It may not have been the worst-case scenario, but today's news was pretty darn close. Center Sean Couturier, who sat out the third period of last night's game against the Nashville Predators with an undisclosed ailment, will miss the next four weeks with a lower-body injury.
Couturier was in the process of his long-awaited breakout season, with huge jumps in scoring and underlying puck possession turning him into a sleeper choice for the Selke Trophy. Now, the Philadelphia Flyers will be forced to continue their push for a playoff spot without the two-way center.
But how best to respond to the absence of Couturier? Philadelphia has already called up Nick Cousins to fill the open roster spot. But replacing Couturier is far from that simple. The Flyers will be forced to juggle lines and make new additions to the lineup, both to replace the center's production and to simply stay roster-compliant. There are a number of options.
Return to the Pre-All Star Break lineup
Couturier did miss three games prior to All-Star weekend, presumably with the same injury that has now sidelined him for an extended period of time. As a result, a switch back to the lineup that Dave Hakstol preferred last week would be the quickest solution to this problem.
Hakstol chose to keep the top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds together when Couturier was initially injured. First, he tried Sam Gagner in the role of second line center, but then settled on Michael Raffl for the job against the the Bruins and the Capitals.
Flanking Raffl were Matt Read and Brayden Schenn, which created a line of two solid puck possession forwards (Read and Raffl) and one more offensively-oriented winger (Schenn). The energy line of Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White was kept together, while Scott Laughton and R.J. Umberger were placed with Gagner (against Washington) and Jordan Weal (versus the Bruins).
As stated previously, this would be the quickest fix. It could involve bringing Umberger back into the lineup, while cycling between Gagner, Weal and Cousins depending upon matchups and performance. Unfortunately, it also would leave the team thin offensively, and dependent upon players like Raffl, Read and Schenn to provide top-six worthy minutes behind the Giroux line.
Increase Laughton's Role
Scott Laughton was drafted as a future two-way center at the NHL, a forward who could take tough shifts and still deliver positive results. So far in his career, Laughton has struggled in terms of puck possession and particularly seems uncomfortable in the defensive zone.
Still, his play as of late has picked up. Last night, he assisted on two Flyers tallies, both sprung by stellar defensive zone passes from the stick of Laughton.
If Hakstol has enough confidence in his 21-year old center, this would be the perfect time to try him out in the 2C role. He's already playing with Raffl and Read, the two forwards that comprised Hakstol's other attempts to put together a makeshift second line. It would simply be a matter of elevating their ice time and giving them tougher matchups.
Go offense-heavy with Gagner and Weal
After scoring six goals last night against Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators, it's fair to say that the Flyers' offense is performing at its highest level of the season. The loss of Sean Couturier will surely make Philadelphia a less formidable team in terms of goal prevention, so maybe it's time to structure a lineup intended to outscore opponents.
Rather than bring Umberger back into the lineup, Hakstol and the Flyers could choose to dress Jordan Weal in Couturier's place. And instead of elevating Laughton to the role of 2C, Gagner could be given the role, as he was against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Assuming the Giroux and Bellemare lines stay intact, that would leave Philadelphia with Gagner, Weal, Raffl, Schenn, Read and Laughton in the middle-six. The hope would be that a second line centered by Gagner and a third line by Laughton could score enough goals to counteract any weakness in puck possession during Couturier's absence.
Split up Giroux and Voracek
It's tough to consider the option of breaking up the Voracek-Giroux-Simmonds line, which has worked so well in recent weeks. But both of the Flyers' stars have the ability to carry a line to respectability from a puck possession standpoint. As a result, using Voracek to elevate the second line could be a possibility.
Neither Gagner or Laughton have proven to be possession drivers in their careers with Philadelphia, and both are weak defensively. But give either of them Jakub Voracek, an elite possession player and maybe the team's best forward in terms of zone exits? Maybe that would be enough to keep them out of their own end and on the attack the majority of the time.
If Voracek stays with Giroux at even strength, the top line will be expected to generate the vast majority of the team's scoring for the next month. A split runs the risk of weakening the team's offensive capabilities, but could also give the Flyers two lines that are able to keep their heads above water from a play driving perspective.
There really aren't any good options
If you've read these sections and come away underwhelmed at each of the options, that's totally understandable. This speaks to the importance of a player like Sean Couturier, who is able to provide both scoring ability and stellar two-way play to the second line, regardless of his teammates.
In his absence, the Flyers won't be capable of fully replacing Couturier. A Read-Raffl-Schenn line may provide decent puck possession, but lacks real scoring punch. Laughton could flounder in a larger role, as he hasn't looked particularly impressive this season in a minimal one. Using Gagner at 2C would replace the team's most defensively responsible forward with maybe its most inconsistent one. And splitting up the top line would risk destroying their elite players' regaining scoring touch.
What is certain is that the road the playoffs for the Philadelphia Flyers just became significantly more difficult with today's news. Now, it's up to Dave Hakstol and his players to show that they can overcome Sean Couturier's month-long absence.