VOORHEES, N.J. – Sean Couturier has been teammates with Claude Giroux for six years. And other than the odd shift here and there, the two have never played together on the same line with any regularity.
Until now. Maybe.
For one day at least, Giroux was shifted from the center spot he has played exclusively for almost his entire professional career, to the left wing, with Couturier in the middle and Jake Voracek on the right wing.
It was one practice. In training camp. And as Giroux said afterward, “I don’t want to talk too much about it because I may not see one shift on left wing.”
Got it. Don’t read too much into it. Except, it’s an interesting notion.
First of all, for all you analytics geeks, that combination would be a puck possession monster. Couturier was superb last season. Voracek’s possession numbers were down a little bit last year, but were still decent – and normally he’s excellent. And Giroux is always above average.
So yeah, that’s good stuff.
Secondly, the real intriguing concept of this combination is putting both Giroux and Voracek on their off-hand wing.
“So, you always like to play on your off wing because you can see so much more of the ice,” Voracek told me. “When you have two guys who are doing that, and one of them is a guy like G who has elite vision, it can be really tough to defend.”
Defensemen would be on a swivel as there would be additional passing lanes created by two off-handed wingers.
Thirdly, last season, one of the disappointing aspects of the top line was that it wasn’t very good defensively. And no matter how good your possession numbers are (and they were down across the board last season) you still have to play defense 45-50 percent of the time. Putting Couturier on that top line would immediately change that for the better.
So there are a lot of positives here.
But, it is definitely something that could have a ripple effect down the line. Would moving Couturier change the defensive strength down the lineup? Is he a productive enough player offensively to merit top-line minutes? Does moving Giroux to the wing impact his production?
“We’re in camp and we want to look at all the good options we might have, and this is one we wanted to look at,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “This was a good day to take a look at it in practice and overall it was a pretty effective day for that group.
“G is still our number one center, but he’s such a skilled player that he can play anywhere on the ice. The level of camp G has had is outstanding. We talked about this a lot and thought this was a good time to look at it. We still have to evaluate it and take a look at it further and see where we go from there. We’re not going to draw any conclusions, but we’ll look at it and see if there’s a next step.”
Nevertheless, it was a novel idea that Giroux welcomed.
“[Hakstol] came to me yesterday and asked me what I thought about it,” Giroux said. “It’s hard to complain when you are playing with Jake and Coots.”
Giroux was drafted as a right wing in 2006. He played right wing for the Flyers through the 2010 playoffs. But he’s played center only during 5-on-5 play since 2010-11.
But left wing is new.
“We did a lot of drills with me coming down the left wing there,” he said. “I can see the ice pretty good from there with the puck on my good side. It was actually a lot of fun. If it makes the team better, I’m up for it. I liked it today and I think it can work.”
As for Couturier, he is widely misidentified as a mediocre-at-best offensive player. Honestly, he is one of the Flyers’ best 5-on-5 scorers – he was second only to Voracek in even strength goals. The reason his offensive numbers seem down is because he doesn’t get a lot of prime power play time.
“Me and Coots have been talking about it for a few years now,” Giroux said. “We’ve always wanted to play together. I like the way he views the game. He’s a better offensive player than people think. I can bring a little more offensive to his game and he can bring a little more defense to mine – I think it’s a good trade off.”
Couturier knows he’s been labeled as a defense-first player, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he thinks there’s a lot more to his own game than that.
“I guess I got that reputation my rookie year when I played against [Evgeni] Malkin in the playoffs,” Couturier told me. “But I try not to put myself into that ‘shut down guy’ category. I want to be known more as a 200-foot guy. A guy who can play at both ends. I want to be a go-to guy. I want to be like [Boston Bruins center Patrice] Bergeron or [Los Angeles Kings center Anze] Kopitar. They’re not slashy skill guys, but they get the job done on both ends off the ice, and that’s how I model my game.”
This is definitely something worth looking at in the preseason. There’s no harm in it. However, I don’t think it’s a long-term concept as a regular line for the Flyers.
That said, I definitely think it’s something for Hakstol to have in his back pocket for certain matchups – much like Pittsburgh does when they combine Sidney Crosby and Malkin or when San Jose puts Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski together.
In fact, Giroux mentioned the two Joes today. He talked about it from a faceoff perspective saying how hard it is to always take a draw against a guy on his strong side – meaning Pavelski on one side of the ice and Thornton on the other – faceoff wins lead to puck possession, and well, controlling the puck is the name of the game.
Positional versatility is an important thing to have on a roster, and it’s especially important for the Flyers, who are overloaded with centers.
Jori Lehtera, for example, played left wing for the first five days of camp and in the preseason game Sunday in New York, but he was back at center today.
Having that flexibility is important, and finding guys who can easily transition between positions is paramount. Giroux is certainly a guy who is capable.
Frankly, this center log jam is the result of some good luck for the Flyers. When the Flyers acquired Valtteri Filppula at the trade deadline last year in the Mark Streit deal, they made the trade figuring they’d have a veteran center with one year left on his contract who could be a placeholder until a younger prospect – like maybe German Rubtsov – was ready. General Manager Ron Hextall never expected to “win” the lottery and be able to draft Nolan Patrick – who will make this team, trust me. If Hextall knew at last season’s deadline that he would get a talent like Patrick in the draft, I’m betting he never would have traded for Filppula.
Nevertheless, there’s a log jam down the middle. Having the flexibility to move guys like Giroux and Lehtera to the wing allows the team to conceptually go into the season with six centers on the roster, which is also good from a depth perspective.
In the end, you may see Giroux and Couturier playing together more regularly, but I wouldn’t go out and start coming up with a nickname for this line combination just yet.
– Wayne Simmonds missed practice for a second straight day. I asked for an official reason from Hextall and I was given the old “maintenance day” answer. Let me be clear. Maintenance days are rare in the preseason. Even still, I can accept one. But two days in a row? Camp opened Friday. It’s Tuesday. I know practices have been hard, but come on now. There’s something more there, but I don’t know what… yet.
– Talked to Scott Laughton for a bit. He said his biggest challenge was accepting his role as a two-way depth player. “You always want to be ‘the guy,’ you know?’ He told me. “When you’ve been that all your life, it’s hard to just become something else. It took me awhile, but I’ve come to grips with that now. I get it.” Laughton started to accept it last year and looked good at times for the Flyers. He looks to have taken another step forward in camp so far. I think he will be the fourth line center on this team – which would be a credit to him for his work ethic and maturity. A lot of young guys never figure it out. I think Laughton has.
– So much for Travis Sanheim still having a shot to make the team out of camp. He was sent to “Group 2” for practice, which is mostly all the Phantoms players, etc. He was replaced in Group 1 by T.J. Brennan. Brennan, a local product from Moorestown, N.J. is a 28-year-old veteran who can be a good depth guy for the Flyers. Hakstol said he’s looked good in camp and deserves an opportunity with the main group. I don’t think he makes the team, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a call-up at some point – especially if there is an injury early in the season.
– Speaking of defensive depth, some whispers here is that 2014 third round draft pick Mark Friedman may be climbing the prospect depth chart. I think he’ll play a bunch in the preseason, and if he looks as good as he did in the rookie game last week, could be knocking on the same door as Sanheim and Phillippe Myers this season.