunity.
Raffl Fits The Culture
Flyers chairman Ed Snider has been accustomed to a certain culture, a winning culture, when it comes to his Flyers. Missing the playoffs in two of the past three seasons in not something that sits well with the only owner in team history. As a result, there is a clear plan in place to field a competitive team each year while building the system up through young, talented players and prospects. Raffl is a player the organization has targeted as a building block as they attempt to become a perennial contender in the Eastern Conference.
Aside from his successes on the top line, Raffl also has seen time on special teams, being utilized on the team’s second power-play unit and the penalty kill. His game has evolved to the point where he provides value to the club outside of five-on-five play. Additionally, the 6-foot-1, 192-pound winger has performed well internationally, playing for Austria in both the Olympic games as well as the World Championships.
Hakstol made it a point to start from scratch and meet with each player in an attempt to understand how to get the best out of his team. If Hakstol is the developer that everyone says he is, he will notice that Raffl is on the verge of being a major contributor to a team with playoff aspirations. If used appropriately, Raffl will become one of the more valuable players in South Philadelphia.
What are your thoughts on Michael Raffl? First-line talent? Let me know in the comments and/or on twitter @healedbyhockey
Zach Hopkins is a life-long hockey fan from the suburbs of Philadelphia. Aside from studying, watching and playing the game, he can be found teaching it to his four-year-old son who can now name all 30 teams and their best players and can differentiate between all 30 goal horns. At The Hockey Writers, Zach is a Philadelphia Flyers contributor.