Analyzing the Flyers’ potential playoff lineup as Training Camp opens

The Flyers will have a few competitive roster battles in Training Camp 2.0.

The Philadelphia Flyers are back in action. Well, at least in Training Camp.

The Orange and Black are gearing up to resume the season with a quick round-robin tournament before diving head-first into the playoffs. They were red-hot prior to the season abruptly ending in March, and they’re looking to get back to that.

The Flyers have built a deep group of forwards and defensemen to help them to their 82 in 69 games, and they’ll have some decisions to make in the lineup once the playoffs start.

Due to the four months off, most teams are on the same level in terms of injuries. There will be a few here and there – and some players who opt out – but teams will be nearly fully healthy heading into the playoffs. That includes the Flyers.

The Flyers used 22 different forwards throughout the season, 18 of which played in 14 or more games (plus Derek Grant and Nate Thompson who played in all eight games after being acquired). There are upwards of 15 or 16 forwards that have a case to be in the lineup for the playoffs. Of course there are about 10 or so locks, but there will be a handful of deserving players battling for two or three roster spots in the bottom six.

The locks for the lineup, assuming they don’t get hurt or opt out, are obvious. Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier, Jake Voracek, Claude Giroux, Kevin Hayes, James van Riemsdyk, and Scott Laughton will play if they are able to, making up seven forwards in the top nine.

Then there is the group of Joel Farabee, Tyler Pitlick, Michael Raffl, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel. Farabee is pretty close to a lock, and the other three should be in the lineup as well. They were all mainstays in the lineup for the majority of the season, especially in the second half.

Nicolas Aube-Kubel emerging as effective bottom-six winger for Flyers

Those two groups make up 11 forwards, leaving just one spot open for a pretty stacked group to compete for.

Morgan Frost is one of the players that has a strong case to make the lineup. He showed flashes of his skill and there’s no doubt he’s talented. However, his two-way game may need some work and the Flyers may opt for a player with more experience.

That’s where Derek Grant and Nate Thompson come in. Both veteran forwards were acquired on deadline day to bolster the bottom six and provide some veteran presence. Grant was impressive in his eight games, putting up five points on the third line. On the other hand, Thompson played more of a checking role on the fourth line with just one assist.

Frost, Grant, and Thompson should be the three main players in competition for a spot in the lineup. All three will undoubtedly make the roster, but only one will be able to crack the lineup.

Beyond those three the Flyers also have Connor Bunnaman, Carsen Twarynski, Andy Andreoff, David Kase, and German Rubtsov who all played at least six games in the NHL this season.

Bunnaman came into his own later in the season, but was replaced in the lineup by Thompson. He’s likely the only one to have a chance at ice time in the playoffs. Twarynski and Andreoff would be fourth-line depth options without the deadline additions, but they will likely be on the outside looking in, Kase showed some flashes, it was only a six-game stint and there are plenty of bodies ahead of him.

One of the benefits of the Flyers’ surge in February was the possibility of being able to experiment with line combinations later in the season. We know to some extent what Grant and Thompson can bring, but is it more than Frost? And where exactly should they be in the lineup?

Film Study: Derek Grant shows what he brings to Flyers in wins against Rangers

If the Flyers had those extra 13 games, perhaps they would be able to mix and match a bit to find their most optimal combinations. Now, they’ll have just a few exhibition games – and round-robin games if they want to experiment – to figure out who can find chemistry to create the best lineup.

At this point, I would like to see Frost or Grant in the lineup, with Thompson as the extra. It may come down to where Frost/Grant would end up playing. If a spot on the third line is available, Frost could have a chance to show off his skill. If it’s on the fourth line, the more well-rounded checking Grant may have the upper hand.

Five of the top-six forwards will almost certainly be Giroux, Couturier, Voracek, Hayes, and Konecny, with either Farabee or van Riemsdyk as the second-line left wing. That would leave either Farabee or JVR on the third line.

The bottom six could see any number of combinations. Laughton, Grant, and Frost can all line up at center or on the wing, and the Flyers have three forwards in Pitlick, Raffl, and Aube-Kubel who could move up and down the bottom six.

