Sept. 22 marks the opening night of the NHL preseason for the Philadelphia Flyers as they face off against the New Jersey Devils.
There has been a lot of talk from both the media and John Stevens about Mike Richards centering a line of Danny Briere and Simon Gagne. Stevens cites Richards and Briere's chemistry in last year's playoffs as the reason for trying this combination early in the preseason.
Coach Stevens' reasoning makes a lot of sense. Chemistry on the first line and arguably the team's three best players going full tilt with first line minutes. Not to mention this would enable Jeff Carter to play second line centre and get up into the 21-22 minutes of ice time range. Sounds like a great idea right?
Wrong, and here's why.
Although I have no doubts that the "BRG" line would rank as one of the best in the NHL, I also fear that it would take away from the greatest feature of the current Flyers team: scoring depth.
Anyone who watched the Flyers' turnaround season in 2008 noticed that through all the injuries and line juggling no line had better results than the unit of Joffrey Lupul, Richards, and Scott Hartnell. Over the first 10 games of last season the Flyers had Lupul and Hartnell flanking Carter.
That experiment, for all intents and purposes, was a disaster. Both Hartnell and Lupul are north-south players with shoot first mentality. That style did not mesh well with Carter's tendency to lug the puck and hold on to it for longer than sometimes necessary. Also, Carter is a shooting centre-man; he is more effective with wingers that distribute the puck.
Assuming these are the first two lines, that would leave Scottie Upshall and Mike Knuble looking for a centre-man. Shuffling of lines would mean Glen Metropolit would move up to third line duties. Metropolit is more than capable of playing between Knuble and Upshall, however I do not believe that line would be as effective as Upshall, Carter, and Knuble were in the playoffs.
If I'm John Stevens I go ahead and try out my experiment early in preseason, because if it did work out and Carter could effectively play second line center between Lupul and Hartnell, the Flyers would have maybe the most dangerous top-six forward unit in the NHL.
However, Stevens should monitor the performance of all six very closely and not waste time mixing and matching. A dark horse in this process is the potential impact of Claude Giroux. He has the skill and hockey smarts to keep up with the skilled players on the Flyers, like Briere and Gagne.
As much as I would love to see Carter's playing time increase, how great would it be for the Flyers to be able to roll out these four lines to start the 2008-09 season:
First Line: Gagne-Briere-Giroux
Assuming Giroux can perform at a level capable of sticking with two elite players.
Second Line: Hartnell-Richards-Lupul
The chemistry is already there, just a matter of staying healthy.
Third Line: Upshall-Carter-Knuble
Performance anywhere close to how they played in the playoffs would make them the most effective third line in hockey.
Fourth Line: Cote/Asham-Metropolit-Downie
Energy line. Plain and simple.