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How does Wayne Simmonds follow up his team-MVP season?

In 2016-17, Wayne Simmonds was one of the only bright spots on an otherwise-dismal Flyers season. What will he do this time around?

Kate Frese / SB Nation

As Flyers fans, we tend to find a lot to disagree about. Ask five different orange-and-black-donned die-hards about what Claude Giroux has left in him, or just how useful Sean Couturier is, or whether the Flyers mishandled their goaltending situation with Steve Mason, or how good a job Dave Hakstol is doing, or even how good Andrew MacDonald really is, and you may get four or five different answers. It’s a crazy time to be a Flyers fan, and there are a lot of ways to look at where the team is now.

But there’s one thing that pretty much everyone tends to agree upon, and after the 2016-17 season they’re agreeing on it as much as ever: Wayne Simmonds is awesome.

The guy who was, at the time, the undercard in the Mike Richards trade has become not only the star of that deal for the Flyers but one of the stars of the team. Simmonds has emerged as a 30-goal scorer, one of the league’s most unique (and effective) power-play players, and he’s also a gritty, hard-nosed player who can both figuratively and quite literally punch an opponent in the face. There is extremely little not to love about Wayne Simmonds.

And this past year was arguably his best year as a Flyer. Not only was Simmonds named to his first All-Star game — where he won MVP honors, by the way — he was given the Bobby Clarke Trophy, awarded each year to the Flyers’ MVP. It was a well-deserved honor for Simmonds in a year where he potted 31 goals and was one of the only bright spots on an otherwise-dreary Flyers team.

What’s in store for Simmonds now? Is there any reason to expect anything but more of the same? Could we see even more from the Wayne Train this year? And are there some difficult conversations on the horizon about his long-term future with the Flyers?

As the 2017-18 Flyers season draws near, we’ll be breaking down everyone we expect to make the roster, from the long-time vets to the new guys. For each player, we’ll ask three key questions about their season, and look at what their best- and worst-case scenarios are for the year.

3 Big Questions: Wayne Simmonds

1. Will Simmonds be affected by changes to the top power play?

If you were asked to name one constant from the past six seasons of Flyers hockey, there’s a decent chance the first thing you’d mention would be the power play goal-scoring that Simmonds has provided. Simmonds has lit the lamp on the power play at a rate of 14 goals per 82 games since arriving in Philadelphia six summers ago, and his 75 total power play goals in that time lead the NHL among mere human beings (which is to say they are second in the NHL during that time, trailing only Alexander Ovechkin).

As some pieces on the Flyers’ top power play have changed, Simmonds and Claude Giroux have more or less been there from start to finish. The team’s power play success starts and ends with those two (with due respect to Jakub Voracek, who joined them on the top unit a year later after Jaromir Jagr’s departure), and given that Simmonds — who basically never leaves a six-foot radius around the goal crease during the power play — is the one who usually ends up scoring the goals, he’s the one who tends to get the most recognition for his power play work.

But another key part of the Flyers’ top power play is no longer with the team, and though the machine has continued to hum along when spare parts have been changed out in the past, it’s worth asking what kind of effect Brayden Schenn had on Simmonds’ PP successes in the three years since he was placed in the high slot on the top power play.

At a high level, we can try and answer that question by taking a quick look at who’s been helping Wayne Simmonds score goals on the power play lately. Six players have registered an assist on a Wayne Simmonds power play goal in the last two seasons, and here they are:

Assists on Wayne Simmonds 2016-17 PP Goals

Player Assists A1 A2
Player Assists A1 A2
Shayne Gostisbehere 16 9 7
Claude Giroux 16 6 10
Jakub Voracek 13 8 5
Brayden Schenn 8 6 2
Mark Streit 2 0 2
Ivan Provorov 2 0 2

As one would expect, the four names that have almost exclusively played on the Flyers’ top PP during these two seasons have tallied almost all of these assists. And of those four mainstays — Giroux, Schenn, Voracek, and Shayne Gostisbehere — Schenn’s played by far the least active role in directly helping Wayne run up the power play tallies.

