Philadelphia Flyers: 5 Reasons They Still Have the Best Front Line in the NHL
I wish I did not have to write this.
A few days ago it would have been a simple enough article to write, as the top three Philadelphia forwards—Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell, centered by the league's leading scorer, Claude Giroux—had combined for 41 of the Flyers' 106 team goals (nearly 40 percent) and had amassed 91 points in their relatively short time together.
Let us not forget their combined plus-33 rating in 18-and-a-half minutes of average combined ice time.
But now, with emerging superstar Claude Giroux out indefinitely with an apparent concussion, naming Philadelphia's top line the best in the game becomes difficult.
Sure, Jagr and Hartnell are excellent wingers, but now centering this high-powered tandem is 19-year-old rookie Sean Couturier.
While Couturier has exceeded expectations playing mostly with Philly's bottom six forwards and in special teams and defensive situations, he is now expected to replace Giroux, an unbelievably talented playmaker in the middle of an Art Ross/Hart Memorial push, who had amassed 39 points through 28 games (on pace for approximately 114 points).
Yet I hold my contention that even in Giroux's absence—the Philadelphia Flyers STILL have the best front line in hockey, and here is why.
As always, I love knowing what you think, so be sure to leave plenty of comments.
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Quite simply, the Flyers' top line has continued its assault on opposing goalies even without Giroux, whose 1.4 points per game was easily the highest mark on the team.
Since Giroux left Saturday's game against Tampa Bay in the second period, his line has not stopped scoring.
Jagr has a pair of assists to match Hartnell and has extended his now six-game goal streak with a pair in Giroux's absence.
Overall, the Flyers have scored seven goals in four periods of hockey without Claude Giroux.
Between Jagr and Hartnell, the front line should still be able to put up a goal per game and still not lose much, if anything, defensively, as Sean Couturier has displayed a knack for Selke Trophy-like play at the Flyers' end of the ice.
If Jagr-Couturier-Hartnell are able to continue to produce on both sides of the puck and their work continues to be the catalyst for the top team in the Eastern Conference, then there is no reason to categorize this line—even without Giroux—as anything but the best trio in the league.
As the three continue to grow together, that fact should make itself more and more evident by their play on the ice.
And if Claude Giroux is able to return from his head injury sooner rather than later, there is no telling how great the three will become together.
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While Giroux and Jagr have demonstrated an innate playmaking ability that meshes well with Hartnell's ability to be in the right place at the right time, losing Giroux does not necessarily mean a loss of chemistry.
Sean Couturier's style, while not nearly as flashy as Giroux's, is still a strong fit in Philadelphia's offense.
Jaromir Jagr is a natural playmaker and can create offense simply by being on the ice. His presence has clearly affected Claude Giroux's rise to superstardom. Furthermore, Scott Hartnell's continued production with Giroux out of the lineup suggests Jagr, despite his age, is as important a cog as any to the Flyers' success.
Scott Hartnell's grit and willingness to battle in front of the net is a perfect complement to Jagr's playmaking, as Scotty is able to create havoc in high-traffic areas to create more room and opportunities for his highly skilled linemates.
With two versatile and effective wingers, Couturier can concentrate on his base responsibilities as a centerman—distribution and defensive responsibility.
In terms of responsibility, Couturier is one of the most effective players on the team. His 17 takeaways are tied for most on the team with, you guessed it, Claude Giroux. In addition, he has amassed only nine giveaways over the first 30 games of his career—the fourth lowest total on the Flyers.
Although Couturier has only five goals and three assists to this point, he is averaging a mere 1.6 shots per game in less than 13 minutes of ice time every night, meaning the obvious—an increase in playing time will result in increased production.
Couturier has also created quite a few opportunities for himself and his linemates, who have simply failed to capitalize. Teaming with wingers who are known scoring commodities will also aid Couturier's progress as an offensive threat.
But it is Couturier's defensive skill that makes him the perfect fill-in on this line.
By using a top penalty killer in Couturier, Coach Laviolette is still able to match his top line up against opponents' top scorers without losing much in terms of on-ice matchups. Couturier has already proven to be one of the best two-way players in Philly.
Experience Meets Youthful Exuberance
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Wingers Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell bring nearly three decades of combined NHL experience to the Flyers' top line.
Added together, the two have played in 2,088 NHL regular season games and have amassed 856 goals and 1,202 assists for 2,058 career points. Hartnell and Jagr also bring 242 games worth of playoff experience to the table. Clearly, each knows how to get it done at the highest level.
