Claude Giroux has been the Philadelphia Flyers top line center since the start of the 2011-2012 season. His right wing has been relatively steady over the past couple of years. Jaromir Jagr flanked Giroux on the right side during his first season as the number one center and Jakub Voracek has been in that role ever since (with Brayden Schenn stepping in briefly at the beginning of each of the last two seasons). Voracek scored 22 goals in 48 games last season and has developed chemistry with Giroux. Giroux’s left side has been a revolving door. Everyone from JVR to Jason Akeson has suited up on Giroux’s left side.
For the majority of the 2011-2012 season Scott Hartnell was the left winger. Skating alongside Giroux and Jagr, Hartnell scored a career high 37 goals and signed a six year, $28.5 million contract in the 2012 off-season. During the shortened 2013 campaign, Hartnell struggled with injuries. Last season, Hartnell occasionally suited up as the top line left wing, but the spot was home to Matt Read, Tye McGinn, Simon Gagne, and even Jason Akeson last season.
Hartnell has spent a majority of this season with Giroux and Voracek. However, after Hartnell’s embarrassing game against the Blackhawks last Wednesday, in which he took one of the most egregiously dumb penalties I have ever seen, Hartnell was demoted to the second line. Twenty-five year old Austrian rookie Michael Raffl has moved into the top line left wing spot since Thursday’s game against the Canadiens. In two games on the top line Raffl has a goal and three assists and has arguably been the Flyers best forward.
The question that now reigns down from the fans is when Lecavalier returns, does Hartnell move back to the top line? And does Raffl get moved back to the fourth line? Most fans would answer in a heartbeat that Hartnell should have to earn his way back to the top. Unfortunately, Craig Berube and the rest of the organization seems to love Hartnell, and with the ‘A’ on his jersey it is doubtful that he would be pulling third or fourth line duty.
I like Raffl. I think he is a good player and, as I will explain later, he is a better fit on the top line than a 31+ year old Scott Hartnell. But the question to look at in regards to Raffl has more to do with his current line-mates, Giroux and Voracek. Simply put, does Raffl’s recent success have more to do with playing alongside world-class talents like Giroux and Voracek than it does with his own ability? To put it another way, is Michael Raffl anything special, or would anyone have inflated numbers on the left flank of the Flyers two best weapons?
To truly assess Raffl’s skill on the left wing will take a much larger sample size. In two games on the top line he has four points. In only one game on Giroux and Voracek’s wing last season Jason Akeson scored a goal. Tye McGinn had three goals in his first two games this season on the top line. Another example to examine is Simon Gagne. He had a more extended stretch at the end of last season with Giroux and Voracek. He played with them for eight games and could only muster four points (1G, 3A).
There are other factors that come into play when assessing Raffl that make him a good fit for the line.
First of all, he has had time to adjust. What turned the Flyers on to Raffl in the first place was his play at last year’s World Championships. Raffl played alongside Thomas Vanek and looked like a solid player. However, the ice rinks over in Europe are bigger than North American rinks. No player can be expected to immediately develop on a totally different sized rink. Raffl is clearly getting the hang of the smaller ice surface.
Second of all, he is responsible defensively. Giroux and Voracek are the Flyers best offensive weapons. They need to focus their energy and creativity on making plays in the offensive zone. Raffl’s defensive awareness allows his line-mates the freedom to create offensively.
Third, he has great hockey sense. It was clear watching his goal against the Canadiens and his first two assists on Sunday that Raffl has a keen awareness of where to be on the ice. He is a good fore-checker who gets the puck to his line-mates. His positioning is second to none and he knows where to go to retrieve the puck. He keeps his head on a swivel and plays a smart game.
Finally, he is quick. Hartnell, McGinn, and Gagne are a lot of things, but none of them are particularly speedy. Gagne was once a fast skater, but by the time he was flanking Giroux and Voracek, he had slowed down quite a bit. Raffl may not be as big and gritty as Hartnell or McGinn, but he is no scrub along the boards. He is capable of winning battles along the walls, and he adds the speed to keep up with Giroux and Voracek.
Will Raffl ever be a 40 goal scorer? I highly doubt it. Can his presence on the top line turn Voracek into one? I certainly think it is possible.
The sample size is small. In two weeks we may all look back and wonder how we were duped by this incredibly average Austrian. For now, however, Raffl has earned his spot as the top line left wing. Flyers fans can only hope that he ends the cycle of the revolving door.