Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Power Play Units, Rookie Camp Updates

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FLYERS POWER PLAY MUST ADJUST TO PERSONNEL SHIFTS

Over the last two-and-a-half seasons, the personnel on the Flyers’ primary 5-on-4 power play unit was nearly constant. Ever since Peter Laviolette moved Wayne Simmonds to the top unit in the second half of the 2011-12 season (moving Jaromir Jagr to the second unit except in 5-on-3 situations), the top group of five rarely changed.

Claude Giroux anchored the unit, handling the puck as much as possible especially from the left half boards to hash marks. Kimmo Timonen worked atop the umbrella from the left point out to center point. Jakub Voracek roved all the way up and down the right side. Simmonds was the primary net-front presence. Scott Hartnell helped dig pucks out down low, slid over just inside the left circle for one-timer opportunities and also looked for rebound chances near the net or the slot.

Over the last three seasons, the Flyers’ top unit has done a lot of damage to opposing teams. It is their success that has carried the bulk of the club’s overall solid power play efficiency statistics.

The Flyers’ power play clicked at a 19.7 percent success ratio in the 2011-12 regular season (ranked 6th in the NHL), 21.6 percent in 2011-12 (3rd in the NHL) and 19.7 percent (8th in the NHL) in 2013-14.

In the 2012 playoffs, the power play clicked at a staggering 35.7 percent (tops among all teams). During last year’s Rangers series, the power play ran alternately cold and hot throughout but still finished the series with a 28.6 success ratio (tied for first among all playoff clubs).

For the first time in several years, the Flyers will have to make some personnel adjustments on the top unit entering the 2014-15 season. Hartnell was traded to Columbus in the off-season. Timonen was diagnosed in August with blood clots in his lungs and right calf, and will miss much or all of the upcoming season depending on the exact nature of his condition and recovery.

Veteran Mark Streit, an accomplished power play point man who chipped in 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) mostly on the second unit for the Flyers last season, will almost certainly be tabbed to move into Timonen’s slot on the first unit. Streit and Timonen flip-flopped roles for a short portion of last season. Streit has a rocket of a shot and plenty of NHL and international experience manning a point on the man advantage.

However, there is some adjustment for Streit to make to playing the left point. He has more commonly worked effectively from the right side over to center point despite the fact that he (like Timonen) is a left-handed shot. With the Flyers’ umbrella setup and preferred puck rotations, it’s a doable adjustment for an offensively creative Streit. May of his plumb shots will come from over the middle.

Having both Timonen and Streit available for power play duty last season was a nice luxury for the Flyers. Now, the Flyers hope that new acquisition Michael Del Zotto provides a healthy number of power play points in the secondary role Streit played a year ago.

In 2011-12, Del Zotto had a 14-point power play season (one goal, 13 assists) for the New York Rangers amid his career-best 10 goals and 41 points. As a rookie in 2009-10, Del Zotto posted 22 power play points (four goals, 18 assists) en route to a nine-goal, 37 point campaign. Last season, Del Zotto had five power play points in 42 games for the Rangers (one goal, four assists) before his trade to Nashville. With the Predators, Del Zotto barely got out on the ice in power play situations, averaging a mere 14 seconds per game in his 25-game stint with the club. He did not post a point.

Meanwhile, the Flyers have a few options at their disposal to replace Hartnell on the top unit. Along with getting the first opportunity to slot into Hartnell’s former five-on-five role as the left winger on the first line, Brayden Schenn could also move into Hartnell’s role on the primary power play unit.

Schenn has a better natural shot than Hartnell’s and the play in which Hartnell moved inside the left hash marks for a shot opportunity might translate well with Schenn being the one to pull the trigger. That is one of his own “sweet spots” on the ice, and he could benefit from the luxury of having playmakers the caliber of Giroux and Voracek feeding him passes into that area.

At this point of Schenn’s career, Hartnell still remains the more reliable of the two players in winning battles along the walls and creating room for his linemates. If Schenn can improve his consistency in that area, he could enable Philly’s top power play unit to adjust rapidly to the loss of Hartnell.

With most NHL teams, there is a drop off in quality from the primary power play to the second unit. The Flyers are no exception. The second unit might get 20 to 40 seconds worth of ice time in a two-minute five-on-three — often tipping toward the lower end of the scale — and there has been more shuffling of personnel on and off the unit over the last few seasons. For the most part, the Flyers’ second unit has been rather pedestrian over the last few seasons.

In 2013-14, Schenn averaged 2:11 of power play ice time per game, almost exclusively on the second unit. Vincent Lecavalier, who likes to wire shots from the right side or look for chances near the net, averaged 2:27 of power play time. Mostly, Lecavalier played on the second unit at 5-on-4 but would often move up to the top unit when the Flyers gained a 5-on-3 manpower advantage. Giroux tried to set up Lecavalier to blast away on one timers if and when Philly could get set up as they wanted.