So case closed, right? Schenn didn’t play that big of a role in Simmonds’ successes and Simmonds should be fine without him?

Hopefully that’s the case, but it may not be quite that simple. There are, of course, ways to help a power play score without actually partaking in the scoring itself. For one, Schenn has always been good at creating havoc in that high-slot area while the players around him got the puck to the net. Simmonds is always right in front of the net ready to pounce on any Gostisbehere bombs from the point, but a long screen from Schenn — something he won’t get a point for on the scoresheet — can certainly make a difference there.

More importantly, though, Schenn opened up space for Simmonds because, in time, he developed into not just a cog in the machine but a legitimate weapon on the power play. That was particularly true this past season, as Charlie O’Connor wrote here in his season review for Schenn back in May:

The power play prowess appears real. Not only did Schenn score more goals than ever before, he used a wide variety of methods to do so, as opposed to years past when he was more dependent upon the work of others to earn his points. Schenn didn’t luck into 17 goals with the man advantage — he earned them due to becoming a more versatile, less predictable player in the situation.

Every team’s penalty kill is going to have one or two defenders down low, close to the net. Why would they not just always key in on Simmonds, well-established as one of the league’s biggest power play threats? Because Schenn wouldn’t let them. It’s a lot easier for Simmonds to win a battle in front of the net when the Flyers have another threat in the slot to keep the PKing team’s other defenseman honest, locking Simmonds into a 1-on-1 situation that he’s got a good shot at winning. With Schenn gone, we don’t yet know if whoever is going to take over Schenn’s spot there will pose as big of a threat, and if he doesn’t, that could serve as a detriment to Simmonds’ goal-scoring potential.

Even so, though, the smart money is on Simmonds continuing to produce at a high level on the man-advantage this year. Other pieces in this puzzle have changed during his time here — Scott Hartnell was in that slot before Schenn was, for instance — and the Wayne Train has continued to chug along with minimal technical difficulties. It’d be surprising if Simmonds wasn’t once again an excellent power play goal-scorer this year.

2. How much can the Flyers put on Simmonds’ plate?

Again, the one lock with Simmonds year in and year out is that he’s going to spend a lot of time on the top power play unit, because he’s good there. Since coming to Philadelphia, Simmonds has averaged 3:19 per game on the power play, and we can probably expect something in that vicinity this season. (All stats in this article courtesy of Natural Stat Trick unless noted otherwise.)

How the Flyers will handle Simmonds’ remaining minutes in a game is something we can’t be quite sure about yet, for two reasons. One, Simmonds’ per-game minutes at even strength have increased ever-so-slightly during his time with the team, from the 12-13 range in his first few seasons up closer to 14 in his last few. And second, the Flyers added a new responsibility to Simmonds’ job description this past season, one which led to his easily playing the most minutes he’s ever played per-game in an NHL season: killing penalties.

Wayne Simmonds TOI Per Game

2011-12 11.93 3.25 0.37 0.35 15.90
2012-13 12.08 3.15 0.07 0.33 15.63
2013-14 13.05 3.25 0.05 0.42 16.77
2014-15 13.63 3.07 0.00 0.10 16.80
2015-16 13.57 3.50 0.05 0.12 17.23
2016-17 13.73 3.58 1.50 0.12 18.93

The Flyers’ decision to put Simmonds on their “second” penalty kill unit with Sean Couturier was somewhat unexpected. Simmonds was already serving important roles at even strength and on the power play, and he hadn’t really held a regular role on a PK in any season since arriving in the NHL.

But it’s a move that worked out: Simmonds and Couturier were by far the team’s more impressive penalty killing forward duo, despite playing around a minute less per game on the PK than Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde did. Even acknowledging the fact that, as the top PK duo, Bellemare and VandeVelde likely spent more time against other team’s top units than Simmonds and Couturier did, the latter simply was much better by almost every on-ice metric available — shot attempts allowed, shots on goal, goals, and even goals-for percentage, since Simmonds proved to be a decent counter-threat on short-handed goals (he tallied two of them on the season).

