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Eric Wellwood deserves to play

Eric Wellwood has been sent back to the Phantoms, but he's been one of the Flyers' most productive drivers of possession this season. He deserves to play at the NHL level.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The season is young, but the Flyers have struggled thus far to bring the puck into the offensive zone with possession. The average team dumps the puck in on about half of their zone entries; last year the Flyers were a little better than average, keeping the dump-ins down to 47 percent, but this year their dump-in rate has skyrocketed to 57 percent.

Gaining the zone with possession is an important driver of offensive success; carrying the puck in leads to more than twice as many shots, scoring chances, and goals as dumping it in. So while the season is young, the Flyers' frequent dump-ins have me a bit concerned. The last thing I would expect right now is for the Flyers to bench one of the few players who has been driving offensive zone puck possession.

However, that is exactly what happened on Saturday. Eric Wellwood was sent to the Phantoms despite being one of the zone entry leaders for the team through four games (all stats are for 5-on-5 play):

Player Total entries Carry-ins % carry-in Carry-ins per 60 min TOI
Wellwood 17 15 88% 25.5
Giroux 29 22 76% 24.5
Hartnell 20 13 65% 22.1
Voracek 19 12 63% 18.2
Laughton 22 10 45% 14.6
Simmonds 17 9 53% 10.4
McGinn 10 3 30% 10.1
Talbot 14 4 29% 5.6
Couturier 13 4 31% 5.5
Fedotenko 12 3 25% 4.6
Read 9 4 44% 4.5
Div/0 crew 10 1 10% 2.3
BSchenn 10 1 10% 2.0

Wellwood is doing as much as anyone on the team to drive play forward. He is second on the team in total entries with possession and has the most per unit ice time. His 88 percent carry-in rate is undoubtedly not sustainable -- for comparison, last year Jaromir Jagr led the Flyers with 74 percent, while Wellwood was a respectable-but-not-outstanding 55 percent.

But so far this year, Wellwood has made great use of his speed to create space and opportunity.

The remarkable thing is that Wellwood has generated those offensive possessions while being saddled with linemates who provide virtually zero offensive support. His four most-frequent linemates this year are Ruslan Fedotenko, Max Talbot, Zac Rinaldo, and Jody Shelley. If anything, I would hope that his outstanding puck possession so far this year would be rewarded by moving him up in the lineup to work with players who are more likely to score on the shots his entries generate; instead, he found himself sent to the AHL for roster room.

Wellwood's demotion is the product of the Flyers promoting Tye McGinn and adding Mike Knuble, two players who provide the team with a net presence that Wellwood certainly lacks. In all likelihood, the desire to add this kind of player was understandably fueled by the news that Scott Hartnell will be out for a month or more.

However, this raises some questions. Are McGinn and Knuble both better than Wellwood? If they aren't, do the Flyers really need two net-front players to replace Hartnell?

McGinn might be better than Wellwood. They are only three months apart in age, so their results and progression can be directly compared, and only in 2011-12 has Wellwood really outscored McGinn:

Year McGinn League McGinn PPG Wellwood League Wellwood PPG
2008-09 QMJHL 0.63 OHL 0.56
2009-10 QMJHL 1.24 OHL 1.05
2010-11 QMJHL 1.52 AHL 0.38
2011-12 AHL 0.29 AHL 0.64
2012-13 AHL 0.45 AHL 0.31

I can't shake the hunch that McGinn's call-up is at least partly related to his unsustainable 18.6 percent shooting percentage in the AHL this year and an over-reaction to a short-term streak, but there is plenty of evidence that it is reasonable to give him a chance -- especially if the team needs someone to fill Hartnell's role.

Playing Knuble ahead of Wellwood is more difficult to defend, however.

I've already written about my concerns about Knuble. His zone entry results were terrible last year, comprised almost entirely of dump-ins and blue-line turnovers. At 39 years old last year, his net presence produced just six goals in 72 games -- whereas Wellwood's skating produced five goals in 24 games. Perhaps Knuble's shooting percentage should be expected to rebound a bit from last year's career low, but hoping for major steps forwards at 40 years old is probably foolish.

The team already has one power forward in Wayne Simmonds. Adding a second to the lineup during Hartnell's absence might be important, but a third seems less necessary -- especially when it comes at the expense of a player who drives puck possession, or when it means potentially slowing the development of a young player by putting him in the press box.

Knuble is fine as a low-risk depth player and insurance policy. But the team needs Wellwood's speed and puck possession more than it needs an aged net presence right now.

(I presume it goes without saying that I think Tom Sestito being in the lineup over any reasonable alternative is nonsense.)

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