This is Part 2 of a series on the Philadelphia Flyers' forwards. Part 1 can be found here.
The Philadelphia Flyers, despite their recent stretch of solid play, have struggled to score goals this season. They rank 29th in the NHL in goals scored and goals per game, a surprising placement for a team that dresses two elite forwards (Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek) on a nightly basis.
As we discussed yesterday, the main problem for the Flyers is a lack of viable top-nine forwards. So far this season, only seven players have been able to present a solid case for minutes on the top three lines - Giroux, Voracek, Sean Couturier, Matt Read, Wayne Simmonds, Michael Raffl and Brayden Schenn. After those seven, the even strength possession statistics from the rest of the forwards fall off a cliff, without high-end scoring production to make up for it.
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, reinforcements from Lehigh Valley or outside the organization are simply not coming. Travis Konecny, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Oskar Lindblom (the team's top forward prospects) will not be permitted to join the team until next season, and most of the team's AHL forward prospects do not project as scorers at the NHL level. As a result, this problem must be solved from within.
For the Flyers to build a viable third scoring line during the 2015-16 season, at least two forwards must step up in the coming weeks. Let's take a look at the candidates.
The statistics are not pretty
With their current arsenal of forwards, the Philadelphia Flyers are more than capable of structuring two perfectly competent scoring lines. But the third and fourth lines have failed to deliver much in the way of positive point production or sustained puck possession.
The lack of performance spans across the entire bottom-half of the lineup. While there are bright spots here and there, for the most part, the numbers are ugly.
|Forward||Fenwick (On-Ice Unblocked Shots) Percentage||Fenwick Relative to Teammates||Neutral Zone Score||Offensive Zone Score||Defensive Zone Score||Points Per 60|
|R.J. Umberger||46.48%||- 2.81%||46.18%||- 1.28%||- 0.02%||1.35|
|Pierre-Edouard Bellemare||45.94%||- 5.11%||48.56%||+ 11.90%||- 23.13%||0.40|
|Sam Gagner||45.31%||- 3.38%||46.94%||+ 4.11%||- 8.66%||1.39|
|Ryan White||45.24%||- 4.29%||45.95%||+ 3.09%||- 10.89%||1.08|
|Chris VandeVelde||44.70%||- 5.75%||47.61%||+ 1.97%||- 14.87%||0.74|
|Scott Laughton||44.08%||- 6.11%||47.73%||- 8.20%||- 9.13%||1.84|
|Vincent Lecavalier||38.30%||- 11.56%||41.41%||- 5.76%||- 7.33%||0.94|
None of the current options have even approached the 50% break-even point in terms of puck possession thus far this season, and only Laughton has delivered solid point production in lieu of poor possession statistics.
Surprisingly, offensive zone play does not seem to be the issue - Bellemare, Gagner, White and VandeVelde all have exceeded expectations on the attack in terms of creating shots. Where the bottom-six has struggled is in the neutral and defensive zones. Their inability to exit the defensive zone cleanly with possession of the puck and to avoid turnovers has been the primary cause of their poor puck possession statistics.
But those statistics measure what the players have done so far. Can we expect any of them to improve in the second half?
The Flyers front office was surely not blind to the potential lack of forward depth entering the 2015-16 season. They likely hoped that additional production would come from three players with plausible upside - Sam Gagner, Scott Laughton, and R.J. Umberger.
Gagner was the team's only major addition to the forward corps in the offseason, acquired in a trade with Arizona. Laughton earned his way onto the Flyers roster with a solid training camp and preseason, and hoped to live up to his first-round pedigree. Umberger, fresh off surgery in the offseason, looked faster and fresher in camp than he ever had during his disappointing 2014-15 season. All had the potential for breakout or rebound seasons.
Instead, all three have been disappointments.
Scott Laughton has at least shown flashes of usefulness. His 1.84 points per sixty minutes of even strength ice time actually leads the entire team, and his goals have often been of the highlight-reel variety. Yet his offensive contributions have been overshadowed by poor defensive zone play. Laughton leads all Flyers forwards with a 16.85% turnover percentage, meaning that one in every six times he touches the puck in the defensive zone, he gives it back to the opposition. As a result, his puck possession statistics have been far too low to entrust him with heavy minutes.
Umberger started off the season as advertised - a far more mobile and effective forward. Unfortunately, he quickly suffered an injury in the second game of the year, and saw his game regress upon returning. The dynamic player from opening night has yet to be seen since, replaced by a responsible yet plodding forward capable of fulfilling his assignments but little else. Positionally, his game is sound, and his not-totally-awful possession statistics reflect that. But the return of his scoring touch seems unlikely.
The Flyers' newest acquisition has simply struggled to earn his coach's confidence. Sam Gagner has yet to see the ice in December, first due to a concussion suffered on November 23rd and now due to his coach's decision. It's understandable, as the forward's performance this season has matched the negative narrative that often surrounds him - not a good enough scorer to outweigh his defensive deficiencies.