During the 2013-14 season, Lecavalier notched eight power play goals and five assists. Schenn had four goals and nine points on the man advantage. The rest of the personnel got juggled quite a bit.

Matt Read had two power play points (zero goals, two assists) last season in an average 1:35 time on ice (TOI) per game. Now with Pittsburgh, Steve Downie had two power play goals and two assists over his 51 games with the Flyers and an average of 1:33 of ice time. Sean Couturier (zero goals, three assists) had a 1:16 TOI power play average. Defenseman Andrew MacDonald (zero points) averaged 1:34 of ice time on the second unit in 19 games after his acquisition from the New York Islanders.

Entering the 2014-15 season, there are jobs to be won on the second unit.

Last season in Columbus, Umberger averaged 2:03 TOI on the power play and produced a club-high eight power play goals among his 12 points on the man advantage. In the four previous seasons, his power play usage and production for the Blue Jackets were as follows: eight power play goals (tops on the team) and 13 points in 3:17 TOI in 2010-11, five power play goals and 10 points over 3:09 average power play ice time in 2011-12 and two PPG and four points 2:41 TOI in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

If Schenn does not move up to the top unit — or fails to hold onto the role — the more experienced Umberger is probably the next most logical candidate for the spot. Otherwise, Umberger will probably be featured as a regular on the secondary power play unit.

In the meantime, Couturier has not looked very effective in most of his NHL power play duty to date in his career, but there will be increased opportunity to get ice time in those situations in the 2014-15 preseason and early in the season. He will have to make the most of it. The same goes for Read.

The Flyers would like to add a playmaker up front to work with Lecavalier both on the second power play unit and at even strength. Barring the acquisition of a veteran, Berube may attempt to use rookie forward Jason Akeson to fill this niche. Akeson has been a good AHL-level playmaker in his career to date and notched a power play goal in the Rangers series while averaging 1:44 of ice time.

If the Flyers end up juggling second unit personnel frequently in a search for some chemistry up front, a player such as Michael Raffl or even Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (who has been a good power play performer in Sweden’s SHL and internationally for Team France) could wind seeing some second unit duty.

While the Flyers top unit typically uses Voracek as the “right point” (although he is pretty much free to roam the entire right side of the ice), the second unit last season often had two defensemen on the ice in lieu of deploying four natural forwards. That was why MacDonald averaged as much power play time as he did. MacDonald mostly was stationed up high at the left point while Streit was the quarterback on the other side.

It would be nice if the Flyers could add a righthanded point shot in lieu of MacDonald. Defenseman Luke Schenn is not an ideal power play type, but has the only righthanded shot in the Flyers projected starting defense. A forward like Akeson is a possibility but that would leave Philly’s second unit particularly prone to shorthanded counterattacks.

*********** ROOKIE CAMP UPDATE: DAY 2

The Flyers ran a lengthy rookie training camp practice yesterday at the Skate Zone in Voorhees. The session ran well over 90 minutes. The first part of practice was conducted on the Phantoms rink and then immediately moved over to the Flyers rink.

Flyers head coach Craig Berube and his assistants — which include Lehigh Valley Phantoms

head coach Terry Murray — ran the players through various aspects of the NHL team’s system on both the first and second days of the camp.

The highlight of yesterday’s practice came near the end. Berube ran a fun drill in which the two nets were moved near the half boards in the same zone and players competed 3-on-3 and 2-on-2.

“That’s a good drill,” said Berube. “We do that drill with our big guys do a lot. It makes you think quickly and compete for pucks in small areas and make plays. It’s good stuff.”

During both the line rush and short-rink drills, the shooting prowess and puckhandling ability of defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere stood out. As anyone who watched him play for Union College or gold medalist Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championships could attest, Gostisbehere has an explosive shot and a love of roaming with the puck. Berube couldn’t help but notice.

“You really notice Gostisbehere,” the caoch said. “The way he gets up the ice and skates. He’s so smooth. It’s hard not to notice him. There are a lot of guys who do different things for the hockey team. Each individual has his own, little thing.”

Berube also could not resist making a tongue-in-cheek joke about Gostisbehere being a rover.

“Gostisbehere a couple times had me confused,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t know which team he was on.”

On at least three occasions over the two practice sessions, Gostisbehere scored beautiful goals. His best one came during the first session off the line rush, as he pinched all the way up the ice and roofed an unstoppable shot high over the glove side of 2012 second-round pick Anthony Stolarz.

In the hands department, the only other two players at yesterday’s camp session who kept pace with Gostisbehere were 2014 second-round pick Nicolas Aube-Kubel and second-year Phantoms forward Petr Straka. Both players sniped several pretty goals while displaying good speed.