Now, Bellemare is in Vegas and VandeVelde is not with the Flyers, and you’d have to think the team would like to have at least some year-over-year continuity in its penalty kill. As such, it seems likely that the team will try Simmonds in a similar capacity again this coming season. Heck, they’d probably be fairly well-off to just make the Simmonds-Couturier duo their top penalty killing combination.

But here’s the question: do you want Simmonds to handle what are effectively star forward-level minutes? Simmonds was already 35th in the NHL among forwards in ice time per game this past season, clocking in for 18:58 per game. If nothing else changes — in other words, if Simmonds continues to handle second-line minutes at even strength and top PP minutes — a bump from second-penalty-kill ice time to top-penalty-kill ice time could have him in the 20 minutes per game range. Only 11 NHL forwards played that much ice time per game last year, and the list of guys that did is nearly a veritable list of star forwards.

Is that too much to ask from a very good player who may not quite be that good? If so, the Flyers are going to have to find some places to give Simmonds a breather where they may not want to. And given Simmonds’ successes on the power play and at penalty kill, the answer may be at even strength — where, as Charlie wrote in his season review on the man himself, Simmonds struggled this past season:

Still, the fact that his 5v5 performance did decline cannot be ignored, especially since he is right around the age where forwards begin to move out of their statistical primes. His scoring rate dropped into career-low territory, and his play-driving metrics were uniformly poor for the first time as a Flyer. Simmonds would likely be the first person to admit that, as good as he was on the PP, the team needs more from him at even strength.

Charlie goes on in that piece to give several reasons why he’s not overly concerned about Simmonds at 5-on-5 long-term. Chief among them:

  • Simmonds had two very strong 5-on-5 seasons prior to this past one.
  • He was victim to some bad percentages in 2016-17 that dragged down his scoring.
  • His manually-tracked metrics, such as those measuring neutral zone performance, were basically in line with those of his strong 2015-16 season.
  • His poor play-driving metrics may have been in large part due to the team’s willingness to repeatedly trot out a Simmonds-Brayden Schenn duo that was just not up to par this season, and both players fared much better when playing apart from one another.

That’s all well and good, and the idea that we don’t have to be worried about one of this team’s most important players is a calming one.

But without actually testing it or providing any real evidence for it, let’s posit one more theory for Simmonds’ 2016-17 5-on-5 struggles: could he have just been tired? As you can see from the table above, Simmonds played nearly two minutes more per game this year than he has in any other season, which is a pretty substantial jump for a player to make at all, let alone nine years into an NHL career. And the vast majority of that difference was in newfound penalty kill time — time that’s physically demanding and exhausting for any forward. Could those extra few shifts a game on the penalty kill have eaten into Simmonds’ productivity at even strength?

Again, this probably isn’t something I can prove to be the case without digging into it a lot further, and I’m already about 2,000 words deep into this article so please forgive me if I save that project for a rainy day. But if the Flyers plan on using Simmonds as their power play anchor again this year (they do) and want to give him steady penalty kill time again (they should), maybe the solution is to scale his minutes at even-strength back to third-line levels. The Flyers look like they’re going to have as much forward depth this season as they’ve had in a long time. They should consider using some of it to free up Wayne Simmonds to be at full strength for the things he does best: playing on special teams.

3. Is Simmonds playing for his future in the organization this season?

And now, we come to what — purely speaking as a fan — may be one of the toughest questions we’ll ask about a player all preseason.

Simmonds is awesome. There’s so much to love about what he brings to this team. And the six-year contract extension that Paul Holmgren gave him after his first full season in Philadelphia was probably one of the best contracts Holmgren ever signed, locking in a 30-goal scorer for less than $4 million a year through essentially his entire prime.

The problem that the Flyers face now is that that bargain contract ends in two years. In 2019-20, the first year of his presumable next contract, Simmonds will be a 31-year old, very much not in his prime any more. And the Flyers figure to have a very tough decision in front of them between now and then regarding what to do with the guy who’s become a favorite of basically anyone who follows this team in any capacity.

There’s no need to mince words here: unless his play totally and unexpectedly goes off the rails in the next two seasons (train jokes!), Simmonds is going to get paid. After playing on a below-market deal for most of his 20s, Simmonds will almost certainly look for as much money as he can get, and you’d have to think he can get quite a lot.

