Flyers coach Alain Vigneault and assistant coach Ian Laperriere have morphed into Dr. Frankenstein.
That’s because they came up with an idea – one they hope will add some toughness to a team that sorely lacks it – especially as it embarks on a 56-game season with every game coming against the same seven divisional opponents.
Expecting that things might get a little chippy between teams, and knowing the Flyers weren’t about to go out and sign a tough guy, as enforcers have gone the way of the Dodo bird in hockey, they brought a plan to General Manager Chuck Fletcher, and got the team architect to sign off on it.
Sam Morin, the one-time defensive prospect who the Flyers envisioned as a Chris Pronger reincarnation, only to have his past three seasons torn to shreds by serious knee injuries, will be switching to left wing as a potential option to be inserted into the lineup to provide size, energy, and a fearlessness when it comes to physical contact.
At first glance, this comes across as a gamble of desperation. There’s no way Morin would be ready to play defense in the NHL this season, and the Flyers are really deep on the blue line when it comes to young talent. Also, with the uncertainty of how the AHL is going to work, despite announcing a plan to return to play by Feb. 5, there is no guarantee that they’ll be able to get him ice time ahead of other prospects, especially if the Flyers have to share an affiliation with another NHL team, which seems more likely than not at this point.
Not to mention, there is a risk that Morin would be claimed on waivers, as he is no longer exempt from them before being sent down to the Phantoms.
So, instead, the Flyers are going to try and make the one-time top prospect switch positions and become a left wing.
This isn’t a novel idea. It’s been done around the league many times. It was a regular occurrence to be a dual position player back in the days of the Original Six.
Heck, Mark Howe was a winger before switching to defense to solidify his Hall of Fame career. More recently, players like Brent Burns, Mike Green and Dustin Byfuglien, who showed offensive prowess from the blue line, but lacked some of the consistent skills required to be a tried and true defenseman, switched to the wing.
Burns eventually became a solid rearguard and gave up the forward experiment. Byfuglien was more productive there than Green, but neither tuned out to be a permanent or worthwhile move.
Last season, the New York Rangers occasionally deployed Brendan Smith in both positions, often during the same game, and the Florida Panthers’ Mark Pysyk played both on the wing and on defense, an idea championed by three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville.
In Flyers history Dan Kordic switched from defense to wing on the “Dan Line” for a few seasons, but efforts to try both Dennis Seidenberg as a forward, as well as former first rounder Jason Bowen, didn’t work out.
So, it’s not like this idea is all that far outside the box.
But, where it bothers me is that Morin has played all of 124 minutes of nine NHL games since being drafted seven-and-a-half years ago.
Asking him to suddenly make that change in a season with an abbreviated training camp, with no exhibition games and a shortened and intensified regular season seems like a real grasp at straws.
To his credit, GM Chuck Fletcher did say it was going to be a challenge either way (as a defenseman or as a forward) for Morin to get to play in the NHL this season, but that there is an easier path at forward then there would be at defenseman where he is likely 10th on the depth chart, at best, if not further down that list.
Morin said it was a shock when AV first asked him to consider a position switch, but he said after talking to his agent and other coaches, like Laperriere, who has really been a mentor for Morin, he realized it was the best thing he can do.
“I’m fighting for my career,” Morin said. “I wouldn’t have gone through all this rehab if I didn’t want to play hockey… But I have to play. I just have to play. This camp will be good for me and it will give me a chance to play.”
The one thing about Morin is the Flyers really like him as a person. He is well-liked by his teammates as well. Couple that with a never-say-die work ethic and having him around the team on a daily basis could be a good bit of positive motivation for the rest of the team.
In a lot of ways, Morin will be this year’s version of Chris Stewart. An inspirational figure clinging to his professional career and doing whatever he has to do to help the team succeed, even if that just means show up and work hard in practice, even if he never plays.
The Flyers have a little cap space and could carry Morin as the 23rd player on the active roster as a healthy scratch most nights. Or, they could add him to the Taxi Squad where he can serve as a dual purpose emergency replacement if COVID-19 hits the organization, all the while practicing with the big club every day.
