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Line by Line: Examining the forwards

What each line and player brings as a preview to opening night in San Jose

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com

Coming off a season in which the team posted a robust 55 points on home ice but managed just 33 points on the road, the Flyers open the 2017-18 regular season with a four-game road trip that will take the team through San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Nashville. In order to improve on the road while maintaining a strong home record, the Flyers will particularly need to fare better in even strength play. 

How will the team accomplish these goals? Head coach Dave Hakstol aims to ice four improved even strength lines in order to create more complicated matchups for opposing teams. 

While line combinations rarely stay the same throughout the season - even the combos the team featured during the latter portion of training camp could be changed by opening night - the Flyers forward lineup on opening night could look similar to this:

Line 1: Claude Giroux - Sean Couturier - Jakub Voracek

Prior to this year's training camp, Giroux almost exclusively played center for the last seven years. He was originally drafted as a right wing. He'd never played left wing before nor had he often been on the ice as the same time as two-way center Couturier. 

"I didn't really know anything of it. Maybe not [in the preseason finale], but I think the last two games, we had good chances and played well. We're just going to have to keep building. We never really played together, all three of us. It's definitely exciting, though," Giroux said.

Part of the reasoning behind the line experiment is that Couturier has typically been a strong puck-possession player over the course of his NHL career, as well as one who plays strong defense against other teams' top lines. With Couturier centering Giroux and Voracek, the Flyers see potential to spend more time in the offensive zone. On the road last season, opposing teams often tried to go top line vs. top line against the Flyers. Thus, there both potential offensive benefits and defensive advantages to the arrangement if it clicks. 

Specific to Giroux on left wing, the hope that he can create more offense on his off-wing since he works the left half-boards on the Flyers' top power play unit for many years. The preseason was too small of a sampling to get a gauge on the new linemates adaptation. At the very least, trying to stack up Couturier with Giroux and Voracek could be a look the Flyers feature late in games where they are defending a one-goal lead even if Giroux eventually returns to playing the middle as his primary role in five-on-five situations.

Line 2: Jordan Weal - Nolan Patrick - Wayne Simmonds

Over the latter part of last season, Hakstol liked what he saw from a combination that had Weal on left wing, Valtteri Filppula at center and Simmonds on the right side. While that trio may eventually be reunited, it appears that highly touted rookie center Patrick will get the first crack. He and Weal worked several well-crafted give-and-go plays during training camp although neither player was able to pot a goal during the exhibition season. 

"I think when I get the first [goal], they will come," Patrick said. "It's a tough thing for me I always kind of start the year slow on the goals so hopefully I can get a bounce and get the first one out of the way. My main focus isn't on scoring. I'm just trying to hold onto pucks, make plays and be a good defensive player, too."

Patrick succeeded in the latter realms during camp. He showed high-end playmaking potential and ice vision while playing responsible two-way hockey. The 19-year-old relishes the potential of his line with the crafty Weal and reigning Bobby Clarke Trophy winner Simmonds (who is coming off back-to-back 30-goal seasons).

Line 3: Dale Weise - Valtteri Filppula - Travis Konecny

It remains to be seen if this trio can establish chemistry with one another at five-on-five but there is positional fluidity within the trio as well as other options that can be explored with different players. The Flyers are looking for Konecny to expand upon a promising rookie year. Filppula is good at getting the puck to linemates, and the hope is that he and Konecny will read well off one another to help put the latter in advantageous scoring areas.  

Filppula gets maligned by stat devotees who highly value even strength shot attempt differentials, but is coming off a season in which he scored a combined 35 even strength points (12g-23a) between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Flyers. Both Hakstol and Hextall felt that, beyond his eight even strength points as a Flyer, Filppula had the effect of helping to balance and deepen the collective forward lines late last season.

While certainly not solely attributable to Filppula's addition, the bottom line was that the Flyers outscored opponents by a 43-29 margin in even-strength situations after his acquisition after having been outscored by a 127-88 ratio before his arrival from Tampa Bay. 

After signing with the Flyers as a free agent last summer, Weise struggled for much of his first season as a Flyer. He came on late in the season on a line with Couturier and Schenn. Weise's role on this line will be to forecheck aggressively and crash the net for some loose pucks or tap-in opportunities. 

Line 4: Taylor Leier - Scott Laughton - Michael Raffl, Jori Lehtera & Matt Read

An all-new look on the fourth line (replacing the departed duo of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde), the work of Leier, Laughton and Raffl was one of the Flyers' brightest spots during the preseason. The trio showed speed, tenacity in all three zones and the ability to put the other lines in a more advantageous position for their next shift. They also scored several goals. 

As regular linemates during their time with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Leier and Laughton are familiar with working together in various manpower situations. Both appear to be playing with a much higher degree of self-confidence and aggressiveness than during previous NHL stints with the Flyers. The bulked-up Raffl, who has always been a strong forechecker and two-way forward, meshed well with the others throughout preseason practices and games.

Lehtera offers size, puck-shielding and playmaking ability as well as the versatility to either center or play wing. At different junctures of his NHL career with St. Louis, Lehtera was used on both ends of special teams although he did not see much penalty killing time last season.

Now entering his seventh season with the Flyers, Read's role has become one of a plug-and-play utility player whose primary role when in the lineup is to play responsible two-way hockey and contribute on the penalty kills. In the past, he was a two-time 20-plus goal scorer and has reached double-digit goals in five of his six career seasons to date. 

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