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Philadelphia Flyers 2017-18 Midterm Report Cards: Centers

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Sean Couturier is having a career year. What about the other three pivots that the Flyers have been running this season?

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Nothing but respect for MY first-line center.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This past Saturday’s game against St. Louis marked the halfway point of the Flyers’ 2017-18 campaign, and today marks the first day of their five-day bye week, during which the Flyers will be mostly off the ice. The time off, plus the point in the season that we’re at, gives us a chance to look back and reflect on what we’ve liked and disliked about the first half of this season.

So over the next five days, we’ll be going through every relevant member of the team’s roster and staff, broken down into five categories. Today, we’ll look at the team’s four primary centers this season. Tomorrow, we’ll look at its nine wingers. On Wednesday, we’ll look at its seven defensemen. On Thursday, we’ll look at the Flyers’ two goalies. And on Friday, we’ll talk through what the coaching staff and front office have done.

For each person we discuss, we’ll try to summarize the story of their season so far in one sentence, and then we’ll discuss why that’s the way it is. Then, for completeness’ sake, we’ll try to make a counterpoint to the narrative so far, and then discuss it a bit. Finally, we’ll give each player a letter grade based on their performance on the season, and we’ll put a poll in place so you can do the same. (Final say on the grades given in the piece is mine, but all have been discussed with the BSH staff and their input has factored into them.)

Got it? Good. Let’s get started with the Flyers’ four centers this season. Players listed below are in no particular order other than the ones I wrote them down in listed in order based on average ice time per game. (Stats below are from hockey-reference.com, NHL.com, corsica.hockey, and hockeyviz.com.)


Sean Couturier

Overall Numbers: 23 G, 19 A in 42 GP; 21:16 TOI per game
5-on-5 On-Ice Performance: 54.8% Corsi-For, 56.3% Expected Goals For, 2.34 Points per 60

In short: There is probably no bigger success story for the 2017-18 Philadelphia Flyers at the halfway mark than that of Sean Couturier.

How so? After four seasons of playing mostly middle-6 minutes with bottom-6 linemates, followed by two seasons of second-line minutes that were largely successful at 5-on-5 but totally ineffective on the power play and spotted by injuries, Couturier has finally had a season where everything is working out for him. The decision to put him as the team’s top center — with Claude Giroux as his primary winger — has worked out resoundingly, as Couturier set a career-high in single-season points this past weekend. His struggles on the power play from the past few seasons are a distant memory, as the top unit has not missed a beat with him in Brayden Schenn’s high-slot spot. And his on-ice possession numbers, which have been routinely excellent over the past two seasons, are fantastic once again.

If there’s something to dislike about what Sean Couturier’s done this season, we’re yet to find it. Couturier is probably a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate this season, and he’s on the short list of candidates for team MVP of the first half.

Yeah, but: Tough to really pull a ‘but’ together here, honestly, but we’ll try: Couturier’s goal-scoring rate — he’s shooting 18 percent despite being a career 10.7 percent shooter — is likely to cool down a bit in the second half of the season. While some of that jump is a product of better circumstances, such as getting time with Giroux on the top line and top power play unit, players without a long track record of being high-end snipers don’t maintain 18 percent conversion rates long-term.

Still, though ... Whether any regression is in store from next Saturday onward, we’re giving out grades for what’s actually happened, and the first half of Sean Couturier’s season has been damn near spotless. Plus, even if Couturier’s shooting percentage does fall back a bit, it’s worth noting how much more he’s shooting the puck than he ever was before — after averaging 1.79 shots per game through the first six seasons of his career, he’s tallied just over three shots on goal per game this season. Not only is Couturier doing all of the things that people who have always been fans of his thought that he could do, he’s just taken big steps forward in ways that few probably could have seen coming.

Grade: A+. As the summer came to a close, there was a lot of talk about the top of the Flyers’ center lineup long-term — namely, how much more time Claude Giroux had there, and how long it would take Nolan Patrick to really establish himself there. Right now, though, the guy who seems most likely to be the Flyers’ top-line center into the next decade is Couturier.

Poll

How would you grade Sean Couturier’s play in the first half of the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 85%
    A+
    (1654 votes)
  • 11%
    A
    (228 votes)
  • 1%
    A-
    (32 votes)
  • 0%
    B+
    (8 votes)
  • 0%
    B
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    B-
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    C+
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    C
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    C-
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    D+
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    D-
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (14 votes)
1939 votes total Vote Now

Valtteri Filppula

Overall Numbers: 9 G, 8 A in 42 GP; 17:22 TOI per game
5-on-5 On-Ice Performance: 45.7% Corsi-For, 47.9% Expected Goals For, 0.87 Points per 60

In short: An up-and-down season has seen Valtteri Filppula perform well at times, but at this point his performance suggests that too much is probably being asked of him.

