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Meltzer's Line Play: The Top Line

Flyers contributor forms who he thinks will be the top line and why...

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer /

The Flyers coaching staff recently held a multi-day series of meetings to discuss topics that included systems, depth charts and preliminary ideas for line combinations. They will reconvene right after Labor Day to further flesh out the plan for training camp. 

Between the start of camp and opening night in Prague against the Chicago Blackhawks, much could change how in the lineup shapes up to start the season. 

On the positive side, a rookie could step up in camp and the preseason slate of games to claim an NHL roster spot. 

On the negative side, preseason injuries could force alternative constructions of lines.

During the course of his NHL coaching career, Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault has constructed lines both as "duos" (two regular linemates with a rotating third player) and as steady trios. In late July, he said that he was open to either possibility with the Flyers, possibly even mixing-and-matching the two methods depending on the line and how it performed together. 

Both Vigneault and assistant coach Michel Therrien -- who will coach the forwards and the power play -- indicated in July that they are open to doing some experimentation in training camp based on the ideas put forth at the pre-camp coaching meetings. The team's most commonly used combinations from the last season or two may or may not open camp and/or the regular season together.

While an oversimplification, there are two basic philosophies -- beyond duos or trios -- in constructing a team's four lines: stacking the top end or, if there is sufficient depth, trying to spread the wealth as much as possible. 

For purpose of the article series this week, the sample line constructions will be based on two assumptions: 

1) No rookie forward will go into training camp with a guaranteed NHL roster spot. However, if a rookie (such as Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost, German Rubtsov or Nicolas Aube-Kubel) consistently excels both in practice and preseason games, the pre-camp line plan will be be altered to pencil the rookie into the NHL lineup. Otherwise, the youngsters will start the season with the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms. 

2) Owing to the experimental nature of preseason lines, every line in this sample construction is based on a regular pair of linemates with the potential to rotate various third members in search of more fixed trios. Line numbering is based on where its center places on the depth chart.

Keeping these parameters in mind, here is a sample first line that could be together on opening night.

It is almost criminal how underrated Couturier -- who was omitted on NHL Network's list of the top 20 centers in the league and in THN's list of the top 50 players leaguewide -- is around the NHL. Fortunately, the Flyers know what they have in him: a Selke Trophy candidate (finalist in 2017-18) who is coming off back-to-back 30-goal seasons.

Couturier typically logs some of the toughest minutes of any center in the NHL, and is excellent attention-to-details player both with and without the puck. His only weakness is a lack of blazing speed but he compensates through smarts. 

During the second half of last season, Couturier was separated for a time from regular linemate Claude Giroux, with longtime center Giroux moving back into the middle. This was done in order to spread the wealth a bit. Couturier formed a highly effective line with Oskar Lindblom and Jakub Voracek that was essentially the Flyers No. 1 line in terms of consistent productivity while together.

The assumption here is that Giroux and Couturier will be a pre-camp duo; this makes the first-line designation very clear-cut. The two have been outstanding linemates for the bulk of the last two seasons. An alternative construct could be to try out newcomer Kevin Hayes with Giroux and to see if the chemistry that Couturier showed with Lindblom and Voracek as a trio carries over to the start of a new season.

The 31-year-old Flyers captain has posted a combined 187 points over the last two seasons. Moving to left wing in 2017-18 after spending most of his NHL career at center (he started out at right wing in his early days) has prolonged the prime of Giroux's career. 

He moved briefly back to center for a time in the second half of last season but the off-season addition of Hayes should allow Giroux to almost exclusively play left wing. He will, however, continue to take numerous strong-side faceoffs, as he is one of the NHL's most dominant men on the draw. 

Even if Giroux doesn't approach his career-best 34 goals and 102 points from the 2017-18 season, he should once again be at least a point-per-game player. Giroux will take aim at his sixth season with 50 or more helpers. Dating back to the 2009-10 season, Giroux is the NHL's second-leading assist man (508) and fourth-leading point-getter (735). 

Currently an unsigned restricted free agent, the Flyers hope to have Konecny under contract by the start of training camp. Konecny achieved back-to-back campaigns of 24 goals in his second and third seasons in the NHL. The vast majority of his production has come with Couturier and Giroux as his linemates at 5-on-5. Last season, he was also effective in 3-on-3 overtime situations. 

Konecny has the upside to better his 24 goal outputs and points totals of 47 and 49 from the last two seasons. His motor and ability to get under opponents' skin are beneficial to him and the team when channeled in the right direction. He has not been as productive when tried with linemates other than Couturier and Giroux, but the potential is still there for the 22-year-old right wing to thrive as part of other combinations.

There are opportunities for improvement in Konecny's 200-foot game. A little more consistency is needed in terms of risk-reward decisions, lapses in detail (weak side defenseman coverage, neutral zone play, time/place/score adjustments, etc.) and keeping his emotions in check when he faces in-game adversity. He may never be a Selke candidate but rounding out the consistency of his overall game a little further will further increase his value to the team. 

If Konecny starts the season on a different line, Vigneault and Therrien have the option of reuniting Jakub Voracek with Couturier and Konecny. As a trio, they were one of the NHL's most dominating lines during the first half of the 2017-18 season. They were split up to try to get more offensive production beyond the first line. 

As it turned out, the chemistry of the line changed a bit -- Couturier started racking up more even strength assists with the shooting-oriented Konecny on his right wing, whereas he had more goals than assists with the playmaking oriented Voracek as its right wing -- but the top line continued to go strong over the past season and a half. 

While there is always the possibility of Voracek or another winger being placed with Couturier and Giroux in camp, the line with Konecny on it is a proven quantity at this point. On a team that will have new systems, new coaches, and least four new players in the lineup (two up front, two on the blueline), it's good to have some instant familiarity and proven chemistry atop the lineup.

Stay tuned to throughout the week as we go line-by-line of what fans could see opening night.

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