With the surprising news of Samuel Morin heading into camp to compete at left wing rather than defense, it led to a discussion about the Flyers’ seemingly solid depth on the back-end. However, how true is that?
There are of course the big three for the foreseeable future in Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Philippe Myers, as well as returners Justin Braun, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Robert Hagg. Then there is new addition Erik Gustafsson, as well as those pushing to usurp those ahead of them on the depth chart in Mark Friedman and Yegor Zamula. At a glance, the depth does seem to be there. However, there are unanswered questions within the corps.
For one, what version of Gostisbehere will the Flyers be getting? Whether you believe a bounce-back is on the horizon or not, until he shows that he can stick, there remains a scenario where Gostisbehere is once again not viewed as an every-game starter. Friedman and Zamula are both still unproven at the NHL level, with no guarantee that either would be a positive influence with extended play. Then there’s Hagg, who stayed in the lineup more due to Gostisbehere’s play rather than his own and will likely get hit by some statistical regression in 2021, leading to his weaknesses having more of an effect. Suddenly that depth — while present — doesn’t look that sturdy, especially not compared to the depth the Flyers boast at Morin’s new position.
Conversely, the Flyers do have a ton of reliable depth at forward, especially on the left side. Claude Giroux, Oskar Lindblom, James van Riemsdyk, Michael Raffl, and Joel Farabee have all proven themselves as at or above average NHL left wings. It’s tough to imagine Morin outplaying any of the five, let alone two of them, for a spot in the lineup, however, if Alain Vigneault feels the need to add a physical presence, look for Morin to then be inserted. If that specific void is not felt, it’s unlikely that he gets into the lineup over any of them.
That’s not even accounting for Scott Laughton, who played a fair bit of his 2019-20 campaign at left wing, as well as those who will be pushing for regular spots in the same way that Freidman and Zamula are on defense. The organization has a ton of forwards that will be competing for time on one of the team’s bottom two lines, and Morin only adds more competition. Which, to be clear, is not at all a negative. But this change in position isn’t because the Flyers aren’t as deep at wing as they are on defense. As far as depth goes, and true lineup locks, it’s quite the opposite.
If the experiment goes well, great! And if it doesn’t, the good news is that the Flyers under Chuck Fletcher have given us very little reason to worry that they would continue sending Morin out there to no avail. Take Chris Stewart last season, who appeared in just 16 games as it became clear that he was no longer an NHL forward. Some of the decisions made during the playoffs were questionable, but the larger sample size should always be considered more telling. Not only with players’ individual performances (ie. Travis Konecny’s lack of goal-scoring in the postseason following a stellar regular season) but also in evaluating the job of the coaching staff.
So let’s be clear: Morin does have a better chance at playing for the Flyers as a winger, but it’s not because they’re deeper on defense. If they didn’t believe it was necessary to fill what is essentially a “tough guy” role at forward, which they tried to address with Stewart a year ago, he would probably have a slightly better chance at getting playing time as a defenseman. But that’s a role that they believe he can fill, and that’s why he’ll be fighting for a spot up front in the coming weeks. While unconventional, it’s a path to add an element of toughness to the Flyers, something Fletcher has wanted to address, without using more of the cap or another contract slot.