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Meltzer's Line Play: The Fourth Line

Series continues with who fans could see on the fourth line

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

Today's fourth lines, at least ideally, consist of two-way players who individually would not be out of place on the third line and have the versatility to otherwise be plugged in different roles around the lineup. 

If one of the top prospects in the Flyers' farm system, such as Joel Farabee or Morgan Frost, were to show himself ready to occupy a spot in the top nine of the lineup -- or the Flyers were to otherwise acquire a top-nine regular winger -- the team could have one if it's best fourth lines in many years. All three among center/winger Scott Laughton, Michael Raffl and the currently injured (left wrist surgery) Tyler Pitlick have played higher in NHL lineups at junctures of their career, and had some success.

However, with Pitlick out for the next four weeks and with a third line wing spot unsettled heading into camp, it could be awhile until head coach Alain Vigneault may get to try out a line of Laughton centering Raffl and Pitlick. Barring a rookie winning a job or the Flyers making a trade, one of either Laughton or Raffl may default to the open third line wing spot with the other on the fourth line. 

Here's a look at how the fourth line may look when the season opens.

CENTER: SCOTT LAUGHTON
In the interest of having maximum depth down the middle -- a lineup of Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, Nolan Patrick and Laughton at center is, at least on paper, pretty formidable -- Laughton will center the fourth line in our sample lineup. Without much fanfare, Laughton had the best all-around season of his NHL career in 2018-19. He dressed in all 82 games; the durable forward has only missed one game over the past two seasons. He logged a career-high average 14:51 of ice time, recorded career highs of 12 goals and 32 points even while starting 63.7 percent of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone.

Last season, 30 of Laughton's 32 points came at even-strength, with the other two (a pair of assists) coming shorthanded. He won a career-high 54.2 percent of his faceoffs in 2018-19. 

A regular on the Flyers penalty kill, averaging 2:14 of PK ice time per game, he was a contributor to the team's significant upswing after Thanksgiving. After a disastrous sub-70 percent first quarter that sank the club's full-season statistics, the penalty kill operated at over 80 percent the rest of the way. 

If Vigneault and assistant coach Michel Therrien opt to play Laughton on a third line wing, a rookie such as German Rubtsov or Mikhail Vorobyev could occupy the fourth line pivot. 

Rubtsov, whose two-way upside and versatility to play either center or right wing are among his key assets, has had injury issues in two of the last three seasons. Off a strong start last year in his AHL rookie campaign with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (10 points in 13 games), Vorobyev suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the first period of his 14th game. If he returns to Lehigh Valley rather than opening the season in the NHL, Vorobyev is more likely to see a wider array of situational usage. 

Vorobyev opened last season as the Flyers' third-line center after an excellent training camp but struggled once the season began. It took him awhile to get going again once he was returned to the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms and then he had two prolonged absences due to injury. Vorobyev has good two-way instincts and is an above-average playmaker. 

The primary scouting knock on Vorobyev, going back even before he turned pro in North America and then made public last season by former Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol, is that he sometimes isn't sufficiently engaged in the play and doesn't always move his feet. It's never been a question of talent; it's one of consistently playing with pace and purpose.

Frost was one of the top offensive centers in Canadian junior hockey the past two seasons. However, whenever he arrives in the NHL, it will likely not be as a center or in a fourth-line role. Playing with pace (it's not a question of speed) is the number one trait he will need to demonstrate to graduate to the NHL. 

LEFT WING: ANDY ANDREOFF
On July 1, the Flyers made eight unrestricted free agent signings geared toward bolstering the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms and/or adding depth to the bottom end of the NHL roster. Six of the signings were for two-way contracts. The other two were one-way deals for veteran forward Andy Andreoff and defenseman Andy Welinski. 

Generally speaking, when a free agent is signed to a one-way deal, it's an indication that the organization believes the player has a shot at earning a spot on the NHL roster out of camp. Entering camp, Andreoff will be competing with the likes of rookie hopeful Nicolas Aube-Kubel, off-season signing Kurtis Gabriel and veteran professional tryout (PTO) invite Chris Stewart for the 12th or 13th spot on the NHL depth chart.

Andreoff is being used as a placeholder in this sample lineup, because we're not operating on a pre-camp assumption that a rookie will win a roster spot. Assuming Pitlick's rehab goes smoothly and he gets into game-ready condition quickly, Andreoff would move back down on the depth chart. If a rookie steps up, Andreoff would be a 13th forward candidate or (assuming he clears waivers), start the season in the AHL.

A veteran of 159 NHL regular season games and one playoff game (2016) with the LA Kings, who originally drafted him in the third round (80th overall) of the 2011 NHL Draft, Andreoff spent last season in the AHL with Tampa Bay's farm team in Syracuse (26 goals, 55 points, 150 PIM in 75 games). 

If the 6-foot-1, 198-pound winger is waived, clears and is assigned to the Phantoms, he is capable of playing significantly higher in the AHL lineup than he would for the Flyers. If he makes the NHL squad, his role would be as a north-south fourth-liner who provides a physical presence. 

RIGHT WING: TYLER PITLICK
It may be a stretch to pencil Pitlick into the opening night lineup. He can at least skate regularly during his absence, because the injury was to his wrist. However, it will be a few weeks until he's ready to handle and shoot pucks. Especially in light of the fact that his recent surgery is the second operation on his left wrist in a calendar year, he won't be rushed. 

Once he does return, assuming he stays healthy, Pitlick is a virtual lock to play either a third-line or fourth-line wing spot. He may also see some penalty killing work. If Pitlick is not ready for opening night, a player such as Aube-Kubel (who is no longer waiver exempt) could start the season on the NHL roster and slot into the opening night lineup.

To recap the forwards, here's what I have penciled in:

TOP LINE
Giroux-Couturier-Konecny

SECOND LINE
Lindblom-Hayes-Voracek

THIRD LINE
van Riemsdyk-Patrick-Raffl

FOURTH LINE
Andreoff-Laughton-Pitlick

The "Line Play" Series doesn't end here, on Friday we'll take a look at the defensive pairings that could take shape out of camp. Stay tuned.
 

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