For any NFL rookie or young player on the bubble, it’s almost a prerequisite to making the final roster.
You have to excel, or at the very least, contribute to special teams.
Something that also applies to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Exactly one week from today, Dave Hakstol’s opening night roster will have to be submitted to the league office by 5 p.m., and there’s still some tough decisions that have to be made. Most importantly is the search to find those last two or three forwards to round out the roster.
While it’s not specifically stated in the job description, the ability to kill penalties could very well determine who stays in Philadelphia and who goes to Lehigh Valley. They’re the hard minutes that GMs and coaches want their more skilled players and superstars to avoid, if possible.
“Sometimes those guys don’t get a lot of minutes so you like to have guys that can kill penalties down on the fourth line,” general manager Ron Hextall said. “It would be nice to have some physical play down on the fourth line. Certainly some energy, you've got to have guys that play with some energy down there, but to have penalty killers on the fourth line helps because it alleviates your top guys’ minutes.”
If you don’t think the Flyers place a premium on fourth-line penalty killing, consider in 2016-17 Pierre Edouard-Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde spent 21 percent, or a combined 429 minutes, of their ice time killing penalties. While an unusually high amount, that percentage far exceeds the ice time skilled forwards like Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek spend on the power play, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 16-18 percent.
While the Flyers' top penalty-killing forward Sean Couturier has yet to play in a preseason game, Hakstol continues to experiment with a myriad of different combinations to see what pairs communicate and work well together and which ones don’t. Monday night against the Bruins, Jori Lehtera was flanked to the left of Dale Weise, while Scott Laughton was teamed with Corban Knight.
Eventually, it was Michael Raffl along with Weise that created the neutral-zone turnover, which led to Weise’s shorthanded goal. Raffl’s takeaway is one of those critical plays that can change the momentum of a game as the Flyers proceeded to score three goals in a span of 2:44 to cut a 4-0 deficit to one goal (see highlights).
The Flyers haven’t had enough of those plays, and more importantly, just overall efficient penalty killing in Hakstol’s three seasons in Philadelphia. The PK unit has yet to finish higher than 20th in the league in each of the past three seasons, and every indication is that the team believes the problem lies more in its personnel than in its setup or structure.
It will also be interesting to see how much the Flyers continue to rely on their No. 1 center Couturier as a penalty killer once he returns and if the team attempts to curtail those “hard” minutes like it has done with Giroux over the past five years.
As much as you’d like to see the organization move on from players like Lehtera and Weise, the Flyers potentially see value when it comes to killing penalties.
“We still don’t know exactly what we have this year,” Hakstol said Monday. “We still have another week in camp before we have to make final decisions on who we’re going to travel west with.”