Flyers searching for consistency out of their fourth line
A couple different line combinations haven’t yielded great returns for the Philadelphia coaching staff.
Pressed up tight against the NHL’s hard — well until the Stanley Cup playoffs anyways — salary cap, Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher went to the bargain bin to fill out his fourth line.
And while the returns on other bargain bin shopping items have been strong, with Derick Brassard and Keith Yandle providing surplus value on their minuscule contracts thus far, the same results haven’t been felt on a bargain fourth line that has struggled to find consistency through four games.
Nate Thompson was brought in to serve as either the fourth line center as a veteran presence or even a healthy scratch, but has stuck in the lineup with little other options available to coach in Alain Vigneault. The 37-year-old has centered the again-struggling Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who has yet to recapture his 2019-20 success after regressing a season ago. He’s scoreless in four games, has continued to follow the same penalty taking penchant as he did a year ago, and is averaging less than 10 minutes per night of ice time. As for the other wing spot, it’s been split between recent waiver claim Zack MacEwen — a castoff from the Vancouver Canucks organization — and Max Willman, who was playing in the ECHL less than two seasons ago after being dumped by the Buffalo Sabres.
Part of the reason that Vigneault and the Flyers are left with a dearth of options on the fourth line is that their top three lines are deep and, well, expensive. Fletcher knew that his fourth line assembly wouldn’t exactly be lighting the world on fire, but the hope was for a level of consistency night-in and night-out to support the the rest of the forward groups.
In other words: just don’t get crushed in the 10-14 minutes you’re on the ice.
So far, that hasn’t been the case as all four players to see time on the fourth line have underperformed. The combination of Thompson and Aube-Kubel has been outshot, out-chanced, and outscored at 5-on-5 per NaturalStatTrick. Adding in MacEwen hasn’t helped as his energy hasn’t translated to evening out possession numbers or shot attempts as the trio is rolling a Corsi-For of 39% at 5-on-5, while also being out-chanced and outscored per NaturalStatTrick.
Willman’s two-game trial was actually the best of the combinations thus far, with the trio breaking even essentially in the shot attempt battle at 5-on-5 while winning the scoring chances battle by a 5-4 margin. They only got about 15 minutes at 5-on-5 together before Willman was jettisoned for the larger MacEwen, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the Flyers go back to Willman if MacEwen continues failing to impress.
Of course there’s also the coaching aspect of the fourth line struggles to keep in mind. Vigneault has never been shy about deploying his grind lines against opposing teams’ heavy hitters, and has been notorious for going to his fourth liners directly following a goal against — not ideal when opposing team smells blood in the water. That usage should tick down as Kevin Hayes’ return is around six games away and lends more options for the Flyers’ bench boss in a shutdown situation.
More potential good news is that Wade Allison is a few weeks away from a potential return and could either jump in to provide a spark to the fourth line or the return of Hayes bumps down a veteran to help provide a boost. We’ve also seen that Aube-Kubel has the potential to be an effective player in the role, having scored 15 points in 36 games just two years ago. The former second-round pick appeared to turn a corner that season before getting away from his tenacious forechecking last season in favor of an uptick in holding and stick infraction penalties. Perhaps Aube-Kubel will find that game again and help drive play more from the fourth line rather than having play driven to them.
Going into the season expecting the world out of an essentially patchwork fourth line wasn’t fair, but they need to not be actively getting killed at even strength if the Flyers want to take full advantage of their strong three lines ahead of them.
We’ll see if that group can find more consistently here as the Flyers embark on their four-game road trip out West — and if they can’t Fletcher will need to get creative in order to find better results.