As of today, the Philadelphia Flyers have 10 forwards for nine spots on the first three lines. Over the past month or so, injuries have delayed the otherwise burning question that coach Craig Berube and GM Paul Holmgren will eventually have to answer.
Which forward is the odd man out?
The centers are mostly set in stone at this point. Claude Giroux is obviously the top guy, Brayden Schenn has been solid as the second-line center and Sean Couturier is excelling in his third-line role.
But when Steve Downie returns in a few days, there will be seven guys vying for six spots on the wing, and it's difficult to figure out which of them should be forced down to the fourth line.
Jakub Voracek is clearly the safest guy. He's the second-most talented player on the team after Giroux, and they have a great chemistry on the top line.
Vincent Lecavalier has to be the next-safest player at this point. He was brought in with a big contract this summer and is still a star who can be very productive on the top line.
Wayne Simmonds is also not going anywhere. He's been very effective on the second line alongside Schenn and has had a scoring outburst recently. There would be no sense in demoting a 25-year-old who is playing some of his best hockey right now.
Centered by Couturier, Matt Read and Steve Downie formed a third line that was the Flyers' best line for practically all of November and into early December, as well.
It would be very difficult to justify breaking up this line after their recent performance together. Read has been very good this season, and he didn't sign a four-year extension in September to get moved down in the lineup.
Downie is a little more intriguing, if only because the Flyers don't really have anything invested in him. He's in the final year of his contract but is a solid player who has done wonders for Couturier.
Ironically, that leaves two forwards who are opposite in almost every sense: Scott Hartnell and Michael Raffl.
Hartnell is a burly, bumbling veteran scorer who has been on the Flyers since 2007 and is signed to a deal worth $4.75 million per year which keeps him in Philadelphia until 2019.
Raffl is a quiet, reserved playmaker who's in his first NHL season. He came to Philadelphia as an undrafted free agent from Austria and has been very impressive so far.
With Lecavalier out, Hartnell essentially lost the first-line winger slot to Raffl, who has shown the skating ability and vision to keep up with Giroux and Voracek.
But Lecavalier is back and will likely push to get back on that first line. If Raffl is moved from the first line, would it be worth dropping him all the way to the fourth even though he has played well?
And how would it go over with Hartnell and the front office if he's making $4.75 million while logging checking-line minutes on the fourth line?
Neither would make for an ideal situation, although it's always better to have too many players as opposed to not enough.
And while it's likely that all 10 of these forwards will not be healthy at the same time for long stretches throughout the season, this potential situation is still worth discussing because it will reveal a lot about Berube, Holmgren and the organization.
If they are only concerned with level of play, then Raffl should get the nod. But Hartnell is a leader in the locker room, and it may harm dynamics off the ice if he gets moved down.
It's certainly a tricky circumstance, but in my eyes Raffl is clearly more suited to playing on the top lines than Hartnell. The Flyers could even make a surprise decision and demote one of the guys I passed over.
Which Flyers Forward Would You Move to the Fourth Line?
Downie would probably make the most sense of the rest of the guys, because the Flyers have the least invested in him. But they do have a lot invested in Couturier, who has been benefited significantly from Downie.
But it's really a two-horse race for me, and Hartnell is certainly the worse player at this point.
Hartnell really plays like a fourth-liner at this point in his career, and that big contract will be hurting the Flyers for years. He brings a lot of intangibles, however, and it could create for some awkwardness and tension if he was moved down.
That's why I think that when it comes down to it, Raffl will be the guy who gets moved down. But Hartnell is a worse player, and if it wasn't for off-ice stuff then he'd be demoted.
If it wasn't for Hartnell's no-movement clause in his contract, then there would be a whole separate article to write about his future.
At least we can say the Flyers have good forward depth. But unfortunately for now, Raffl will have to work on the fourth line.