But Flyers teams of the past have tended to rest on their laurels after strong starts, both for the team in the standings and as far as players' individual statistics.
While the character of this Flyers team appears, less than 30 games into the season, to have changed for the better, the inclusion of Couturier's youthful exuberance will further motivate the line as a whole.
Jagr and Hartnell's experience will be a great learning tool for Couturier to draw from as the season wears on, but it will be Couturier's energy and rising confidence that will continue to push the line if Giroux's injury is of the long-term variety.
Hartnell's grit, Jagr's superior talent and Couturier's presence as a rapidly improving, yet still relatively unknown commodity, will pressure opponents to figure out new defensive schemes, as the line's dynamic changes a bit without Giroux.
Perhaps Jagr, as he already seems to be doing, will choose to shoot more and spend more time with the puck on his stick than he did while teamed with Giroux. This would force defenses to change their approach to Jagr, which would create more opportunities for Hartnell and Couturier.
The continued evolution of the group will allow them to continue to find ways to produce in Giroux's absence. Teaming two respected front-line veterans with a 19-year-old rookie ensures that this will continue on both ends, as all three compete in the spirit of staying on top of their games.
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Since the lockout, the Flyers have thrived on the depth of their offense.
It seems that every season, the local and national hockey media are impressed with the Flyers' evenly-distributed scoring, evident in number of 15-20-plus goal scorers in the lineup each year.
While Philadelphia has a true Art Ross and MVP candidate in Claude Giroux, the depth seems to be coming around once again.
Tuesday night's 5-1 road victory over the Washington Capitals saw 13 different Flyers record a point. Overall, Philly has eight players with eight or more goals and 10 players are averaging at least one point every other game.
While Jagr-Couturier-Hartnell will continue to be billed as the Flyers' top line, the truth is that sometimes it's only in name.
While top defensive units will be forced to respect the offensive prowess of Jagr and Hartnell, the absence of Giroux will mean increased time for players like Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Danny Briere and even Harry Zolnierczyk.
As opponents adjust, they will be forced to decide whether to pair their best defensive unit up against Jagr's line or allocate it elsewhere in Giroux's absence. Whatever the decision is, Philly will have a viable counterattack, given the amount of talent throughout the lineup.
Sometimes a team's best player or line best serves as a decoy, creating opportunities elsewhere. While I do not expect the first line's production to fall off entirely, the rest of the team can benefit from a few more opportunities.
Learning on the Fly from the Best
If only Jagr would pair the fu' with the mullet...
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How many of the league's top lines can say they are simultaneously putting their team amongst the top contenders in their conference as well as building towards the future?
Philadelphia's certainly can.
Claude Giroux was well on his way to becoming a star before the Flyers signed Jaromir Jagr over the summer.
But Jagr's effect on Giroux's meteoric rise from potential future franchise player to legitimate superstar is unquestionable.
Forget Jagr and Giroux's amazing chemistry and dazzling playmaking abilities that have resulted in Giroux staking claim to the NHL's scoring lead before his concussion-like symptoms raised concern.
What will prove to be most important are the lessons learned, both on and off the ice, about being a superstar.
Giroux has demonstrated confidence and clutch performance in his new role, and it is hard not to attribute at least part of these characteristics to Jagr taking the 23-year-old under his wing.
Now Sean Couturier, the eighth overall pick in this year's draft, gets the same experience at only 19 years of age.
Couturier will be learning on the fly from one of the greatest players of all time in Jagr, not to mention Hartnell, recognized around the league as an all-time teammate and pain-in-the-ass opponent.
Skating with such experienced and talented linemates will only serve positively in Couturier's maturation process.
Once Giroux returns, Couturier will have had a crash course in NHL superstardom, and will be able to take those lessons and apply them to his role as a third and fourth liner at this point in his career.
Imagine what type of player and teammate Couturier will become by the time the Flyers are depending on his production at 22 or 23 when Jagr, Danny Briere and some of the other veterans have dipped or have moved on entirely.
The Flyers organization only stands to benefit from the experience Couturier—and the rest of the rookies, for that matter—are gaining.
While fans would prefer Giroux and Chris Pronger to be healthy and in the lineup, that is simply not the case. However, the Flyers are deep enough to weather the storm.
Baptism by fire is the surest way to test a prospect's NHL readiness.