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Flyers' Simmonds finds his niche

Willingness to work in dirty areas has generated success

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / Deputy Managing Editor

PHILADELPHIA -- NHL players come in all shapes and sizes, but one trait possessed by almost all of them are thick upper leg muscles, developed through years of skating and weight room work. 

Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds might be the exception to that rule. Some players look like they have over-stuffed hockey bags for thighs, but Simmonds' legs aren't much thicker than the Bauer hockey sticks he uses. 

"He's got little legs, but he's got strong legs," linemate Claude Giroux said. "He's got power in his legs."

Simmonds said genetics, not a lack of hard work, are the reason for his skinny legs. 

"I actually have pretty strong legs," he said. "My legs are really skinny but pretty powerful. You look at a horse, it has huge thighs and a huge butt but they got the skinny little lower legs. I relate myself to that. I got the lower legs of a horse, but still pretty powerful."

Those thin but powerful legs have allowed Simmonds to build a career on being tough in the toughest area on the ice. Heading into the Flyers' game Wednesday at the Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, SN1), his 25 goals lead Philadelphia. But more than the number of goals Simmonds has scored, it's where he's scored them from. 

Of his 23 goals against a goalie this season (he has two empty-net goals), Simmonds' average goal length is 12.4 feet. Among the 30 players with 25 or more goals this season, it could be said that none has done his best work as close to the net as Simmonds. Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks is second to Simmonds at 14.1 feet from the net for his non empty-net goals, followed by Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche at 14.7 feet.

And 11 of Simmonds' 25 goals have been scored from inside of 10 feet; of players with at least 25 goals, only Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn has more with 12, but he's played three more games.

Many players talk about going to the net to score goals; Simmonds has made it his destination almost every shift. 

"I knew that was the spot for me and what was going to help me be successful," he said. "I made my mind up when I got traded here (from the Los Angeles Kings) that the front of the net would be my area."

Video: CGY@PHI: Flyers take the lead on Simmonds' PPG in 2nd

The front of the net can be a battleground; it's a place for those strong in body but also strong in mind. Absorbing the hacks and whacks are part of that game. 

"You know you're going to get it," Simmonds said. "Just got to be set in your mind that you're going to be able to take it. I know a couple times I've caught myself complaining to the ref and he would just look at me and say, 'You're the one going to the front of the net. You know what to expect.' You take that and he's right. To get to the net and battle you know it's going to take a little bit of pain, but it's completely worth it at the end."

Simmonds said he wasn't willing to pay that price earlier in his career, and it showed in his results. In his first three NHL seasons with the Kings, he never scored more than 16 goals. 

"I'd have flashes of going to the net and I'd drive by the net and not completely stop, keep curling to the corner," he said. "I was missing pucks and there were opportunities to be had that I wasn't really converting on."

Simmonds was traded to the Flyers in June 2011 and he said a conversation with then Flyers coach Peter Laviolette changed his perspective. Laviolette told Simmonds he could have a larger role in the offense and play on the power play, but to do so he had to commit to being a consistent net-front presence.

During his time with the Kings, Simmonds said he studied how teammates Ryan Smyth and Michal Handzus would find ways to crowd the goalie in the offensive zone. 

"I tried to pick their minds, and especially [Smyth]," Simmonds said. "He's one of the best all-time in front of the net. I got two years to watch him play before I got an opportunity to be able to do it myself but I learned a lot."

But there's a major difference between them; Smyth is 6-foot-2 and 191 pounds, and Handzus was listed at 6-2 and 215 pounds. Simmonds is 6-2 and 183 pounds.

"He's not your prototypical guy in front of the net," Flyers teammate Ryan White said. "He's slender. From playing against him I thought he was a lot bigger than he is. I think it's just the way he plays."

For Simmonds, it's more about technique and brains than brawn. Instead of using brute force every time he goes to the net, he's learned how to slide in and out of smaller spaces. 

"Sometimes it's more beneficial to drive through a guy, or sometimes go around them and try to get there quietly rather than make a big noise getting there," Simmonds said. "It's in the tactics. Sometimes I don't really care, I'm just trying to get there so I'll just bull rush the guy. ... Sometimes on the power play I want to get my stick down and establish position so I don't go in there full steam. I'll try to go around the guy or try to make a loop and come in behind him so he can't see me. If there's a rebound they don't notice I'm there and I can put it in."

It's certainly worked. Simmonds is on pace for his first 30-goal season. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, he's tied for 17th in the League with 124 goals and second with 57 power-play goals. Most of them have been scored not much more than a stick's length from the net. 

And there's little reason for him to wander from his spot since it's been so successful for him.

"He puts a little bit of fear in guys out there," White said. "If you're going to battle with [Simmonds] you're going to have to battle pretty hard out there. Just playing against him you'd think he's 230, that's the way he plays."

*Average goal length, players with at least 25 goals

Wayne Simmonds, Flyers: 12.4 feet
Corey Perry, Ducks: 14.1 feet
Matt Duchene, Avalanche, 14.7 feet
Jamie Benn, Stars: 15.3 feet
Loui Eriksson, Bruins: 16.0 feet 
Jeff Skinner, Hurricanes: 16.1 feet
Tyler Toffoli, Kings: 17.6 feet
*- does not include empty-net/penalty shot goals

Goals from inside 10 feet among players with at least 25 goals

Jamie Benn, Stars: 12 
Wayne Simmonds, Flyers: 11
Matt Duchene, Avalanche: 9
Jason Spezza, Stars: 8
Jeff Skinner, Hurricanes: 7
Patrice Bergeron, Bruins: 7

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