Hockey is a sport that loves tradition and celebrating the past. In North America, it’s probably the sport that cherishes the two the most.
Along with that, NHL teams tend to hold onto old characteristics and systems that made the sport popular in the 1970s and 80s. That’s the reason why analytics has always struggled to find a footing in the closest of hockey circles, a Shea Weber for P.K. Subban trade happened and a veteran defenseman can beat out a rookie on experience alone.
So it’s not surprising that the roster and line buildup has been the same for decades. Two top lines capable of offense, a shutdown third line and a fourth line that brings grit and energy in the smallest of roles.
The Flyers have always played true to that, especially on the fourth line. Season in and season out, there’s usually a gritty player or an enforcer (Riley Cote, Todd Fedoruk, Zac Rinaldo), a faceoff specialist (Blair Betts, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Adam Hall) and a winger capable of moving up in a pinch (Darroll Powe, Daniel Carcillo) on the fourth line.
In most years that worked out just fine. In fact, it was still a formula that worked for a lot of teams. The Boston Bruins built a fourth line of that mold in Shawn Thornton (enforcer), Gregory Campbell (faceoff specialist) and Chris Kelly (semi-skilled winger) that was considered the best bottom line in all of the NHL for a short era. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup once and made the finals another time during that period.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins’ two straight Cup wins have changed the mold most teams have used for way too long. Suddenly a skilled, fast lineup is crucial — and that stems straight down to the fourth line.
Over the offseason, Philadelphia followed that, saying goodbye to Bellemare (not by its own doing), Chris VandeVelde, Roman Lyubimov and Nick Cousins (by its own doing) and introducing Scott Laughton and Taylor Leier. Michael Raffl was also “demoted” to bottom-line duties.
The old guard was often maligned for its ineffective offense, but it was never designed to create any. General manager Ron Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol formed a fourth line that would be able to act like a shutdown line.
The issue there was that none of the players were talented enough defensively to limit most opponent’s top lines and the rest of the forward core wasn’t able to produce offensively to make up for it.
Instead of creating a line that’s main focus was defense, the management group created a speedy one that could counter punch with offense. Despite only two assists between the Laughton, Leier and Raffl trio, they’ve been the Flyers’ second best line in three of the first four games.
Laughton, who struggled to nail down a spot, over the past three seasons, has cemented himself as an NHL player this year with his speed and forechecking skills. Raffl put on muscle in the offseason and is even better along the boards. Leier was a surprise inclusion on the roster, but he’s the fastest on the line and can create some offense too.
That’s a far cry from VandeVelde and Bellemare who were consistently near the bottom of the league in goal-scoring advanced stats.
And to make things even better, the new line isn’t too shabby in its own end either. The speed gives the opposition fits at both ends of the ice, especially on the backcheck.
In a perplexing twist, though, the stats haven’t followed the fourth line quite yet. Laughton and Leier are minus-two and Raffl is a minus-three, besides the two assists between the three.
Of course, it’s still early, but it’s clear already this is the most skilled fourth line the Flyers have had in years. That’s indicating a change in the Flyers’ overall approach and should only have a positive effect on the score sheet — traditions be damned.