How so? Filppula, acquired more or less for free at last year’s trade deadline from a Tampa team that was looking to shed his $5 million cap hit for this season, entered this season looking like someone whose fit with this team may be awkward when Nolan Patrick showed up. But it’s been Filppula who seems to have pushed others around/out of the depth chart, as he’s clearly someone the Flyers trust. Filppula is fifth among regular Flyers forwards in ice-time per game, and he’s had some stints on both the power play and the penalty kill. At 5-on-5, he’s had chances to work with some good linemates, too — he’s most commonly shared the ice with (in order) Michael Raffl, Wayne Simmonds, Travis Konecny, and Jakub Voracek (via).

Yet so far, both the underlying process and the results have been a bit lacking for Filppula. The veteran center is still able to make some nice plays with the puck on his stick and has plus vision on the ice, but it’s clear that he’s a step or two behind the play at this point in his career, and it’s showing in his numbers. His 17 points in 42 games would mark the the lowest point-per-game rate he’s held in a single season in a decade. His 5-on-5 scoring rate per 60 minutes, via Corsica, is third-lowest on the team among forwards, just barely ahead of fourth-liner Taylor Leier and offensive non-factor Jori Lehtera. And the ice has been tilted towards the Flyers’ end when he’s on the ice — only Nolan Patrick and Dale Weise are getting a worse share of on-ice shot attempts while on the ice than Filppula. Filppula has been given good minutes and has had chances to play with good players, but his results look more like those of the guys at the bottom of the roster at this point.

Yeah, but: You could argue that he’s received some fairly tough minutes this season — by opponents’ shot share, only Giroux and Couturier have faced average tougher competition that Filppula has. Plus, if you want to drop him down the lineup, who are you going to give his minutes to? Patrick hasn’t earned second-line minutes (more on that in a moment), the team seems very invested in Scott Laughton as a third- or fourth-line center (more on that in a few moments, too), and there’s no obvious replacement at center up in Allentown. Someone’s gotta play that role.

Still, though ... “That role” is one that has no shortage of opportunity, as he’s played with good players and been given chances to succeed in the offensive zone that he just hasn’t taken advantage of. Perhaps the Flyers have noticed this, as his ice time has dropped a bit from the high levels it was at in December on the whole thanks in part to his recently having been dropped from the power play. But this team clearly still seems to see Filppula as its fifth-most-useful forward right now, and there’s little evidence that he’s actually that. He’s a 33-year old who’s not under contract after this season. If the Flyers can’t get more out of him than this, they should not be afraid to reduce his role down the stretch, maybe significantly.

Grade: C-. Expectations for Filppula varied widely from the moment he became a Flyer last spring, and it was tough to say what he’d do this year, but what we’ve received from him at this point is probably pretty close to the realistic worst-case scenario. He hasn’t been a disaster, but it’s very difficult to make the argument that he should have as prominent of a role as he does.

Poll

How would you grade Valtteri Filppula’s play in the first half of the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A+
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    A
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    A-
    (8 votes)
  • 1%
    B+
    (17 votes)
  • 5%
    B
    (76 votes)
  • 10%
    B-
    (155 votes)
  • 11%
    C+
    (166 votes)
  • 31%
    C
    (471 votes)
  • 18%
    C-
    (274 votes)
  • 12%
    D+
    (189 votes)
  • 6%
    D
    (103 votes)
  • 0%
    D-
    (11 votes)
  • 1%
    F
    (30 votes)
1506 votes total Vote Now

Nolan Patrick

Overall Numbers: 2 G, 6 A in 33 GP; 12:06 TOI per game
5-on-5 On-Ice Performance: 43.5% Corsi-For, 44.7% Expected Goals For, 1.09 Points per 60

In short: So far, Nolan Patrick’s first NHL season probably hasn’t gone the way anyone was hoping for.

How so? Patrick has played 33 games so far in his NHL career, with a nine-game pause due to injury after he was boarded against Anaheim in October and (likely) suffered a concussion that kept him out for three weeks. In that time, there have undeniably been flashes of brilliance and moments where you see the guy that the Flyers thought they were getting when Patrick was chosen second overall last summer. You can see the workings of a high-end forward prospect at times.

