Monday, September 15, 2014

Philadelphia Flyers 2014-15 Season Preview: Offense

Welcome to The Phanatic's official 2014-15 hockey season kickoff.

Over the next four weeks, Rob Riches, late of Flyerdelphia, will provide a preview of four different facets of the Philadelphia Flyers on-ice product for the upcoming campaign.

First up, a look at the club's strongest point and their least-maligned area of expertise. 

With training camp set to begin Friday at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J., the Flyers offense, led by captain and Hart Trophy finalist Claude Giroux, looks mostly similar to last year’s unit.

Substitute Scott Hartnell for R.J. Umberger thanks to a trade with Columbus and factor out Tye McGinn (dealt to San Jose), and the Orange and Black are left with a familiar offense which didn't find its bearings until the latter half of the schedule. While boasting seven different players with at least 20 goals and nine hitting double digits is something to crow about, this year's model of the front lines have to figure out how to fire on a more consistent basis in the regular season and playoffs.

Giroux can't be burdened with the responsibility of being the team leader and its chief point producer every time he steps onto the ice. It's simply unrealistic for the 26-year-old to have to come up with the following to rally his charges more than a select few times:

Last season, the Flyers recorded 2.84 goals per game -- good enough for second-most in the Metropolitan Divison to Pittsburgh's 249, tied for fourth in the conference along with Ottawa and eighth in the entire NHL. That’s a stark improvement for a team that mustered a paltry 1.82 goals per game and was chasing some dubious franchise records after the season’s first month.

Giroux’s team-leading 86 points -- third-most in the NHL behind Ryan Getzlaf and eventual Hart recipient Sidney Crosby -- were instrumental, as the Flyers returned to the Stanley Cup playoffs after a year’s hiatus. Of course, he went the first 15 games of the season without finding the back of the net, but redeemed himself thereafter with 79 points over his last 67 games. Of 233 goals scored by the Flyers last year through regulation and overtime, Giroux, line mate Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds were responsible for 82 of them -- or a whopping 35.2 percent.

Despite their top-10 offense, the Flyers were left with a unique dilemma that seems to plague them in stretches -- that of employing too many centers. Certainly, it's not the worst problem for a club to have, but it posed further lineup difficulties for coach Craig Berube, who had to learn on the fly after taking over for Peter Laviolette and who enters his first training camp at the helm.

The Flyers’ logjam at center is well-documented, and it leaves some players having to play out of position (similar to last season, when Berube was forced to play Vincent Lecavalier at right wing, which partially contributed to his struggles all season). As of right now, it is still the case after neither Paul Holmgren nor Ron Hextall could work out an offseason deal to alleviate the issue. With that in mind, here’s how the forward lines may look going into camp:

Brayden Schenn –  Claude Giroux – Jakub Voracek
R.J. Umberger –  Vincent Lecavalier – Jason Akeson
Wayne Simmonds – Sean Couturier – Matt Read
Michael Raffl – Scott Laughton – Zac Rinaldo
Jay Rosehill

The biggest outlier is Schenn, penciled in at left wing on the top line. Schenn has developed well enough as a center over the past three seasons, but a shift to the left side, alongside an upper-echelon pivot, could elevate his game. At 23 years old, it makes more sense shifting a younger player to the wing than it did for 33-year-old Lecavalier last season.

An alternate top-line possibility is substituting Schenn and Simmonds. Younger, more disciplined and possessing a more consistent work and scoring ethic, Simmonds could very well replace Hartnell as the team’s top-line power forward, and with 29, 15 and 28 goals scored in his three seasons in the Orange and Black, his offensive production could grow alongside puck movers like Giroux and Voracek. 

Meanwhile, Schenn could ably join Couturier and Read on the third, shut-down defensive line in place of Steve Downie, who will ply his trade in Pittsburgh. His offensive numbers would dip, but he would earn tough minutes against opposing scoring lines. Not factored into the equation (yet) is newcomer Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, signed in June. 

Bellemare, 29, has spent the past five seasons with SkellefteĆ„ AIK in the Swedish Hockey League. In 52 games last year, he recorded 20 goals and 35 points, and was the team’s fourth leading scorer. He also added nine goals and 14 points in 14 playoff games, as the club won its second-consecutive Le Mat Trophy. Bellemare will, at the very least, earn a thorough look during training camp, and could even get a look at top-line time in the event of injury.

Brought in to replace Danny Briere as second-line center, Lecavalier's first year in Philadelphia had many opining that his acquisition was one for the front office to regret. Though he eventually registered 20 goals and 37 points in 69 games, he struggled at center and wing, was slowed by a mid-season back injury and eventually was relegated to the fourth line for stretches late in the regular season. Hextall tried and failed to move him prior to June's draft and the free agency period, but still has a chance to deal him once the season starts up. 

Heading into his 16th NHL season and with a $4.5 million cap hit, the Flyers' options to move him are limited, and would surely have to eat some of his $22.5 million salary to do so. If Bellemare -- very much an unknown in North America -- impresses in the preseason, it may very well quicken the pace of Hextall's actions to relocate the 2004 Stanley Cup winner. 

Laughton is a favorite to earn the fourth-line center spot. At 20 years of age and with 11 games of professional experience (five with Philly, six with the Phantoms), Laughton needs time to develop in the NHL, and fourth-line minutes are a terrific way for him to do so although it may cause some to question the usage of a former first-round selection. Last season, his fourth with the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals, Laughton registered a staggering 40 goals and 87 points in 54 games. While those numbers stand in boldface as a 31-point improvement from 2012-13, it’s worth noting that he was 19 and playing in a young league. 

He'll also have to improve in the defensive zone as the loss of Adam Hall means someone has to pick up the slack, particularly in the faceoff circle.

Having served three years in Glens Falls, Akeson is now expected to crack the top-12, after playing all seven playoff games last Spring. He also led the Adirondack Phantoms in scoring last year with 24 goals and 64 points and has a prime chance right from the start to prove he can stick on an NHL roster. Arguably, Akeson’s most notable playoff moment came in Game 1 from an ill-timed high-sticking double minor against Carl Hagelin in that led to two Ranger goals. However, he tied Game 2 as the Flyers went on to even the series, and also scored the Flyers' lone Game 7 tally.

Earlier in the offseason, Hextall established that he wanted to ice a club that was strong up the middle in a similar fashion to the Stanley Cup-contending Flyers for whom he backstopped in the mid-1980s. 

This year’s squad certainly has depth up the middle, as well as the talent to stay in the top 10 in goals scored. Philadelphia hasn't sunk too far below the 3.0 goals-per-game mark since the dark days before the lockout which cancelled the 2004-05 season. Surely, the Flyers won’t be able to get back to the playoffs on offense alone, but they can still remain formidable in the Metropolitan Division.

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