Aube-Kubel, who scored two goals in Val-d’Or’s QMJHL regular season opener after racking up six goals and seven points in four preseason games, said after practice that his offensive confidence has increased with the greater ice time he’s gotten.

During the first practice session, Aube-Kubel fired a tracer of a wrist shot through the five-hole of goaltender Martin Ouellette. Later, he made a waist-high deflection of a shot from Samuel Morin, radically changing the direction and sending it past a helpless Stolarz. Finally, he beat 2014 first-round pick Travis Sanheim to a rebound near the net and quickly stashed the puck home.

“He’s the type of guy who goes to the net hard and has a good stick around the net,” Berube said of Aube-Kubel. “He sort of plays an up-and-down game. He’s not a flashy player (but he has) good speed.”

Second season Phantoms forward Brandon Alderson also showed good wheels in yesterday’s session. The 6-foot-4 forward did not have as much success as Straka, 2012 first-round pick Scott Laughton, Nick Cousins or Aube-Kubel in finishing plays yesterday but it was hard not to notice the big guy’s fleet feet. Likewise, rookie pro Taylor Leier showed some quick acceleration during the sessions.

Speaking of good skaters, 2014 first-round pick Travis Sanheim may need more experience to add muscle before he’s close to being ready to graduate to the pro game, but the defenseman is already NHL-caliber strictly from a skating standpoint. He makes every stride look effortless. Sanheim also has good instincts and showed a lot of poise in forechecking and breakout work yesterday. His routes to the puck and defensive angles are good. His puck retrievals were some of the fastest in camp yesterday and he put many of his breakout passes right on the tape of his intended target even from a fair amount of distance.

From a physical standpoint, Sanheim is still a tall drink of water. He needs to fill out considerably. He does not seem to shoot the puck especially hard but he had decent accuracy in getting it on net in yesterday’s drills.

Berube, who is not someone to throw out idle compliments, issued multi-layered praise about Sanheim’s mental makeup as well as his physical skills.

Said Berube, “He’s a heads-up hockey player. He can move. Good composure. And he’s got good skill sets with his hands. He’s kind of an all-around defenseman. He seems like he’s pretty polished upstairs. He’s got good composure and it doesn’t seem like he gets rattled too easily. I like the way he thinks out there.”

Morin, who was paired with Gostibehere yesterday, now packs more than 20 pounds more on his massive frame (which has grown to 6-foot-7) than he did when the Flyers drafted him in the first round just one summer ago. Apart from his reach and physical intimidation factor, the main thing that jumps out about Morin is his intense competitiveness on the ice even in a practice session.

Yesterday, when he partially shanked a puck on a retrieve-and-pass segment of practice, Morin was visibly upset with himself. For the rest of the drill, he didn’t so much patrol his area of the ice as he stalked it. Even his skates made a louder sound.

Philly’s 2013 second-round pick, Robert Hägg, did not stand out much yesterday in either a positive or negative way. He showed poise and handled all the drills competently with and without the puck. He has a laidback type of personality, which can be a positive or a negative.

On the positive side. Hägg’s calm demeanor helped him late last season when he played in the AHL with the Phantoms after completing his SHL season with Modo. He understood the adjustments involved in playing on the smaller rink in a more physical style of hockey but never got overwhelmed any of it. That impressed Murray and the Flyers organization. Likewise, he seems to be grasping systems quickly and is not intimidated by the level of competition that surrounds him.

On the flip side, having a type B personality on and off the ice can sometimes hinder ambitions or wringing out the absolute maximum of the player’s potential. Fairly or unfairly, one of the main criticisms of Hägg when he played in Sweden was that he needed to elevate his “compete level” more.

I have never heard Hägg’s attitude questioned by any of his scouts or scouts from a work ethic standpoind. That’s not the issue. He’s clearly a good kid who is coachable. Even so, these are the questions that get asked: Does he burn with an internal desire to be the absolute best player he can be or is too content to just go with the flow? He wants to win and do well, of course, but is he sickened by the thought of losing?

After practice yesterday, I asked Hägg — who wears a pleasant smile on his face and is both friendly and approachable if a bit shy and reserved — a couple of roundabout questions trying to dig beyond the surface of what makes him tick as player.

The main question I asked him was whether he thinks he can eventually become a regular power play defenseman at the pro level and a leading point producer among defensemen on his team while still playing good defense.

“I don’t know how much I’m going to be [of an] offensive defenseman,” Hägg said. “I want to be a good two-way player, move the puck, play physical. I don’t know about [if I am going to be able] to put up a lot of points.”

Hägg’s answer was modest and self-effacing. He is clearly not an egotistical player. He’ll do whatever role is asked of him. Nevertheless, he’s a player who seems to have a well of talent — offensively as well as defensively — to draw from if he is driven to dig as deep as he possibly can.

