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Flyers’ second-line left wing battle will go a long way in determining playoff lineup

Alain Vigneault has a few decisions to make for the Flyers’ playoff lineup, which all starts with the second-line left wing.

Detroit Red Wings v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The Philadelphia Flyers have a wealth of forward depth going into the playoffs, and there are several combinations that would work for them. It’s just a matter of figuring out which four lines give the Flyers the best chance to win hockey games – and the Stanley Cup.

The Flyers’ top line is pretty well set in stone. The trio of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Jakub Voracek was the team’s most-used line in the regular season, and they have not been separated since the NHL restart. They have practiced together and were a line in scrimmages and the exhibition game against the Penguins.

Then things get tricky.

We know that Kevin Hayes is going to be the second-line center, with Travis Konecny on the right wing in all likelihood. However, there is a decision to be made at the second-line left wing position, and it’s a big one.

Deciding who is on the second line with Hayes and Konecny will go a long way in determining the rest of the lineup. The player that gets thrust into the spotlight here is Scott Laughton. Both Laughton and Joel Farabee could fit on the second line, but the Flyers may choose to use Laughton at center instead of wing.

Laughton found his game in the AHL as a center, and worked his way back into the good graces of the fanbase and organization as the fourth-line center. This season, Laughton proved that he can be more than that. He shuffled up and down the lineup at both center and wing.

Along with the top line, we’ve locked in Hayes and Konecny on the second line. Laughton, however, is the key in determining the rest of the lineup.

Alain Vigneault has a “choose your own adventure” of sorts here with Laughton.

2nd line w/ Laughton at wing: Laughton - Hayes - Konecny
2nd line w/ Laughton at center: Farabee - Hayes - Konecny

Laughton has spent a lot of time with Hayes and Konecny on the second line. That trio has chemistry on and off the ice, and not only are they hard to play against due to their abilities, but they get under their opponents’ skin as well. They were the Flyers’ best line on Tuesday against the Penguins, with Hayes and Laughton both scoring goals.

The Laughton - Hayes - Konecny line played 59 minutes at 5-on-5 play during the regular season, with a Corsi-For percentage of 46.09%, Expected Goals-For percentage of 53.07%, and a goal differential of 4-1.

If Laughton is at center, not wing, it will be Joel Farabee on the second line. Farabee started summer camp on the second line with Hayes and Konecny, but was then shifted down to the fourth line in order to give Laughton a chance. Unfortunately for Farabee – but perhaps fortunately for the Flyers –, that line is clicking.

Farabee played 100 minutes with Hayes and Konecny at 5-on-5 play during the regular season, with a 48.21 CF%, 51.07 xGF%, and goal differential of 3-3.

The underlying stats are similar, and the Laughton - Hayes - Konecny line has the potential to be dangerous, but playing Laughton on the wing may bring problems further down in the lineup.

3rd line w/ Laughton at wing: van Riemsdyk - Grant - Pitlick
3rd line w/ Laughton at center: van Riemsdyk - Laughton - Pitlick

If Laughton is at wing, Farabee could just slide down onto the third line, but that is where James van Riemsdyk seems to fit best. In fact, JVR could even be considered for a spot in the top six, but he’s mostly been in a third-line role. He is able to put the puck in the back of the net and that is a scoring threat that is important on a checking line.

Derek Grant was brought in at the trade deadline to add some veteran depth to the bottom six. He played well in his seven games before the season was suspended, and the Flyers want to keep him at center. Ideally, he would be the fourth-line center, but he has played well enough to the point that a third-line role is fine for Grant.

Throughout his short time in Philadelphia, Grant has mostly played with the same right winger: Tyler Pitlick. Grant played over 69 of his 80 minutes at 5-on-5 play with Pitlick, per Natural Stat Trick.

Pitlick has grown into his role on the Flyers after being somewhat of an afterthought a year ago heading into training camp. He has proven to be a solid bottom-six winger that can kill penalties and chip in offensively.

The JVR - Grant - Pitlick line would certainly hold its own as a third line, but replacing Grant with Laughton could only improve it. That would mean that Farabee is on the second line, with Laughton on the third line.

In my opinion, that gives the Flyers a much better top three lines.

Farabee has gone through his struggles, but even if he isn’t playing up to his potential, Hayes and Konecny are strong enough two-way players to carry that line. And if it gets that bad, someone in the bottom six could always slide up to take Farabee’s place.

