Off The Post: The Flyers’ Forward Line Puzzle (Part 1: The Scoring Lines)
By Anthony Mingioni (@AnthonyMingioni)
As preseason draws to a close, Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette continues to mix and match his forward lines to uncover which units, to use his words, “click.”
The team’s myriad of player acquisitions and departures has drastically changed their fundamental structure. In all, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren has given his head coach a number of new elements.
Some of these elements have serious potential and like any chemistry experiment, if they are grouped with the proper partners in order to maximize the gifts that they possess, then the desired results will occur.
It is the very definition of what a head coach does: put his players in position to be successful.
With that in mind, Off The Post will take a look at the potential forward line combinations and based on those alignments, break down their strengths and weaknesses.
For this edition, we’ll break down the two primary scoring lines. We’ve included projected third line right wing Wayne Simmonds, whose preseason work is likely going to get him consideration to play in Philadelphia’s top six groupings.
We’ll start with the possible partners for first line center Claude Giroux.
Scoring Line 1
-James van Riemsdyk-Giroux-Jaromir Jagr-
This has been acknowledged as the most likely first unit. It’s a line that presents matchup problems for opponents in terms of the sheer size of the wings.
Combine Jagr’s ability to barrel in from the half wall with JvR’s howitzer shot, it’s a frightening combination. The concern for this unit will be their two way play. Jagr is not known for his defensive prowess and van Riemsdyk is a work in progress.
-van Riemsdyk-Giroux- Jakub Voracek-
In some ways, this unit may be even better because it could unlock the potentials of all three hockey players and create a line that could be a monster group like (dare we say it?) The Legion of Doom. All three players are at a similar age and they fit roles together perfectly.
Over the long haul, Giroux and Voracek could be the best fit for van Riemsdyk in terms helping him climb to the rarified air of the 40 to 50 goal plateau. Like Mikael Renberg, Voracek could serve the role of grinder and distributor of the line, digging pucks out and finding Giroux for multiple scoring options.
Add their combined superior speed and the wingers’ advanced size and it will be very tempting for Laviolette to put this unit together and let them grow.
-van Riemsdyk-Giroux-Wayne Simmonds-
Simmonds ability to be a crease disturber frees up van Riemsdyk to play in space more. The plan for this unit would be for Giroux to find van Riemsdyk for a one timer, preferably in the slot area, that Simmonds can either screen or deflect home. This line, while it sacrifices the potential game changing abilty of Jagr, may have a better defensive posture.
This is a well balanced unit that makes good use of Giroux and Simmonds’ two-way ability, which allows Jagr to play his game relatively unfettered. Simmonds’ role at the net allows this unit to crash the crease with utter abandon if necessary. It also gives Giroux the option to shoot more if he’s so inclined.
The pairing of the Kladno kids has the potential for great fireworks. In this unit, on the initial glance, Voracek takes the role of JvR in generating the primary shot after getting the puck from Giroux, which may not work to his strengths. Voracek’s strength is that he likes to work off the walls and dish the puck, therefore Jagr would have to take on the JvR role which he is more than capable of doing. But again, this line’s defensive prowess beyond its’ center is somewhat questionable.
Hartnell’s game thrives on getting to the dirty areas of the ice, so he’ll have to get himself in front on the net to screen goaltenders while Giroux and Jagr do their thing. Hartnell’s defensive game is solid, but nothing special. His role would be similar to Simmonds and will be physical in front. That would be a plus for that grouping, but his skating speed could be a liability.
This unit you are far more likely to see on a power play. While Briere has been officially shifted back to the pivot, there are circumstances that Laviolette will move him to the wing. The ridiculous speed of Giroux and Briere would be a nightmare for most teams to handle and with the later’s ability down low, he can easily get in position to dart in when Jagr emerges with the puck along the boards and looks to dish.
Speeds kills and if that’s what the coach is looking for, this formation could be seen a lot. Call it “The Crazy Eights, Part Deux.”
Scoring Line 2
And with the mention of Briere, let’s take a look at some his potential dance partners.
The main thing to keep in mind with him is his style of play from the center spot is different than his former housemate. He won’t carry the puck like Giroux will, but will instead dart in and out, working with his wingers primarily in a give and go fashion.
Last Sunday, Briere discussed Laviolette’s system with me in regards to fore checking.
He gives similar responsibilities to the center and the right wing, just that the center has more options as to where to go with the puck. Just something to keep in mind as we look a look at the second scoring line combinations.
The preeminent favorite coming out of camp, this unit basically puts the Czech forward in the same role as former Flyer Ville Leino. It will be incumbent on him to drive in on the forecheck, work along the boards, and try to find a cutting in Briere who will look to fire if he has an opening, with Hartnell sliding into position to bang up against the opposing defensemen to deflect or bang home a rebound. Seems like a solid concept, and the unit is balanced. If anything, Voracek’s size gives an additional dimension to the unit.
But there are some defensive concerns as the unit, with Voracek at minus 3 last year compared to Leino’s plus 14, though the teams they played for is definitely a mitigating circumstance. Briere has also shed reputation as a defensive liability as a plus 20 rating last season seems to indicate an evolution in his game.
Some serious physicality with this unit as Briere is known to have a fairly robust game on the fore check, never hesitating to finish his check. Sometimes he goes over the line, but the Flyers are willing to take the good with the bad there.
Jagr’s bruising play off the board may actually work at a quicker rate with his extensive experience versus the younger Voracek, but like his younger counterpart, he has to prove that he won’t be a liability defensively.
Based on his preseason play: so far, so good.
Hmm…if you’re looking for a younger power winger with superior range around the net, Simmonds could easily replace Hartnell on this unit. In addition, Simmonds’ speed away from the net could open up more options for Briere and Jagr if they’re together. However this puts the playmaking onus on the 39 year old Jagr, who could wear down in that role as the season progresses.
This combination will put more playmaking onus on either the younger van Riemsdyk or the elder Jagr. It’s a decision that Laviolette would have to choose. In short, you want van Riemsdyk’s shot to be available, so you’re expecting Jagr to do the grind it out work to find his linemates when he emerges with the puck. It’s the same scenario as the previous combination. While Giroux’s style of game may work with them, Briere’s game might not.
Not a lot of passing going on this unit. All three will looking to shoot so based on their styles, so while the speed element looks good, it’s another case where the center’s game might not work as seamlessly with them. If van Riemsdyk is willing to be the playmaker, then this unit can work.
Voracek moves to the off wing here and that may or may not work. Jagr becomes the power forward who will crash the net in search of the rebound, while Briere does his thing. Again it depends on how well #9 handles moving to the other side.
This is a fascinating unit and one that might be the second best combination in the bunch. Styles of play would see Simmonds proclivities for in the crease work get potentially rewarded, but again it comes down to where Laviolette would line up Voracek. If Simmonds shifts to the left, then Voracek is in more of a comfort zone to make plays.
From a defensive and physical intimidation standpoint, this line has the ability to work to a point but it will cause all three players to play out of their comfort zones. Simmonds will likely have to play away from the net, which he can do but it takes away from his primary strength. In addition, there is no puck distributor on this unit, so it will fall to Briere to look to carry the puck more, which is not his strong suit.
In conclusion, Laviolette does have some fascinating decisions to make about which players will consistent be in his first two forward line groupings. He is known to shake up the mix in mid game if things are going well, so one might see any number of these combinations at any given time.
Having the talent on your roster is one thing, but putting them in the best places to succeed is nothing short of an art form.
If Laviolette plays his cards right and barring a large number of injuries to his top six forward unit, he might have a masterpiece on his hands.
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