TRADING PLACES: SCHENN SOARING, SIMMONDS STRUGGLING
Confidence is fickle sometimes, even for the better players on a hockey team. A player can get into a groove for weeks at a time, have a few games where things don’t go his way and then suddenly he starts pressing. On the flip side, a player might be mired on a slump, score a goal or drop the gloves and suddenly the frustration dissolves into a stretch of effective hockey.
Flyers forwards Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds have similar offensive statistics early in the 2014-15 season. Through 16 games, Schenn has six goals, 13 points, nine penalty minutes, a plus-five at even strength and a 17.6 shooting percentage. Assistant captain Simmonds has seven goals, 12 points, 10 penalty minutes, a plus-six, and a 16.7 shooting percentage.
It has been the means by which the two players have gotten to those totals that have differed. Simmonds started out the season on fire offensively. In the season’s first four games, he racked up five goals (three on the power play) and seven points.
Not only was Simmonds scoring “power forward” type of goals on the doorstep of the net and playing his usual gritty and physical game, he was successfully making all sorts of creative finesse plays that were downright eye-openers. He seemed to have taken his game to the next level, just as Jakub Voracek did at the start and has continued to do through the first 16 games.
Over the next batch games, Simmonds had a few nights where the chances and shots were still there for him — a healthy 16 shots on goal over the next five games — but the goals stopped coming. Eventually, he started to press a bit. He endured a stretch of nine games where he had only one goal and one assist.
When second-year forward Michael Raffl — a player who suddenly had soaring offensive confidence as a member of the top line after struggling offensively most of his rookie year — went down to injury, Flyers head coach Craig Berube made a mid-game decision in a Nov. 6 match against Florida to put Simmonds on the left wing with team captain Claude Giroux and Voracek.
The move was an intriguing one: the righthanded shooting Simmonds had never played his off-wing in his career but he does frequently station himself to the left side of the goal line on the power play. Berube reasoned that Simmonds would benefit from having elite playmakers in Giroux and Voracek feeding him to the puck. In turn, Simmonds’ physical game and hard work on the boards could benefit the line on the forecheck and create some additional space for Giroux and Voracek to operate.
The experiment had mixed results. Simmonds did score a power play goal and chip in an assist in the Flyers’ 4-3 win over Colorado on Nov. 8 and picked up a power play assist in the team’s 4-3 loss to Columbus this past Friday. In the meanwhile, Voracek and Giroux continued to soar.
Simmonds, however, clearly struggled to get comfortable playing left wing at five-on-five. He noticeably had a tough time receiving passes on his backhand on the left side and then trying to find a shooting lane. The hard work was there, as usual, but he was clearly out of sync.
Brayden Schenn’s season has been the reverse of Simmonds’. Schenn started out the season on the Giroux line but was moved off after four periods in favor of Raffl. The fourth-season NHLer was not playing with much confidence and even his physical game seemed off the mark.
When Vincent Lecavalier went down with a foot/ankle injury, there was a lot of media and fan debate on whether Berube should move Schenn (who shuttled between center and the wing for much of his first three seasons) back to center. Berube resisted the temptation to do so, in order to continue to give Schenn a chance to settle in as a full-time left wing. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare filled in on the second line pivot.
Through the first seven games of the season, Schenn had just one goal and two assists. His tally, a Johnny-on-the-spot rebound goal in Dallas assisted by defenseman brother Luke, was followed by back-to-back pointless games in which he garnered zero shots on goal against Chicago and one against Pittsburgh.
Berube soon made another line switch when Lecavalier returned to the Flyers lineup. Schenn was placed on the left wing of a line with Sean Couturier and Matt Read. It took the trio one game to get rolling but things started to snap into place in their second game together. Schenn and Couturier, in particular, seemed to find some chemistry.
Over the period of three-plus games, the revised line with Schenn on it quietly became one of the team’s most effective lines at five-on-five. Schenn pulled together a four-game point streak. In actuality, his confidence had been on the rise since scoring the game-winning goals in back-to-back games against Los Angeles and Detroit. Now it was starting to crystalize into a run of consistently solid play.
With the Flyers in a 3-0 hole in Saturday’s game against Montreal, Berube made yet another line switch. He moved Schenn back to the Giroux line for the first time since the opening two games of the season and switched Simmonds back to right wing on Lecavalier’s line.
Schenn continued to soar. Playing with Voracek and Giroux, he scored a pair of goals in the second period to temporarily reduce the team’s deficit to 3-2. The Flyers ultimately lost, 6-3, but all three members of the revised top line continued to press the attack.
Now that Schenn’s point streak has reached five games (three goals, four assists) and he is coming off the two-goal game, even casual observers have noticed how well he’s been playing. Apart from the goals, he is playing a hard game on the puck and is winning battles he was losing when his confidence was down back in October.
Berube now has a tough decision to make: Should he temporarily put all his eggs in one basket by continuing to team Schenn up with Giroux and Voracek? Or should he return the player to the Couturier line in the hopes that line continues to build what it established in the games leading up the team’s ill-fated five-night break that preceded the two ugly losses this weekend?
The answers will be revealed at practice over the next few days — a post-practice update will follow this blog later today — but the suspicion here is that Schenn started Wednesday’s game at Madison Square Garden on the Giroux line. Sooner or late, the club is going to need to get Simmonds going again and for Couturier, Read and/or Lecavalier to contribute more regularly to the offense.
For right now, though, Berube may simply opt to see if the top line can continue to carry the team to competitiveness. With the way Schenn has played of late and Voracek and Giroux have played all that, that is the most effective possible trio to spur the team.