Comparable-to-inferior goal-scorers have received big-time paychecks in free agency over the past couple of offseasons. Andrew Ladd, Loui Eriksson, Milan Lucic, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Kyle Okposo; just within the past two summers, all of those guys have received contracts for at least five years in length worth between $5.5 and $6 million per season against the salary cap. And while most of those players were younger than Simmonds will be (all but Backes were between 28 and 30 when they signed their deals), none of them are as good at scoring goals as he is, either.

A deal like the ones those players have signed is probably a reasonable expectation if you’re trying to mentally project Simmonds’ next contract. If that’s the reality of the situation — if it takes, say, a 6 year, $35 million contract to keep Simmonds around — is that a contract the Flyers are going to be willing to give? Particuarly knowing that they’ll already have two big-dollar contracts for forwards in their early 30s running through at least 2022, a time around which some of these young guys that we all have such high hopes for are going to need big contracts of their own?

Simmonds is a great player and person, and he’s probably one of the most beloved athletes in the city right now. In a perfect world, he’d be in orange and black for the rest of his career, and seeing him somewhere else would sting. But in this actual world that we actually live in, the way teams get in trouble is by giving out massive contracts with sentimental value that thank a player for what he’s done in the past, rather than ones that pay a player for what he’ll do over the course of the contract. The Flyers have to think long and hard about whether they want to do that with Simmonds, who plays a grinding, physical style that will likely not lend itself well to older age.

Ron Hextall, who can’t re-sign Simmonds until July 1 of next summer, surely has at least an idea of the maximum he’d be willing to pay to keep Simmonds around. He’ll have that number in mind all season long, and as this year progresses it may change a bit in one direction or the other. But if he at any point before July 1 gets the feeling that there’s no real chance he’ll be able to retain Simmonds at a desirable amount, does he look to the phones to try and deal him, knowing he could get a ton in a trade for a 30-goal scorer on an outstanding cap hit?

It’s a tough situation, and one that may depend on several moving parts. If Simmonds continues to play well but the Flyers as a whole struggle again, it becomes easier to sell off Simmonds, really hitting the reset button on the team in the process. On the other hand, if the Flyers make real noise this season and hit 2018-19 looking like a potential Stanley Cup contender, does Hextall have any choice but to ride out Wayne’s last year on his contract and risk losing him for nothing?

There are so many possible ways the Wayne Simmonds saga could go within the next two years. How the winger plays this season could start to get us closer to an answer.

Worst-case scenario

While Simmonds still is a weapon on the power play, without Schenn around to draw attention away from him down low his production goes from league-leading to just solid. And elsewhere, Simmonds doesn’t replicate his outstanding work on the penalty kill from last season, while it turns out the concerns from last season about his 5-on-5 play are warranted. Simmonds (assuming health) ends up in the 45-50 point range on the year — undoubtedly still good for a top-6 winger, but just not quite where he’s been for most of the rest of his Flyers career. And with his drop-off evident, even more questions pop up about whether the Flyers should keep Simmonds around when his contract expires, all while it becomes clear that the best chance for the Flyers to get significant value for him was the previous summer.

Best-case scenario

After seeing Wayne succeed on the penalty kill last year, the Flyers end up giving Simmonds top PK minutes to go along with his current responsibilities at even strength and on the power play. Simmonds responds by doing well at all three, showing that while his 5-on-5 struggles from last season were a fluke, his great work on the penalty kill was not. Simmonds bounces back to post strong second-line scoring numbers at 5-on-5 and is once again one of the league’s best power play goal-scorers, and is the all-around best forward on the Flyers for a second year in a row. As the Flyers themselves take a big step forward and end up back in the playoffs, talk of trading Simmonds more or less shuts down as the Flyers head into the offseason knowing they’ll need him around next season to make a serious playoff run.

Previously in Philadelphia Flyers 2017-18 Season Previews:

What can the Flyers expect from Valtteri Filppula?

How does Radko Gudas fit on a changing Flyers blue line?

Is a bounce-back actually in store for Claude Giroux this season?

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