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Meltzer's Line Play: Third Line

Flyers contributor puts together his version of the much debated third line

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer /

The Flyers' hopes for 2019-20 are largely tied to the belief that the club has gotten stronger down the middle. 

Center Kevin Hayes has been added to the forward corps. Veteran minutes-eating defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun were brought in to supplement the young blueliners. Then there is the development side of roster planning. the team is banking, respectively, on Carter Hart (second pro season), Nolan Patrick (third season) and Oskar Lindblom (third pro year, second full NHL season) taking the next step in their evolution as pro players.

"With [Sean] Couturier and Hayes slotted into the situations they'll probably play, we can also get Nolan into matchups that will be favorable for him and his line. At the same time, he can continue to develop, and we can be better as a team for that. You don't want to talk about first line, second line, third line, fourth line. You want everyone to be able to be effective for you, and contribute in different ways. That takes depth," Vigneault said.

Prior to the start of the 2018-19 season, Flyers center Nolan Patrick was selected by NHL Network's Mike Johnson as his leading candidate for "NHL breakout player" of the upcoming season. The choice made sense. 

Patrick seemingly took steps forward in the second half of his rookie NHL season. The second overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft also was completely healthy for the first time in a couple of years, and was able to have a full offseason of training. 

Unfortunately, from an offensive stat standpoint, Patrick's second NHL season ended up being very much like his first: 13 goals and 30 points in 73 games as a rookie, 13 goals and 31 points in 72 games in 2018-19. In both seasons, his productivity skewed toward the second half. This year, he had five goals and 11 points at the statistical midpoint of the season, and eight goals and 23 points in the second half. 

From Jan. 14 to Feb. 16 of last season, Patrick had a 13-game run in the second half where he produced 12 points, including a pair of two-goal games and the first three-point game of his NHL career. Coincidentally or not, the surge coincided with the Flyers moving Claude Giroux from left wing back to center and having Sean Couturier center Jakub Voracek and Oskar Lindblom. Benefitting from more favorable matchups, Patrick stepped to the forefront during that portion of the season.

Nevertheless, greater consistency is still needed from Patrick. After his offensive tear, he had another goal drought thereafter, scoring just one more goal the rest of the season before missing the final two games with an upper-body injury. On the positive side, there was progression in Patrick's two-way game throughout the season. Even as a rookie, his attention to detail in approaching the small battles within the game was above average for such a young NHL player but Patrick made strides in the consistency of his play without the puck. Now that he's entering his third NHL season, the expectation is that Patrick establishes himself as an all-around effective player on a consistent basis rather than a streaky one.

Losing JVR early last season for a 16-game stretch and his initial struggles in the first month after his return (pointless in 10 of 13 games between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15; three goals and six points overall) put a significant damper on the team's hopes heading into the season of adding another regular goal scorer to the lineup. It also framed perceptions of his entire season in a negative light.

The season wasn't what anyone, van Riemsdyk included, would have wanted either individually or collectively. However, JVR was actually one of the Flyers bright spots once he finally got going. 

Over his final 51 games of the season, van Riemsdyk produced 24 goals and 41 points to finish the season with 27 tallies (eight on the power play) and 48 points (13 on the power play) in 66 games. Had he played a full season, JVR likely would have topped the 30-goal mark. His 16.2 percent rate of his shots on goal going into the net represented a career-high although his 27 total goals were tied for only the 4th highest output in a single season. 

The strongest stretch of the season for van Riemsdyk came over a six-plus week span from Feb. 9 to March 21. In that 20-game span (basically equivalent to one quarter of the season), JVR broke loose for 12 goals, three multi-goal games including a hat trick, and 19 points. This overlapped the period of time where the Flyers climbed back into the wild card race after having been buried at the bottom of the NHL before falling off in the final few weeks. 

Come the start of the 2019-20 season, it is a no-brainer that van Riemsdyk will be part of the Flyers' first power unit. Michel Therrien's stated philosophy on the power play is to attack near the net as much as possible, and that is one of JVR's prime strengths as a player. 

What is harder to predict is where he will play at five-on-five. If he plays on the top line, it forces either Claude Giroux or JVR to play the right side. If he is on Kevin Hayes' line, there are some two-way play concerns on both wings. If he plays on the third line with Nolan Patrick (with whom van Riemsdyk was slow to develop chemistry in the first half of last season), he might see favorable matchups but he won't be with the team's top three playmakers at five-on-five.

During his final season in Toronto, JVR primarily played third line (with his longtime center Tyler Bozak in the middle) at even strength as well as extensive power play time. 11 of his career-high 36 goals came on the power play as did 20 of his 54 points. Even so, this was effective overall use of JVR by Mike Babcock. It will be interesting to see where Vigneault prefers to deploy van Riemsdyk, in conjunction with Therrien.

The recent left wrist injury sustained by veteran forward Tyler Pitlick tests the Flyers' bottom-six depth. Pitlick was not a lock to open the season on the third line -- a fourth-line spot was also possible -- he was a potential default option in lieu of a rookie, an alternative veteran or an outside acquisition. 

While in Dallas, Pitlick clicked on a line with Radek Faksa and spent much of the 2017-18 season in a third-line role; producing a career-high 14 goals. This past season, an injury (also to his left wrist) limited Pitlick to 47 games and eight goals; a prorated 13 if he hadn't missed so much time in the middle of the season. 

Pitlick is projected to miss four weeks. Therefore, he will be out for most of training camp and be back around the time the Flyers leave for Europe to play an exhibition game in Switzerland and then open the regular season in Prague against the Chicago Blackhawks. 

Misfortune for one player inevitably means opportunity for others. A group of the organization's top prospects -- including 2016 first-round pick German Rubtsov, 2017 first-rounder Morgan Frost, and 2018 first-rounder Joel Farabee as well as third-year pro Mikhail Vorobyev, fourth-year pro Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and rookie pro Isaac Ratcliffe -- will all vie for NHL roster spots in training camp. 

Their chances of immediate placement on the Flyers' NHL roster may have increased to some degree with Pitlick temporarily out of action. If one of the youngsters excels during training camp -- not just in preseason games but on a day-to-day basis in practice -- he could open the season on Patrick's line. 

That story will unfold over the course of camp. The hope is that the kids give general manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Vigneault some tough decisions to make. For the time being, the default choice here is versatile veteran Michael Raffl. Although Scott Laughton can play wing in addition to center, having Laughton center the fourth line gives the Flyers maximum strength down the middle.

Entering his seventh NHL season, all with the Flyers, the 30-year-old Raffl has been a generally effective role player over the course of his career. First and foremost, he's almost perennially been a strong player in terms of puck-possession metrics and two-way play; reflective of his abilities on the forecheck, back check and in scrums along the walls. 

Secondly, Raffl is versatile; the Austrian version of a Swiss army knife. He's usually been part of the penalty killing rotation. His home-base has been the bottom six forward group but he has played on all four forward lines at different junctures (his career best 21 goal season in 67 games during the 2013-14 came as the left winger on a line with Giroux and Voracek). Positionally, Raffl is equally comfortable either on left wing or right wing. 

While not an offensive dynamo at the NHL level, Raffl has reached 13-plus goals in three of his six seasons to date. He is coming off a career-low 18 point campaign in 2018-19 (including a career-low six goals) while being limited to 67 games. Raffl is prone to long point droughts but, like virtually every player, tends to produce more when moved up a bit in the lineup and expected to expand his contributions beyond 5-on-5 checking and penalty killing duties.

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