Ranking the Candidates for Vacant Spot on Philadelphia Flyers' Top Line
Hartnell spent most of last season on coach Craig Berube's top line alongside captain Claude Giroux and winger Jakub Voracek. Now, the Flyers have to find a replacement for Hartnell on their top scoring unit for 2014-15.
The winner will likely be determined in training camp, although if a player fails to produce on the top line, changes are always possible during the course of the season.
Here is a list of the top four candidates for the final spot on the Flyers' top line. They are listed in order from least to most likely, with a discussion of what each player brings to the table, what some of their shortcomings are and what their presence on the first unit would mean to the Flyers.
As a very long shot and honorable mention, we'll go with Wayne Simmonds, who led the Flyers with 29 goals last season.
With that said, slotting Simmonds into the top line would be putting too many eggs in one basket and wouldn't leave enough depth for the rest of the lineup. He is also a perfect fit on the second line for the Flyers.
Feel free to comment on any player on this list or add a player you feel belongs here. As always, indicate why you feel the way you do.
4. Vincent Lecavalier
Vincent Lecavalier is a real long shot to play on the Flyers' top line this season. Barring injury, the only way the veteran center earns the job is if he plays spectacular hockey in training camp at both ends of the ice and the three candidates above him struggle a lot.
Lecavalier is a natural center and would have to adjust to playing on the wing.
Coach Craig Berube also wants Lecavalier to play better in his own zone than he did a year ago, when he struggled making the adjustment to Philadelphia and was demoted to the fourth line late in the season and in the playoffs.
Last season, Lecavalier scored just 20 goals and 37 points in 69 games for the Flyers. He started the season out strongly but faded after suffering injuries in November and December.
He was also a minus-16 over the course of the season and was considered a defensive liability.
As noted by The Hockey News' Lyle Richardson, there were rumors over the summer that the Flyers were trying to trade Lecavalier, but no deal was worked out—most likely due to his high salary. CapGeek.com indicates that he carries a $4.5 million cap hit.
If he does play on the top line, Lecavalier would add natural scoring and playmaking abiltiy. However, he would be playing out of position and does not add much of a grinding or defensive element.
"He just needs to change his game a little bit," Berube told Randy Miller of NJ.com. “We talked about that after the season and he's willing to do that. And I'm willing to bend a little bit here, too, so I've have to do a little bit better job managing him and he's got to buy into the team."
Lecavalier is a long shot, but it's not impossible to imagine him seeing some time on the top line if he remains in Philadelphia this season.
3. R.J. Umberger
The Flyers acquired R.J. Umberger in the Scott Hartnell deal this past summer.
Umberger's best fit is likely on the third line as a checking winger, but if he excels in camp and the two players ahead of him on this list falter, Umberger may get a chance on the top unit.
Shortly after the Flyers pulled the trigger on the deal, general manager Ron Hextall told Sam Carchidi of The Philadelphia Inquirer what he liked about Umberger. "He can play up or down the lineup, and that's one of the things that attracted us to him," Hextall explained. "We wanted to get quicker up front."
Berube told Carchidi that he liked the fact that Umberger was a "versatile guy who can play all positions. He's a good penalty-killer who skates well."
At 6'2" and 214 pounds, Umberger also had good size even if he doesn't play the most physical style of hockey all the time.
He is also capable of scoring goals and has five 20-plus-goal seasons to his credit.
Don't be surprised to see Umberger get some time on the first line, but he won't be the team's first choice.
2. Brayden Schenn
Brayden Schenn is a fairly strong candidate to join the first line. The biggest issue facing Schenn may be that, like so many other Flyers forwards, he is a natural center who struggles a bit more when forced to play the wing.
Schenn also has size at 6'1" and 190 pounds. He's just 23 years old and has yet to reach his full potential at the NHL level. Last season, he reached 20 goals for the first time in his career.
Berube recently told NJ.com's Randy Miller that he felt Schenn was a possibility on the top line. "Brayden’s an intriguing guy, too, [for the first line]. He’s a scorer. He puts puck in the net, [he’s a] big body, pretty good around the net … It’s a combo I’m definitely thinking about.”
Schenn would certainly add the physicality, size and scoring touch the line could use. If he plays well enough on the wing in camp, he could be considered for the role.
What Schenn lacks is speed and experience, which may make Berube hesitant.
1. Michael Raffl
Michael Raffl adds more speed to the top line than any other serious candidate for the last spot on the top line. That is the one component the Flyers want to add to their lineup.
The speedy Raffl can keep up with Giroux and Voracek, which would make the line dangerous. He is also a natural winger, which means he can play to his full potential at that position.
Raffl had a stint on the top line last season when injuries struck, and he had a decent showing.
"Raffl's done a good job when he's been up there," Berube told Randy Miller of NJ.com. "I really like the line when he's on it."
There are two issues facing the 25-year-old Austrian. First is his lack of size. At 6'0" and 190 pounds, Raffl does not add the physical component that Hartnell added last season. Simply put, Raffl doesn't crash the net like Hartnell does.
Second is his overall lack of offensive production. For the season, Raffl scored nine goals and 22 points in 68 games.
In 20 games on the top unit, Raffl scored three goals and 10 points. Those aren't awful numbers, but they translate to a 41-point season over 82 games—not the kind of numbers you're looking at from the wing on your top line.
Raffl's production should improve if he plays a full season with Giroux, one of the game's best setup men. Another year of experience in the NHL should also help his cause.
There is no perfect answer for the Flyers, and this should be an interesting battle in training camp.
"I think you really have to look at some different combinations in camp," Berube told Miller. "There's no one guy that I think is going to fit in there."
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