Out of the three, Laughton and Gagner seem most likely to take the leap into viable top-nine status. The Flyers probably hoped Laughton would develop into a solid Support Possession Forward, considering the scouting reports that promoted him as a strong two-way player. But so far, he looks more like a potential Offensive Zone Scorer - a player with deficiencies that could possibly be hidden if placed alongside possession drivers. Gagner, who has actually been a positive possession player more often than not in his career, at least has the skillset to take the leap into the Offensive Zone Scorer category.
The chances of a jump from R.J. Umberger seem far less likely. Even in his prime, Umberger was never a strong possession player - he provided the bulk of his value as an Offensive Zone Scorer. But he's clearly lost a step even post-surgery, and seems unable to be a real scoring threat at even strength. Without offensive production, Umberger unfortunately is best suited for the fourth line.
The fourth liners used as third liners
The Flyers may not have the depth for a traditional third scoring line, but someone still needs to take the minutes that would normally go to line three. Head coach Dave Hakstol has chosen to lean on a line that was expected to function as the team's fourth entering the season - the trio of Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Ryan White.
Ranking eighth, ninth and tenth in average even strength ice time per game among forwards, it's clear that Hakstol trusts these forwards the most after the obvious seven that we highlighted yesterday. In many ways, the trust makes sense - VandeVelde played for Hakstol at North Dakota and therefore was able to hit the ground running at the start of the year in terms of executing his preferred system, and his regular linemates followed suit. Also, they have been very effective on the important forecheck, as shown by the trio's strong Offensive Zone Scores.
Dave Isaac reported an eye-opening quote this week from Hakstol that helps to explain their relatively high usage.
"They’re a reliable group, We feel they can give us good minutes regardless of who they’re playing against. That word, reliable, it’s a word that gets glossed over a little bit because there’s not a lot of highlight-reel to it. They’re reliable."
Hakstol essentially can trust that the Bellemare line will not make any obvious positional mistakes, and their effort is never lacking. On the whole, however, the statistics of VandeVelde, Bellemare and White do not hint that the trio is capable of producing much offensively as the team's third line.
Like Laughton and Gagner, the Flyers' third line has been crushed in the defensive zone so far. But unlike Laughton and Gagner, they have been unable to score points to act as a counterbalance against that weakness. Only White holds a Points/60 over 1.0, with VandeVelde and Bellemare both well below that mark. What is most concerning is that the duo saw extended time alongside star forward Jakub Voracek and were still unable to score.
If any of the trio has top-nine upside, it's probably Bellemare. He possesses the strongest Neutral Zone Score of the three, and is also the best skater. But even Bellemare has shown little in his career that he can drive possession over the break-even point, or score at an above-average rate.
The line of VandeVelde, Bellemare and White started the season as the fourth line for a reason. That's where their talents are best served.
Making the best of a bad situation
Philadelphia has six options to fill two open spots in the top-nine for the remainder of the year. Out of those six, Scott Laughton and Sam Gagner appear to have the most upside as positive contributors.
R.J. Umberger was once an Offensive Zone Scorer, but those days appear to be finished. Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White, while undeniably useful players, all lack plus scoring skills and possession driving abilities, making them poor fits as Offensive Zone Scorers or Support Possession Players. As the third unit, they currently function purely as minutes-eaters, and would instead be best served in an energy role as a fourth line.
That leaves Laughton and Gagner.
Both are flawed players at this stage of their respective careers. Laughton, while showcasing impressive flashes of skill in the offensive zone, has been a puck possession disaster this season. Gagner has been unable to score at his previous rates, or gain the trust of his coach.
But both players have the potential to slide in as Offensive Zone Scorers. Laughton, in particular, will need linemates that thrive in helping him stay out of the defensive zone as much as possible, while Gagner would seem best suited to play with defensively-savvy forwards who are willing backcheckers.
The easiest line to try would be a Matt Read - Scott Laughton - Sam Gagner third line. Implementation would be simple enough - scratch Umberger, slide Gagner into his spot on the line, and increase their minutes to that of a traditional third scoring line. Ideally, Read's strong neutral zone play would turn the line into a break-even possession unit, and allow Gagner and Laughton to create in the offensive zone.
Read may not be enough to carry Laughton and Gagner to possession respectability, however. Considering Laughton's limitations, he may need two Support Possession Forwards at this stage of his career in order to survive in a top-nine role. For example, a Raffl - Laughton - Read third line could provide him with enough help to take advantage of his offensive gifts.
That would necessitate moving Gagner to the first line alongside Claude Giroux and Brayden Schenn - a risky move. It would saddle Giroux with two low-end possession players, potentially placing him in a similar situation as the one that Voracek faced when skating with Bellemare and VandeVelde. But the offensive upside would be tantalizing.
Finding the right combinations could prove difficult. But it likely would not be much worse from a possession results standpoint than the status quo of continuing to use VandeVelde, Bellemare and White as the third line. In order to solve the problem of weak scoring depth, the Flyers' best move is to give their nine most talented offensive forwards the most ice time, and see if they can make it work over an extended period of time.
Until then, Philadelphia will continue to be a two-line scoring team, at risk in every game of being devastated by random injuries and slumps.