Hägg has has been more of a mobile shutdown defenseman and puck-mover internationally for Sweden’s J20 team than a big point producer. Even so, he has offensive ability at the junior level. He posted 11 goals and 24 points in 28 games for Modo’s J20 team in 2012-13 before graduating full time to the SHL level. He simplified his game as he moved up.

Not surprisingly, Hägg didn’t see much power play time for Modo in 2013-14 as an 18-year-old. He had a modest six points (one goal, five assists) in 50 games of wavering overall ice time. Nevertheless, there were still hints of offensive upside. Most notably, he scored three preseason goals last year for Modo’s senior team (with regular power play time) and had a goal and four points in his 10-game AHL stint with the Phantoms last year.

There are no “right” or “wrong” answers, but I was hoping that Hägg would say that his ultimate goal is to become someone who can be a difference-maker in key offensive situations and also a difference-maker with the game on the line defensively. It needn’t be cockiness, just a matter-of-fact self-confidence and ambition. That’s the mentality that drives the very best two-way defensemen in the game along with their physical skills.

I am not saying that I think Hägg should try to outdo Gostisbehere in shooting the puck or go around crushing people on the walls like Morin. He has to be himself and work within his own skill sets.

What I am saying is that the Flyers would love to see Hägg set the bar as high as possible for himself in every aspect of the game. He must see the quality of competition in camp and use it as motivation to show the decision-makers in the organization that he can do many different things well.

Here’s how I view it: There is nothing wrong with making safe, smart plays with the puck and then hanging back. Every NHL team has room for a big, mobile defenseman who makes a good first pass and is reliable in defensive coverages. However, if a player has the mentality that he doubts he will ever be a little more than that and become a significant point producer as well, he probably won’t even if he has such potential.

The difference between a typical “puck-moving defenseman” and a two-way player who also puts up points is a) the willingness to take some intelligent gambles and b) an ability to recover more often than not when he makes a mistake. I think Hägg has that sort of potential if he hits the absolute ceiling of his potential as a teenage player when he becomes a fully developed pro.

Additionally, young players can learn a lot from watching veterans at work. Something that Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere has said many times is that young players who aspire to the NHL should pay very close attention to the veteran pros, even if they play different roles and are non-stars.

There’s a reason why these players GET to become veterans and to play in the NHL Watch how they prepare on a day-in and day-out basis. Take note how they react to good shifts and bad shifts. See how they pace the season and adhere to their practice routines. By all means ask questions as often as possible and seek out their knowledge.

Yesterday, I asked Hägg about playing with Richie Regehr with Modo last year; specifically whether he was someone guys on the team Hägg studied a bit because of his veteran status and variety of experience that included some NHL games.

“No, I didn’t think about something like that,” Hägg said. “We are different kinds of players. I mean, Richie is a nice guy and he is good in the room, but we have different styles.”

I was already aware that the two are dissimilar defensemen in their skill sets. Nevertheless, I brought up Regehr’s name for a very specific reason. Although Richie has never been as good of a player as his brother, Robyn, they are cut from a similar cloth. Richie, who played 14 NHL games for Calgary, was one of Modo’s team leaders last year as an assistant captain and skated on the top pairing.

Shortly after he signed with the Flyers earlier this year, I spoke briefly with Hägg in the press box during intermission of a game. I asked him about his relationship with Flyers development coach Kjell Samuelsson.

“Kjell has been a big help to me,” Hägg said. “He played a long time and he knows a lot about the game. For sure, he’s someone I respect.”

I am hopeful that Hägg continues to take advantage of his access to Samuelsson at rookie camp, and not just because Sammy is a fellow Swede or that he traveled to Sweden last season to observe and work with Hägg firsthand. Hägg can learn a lot simply by picking Samuelsson’s brain about playing defense in the AHL and NHL.

Before embarking on a coaching career that now spans 15 years, Kjell made an 810-plus NHL game career for himself. That is a long playing career for some one who did not come to North America until he was 27 years old and was never a star. Samuelsson achieved longevity because he knew how to get the absolute maximum out what he did well and had both physical and mental toughness. It doesn’t matter than Kjell was a totally different type of defenseman than Hägg.

Regardless of his own role during his playing days, Kjell fully understands Hägg’s skill set and team fit as well as those of all the other defense prospects at camp. So do the on-ice coaches at the camp such as Murray and Gord Murphy. There are decades of NHL playing and coaching experience on hand for from which all these young defensemen — and other position players — can avail themselves.

Ultimately, the prospects who most impress Berube, the other coaches and general manager Ron Hextall won’t be the ones who just have the highest natural skill levels. It will be the ones who actively seek out coaching and absorb things like a sponge. They want to see players who not only dream the big dreams of becoming NHL standouts someday but who also have a go-getter mentality to make it happen.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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