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Forwards’ Versatility a Benefit to Laviolette’s Lineup

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
The roster of a winning hockey team fits together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. If the individual components don’t blend with one another, the result is incomplete and dissatisfying. It has taken several weeks for the Philadelphia Flyers to master the nuances of new head coach Peter Laviolette’s system, but the club now seems to be back on the right track. It has also helped to have a healthy lineup back intact.

One of the more important aspects of the adjustment period the club faced with a new coach was the need for Laviolette to establish line combinations that complemented one another. The current Flyers roster features numerous players with the ability to play both center and wing, but Laviolette had to arrange the components in a way would best enable the team to win battles on the boards, pass the puck effectively, defend well and create scoring opportunities.
Danny Briere has moved to the wing full-time, and is having a productive season under new head coach Peter Laviolette. (Getty Images)

On this season’s team, longtime center Daniel Briere has primarily played right wing. Claude Giroux, a winger throughout his junior career, has played both wing and center. Jeff Carter, although primarily a center, has occasionally played on Mike Richards’ wing when the club has trailed in games. Checking forward Darroll Powe has moved around the lineup as necessary. Ian Laperriere has done so in the past. Likewise, Mika Pyorala has played all three forward positions when he’s been in the lineup. Rookie left winger James van Riemsdyk also has the potential to play center.

Laviolette has gone with a fairly set lineup of late but he sees the positional versatility of his forwards as a tremendous benefit.

“Let’s face it, injuries are going to happen again. There will be times we need to shake things up a bit, and it’s a good thing as a coach to have guys you know can use to plug up different holes,” said Laviolette.

One of the criticisms levied at the team while it was struggling in late November and most of December was that the roster lacked “true” wingers and had too many players out of their natural position, both under Laviolette and former coach John Stevens. But Briere and Simon Gagne disagree with that assessment.

“The biggest thing, I think, was that we were missing a lot of key guys like Simon and Blair [Betts], and we were adjusting to a new style of play after [Laviolette] became the coach,” said Briere. “There’s a little bit of adjustment when you switch positions, but with the way the game is played today, you move around a lot no matter where you line up.

“We have guys who can line up different places, and I think it’s a positive. As long as we win, that’s the main thing. Wherever you play, you have to produce. [Changing positions] is not an excuse.”

Gagne, a center during his junior career and most of his rookie NHL season, has played wing almost exclusively for the last eight-plus seasons. He says that he had to make some initial adjustments in terms of reading the play in front of him and knowing when to peel back to support a defenseman, but the transition overall was not exceptionally difficult for him.
“Maybe if you’re not used to taking faceoffs [as a center], there’s some adjustment. There’s some difference in assignments, but it’s not anything that’s totally unfamiliar,” said Gagne. “The biggest thing is that you get comfortable doing certain things on the ice and then playing in a different spot – or with different linemates – makes you adjust a little. But switching from center to wing isn’t like switching from forward to defense. It’s a pretty quick process.”

For players such as Powe or Pyorala, whose versatility got them into the NHL in the first place, being able to move around the lineup without skipping a beat is part and parcel of making oneself a valuable commodity to an NHL coach.

“I played mostly wing in Finland but I played a lot of center last year in Sweden. It doesn’t matter to me,” said Pyorala. “Maybe there are some players who feel comfortable only on one side or another or they feel comfortable at center. But the players today are so skilled that I think you need to be able to play wherever you are needed by the team.”

In the past, positional switches have caused headaches for coaches. For example, during the 1997-98 season, Rod Brind’Amour was not pleased about being asked to move to left wing after the Flyers acquired Chris Gratton. When the Legion of Doom line was broken up in November and December of that season (John LeClair was placed with Gratton and Brind’Amour with Eric Lindros), Brind’Amour made it clear that he still preferred playing in the middle.

The following season, Brind’Amour returned to center but Gratton was unhappy about being moved to left wing. Unlike Brind’Amour, Gratton had trouble adjusting on the ice. He scored only one goal in 26 games before the club traded him back to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

On today’s roster, no one makes a big deal about being asked to move around the lineup. While the Flyers have an exceptionally high number of players who are comfortable either at center or wing, the need for versatility has become a fact of life throughout the NHL.
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