In part one of our three-part series on candidates for the Flyers' available third-line wing spot, we looked at a pool of six potential NHL rookies who will be vying for the position during training camp. In part two, we'll take a look at incumbent veteran candidates. Tomorrow, we'll look at the organization's veteran newcomers.
Presuming that the top eight in the forward rotation consists of centers Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick, left wingers Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk and Oskar Lindblom and right wingers Jakub Voracek and Travis Konecny (once the restricted free agent is signed), there are two incumbent veteran candidates for the open slot. One is center/winger Scott Laughton. The other is winger Michael Raffl.
As of now, there appears to a strong possibility that Laughton opens the season as the team's fourth-line center and frequent linemate Raffl begins the campaign as the fourth-line left wing or right wing. Newcomer Tyler Pitlick, who is also a candidate for third-line right wing (a role he played successfully for the Dallas Stars in 2017-18), could complete the line if a rookie or another vet addition steps up and grabs the opening night spot.
For purposes of this analysis, however, we'll look at the possibility that either Raffl or Laughton opens the year playing a wing on Nolan Patrick's line. Depending on how Alain Vigneault and Michel Therrien arrange the forward lines and attempt to "spread the wealth", there is even a possibility that players such as van Riemsdyk and/or Konecny start the year playing third line at five-on-five manpower.
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). Postionally, Raffl is equally comfortable either on left wing or right wing. He's even played some center during his Flyers career, although he has not done so in several seasons.
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.
Essentially, now that he's in his 30s, Raffl's candidacy for a third-line wing spot is more of a stopgap option if other possibilities do not work out in camp rather than a primary plan. Nevertheless, Raffl is a virtual lock to remain a regular at least on the fourth line and could be spotted upward in the lineup from time to time.
Last season at the trade deadline, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher opted to hold onto Raffl despite the fact that he was a potential unrestricted free agent this summer. Raffl, who spent the final 48 hours before the deadline, nervously pacing around and checking the clock while hoping he was not traded, was relieved that he was still a Flyer when the deadline passed. On March 26, 2019, the Flyers signed Raffl to a two-year contract extension ($1.6 million AAV).
"We're happy to have Michael for the next two years," Fletcher said. "Throughout his six seasons with the Flyers he has played a pivotal role in a variety of positions and situations. His versatility, experience and work ethic will be valuable assets to our team going forward."
After Therrien came aboard as an assistant coach under new bench boss Vigneault, Therrien said that every player on each line will have specific tasks to perform. Someone has to do the unglamorous tasks such as digging in the corners and providing support up high in the attack zone when a defenseman pinches. Already somewhat familiar with Raffl from having coached against the Flyers while head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, Therrien said that every team needs a player or two whose main asset is his ability to be a complementary piece to different sets of linemates.
"I can't say where he will play in the lineup. That's what our coach meetings [in August] and training camp are for. He will have to compete to play, just like everyone. But he's been in the league for awhile, and that's not by accident. He's earned that. Not everything is about the [scoring] stats," Therrien said.
In the case of the 25-year-old Laughton, the player has lined up more often center than wing in his career. However, a switch to wing on a line with Patrick and perhaps someone such as Lindblom, could be an effective way to round out the top nine in the lineup. Laughton played a significant part of last season in a third-line role (albeit primarily at center) and chipped in career highs of 12 goals and 32 points while also seeing regular PK work.
Laughton is an underrated skater. During the spells where has played some wing, his speed has been noticeable. If teamed up with Lindblom (who compensates for a lack of speed via hockey smarts) and Patrick (who is not slow but needs to be more consistently explosive), Laughton could boost the speed element and complement his linemates' fast-emerging two-way ability.
For his part, Laughton is open-minded about playing third-line wing, fourth line center or even a hybrid role where he moves around depending on the game situation.
"I haven't talked to any of the coaches yet, but I'm very happy to play anywhere they want me. I'm comfortable at wing or at center. Wherever they think I'll help the most, I'll do it. I want to win. That's my focus," Laughton said on July 23.
In an ideal scenario -- the top eight all enter the season healthy, and someone else steps up to grab the open third line wing spot -- Laughton and Raffl could open the season as two-thirds of a viable fourth line. In hockey, however, things can change rapidly. Either player could be moved up into the top nine as the circumstances dictate.