The Philadelphia Flyers are in dire need of a legitimate first-line winger to play alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek next season. Most everyone can agree on that.
But people cannot agree on how they should go about fixing it. Personally, I had voiced my opinion that the Flyers could go after Thomas Vanek or, more realistically, Matt Moulson in free agency.
I'll admit it—I was dead wrong.
After doing some homework and accepting that the Flyers will likely not shed enough cap space to make room for either of those guys, I realized the solution to the problem has been right in front of us all along.
It may seem a bit optimistic, but Matt Read is a legitimate first-line talent.
Read's path to the NHL was strange. He started late at Bemidji State University, where he stayed for four years, before signing with the Flyers and making his pro debut at the ripe age of 25.
Because of his odd beginning, and also probably due to his low-key personality and non-flashy style of play, Read has flown very far under the radar during his first three NHL seasons.
He led all rookies in goals in 2011-12, yet somehow wasn't even a finalist for the Calder Trophy. Despite continuing to be very productive in the two years since then, Read's name is virtually unknown to non-Flyers fans, while the player himself remains pretty underappreciated by Philly fans as well.
For Philadelphia fans, a big part of why he gets overlooked is because people do not realize just how productive he is.
Read does everything: He can be an offense-first scorer, a forechecking nightmare and a defensive standout. He contributes on both the power play and penalty kill with great effectiveness.
This past season, he and Sean Couturier played nearly every single even-strength minute together, and they really developed a great chemistry.
Oddly enough, despite his consistent offensive production, it seems that fans really began to notice him this past year in his defense-first role alongside Couturier.
They excelled in 5v5 play but also on the penalty kill. Let's take a little closer look at what made Read so good this year.
He's an unbelievable skater, and despite being only average in size, he is strong and works his butt off every shift. There are also some flashes of great vision and anticipation on offense as well.
Read is willing to do the little things. He chases down pucks, uses his stick effectively and works along the boards when needed.
He played against the second-best competition of any forward on the team (after Sean Couturier) and the third-highest percentage of defensive zone faceoffs (after Couturier and Adam Hall).
For all the—very deserved—praise heaped on Couturier this year, he and Read had practically identical defensive zone faceoff starts and quality of competition, yet Read still scored one more point in seven less games.
Read also averaged over three minutes of ice time on the penalty kill this past year, fourth most on the entire squad, while also contributing 1:35 per game on the power play.
However, despite all these positives, comparing him solely to other Flyers' players may actually be doing Read a disservice. Just last week, Charlie O'Connor over at Broad Street Hockey discussed how effective Read has been.
It's worth revisiting Read's success in the context of moving him to the top line, so let's push it a little further and look at him against the rest of the league. I think you might be pretty surprised.
Goals/60 is a pretty easy metric to understand: how many goals a player would score in 60 minutes of play. Now let's take a look at that (via Hockey Abstract) for the 2013-14 season, along with some of the aforementioned metrics.
First off, yes, Read finished in the Top 25 in the entire NHL for goals/60, which is extremely impressive on its own.
But then you also look at how his playing time compared against the other 24 top guys. Read played by far the best competition and took the most defensive zone draws as well. That is seriously incredible.
Just take a look at some of the other names in there—Hossa, Ovechkin, Kessel, Pavelski, Benn, Sharp, Perry, Getzlaf, Bergeron, Iginla, Skinner, Statsny, Seguin, Ryan—we're talking superstar players.
Think it's just a one-year fluke? How about if we expand it for Read's entire three-year NHL career, which Bob Roberts kindly did for us in this chart.
Still the same story: Read finishes in the Top 25 and is the most defensive player in the group. And you can add in some other names like Malkin, Neal, Tavares, Couture Toews, Kessel, Gaborik and Nash.
While he may not belong quite in that category of player, Read has gotten some international recognition recently, playing on Team Canada for the IIHF World Championships for the second consecutive year. He tallied five points in eight games.
What if we expand it out even more in order to prove that Read isn't just a goal scorer but a complete offensive player as well? As O'Connor pointed out, the winger's points/60 over the past three years are just a notch below elite.
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At 55th in the NHL over his first three years in the league, tied with Daniel Sedin, there's a lot to be optimistic about here with Read.
What do these statistics mean in a nutshell? Read is a really good winger, and he has played extremely well in the roles given to him over the past three seasons.
But he's never really gotten first-line time for any substantial period. That ought to change next year.
There is, of course, some risk in switching up a good thing. Read and Couturier were nothing short of spectacular together this season, and some people won't want to split them up.
At the same time, if things go haywire, Craig Berube can just move Read back to the third line with Couturier and fill in Scott Hartnell or Wayne Simmonds on the first. It's obviously not a permanent thing, but Read deserves the chance.
As a forward, he really can do it all: He's got a great shot, moves the puck well and is responsible at both ends of the ice. His speed would allow him to keep up with Giroux and Voracek.
He could also take a little defensive responsibility off Giroux and allow the top line to play tougher minutes if need be.
It's not a totally novel idea—Mr. O'Connor brought up these possibilities in his recap of Read's season. But it needs to be discussed more in lieu of other options.
Would Read be a better option than Vanek or Moulson? Is he preferable to Hartnell or Simmonds? By these metrics, absolutely. Considering Read also has a bargain of a deal at $3.625 million, he looks even better compared to the two UFAs.
Vanek will probably command twice that money on the open market, while Moulson could be in the $5-million range.
When you look at it, Vanek may actually be the worst option. Yes he scores in bunches, but his defensive and possession numbers are pretty weak.
He takes so many offensive zone faceoffs and still has negative relative Corsi ratings. At 30, the tread on his tires also leaves some concern.
In the Eastern Conference Finals against New York, Vanek looked somewhat sluggish and disinterested defensively. He was moved twice during the season, but he still had the chance to get to the Cup Final, something he has never done in his nine-year career.
Moulson is also 30 years old, but he is not quite the lethal playmaker that Vanek is. He's got much better possession numbers than Vanek, however, and he is the better two-way player.
But his advanced metrics still pale in comparison to Read's. In fact, even if you take the salaries away from it, I still would take Read over Moulson. Vanek's offensive output is hard to come by, but his defense is pretty woeful and he costs twice as much as Read.
Hartnell proved this past season that he really is not a top-line winger. His skating is just woeful, and he went a season-spanning 35+ consecutive games without an assist.
On the other hand, Simmonds is a bit more intriguing. He scored in bunches this season and would be a big, physical presence on the boards and in front of the net. Very few players in the NHL are as good as Simmonds at cleaning up rebounds.
But, in my opinion, there should be more of an emphasis on speed and creativity when looking for a winger next to ultra-skilled guys like Giroux and Voracek. Simmonds is really a perfect fit alongside Brayden Schenn as a second-line player.
Read really checks all the boxes, and he does so at a team-friendly price.
The 27-year-old's career trajectory has certainly been unorthodox, but right now he's in his prime and playing the best hockey of his career. He's got the athleticism to play against anybody, and he has the production to prove he belongs.
There's no reason to think that he won't continue his ascension into 2014-15. In fact, if his confidence keeps growing, the sky is the limit for Read.
The bottom line here is that the Flyers don't have much cap space, and Vanek and Moulson aren't good enough to justify Philly moving contracts around to try and make room for one of them when Read is waiting in the wings.
I'm all in on Read as Philadelphia's top-line winger, regardless of the other options out there.