If the Farabee - Hayes - Konecny line does play well, that almost gives the Flyers two second lines. The trio of JVR, Laughton, and Pitlick should be able to play well in all situations, and has two players (JVR and Laughton) that could very easily be in the top six.

Let’s move on to the fourth line options depending on Laughton’s position.

4th line w/ Laughton at wing: Raffl - Thompson - Aube-Kubel/Farabee
4th line w/ Laughton at center: Raffl - Grant - Aube-Kubel

Not only would Laughton at center improve the middle six, it would improve the fourth line as well.

With Laughton at center, the Flyers have Couturier, Hayes, Laughton, and Grant down the middle. Grant is an acceptable third-line center, but he’s a great guy to have on the fourth line. A fourth line of Raffl, Connor Bunnaman, and Aube-Kubel played well together, so I have to imagine Grant could fit there nicely.

Three of Farabee, Michael Raffl, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and Nate Thompson would ultimately end up as the fourth line if Laughton is the second-line left wing. Ideally, it would be a line with Farabee and Aube-Kubel at wing and Raffl at center, but the Austrian forward hasn’t seen any time at center during camp.

The three first names – Farabee, Raffl, and Aube-Kubel – should all be in the lineup, but Thompson’s experience and dominance in the faceoff circle make you think twice about scratching him.

Farabee is in a bit of a bind. He is only a winger at this stage in his career, so he gets thrown into the competition with several other players for playing time as a bottom-six winger. And unfortunately for him, playing on the second line for some time did not allow him to gain chemistry on the third or fourth line. Or rather, the third and fourth lines were developing chemistry throughout practices and scrimmages.

Aube-Kubel, like Pitlick in a way, has developed into a gritty, speedy, two-way forward for the Flyers in the bottom six. He was really playing well in February during the Flyers’ hot stretch as the depth players stepped up when called upon to keep the win streak alive. Keeping him out of the lineup seems impossible.

In their later practices of summer camp, these four were rotating on the fourth line. That continued into the exhibition game with Farabee and NAK. Per Natural Stat Trick, Nate Thompson and Michael Raffl played 3:12 with Farabee, and 2:48 with Aube-Kubel. Neither combination played particularly well, especially when matched up against the Penguins’ top lines.

Here are how the lineup could look with Laughton at either center or wing:

Potential lineup

Laughton at wing Laughton at center
Laughton at wing Laughton at center
Giroux - Couturier - Voracek Giroux - Couturier - Voracek
Laughton - Hayes - Konecny Farabee - Hayes - Konecny
van Riemsdyk - Grant - Pitlick van Riemsdyk - Laughton - Pitlick
Raffl - Thompson - NAK/Farabee Raffl - Grant - Aube-Kubel

The four names to watch are in bold: Farabee, Laughton, Grant, and Thompson.

If Laughton is at wing, and the Flyers don’t want to use Raffl at center, a winger deserving of playing time will have to be scratched. Farabee, Aube-Kubel, and even Raffl would be options. All three of those forwards played minutes in the top six this season, while Thompson is strictly a fourth-line center.

Thompson has the traits that you want in the playoffs. He plays a gritty game, has playoff experience, can kill penalties, and is dominant in the faceoff circle. However, Farabee, Aube-Kubel, and Raffl have better all-around games, and they already have guys that can win faceoffs and kill penalties.

The Flyers lead the league in faceoff percentage and could use Couturier, Hayes, Laughton, Raffl, Pitlick, Giroux, and Grant to kill penalties. Hell, even Farabee saw some time on the penalty kill this season. If the Flyers need a faceoff win, they can go to Couturier (who led the league with a 59.6 FO%), Giroux (59.0 FO%), or Grant (51.6 FO%).

I am in the “Laughton at center” camp, but it will be up to Vigneault and Co. to decide that. Where Laughton will play isn’t set in stone, and that is something that is still being talked about.

No matter how things shake out, competition on the roster for spots in the lineup is always a good thing. The Flyers’ depth for the playoffs is one of their strengths, and it presents Vigneault with an interesting conundrum.

There are multiple ways that he could draw up the lineup – and we haven’t even touched on the defense situation – and have the Flyers look like a Stanley Cup-caliber team. They have enough forwards on the playoff roster to make five lines, with Morgan Frost, Connor Bunnaman, and the unlucky forward that’s the odd-man out of the top four lines.

Vigneault has been up front about using the round-robin games to help determine the lineup for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. It’ll be interesting to see the Flyers’ lineup for their first round-robin game on Sunday against the Bruins.