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Therien's Take: Seven is a Crowd

by Chris Therien @ctherien6

In Thursday night's road game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault elected to dress seven defensemen and 11 forwards, rather than the typical six D and 12 up front. Many teams do this on every once in awhile, even though coaches and players alike tend to dislike the arrangement. 

Back when I played, I was typical in that regard. As a defenseman, I thought that seven D was one too many. The reason was that defensemen work in pairs, and tend to think along those lines as well. 

Rotating a seventh defenseman in means that it throws off the normal rhythm of the three pairings because of the mixing and matching to get shifts for the seventh guy. It also means that one or more players end up playing less than their accustomed number of minutes, even if it is not performance-related that particular night.

That said, I think that AV and assistant coach Mike Yeo (who coaches the defense corps) did a very good job at picking the spots to use Robert Hagg in the Carolina game. Particularly when you are the road team and the other team gets to pick the matchups they want via the last line change, it can be tough. The veteran experience of Vigneault and Yeo showed in how they worked it.

Ivan Provorov, in addition to scoring a power play goal, logged 32 shifts and 26:27 TOI in this tilt; much-needed because of the depth and firepower on the other side. Provorov's regular defense partner, Matt Niskanen, played 21:57. From there, ice time allotments for the defense corps were 17:47 for Justin Braun, 17:18 for Travis Sanheim, 13:23 for Phil Myers, 10:57 for Shayne Gostisbehere and 8:58 over 12 shifts for Robert Hägg.

Based on how the game developed in real time and the shift-to-shift situations played out after the Flyers had to battle back from an early 2-0 deficit -- eventually winning, 5-3 -- the ice time distribution made sense. Keep in mind that there was a lot of special teams play in this game. So it stood to reason that the all-situations D would see their total ice times go up from their averages.  

Although I'm generally not a fan of the 7D arrangement, I understood the reasoning for 7D particular to the Carolina game.

With an offensively struggling James van Riemsdyk moving down to a nominal "fourth line", it made some sense to double-shift some of the skill players from the upper three-quarters of the lineup. That way, it gave JVR a chance to succeed. He had plenty of scoring chances in the game, even if he continued to be unable to pot one.

Secondly, Vigneault and Yeo did not want to pull the multi-talented but young and inconsistent Myers from the lineup again, as they did last Saturday against the New York Islanders. Simultaneously, they wanted to get Hagg (a healthy scratch in nine of the previous 10 games) a bit of needed playing time. 

You can't have players sitting out for too long and then expect them to jump seamlessly back into the lineup when needed. That is especially true with a player like the 24-year-old Hägg, who started every game last season and opened this season as a starting-six regular before Myers was called up from the AHL. Playing the thankless role of 7th D is a new experience for him. 

I can relate. For most of my career, I played a lot of minutes and started every game. In my second stint with the Flyers in 2005-06, I had to adapt for a major portion of the season to a seventh defenseman role. 

Without much advance knowledge of when I'd get a chance to play, it was my task to be ready to play on demand. I appeared in 47 of the 82 games. It was a tough job, and not very enjoyable during stretches of not playing, but it did give me a deeper appreciation for the guys I'd played with who'd been in that role and were able to jump into the lineup without a hitch (or, more accurately in case of our team that year, with a Hitch behind the bench and a Hatch on the ice). 

Generally speaking, apart from how things aligned for the Carolina game, I can think of two other situations where it might make sense to dress 7D:

1) Nagging injury to a D. If there is a regular D who is playing through an injury but is a game-time decision, it might make sense to dress a seventh D to lessen the chance of getting caught short on the blueline. It's a bit easier to play with 11 forwards than with 5 defensemen. 

A couple of years ago, in a game at Madison Square Garden, the Flyers ended up having to play a significant portion of a period with only three defensemen available. That was due to an in-game reinjury of a banged-up D, a fighting major to a second and a minor penalty to a third. That's getting caught way, way, way short on the blueline. Not a typical situation, but strange things happen.  

2) Not enough forwards. Sometimes the injury bug bites the forward corps in a way that doesn't deplete the roster enough to put someone in injured reserve but enough to make only 11 forwards available on a given night. Rather than opting to dress just 17 skaters -- which is allowed -- a coach might just go instead with 11 forwards and seven defensemen to get to 18 skaters. 

That happened earlier this week with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, when they hosted the Charlotte Checkers on Tuesday night. Due to numerous recent NHL callups (Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee and Andreoff) and a wave of forward injuries (Kyle Criscuolo, Carsen Twarynski, Isaac Ratcliffe, and Connor Bunnaman), head coach Scott Gordon had only 11 forwards healthy enough to dress. So he went with seven defensemen.

Unfortunately -- and this speaks to part of the risk of going with 11 forwards when it's done by choice rather than by necessity -- the Phantoms lost center German Rubtsov to an injury early in the second period. Now they were down to 10 forwards for nearly two full periods (in the first game of a three-in-four set to boot). 

It was unavoidable in this case, but it's risky to leave yourself vulnerable by choice to a shortened bench up front. Ten forwards is doable for a short period of time but it has a wear-down effect. 

Getting back to the Flyers, with Scott Laughton seemingly set to return to the Flyers' lineup for Saturday afternoon's game against Calgary, I suspect that Philadelphia will go back to the more typical 6D/12F arrangement.

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