Unfortunately, those flashes are the best we’ve seen from Patrick so far, and the overall picture has been bleak. Patrick has two goals and six assists in his 33 games, and that scoring rate is more befitting of a third/fourth-line tweener than someone who you’re hoping will be your first-line center before too long. His on-ice metrics have been routinely bad; no Flyer forward gets outshot at 5-on-5 more than Patrick does, and if you adjust for shot quality (by way of Expected Goals) he only outperforms Dale Weise and Jori Lehtera. While no one’s arguing (well, should be arguing) that Patrick is a draft bust and that the Flyers should give up on him, his play in the here-and-now hasn’t been good enough for the Flyers, who were surely hoping for more out of him when they made the decision to keep him around.

Yeah, but: He’s 19. Expecting a teenager that wasn’t billed as a generational prospect to come in and dominate was unrealistic. Plus, he’s still recovering from multiple surgeries in the year or so prior to this season (remember how long it took Giroux and Ghost to recover from core injuries?) and was concussed earlier in the season. Getting back to game speed, let alone getting to NHL speed, is tough after that. He just needs time. Look at how much better he’s been in the past couple of weeks. AND, also, his most common linemate has been Dale Weise. I mean, come on.

Still, though ... The Weise complaint is legit, and if you’re one for optimism, it’s fair to note that Patrick’s play-driving numbers have taken a significant uptick since the Christmas break, at which point he stopped playing on a line with Weise. That’s acknowledged and hopefully a sign of good things to come.

I’m not sure how I feel about the injury argument. For one, Patrick himself addressed his core injury after his surgery this past summer and seemed to imply that he was fully healed, and he didn’t quite have the same surgery that Giroux and Ghost both had, so assuming that’s significantly holding him back may not be reasonable. As for the concussion, he’s been back for nearly two months since that happened, so if that’s still affecting him then he shouldn’t be on the ice. With all of that said, I am not in the Flyers’ training room or in Nolan Patrick’s mind, so for me to speculate on how much this is all affecting him at this point may be a fool’s errand.

As for the fact that he’s 19: sure. It’s tough to expect a lot from guys like this. But aren’t we supposed to be expecting a lot from the No. 2 pick in the draft? Even right away?

Let’s take a quick look. In the past decade, five forwards were selected No. 2 overall and went on to play in the NHL in the next season. Let’s compare their performance in their first 33 games to that of Nolan Patrick, and then for good measure we’ll add in what their year-end scoring rates were.

No. 2 Overall Forwards In Draft +1 Seasons

Player Year G in First 33 A in First 33 P in First 33 Final G/GP Final A/GP Final P/GP
Player Year G in First 33 A in First 33 P in First 33 Final G/GP Final A/GP Final P/GP
Tyler Seguin 2010-11 5 6 11 0.15 0.15 0.3
Gabriel Landeskog 2011-12 5 9 14 0.27 0.37 0.63
Aleksander Barkov 2013-14 5 7 12 0.15 0.3 0.44
Jack Eichel 2015-16 9 6 15 0.3 0.4 0.69
Patrik Laine 2016-17 17 9 26 0.49 0.38 0.88
Nolan Patrick 2017-18 2 6 8 ? ? ?

Even if you think it’s not fair to compare Patrick — who was always a high-end prospect but wasn’t quite considered a ‘can’t-miss’ talent — to generational-type guys like Eichel and Laine, a brief glance at his numbers shows that he’s lagging a bit behind where other recent No. 2 picks were at this point. Fans who’ve wanted more out of Patrick at this point are reasonable to do so.

Of course, you could argue that the first three guys on that list above also didn’t get out to the starts they were looking, and they’ve all managed to put together strong NHL careers. Seguin took the leap in the postseason that followed his rookie year and never looked back, Landeskog improved drastically in the second half of his season, and Barkov took a massive step forward in his third season.

Which is to say that the book isn’t written on Patrick’s career, and no one should realistically be arguing that it has been. Getting him going in the second half is one of the most important things that the Flyers have to do. Some form of tangible progress would go a long way toward assuaging the concerns of fans who think that the Flyers might not have found a long-term centerpiece down the middle last June.

With all of that said, though, we’re grading based on what’s actually happened and not on what might happen in the future, so...

Grade: D. Even if the expectation was that Patrick would just need to be the third-line center to start the season, he hasn’t produced or defended like one in his brief NHL tenure. Again, no one is saying that this means Patrick is a bust or will never amount to anything, but even if we completely ignore the developmental aspect of this, the Flyers simply need more from the center position than Patrick is giving them right now. Hopefully what he’s done since the Christmas break is a sign of things to come.

