Yesterday we took an in-depth look at the Philadelphia Flyers defense as we enter the 2014-15 season. Today, let's look at the offense. Take a seat (or a long lunch break) and prepare for the season with us.
The top dogs need to remain great
As much as we hear about depth being the key to a strong offensive in the NHL nowadays, there are still teams who are going to live and die with the production of their best players. And if you've been watching them for the past three seasons or so, you know that the Flyers are probably one of those teams. Fortunately, when it comes to living and dying by their best forwards, the Flyers have been doing a lot more living than dying lately.
I won't sit here and bore you by telling you all how great Claude Giroux is, because you all know that already. He is an elite offensive center in the NHL, and the only question for him (barring injury) is whether he'll once again be "Hart-finalist good" or just "really, really good". Knowing this team (and its defense), they may need him to be the former. A tough ask, but if anyone's up to it, we know that Claude is.
Similarly, we've spoken a lot here about how Jakub Voracek has low-key worked his way into a discussion of the league's top right-wingers. He cooled off last from his near-point-per-game pace from the lockout-shortened year, but the 62-point year he put together last season is probably the minimum that we can expect from him moving forward. He's still a bit of a secret to the rest of the NHL, but he's for real and we all know it here.
So Giroux and Voracek are the constants. For the Flyers to be good, both of those guys are going to need to stay healthy and be the players we know they can be. Fortunately, we have good reason to believe that's exactly what they will do, at even strength and the power play.
So the top line is important, but is also awesome. The question from there turns to whether or not the Flyers have the depth to complement their two star forwards.
While Brayden Schenn is beginning the year on the top line in the stead of the departed Scott Hartnell, we'll include him in here with the "depth" guys, since he arguably has more to prove than any forward on the team this year. Schenn, coming into his fourth season in the NHL, has been bounced around, up and down the lineup, between center and wing, and frequently paired up with declining centers who are sometimes also playing out of position. It has not been easy for him to get settled; regardless, it is hard to deny that, so far, he has not lived up to the expectations that followed him from Los Angeles.
But this year, Schenn will have no more excuses, as the Flyers' current plan is to give him the best job in the lineup: playing alongside Giroux and Voracek on the top-line left wing. There are still questions as to how comfortable he is on the wing (compared to his natural spot, center), but the team finally seems committed to him in this spot. As such, he has to succeed this year. There is no other option.
Beyond that, the most interesting potential development amongst the forwards (in my opinion, at least) is the offensive potential of the team's newly-formed second line. Two defensive stalwarts for the Flyers, Sean Couturier and Matt Read, are currently set to begin the year with Wayne Simmonds on their right wing.
The three have all been defined by some varying skillsets in their three years in Philadelphia. Couturier has become known as a defensive ace (one with largely untapped offensive potential); Simmonds has been a middling even-strength player who has made his mark (in a huge way) as a physical net-front presence on the power play; and Read has shown to be a very solid two-way player with nice wheels and a deceptively good shot.
Couturier and Read, of course, spent just about all of the 2013-14 season together, with a number of people (Steve Downie, Michael Raffl, Jason Akeson) filling in on the third spot on their line. Together, they took on very tough defensive assignments, and did an admirable job against them. The team has mentioned that they'd like to see more from Couturier offensively. Does putting Simmonds, who can reasonably be looked at as more of an offense-first player, on that line suggest that they'll have a bit more of an offensive bent this year?
Kevin discussed this yesterday when talking about Flyers forwards as they pertain to team defense, and he seemed skeptical that the line's usage will change much. If that's the case, then we'll have to hope that the addition of Simmonds will indeed lead to more offensive opportunities even despite the tough minutes. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see the line's usage lighten at least a little bit, which could mean good things for Couturier offensively. I'm excited to see how Simmonds' physical style can possibly work to open up opportunities for Couturier and Read when they have the puck in the offensive end.
The big question marks
During the 2013-14 season, the following statements were all true:
- Michael Raffl surprised a lot of people with a pretty strong rookie season, looking like a good fit up and down the lineup, driving possession forward, and chipping in with scoring on occasion.
- Vincent Lecavalier's first season in Philadelphia was more or less a trainwreck, as he put up his worst scoring numbers in a decade, was a nightmare defensively despite very offensively-friendly minutes, and was completely ineffective anywhere other than center.
- R.J. Umberger, then of the Columbus Blue Jackets, failed in a tough-minutes defensive role for the Blue Jackets, routinely finding himself on the wrong side of possession and putting up just 36 points in 74 games despite a higher-than-average shooting percentage.
Naturally, the solution for three guys with profiles like those is to put them all together on the same line, which is exactly what the Flyers will apparently try and do with their third line this year.
Raffl made his name as a strong two-way player during his rookie year, but that will be quickly put to the test this season if he really is with Lecavalier and Umberger for an extended period of the time.
And as for those other two, they've both got plenty to prove this season. Lecavalier, who the team seems committed to giving top-9 minutes as a center, has to show that last year was a fluke and that he can put up numbers close to what he did in his last year or two in Tampa. That may be asking a lot, though it'll be tough for things to go as poorly as they did for Vinny last year (and the team appears ready to give him top power-play minutes in Scott Hartnell's old spot, which can only help matters for him). And in Umberger's case, there is a chance that the change of scenery and the potential of easier minutes will do him some good.
But in any case, there's no doubt that the success of this third line relies on a lot of hypotheticals and things going right that didn't last season. They'll almost certainly need to be sheltered away from tough assignments, and even if that happens, success is far from a given. Of the Flyers' four projected opening-day lines, this is definitely the one that's most concerning. This line's ceiling in terms of offense is anyone's guess.