But there is that narrow path of old school hockey coming back en vogue, even if it’s just for one season.
Morin explained how Vigneault presented it to him very bluntly:
Sam Morin explains what AV wants from him at LW: " I am one of those big guys who is physical and fights. It's something I'm really willing to do. If I'm going to make it in the NHL (this season) I need to be physical and fight." #Flyers pic.twitter.com/cr7DPQDF5D
— Snow The Goalie: A Flyers Podcast (@SnowTheGoalie) December 31, 2020
“I was the only one in town,” Morin said. “It was October and AV was saying I was working really, really hard to get back. He asked me for a meeting and he just asked me straight up if I ever considered playing left wing.”
“He told me about how in the playoffs, especially against the Islanders, there was a lack of physicality and the guys were getting pushed around, even against Montreal. You kind of need a guy to answer that and obviously in the past I did it. I was really good at it, I think. I am one of those big guys who is physical and fights. It’s something I’m really willing to do. If I’m going to make it in the NHL (this season) I need to be physical and fight. If you look at the roster right now I don’t think there are a lot of guys willing to do it any more. Especially here. I think I’m the only one. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to do this.”
The emphasis is mine. But those are honest words from Morin. Vigneault didn’t like that his team was being, well, bullied. He’d like an option for his lineup to combat that, especially if you are going to play a team eight times.
Morin said there isn’t anyone on the team willing to take on that role except him.
That’s where this whole Frankenstein monster concept becomes interesting.
Look, fighting is not coming back to hockey the way it used to be. There aren’t going to suddenly be bench-clearing brawls, or goon-it up hockey, or a line brawl at the drop of the puck.
But, Vigneault is wise to understand that the temperature between teams may rise a little hotter in the regular season than usual with the teams playing more frequently, every game potentially creating a four-point swing in the standings, and most of the games on the schedule being played in pairs of games between two teams.
Tempers could flare. And if so, without the option of inserting a guy like Morin into the lineup for a given game, the Flyers are certainly at a disadvantage.
Morin said he’s been watching a lot of video – about 20 minutes a day – of free agent forward Matt Martin, who was with the Islanders for most of the past decade, with the exception of a two-year stint in Toronto.
He said his shifts are short and simple. He skates for about 30 seconds, waits for the puck to be behind the defensemen, makes a hit, then changes off and lets skilled players like Matthew Barzal come on the ice and the Islanders get buzzing in the offensive direction because of it.
Sounds like a simple enough model, but positioning at forward is a lot different than positioning on defense.
“I’m going to be lost out there sometimes,” Morin admitted. “But as long as I keep moving my feet, I’m a good skater and can keep up with those guys.”
Morin still believes long-term his best path to an NHL career is as a defenseman, but for this camp, for this weirdly structured season, being a left wing is OK too.
Ustimenko Under the Knife
In a small bit of news that is probably more important to the Phantoms than the Flyers:
Per Chuck Fletcher, goaltender Kirill Ustimenko underwent surgery on his hip to repair a torn labrum. He will be out approximately 4-5 months.
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) December 31, 2020
Ustimenko came on strong last year and passed Felix Sandstrom on the depth chart and was likely the guy being groomed to become Carter Hart’s backup as soon as next season. That might be delayed now.
Sandstrom will likely get a bulk of the work for the Phantoms as Alex Lyon is expected to be on the Flyers’ Taxi Squad.
Who else will get time in net for the Phantoms? Well, if the Flyers have to split the affiliation with another team, it might be someone else’s goalie. If not, the Flyers will more than likely sign someone to a minor league contract rather than try to sign one of the four goalies on their reserve list to an entry level contract that includes this season.
For more Flyers coverage, follow Snow The Goalie on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony SanFilippo and Russ Joy provide pregame and intermission coverage of every Flyers home game from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page, YouTube Live, and Twitter, and their Twitter accounts Follow @SnowTheGoalie Follow @AntSanPhilly Follow @JoyOnBroad
Subscribe to the podcast: