After a down year in 2016-17, Claude Giroux had a renaissance of sorts this past season when the Flyers moved him from center to wing, a decision that resulted in putting together what was arguably the best single season performance his career. He led the league with 68 assists, was second in the scoring race behind only Connor McDavid, become just the sixth player in the past seven seasons to top the 100-point mark.
He was a legitimate MVP contender (he finished fourth in the voting; he was second on my ballot) for a Flyers team that made a return to the playoffs.
With Giroux seemingly back to being an elite scorer, a strong nucleus of young players led by Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Nolan Patrick, and (perhaps most importantly) goaltender Carter Hart, as well as the return of top-line goal-scorer James van Riemsdyk in free agency, the Flyers look like a team that could be a major player in the Eastern Conference in the coming seasons.
Earlier this month NBC Philadelphia’s John Boruk made the argument (read it here) that moving Giroux back to center could be the Flyers’ best move in an effort to balance the lineup, and that it is something the team’s brass might even be considering. Whether or not the Flyers have actually considered it or are considering it, let’s just entertain the possibility because …. well … it’s July 23 and there’s no better time like the present to discuss hypothetical line combinations for the upcoming season.
It is a compelling argument that is centered around Giroux’s return to center giving the team a depth-chart down the middle of Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Patrick, while also giving Travis Konecny what would most likely be a guaranteed spot as a top-six winger.
Here is the counterpoint.
By moving Giroux back to center the Flyers would be breaking up what was by far the best element of their 2017-18 team, which was the duo of Giroux and Couturier on the top line. After years of being a shutdown center that excelled defensively with decent-but-not-great offense, Couturier finally got an opportunity to play top-line minutes alongside a world-class winger and saw his offensive production skyrocket, shattering all of his previous career bests across the board. He was a monster and the duo was as dominant as any other forward pairing in the league.
It was the first time Giroux and Couturier saw extended time on a line together and the results were everything the Flyers could have hoped for. When the two were on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Flyers controlled more than 55 percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams by an incredible 70-40 margin. Splitting that up would seem to be counterproductive to making your team better because, well, if you had a top-line that dominates possession and outscores the opponents by 30 goals over the course of a season you are probably going to win a lot of hockey games as a result.
Not only would the Flyers be breaking up what was one of the best duos in the league, it would put Couturier back into a spot where he may not be able to excel as much offensively. It is probably not a coincidence that Couturier’s offense surged from a 35-40 point level to the 76-point level he was at this past season with a little increased ice time and top-line wingers next to him. And it’s not like he was riding a wave of unsustainable percentages. His shooting percentage was similar to his career averages, and while the shooting percentage of his linemates surged, that was probably the result of him setting up Claude Giroux on a regular basis instead of a revolving door of second-and third-line wingers.
The other thing keeping Giroux on the wing accomplishes: It gives the Flyers an opportunity to give Patrick an increased role and turn him loose a little bit.
The No. 2 overall pick in 2017, Patrick began to get an increased role in the second half of his rookie campaign and gradually saw his production start to take off.
Over the last 30 games of the regular season he scored at what would have been a 50-point pace over 82 games (a very impressive pace a 19-year-old rookie). Even though the final scoring line did not show it, he was also one of the Flyers’ most consistent and dangerous players in their first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. His performance as a young, emerging talent was very similar to the way a young Giroux began to show his potential in the 2009 playoffs while serving as an understudy on a Flyers team that had established veterans like Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
With Giroux, Coutuerier, Patrick, van Riemsdyk, Jakub Voracek, and either Konecny, Wayne Simmonds the Flyers would have one of the league’s best top-six forward groupings in the league, while still having Scott Laughton and either Simmonds or Konecny to form the foundation of what could still be a strong third-line. That seems to be more worthwhile to the Flyers than spreading the wealth down the middle and reducing the roles for Couturier and Patrick, both of whom could be impact players in first-and second-line roles.