No matter how things shake out the Flyers’ forward depth is one of their biggest strengths, and they’ll have plenty of options available to them heading into the playoffs.

The forward puzzle isn’t the only roster battle that you should keep an eye on in Training Camp.

The Flyers now have seven healthy defenseman all vying for a spot in the lineup. Ivan Provorov, Matt Niskanen, and Travis Sanheim will be three of the defensemen in the top four. A healthy Philippe Myers and Justin Braun should fill out two more spots on the blue line. That leaves one spot for Shayne Gostisbehere or Robert Hagg.

Gostisbehere had more than his fair share of troubles this season to say the least. It was his worst season as a pro, with just 12 points (five goals) in 42 games. Whether he was hampered by injuries or simply just took a step back, his game took a hit as a result.

Film Study: Shayne Gostisbehere shows flashes of brilliance in strong performance against Bruins

Gostisbehere did suffer from a knee injury that he eventually had surgery on, but he came back too soon and after playing in just one game he needed more time to recover. Once healthy, he played well enough in the game against the Bruins, but he was only in the lineup due to Myers’ injury. If healthy and able to play up to his level, Gostisbehere can provide speed and offensive ability on the backend. However, he runs the risk of turning the puck over if he tries to do too much.

On the other side of things is Hagg, who had one of his best seasons as a pro. He played in 49 games and was one of the Flyers’ luckiest players with a Goals-For percentage of 62.26 percent. However, he had an Expected Goals-For percentage of just 45.63 percent.

While Gostisbehere’s risks of turnovers are one thing, Hagg has risks of his own as well. The Swedish defenseman is one of the team’s best defensemen at blocking shots and hitting, but he doesn’t do much on the offensive side of things.

Both Gostisbehere and Hagg have their pros and cons, and Vigneault could decide who to play based off of matchups, or based off of how the top two defensive pairs look.

Provorov and Niskanen have formed a formidable top pair for the Flyers, so they should stick together. Sanheim played significant time with both Myers (541 minutes) and Braun (362 minutes) this season. He fared well with both partners, posting a 50.7% xGF with Myers, and a 53.4% xGF with Braun. The pair of Sanheim-Myers played together more in the second half of the season, and that’s when things really clicked for them. If they stick together in the playoffs, it will be Braun with either Gostisbehere or Hagg.

The Sanheim-Myers pair is shutting it down

Braun and Hagg played 256 minutes together with a 45.4% xGF, while Braun and Gostisbehere played 173 minutes together with a 45.6% xGF. Neither of those numbers are very reassuring.

However, if Vigneault plays his six best defensemen, it may be more beneficial to split up Sanheim and Myers. This season, Sanheim and Braun posted a xGF of 53.4% in 362 minutes together, and Gostisbehere and Myers posted a 56% xGF, but in a smaller sample size of 114 minutes.

Sanheim-Braun and Gostisbehere-Myers are pairs that should be able to play in most situations in all three zones. Sanheim would be the more offensive partner while Braun provides stay-at-home ability. Myers has shown plenty of growth as a defender and has the speed to cover for his partner if needed. He did that with Sanheim, and Gostisbehere plays a similar – albeit more aggressive – style.

Potential pairs

Defensive PairTOIxGF%
Provorov - Niskanen93853.3
Sanheim - Braun36253.4
Gostisbehere - Myers11456

We can’t completely count out Hagg, though. He provides a playing style that may bring more value in the playoffs. A physical, grinding style of play can not be discounted, especially in a seven-game series.

If Hagg draws into the lineup instead of Gostisbehere, Sanheim and Myers would likely stick together as a legit all-around second pair, while Hagg and Braun get a more defensive role. Despite their poor underlying numbers, the Hagg-Braun pair allowed just six goals against in 256 minutes together.

There will be a lot on the line during Training Camp and the exhibition games over the next few weeks heading into the round-robin tournament on August 2nd. The Flyers will have to squeeze 15 forwards into 12 spots, and seven defensemen into six spots.