Poll

How would you grade Nolan Patrick’s play in the first half of the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A+
    (8 votes)
  • 0%
    A
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    A-
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    B+
    (3 votes)
  • 2%
    B
    (44 votes)
  • 2%
    B-
    (41 votes)
  • 6%
    C+
    (107 votes)
  • 23%
    C
    (355 votes)
  • 21%
    C-
    (329 votes)
  • 12%
    D+
    (188 votes)
  • 12%
    D
    (195 votes)
  • 9%
    D-
    (139 votes)
  • 7%
    F
    (118 votes)
1530 votes total Vote Now

Scott Laughton

Overall Numbers: 7 G, 6 A in 42 GP; 11:57 TOI per game
5-on-5 On-Ice Performance: 52.2% Corsi-For, 53.2% Expected Goals For, 1.44 Points per 60

In short: Scott Laughton has pretty much been what the Flyers wanted him to be this season.

How so? After a year spent mostly in the minors, the narrative around Scott Laughton entering this season was a clear one: the Flyers have been grooming him to be a third- or fourth-line center that can play solid defensive hockey and add some offense here and there. It was a bit of a reset for Laughton, a first-round center who came to the pros with high expectations, and with the depth the Flyers figured to have down the middle it seemed unlikely that he’d have much of a way to really establish himself.

Yet here we are, halfway through the season, and simply by doing more or less exactly what the Flyers have asked of him, Scott Laughton has been the second-most effective center on the team. While much of his success came early in the season on a fourth line alongside Michael Raffl and Taylor Leier that was legitimately one of the best defensive lines in hockey for a while, Laughton’s been a rock for the Flyers on the fourth line all season long. He’s taken regular shifts on the penalty kill as well, further showing the team’s trust in his progress defensively. His scoring numbers, while not eye-popping, are perfectly respectable for a bottom-6 player who doesn’t get power play time, and his play-driving numbers stack up favorably to those of pretty much any forward on the team that isn’t a redhead playing on the top line. Pretty much any time Laughton isn’t on the ice with Jori Lehtera, he’s producing positive outcomes, and those differences at the margins have helped the Flyers.

Yeah, but: If Laughton’s been so great, why hasn’t he been given a chance to move up in the lineup? You just spent 1600 words saying how ineffective Filppula and Patrick have been this year. Shouldn’t he get some of those minutes if he’s been good? Also, if he’s so great defensively, why does the penalty kill stink?

Still, though ... The penalty kill question is its own bugaboo, one that certainly can’t be pinned all on Laughton just because he’s handled a lot of minutes there. With that said, his on-ice shot numbers at 4-on-5 compare well to most of the Flyers’ other semi-regular penalty-killing forwards, so I’m not concerned that he’s having an adverse impact there — I’d argue the contrary, if anything.

As for why the Flyers haven’t given him more responsibility, it’s tough to say. The most likely option — a potentially unsatisfying one, but one that makes sense regardless — is that the Flyers spent all of last season wiring Laughton to believe that he’s a bottom-6, defensively-oriented center, and that they don’t want him to forget all of that by just giving him second-line minutes with the likes of Voracek and Simmonds as soon as the opportunity’s there.

Still, that explanation seems flimsy if only because the mantra here has always been that you earn your ice time, and it’s tough to argue that either of the other two centers in the lineup have earned ice time over Laughton. I wouldn’t at all be opposed to giving Laughton some of Filppula’s ice time, or giving him nominal second-line minutes until we really know that Patrick has turned a corner, just to see how he fares there. But if the coaching staff has decided that Laughton’s future here never really involves playing more than third-line minutes, I get it.

Grade: B. Laughton isn’t taking the hockey world by storm or anything, and it’d be disingenuous for us to act like he’s been an incredible player. But he’s been very effective in his role, and in him, the Flyers look like they’ve got the above-average bottom-6 center that they were hoping they’d get coming into the season.

Poll

How would you grade Scott Laughton’s play in the first half of the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A+
    (10 votes)
  • 5%
    A
    (75 votes)
  • 10%
    A-
    (139 votes)
  • 31%
    B+
    (421 votes)
  • 29%
    B
    (391 votes)
  • 12%
    B-
    (162 votes)
  • 6%
    C+
    (83 votes)
  • 2%
    C
    (39 votes)
  • 0%
    C-
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    D+
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (6 votes)
  • 0%
    D-
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    F
    (8 votes)
1347 votes total Vote Now