Eight straight victories now for the Flyers, another comfortable one Thursday night over the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-1, and maybe the best indication of how good they are now, how good they can be, was a decision their head coach didn’t have to make.
A couple of hours before Thursday’s game, Alain Vigneault revealed that James van Riemsdyk had broken his right index finger Wednesday night in Washington and would miss four to six weeks of action. Joel Farabee, freshly recalled from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, entered the lineup on the second line, joining Kevin Hayes and Travis Konecny and bumping Scott Laughton down to the third line, where van Riemsdyk had been, with Derek Grant and Tyler Pitlick.
Van Riemsdyk has 19 goals this season, tied for fourth on the team, and his absence isn’t insignificant. The Flyers signed him to a five-year, $35-million contract in June 2018, and they signed him to score goals, and even if he hasn’t done that with the frequency he or they have wanted this season, he is still capable, still a threat, when healthy. Now he’s not, and Vigneault and general manager Chuck Fletcher’s quick answer was to insert a 20-year-old rookie in his place. Here’s the thing: Vigneault apparently never considered breaking up the Flyers’ first line — Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, and Jake Voracek — for the sake of trying to distribute scoring among the four lines. And the reason he didn’t is obvious: He didn’t have to consider it.
“Joel has been here most of the season with our team, and he’s been an effective player,” Vigneault said. “He can fit in well with Hayesie and TK, and the three lines were playing well. Just made a little subtle change there, and guys needed to figure it out, and they did.”
For the first time in a long time, the Flyers have guys who can figure it out. For the first time in a long time, they have enough depth and savvy up and down their roster to squeeze an opponent to death over 60 minutes. The acquisitions of Hayes in the offseason and Grant and Nate Thompson at the trade deadline — coupled with the development of Travis Konecny, Laughton, and even Farabee — have afforded Vigneault the luxury of using all four of his forward lines relatively equally.
Former coach Dave Hakstol had elevated Couturier to Giroux and Voracek’s line at the beginning of the 2017-18 season, and the combination clicked right away. It led to Couturier’s scoring 31 goals, then a career high. But the Flyers didn’t have the personnel, and much of that personnel didn’t have the experience, for Hakstol to keep that line together at all times. Valtteri Filppula wasn’t a No. 2 center, and Nolan Patrick wasn’t ready to be one. The alignment was too top-heavy.
“In the past, top guys would roll 27, 28 minutes a game,” Laughton said. “Now you’re not scared to put any guys out there in any situation.”
Separate Couturier, Giroux, and Voracek? The thought never occurred to Vigneault. “When you look at the parity and look at the game being played tonight, they’re so tight and so hard-fought,” he said. “Coots’ line is playing head-to-head with the other team’s top line. If you break out even at the end of the game, it might be a good thing. You need your other lines, and I thought Nate’s line and Derek’s line played extremely well.” As a bonus, the Flyers lead the NHL in goals scored by defensemen, and Thursday was another example of the way Vigneault’s system and the roster’s makeup are working in concert. Ivan Provorov, a defenseman, scored their first goal, and Michael Raffl and Nick Aube-Kubel, their fourth-line wings, scored their second and third, respectively.
There’s a chicken-or-egg aspect to Vigneault’s approach, of course. Are the forwards playing well because he’s balancing their playing time, or is he balancing their playing time because they’re playing so well? The latter is the likelier answer, but either way, the long-term benefit to the Flyers is obvious. Couturier entered Thursday’s game averaging 19 minutes, 50 seconds of ice time per game, more than two minutes less than he did last season. Giroux’s minutes are down by 2:20 a night; Voracek’s, by 1:40. The team’s best forwards promise to be fresher for the postseason.