A new look at the bottom
Following Jay Rosehill's being waived and demoted to Lehigh Valley last week, a lot has been made of the Flyers' plans to go into the season without a true enforcer in their lineup. And to be sure, that's noteworthy -- the Broad Street Bullies aren't what you used to know them as.
But the optimism about the Flyers' fourth line goes beyond that. Even last season, when he was on the team every day of the season, Rosehill only played 34 games. But even with that being the case, the Flyers seemed to see their fourth line as more of a group of muckers than anything else. Zac Rinaldo, Adam Hall, Chris VandeVelde, etc. -- not really guys who you remember for their impressive hockey skill. This is pretty much how things have been for the Flyers for a long time.
Yet the fourth line that the Flyers will ice tomorrow night in Boston doesn't really incite memories of fourth lines past. Sure, Rinaldo is a holdover from last season's unit, and the team (whether we agree with it or not) sees him as a guy who can use his speed and hitting ability to be an effective contributor.
But it's the other two guys on that line who really have piqued our interest. Jason Akeson, who caught our attention with a strong series against the Rangers following three years of top-line-level point production for the Phantoms in the AHL. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, signed to a one-year contract last May, comes over after three years of respectable scoring numbers in one of Europe's best leagues, the SHL.
In the past, players like Akeson and Bellemare would have been stuck in the press box or the AHL if they couldn't hack it on one of the top three lines. Yet, the current plan appears to be to have both of them on the fourth line to begin the season. That the Flyers appear set to run four lines that they can feasibly view as scoring lines -- not just lines with good hockey players, but actual scoring lines -- is something we haven't seen in a long time, and something that could potentially open up mismatches against teams that maybe don't do the same.
Can Akeson show the scoring ability that led him to be the Phantoms' all-time leading scorer and have that translate to the NHL over an extended period? Did the Flyers find another Michael Raffl in Bellemare, who showed some enviable skill in the preseason? And are they right about their hunch that Rinaldo can contribute like he did last Thursday on a regular basis?
If those things don't work out ... well, then we'll probably see a fourth line a lot like we've seen in years past, at least in terms of offense. If they do? This team could get scoring from a place that it's rarely ever been able to get scoring before. And that's exciting.
For a couple of seasons now, much has been made of the lack of good puck-moving blueliners who can contribute to the Flyers offensively. Kimmo Timonen being gone will do very little to assuage those fears. Ultimately, when you look at the blue line the Flyers plan on icing this season, there's only one guy that you can really look at as much of a scoring threat.
Fortunately, even though that one guy will be pushing 37 years this season, Mark Streit is someone the Flyers can lean on. Streit came along in a huge, huge way towards the end of his first year in Philadelphia, so much so that he was (in my opinion) the team's second-best player during their stretch run in March and April that helped them clinch a playoff spot (behind one Claude Giroux, of course). Streit finished last season with 44 points, about half of which came at even strength. With Timonen gone, even more of that responsibility will fall on his shoulders. Whether or not he can handle it will go a long way towards this team's defensive unit actually being at all useful offensively, but the way he ended last season gives us some optimism that he can do it.
After that, though ... things get dicey. Neither of the team's "top-pair defensemen", Braydon Coburn or Andrew MacDonald, provide a ton offensively, even though they're both pretty good skaters who aren't total nightmares with the puck on their sticks. Luke Schenn is actually a pretty underrated passer, but his skating and decision-making are poor enough to render that more or less irrelevant from an offensive standpoint. Nicklas Grossmann, for the most part, handles the puck like it's a grenade. And Nick Schultz is Nick Schultz.
With all of the above noted, the best hope the Flyers have at getting offense from their blue line is a resurrection of Michael Del Zotto's career. Del Zotto, brought in on a one-year deal immediately following news of Timonen's blood clots, has shown offensive pedigree in years past -- his rookie season in New York in 2009-10 saw him just around a half-point per game, as did his third year there in 2011-12. However, he's trended downward in both of the two seasons since that one, and it stands to reason that his early success may have been a fluke. Still, Del Zotto's shown that he hypothetically can do it, and with the state of the rest of this blue line, there's no reason not to give it a try. He should get a chance to man the second power-play, which will help.
But otherwise, short of a Shayne Gostisbehere call-up, there doesn't look to be much in the way of offensive support coming from the back end this year.
As much as we've discussed the lines and how they'll look and work together throughout the year, let's just remember that they're probably going to get changed by the eighth game of the season anyways. Guys will get hurt, guys will go cold and get bumped down/switched around in hopes of re-igniting them, guys will heat up and get a promotion to a higher line. These things will all happen, several times.
With that in mind, the key here to the Flyers being a successful offensive team really is the performance of the guys in the middle and the bottom of the lineup. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek need to be successful, but they've already proven that they can be and we have zero reason to doubt that they will be again. Still, they will go cold on occasion, because all hockey players do. When they do (or when anyone else in the lineup does), some other guys need to be working to pick up the slack. Whether that takes a Sean Couturier breakout, a Vincent Lecavalier resurrection, or a fourth-line emergence, this team needs to have multiple lines clicking at just about all times in order to be successful.
Let's not mince words here: given the state of its defense, if the Flyers have any aspirations of being a contender this season, they need their offense to be firing on all cylinders more or less night in and night out. That's far from a given, and guys who maybe haven't stepped up and flashed their full potential in the past are going to need to this year to get the team to the level that we know it can be at.
But still, there's a lot to be excited about in terms of this team's offensive outlook. There are the horses at the top, plenty of reinforcements in the middle, and even an exciting bit of potential at the bottom. Again, there's still some uncertainty in there, but it could really be a sight to behold if everything works out the way it could.