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Meltzer's Line Play: Second Line

A look at who could start the season on the second line and why

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer /

No team with playoff aspirations in today's NHL can get by with being only a one-line club from an offensive productivity standpoint. The top clubs have three lines that can score with some regularity and even most wildcard-level teams have at least two.

There is more needed, however, than just offensive production: Buy-in to playing team defense is needed from the forwards as well as the defensemen. Goals against average is a pretty telling predictor of a team's playoff chances.

Last season, each and every one of the 10 bottom-ranked teams in terms of goals against average missed the playoffs. The Flyers ranked 29th. Conversely, 16 of the teams in the top 20 in GAA made the playoffs. Only one team ranked in the top 11 (Arizona) failed to qualify for the postseason.

The Flyers new coaching staff -- new head coach Alain Vigneault, new assistants Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo plus holdover assistant Ian Laperriere -- will place a huge emphasis on improving the team GAA to at least the middle of the pack. Correspondingly, they hope channel opposing team errors into scoring more goals than last season.  

The Flyers ranked 18th in the NHL in goal output last season. An increase of five goals over 82 games would have placed the Flyers in the NHL's top 13 last season. If league-wide scoring remains similar to last season, that it a very accomplishable goal. To get into the top 10, it would take an increase of 17 goals, which would require significantly more consistency both at even strength and on the power play.

As we assemble second-line and third-line combinations to supplement the top line trio of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny, there will be an emphasis on two-way forwards as well as scoring depth.

What can Flyers fans reasonably expect from Hayes, who pre-empted his impending unrestricted free agency to sign a seven-year contract ($7.14 million AAV) with Philadelphia? Here are four things to watch:

1) Two-way play. Over the course of his five seasons in the NHL, Hayes has become a responsible two-way player who can be tabbed for usage in a variety of different situations, including penalty killing duties.

2) Even-strength productivity. Hayes has posted 110 even-strength points over the last three regular seasons; comparable production to the likes of Nazem Kadri (111), Jordan Eberle (111), Elias Lindholm (111), Ryan O'Reilly (115) and Patrice Bergeron (117) over the same span. It is also worth noting that roughly 60 percent of Hayes' five-on-five shifts started in the defensive zone during his latter three seasons in New York playing under Alain Vigneault.

3) Above-average passer. Although he was a big goal scorer as a winger in his senior season at Boston College, Hayes has always been much more of a pass-first player at the NHL level. The majority of his points come via assists. Depending on his level of power play usage and offensive zone starts at five-on-five, Hayes is capable of matching his career-high 54 points from last season.

4) Reluctant shooter. Hayes has only scored 20+ goals once in his career to date but this is largely due to modest shot volumes rather than an inability to finish (12.9 percent shooting percentage) when he does elect to shoot. If he elected to shoot at a higher volume -- for example, Bergeron has 83 goals (an average 27.7) over the last three seasons with an 11.3 percent shooting percentage -- Hayes' goal totals would be comparable to many of the better two-way centers in the league.

It will be quite interesting come opening night to see how Lindblom, in his second full NHL campaign, is deployed by new head coach Alain Vigneault and forwards/power-play coach Michel Therrien. 

Will he, indeed, play on Hayes' line? 

Will he play on the third line with Patrick (with whom Lindblom showed hints of good chemistry, both during the 2017-18 stretch drive and late-October and early November of this past season)? 

Will Lindblom be part of Mike Yeo's penalty killing rotation? Will he get time on the second power play unit? 

The second line left wing spot may very well go to James van Riemsdyk, who has scored a combined 63 goals over the last two seasons. However, the pre-camp choice here is Lindblom. This is for three reasons:

1) Lindblom's well-rounded 200-foot game, along with Hayes', is a solid foundation for the line to be able to be effective even on nights where they are unable to score. Jakub Voracek is a player who is very aggressive in making plays with the puck, which inherently entails some risk. Having Lindblom and Hayes on his line provides more of a defensive safety valve than a JVR-Hayes-Voracek line might. On a team where substantially cutting down on GAA and improving team defense as five-man units are major keys to success, this is something worth considering on the second line.

2) Lindblom had good attack zone chemistry with Voracek last season when they played together regularly in the second half. While Sean Couturier was the backbone of the line, his two wingers played well off one another as well. The line was very good at winning puck battles and keeping play alive in the offensive zone. A Lindblom-Hayes-Voracek line could do the same. 

3) Spreading the wealth offensively: Putting JVR on a line with Patrick boosts the goal scoring potential of that line in potentially favorable matchups with Couturier's and Hayes' lines seeing more minutes against other teams' top lines. JVR is a little more offensively dynamic than Lindblom, who is more of a supporting offensive player at this still-early stage of his career. 

Hayes and Voracek are both primarily playmaking-oriented attackers. This could benefit Lindblom, whose bread-and-butter apart from his board work is getting to the "greasy" areas around the net. Although Lindblom is far from a pure speedster, he's a smart player with emerging quickness at the NHL level. 

Pop quiz: Which NHL player has produced more points over the past three seasons, Jakub Voracek or St. Louis Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko? The answer is Voracek (212 points in 242 games, compared to Tarasenko's 209 points in 238 games). Voracek ranks 23rd in forward scoring in the NHL over the past three seasons, also placing him ahead of the likes of Jamie Benn (201), Joe Pavelski (198) and Sebastian Aho (197).

Voracek is now 30 years old. What you see is what you get with him: An excellent playmaking winger who is physically strong and hard to separate from the puck. He'll take risks to make plays with the puck. Many pay off. A fair share do not. 

Voracek is not a great pure shooter but can score when taking the puck to the net himself and has scored 20 to 23 goals in six of the last seven years. He's an emotional player who wears his heart on his sleeve.

Despite the Flyers collectively having a significant down year on the power play last season and Voracek only sporadically being reunited with Giroux and Couturier as a trio, the Czech veteran produced a 66-point season.

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