Dave Hakstol

Moving Claude Giroux back to center may be Flyers' best move

Moving Claude Giroux back to center may be Flyers' best move

One ring down, one ring to go.

Claude Giroux is enjoying a summer of marital bliss after tying the knot with fiancee Ryanne Breton.

When he returns to Philadelphia later this summer, he’ll begin his quest once again to earn that much more elusive championship ring. Of course, few people believe the Flyers are close to winning a Stanley Cup, but with the addition of James van Riemsdyk, they’re closer.

Maybe one more stud defenseman, Carter Hart in his prime, and switching the captain back to center?

Is it possible that after topping the 100-point plateau for the first time in his career, Giroux’s left wing conversion was just a one-year experiment?

General manager Ron Hextall stated a desire to sign a third-line center who would help kill penalties, but only signing one on his terms. The players that seemingly fit that role — Tyler Bozak, Riley Nash and Derek Ryan — all signed three-year contracts elsewhere, and the concern within the organization is eventually blocking Morgan Frost’s path to the NHL (see story)

So Hextall was asked on July 1 how the Flyers find that center they weren’t able to sign through free agency and the first answer that almost immediately came to mind was moving Giroux back to center. 

I believe the Flyers' brass has already given the idea consideration, and if you move the pieces around on paper, the team looks considerably deeper with Giroux in the middle again. 

Several elements stand out when you compare and contrast the different combinations.

1. The Flyers are considerably more balanced with Giroux at center, with three lines that can do offensive damage and create matchup problems for the opposition, especially at home with last change.

2. Konecny could be buried with Giroux at wing. He’s almost guaranteed a spot in the top six if Giroux switches back to center. During the first half of last season, Konecny was paired with players that didn’t have a similar skill set, and consequently, the super-skilled winger struggled to find any offensive rhythm.

3. While effective at times last season, Laughton doesn’t seem ready to jump into the role of a third-line center. The 2012 first-round pick played some of his best hockey late in the season on the left wing with Jori Lehtera at center. 

If Dave Hakstol elects to make this change in the preseason, the biggest concern moving forward doesn’t necessarily involve Giroux’s move back to center, but rather can Couturier continue to excel by posting solid offensive numbers without Giroux on his wing? The two players were inseparable last season until the final two games of the Flyers' playoff series against Pittsburgh.  

And it may be the best option to start next season. 

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James van Riemsdyk did his homework on Dave Hakstol and was sold

James van Riemsdyk did his homework on Dave Hakstol and was sold

James van Riemsdyk had all sorts of selling points for returning to the Flyers.

A familiarity with the organization's culture and brand.

Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek lobbying for his services.

Prominent roles within a mix of youthfulness and veterans.

But perhaps one of the more underrated reasons for van Riemsdyk's decision to sign a five-year contract with the orange and black last Sunday: Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol.

Before pulling the trigger on his landing spot in free agency, van Riemsdyk did his homework. He talked to players like Giroux and Voracek and gained a grasp of Hextall's vision — whatever it took to make certain the Flyers were his best fit among the 10 to 12 suitors.

To do so, he also studied the coach — and quite extensively.

It's clear he was won over by Hakstol and the information he gathered from others on the Flyers' bench boss.

"I've gotten a chance to talk to him a couple of times over the course of the free agency week there, just got to talk a little bit on his philosophies and stuff like that for hockey," van Riemsdyk said on Thursday's edition of Philly Sports Talk. "I also got a chance to talk to some different guys that have played for him over the years, whether it was in college or even with the Flyers, [players] who may not be there anymore, so I got a chance to know a little more about him and I'm excited to work with him."

The addition of van Riemsdyk raises the ante for Hextall and the Flyers' process. The same goes for Hakstol, who is entering Year 4 of a five-year contract, according to CapFriendly.com. Hakstol was already facing some pressure prior to the van Riemsdyk signing. It only grows when you drop a 36-goal scorer onto the roster without losing anything other than cap space. 

Hakstol's decision-making and system will now be even more directly under the microscope.

"Ninety-eight points is respectable, being a playoff team is respectable — we're not here to be respectable, we're here to be better than that," Hakstol said in late April after a first-round playoff exit, the second during his three-year tenure. "I look at the little areas that lead up to those outward benchmarks."

Hakstol's newest left winger was impressed by the coach's makeup and mindset.

"He's a passionate guy about hockey and he's knowledgeable, as well," van Riemsdyk said. "So I think it's going to be great."

In fact, van Riemsdyk saw great aspects across the board.

"My fit within what they were looking to add to their team and what they already have in place, I thought that was great," he said. "Organizationally, you just know with Philadelphia, every year, they're going to give you the resources you need to win, they're going to try to do everything they can do to help you, so you just have to worry playing hockey versus the other stuff.

"They're not going to leave any stone unturned."

During his research, van Riemsdyk didn't, either. After turning them all over, he picked the Flyers — and Hakstol is a big reason why.

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End to End: Where should Flyers play James van Riemsdyk?

End to End: Where should Flyers play James van Riemsdyk?

Going End to End today are NBC Sports Philadelphia's Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: Where should the Flyers play James van Riemsdyk?

I don't really see this as a question of where they should play van Riemsdyk but rather how should they use him.

The easy fit would be to slot JVR in on the second line with Nolan Patrick and either Jakub Voracek or Wayne Simmonds, but things aren't easy.

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall kept the door open for Claude Giroux to return to center in 2018-19 last weekend, so a lot of it depends on what shakes out in training camp. van Riemsdyk figures to be with either Patrick or Giroux.

Take into account how dynamic Giroux was with Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny last season, the JVR signing should be one to boost secondary scoring. Putting him on the second line does that.

van Riemsdyk isn't exactly the best defensive forward and in Toronto, Mike Babcock essentially used him as a third-line player at 5-on-5, sheltering him from facing top competition.

That will change with the Flyers considering he'll play in the top six and that means tougher competition. But Flyers coach Dave Hakstol should utilize van Riemsdyk in a similar way as Babock.

Last season, JVR started over 70 percent of shifts in the offensive zone. In fact, that's been the case in two of the previous three seasons. Since 2014-15, the zone starts have lopsided in the O-zone.

We'll see how van Riemsdyk fares against tougher competition, though he'll have better linemates too. The responsibility will fall on JVR, but Hakstol can help by getting him as many O-zone starts as possible.

In 2017-18, Giroux put up a career-best 102 points as the first-line left winger and Sean Couturier broke out for a career-best 76 points alongside him.

That should not be messed with, so van Riemsdyk's spot in the 2018-19 lineup is simple: second-line left winger, exactly where the Flyers need and want him.

The much bigger question that came to mind when news broke of van Riemsdyk's reunion was where does he fit in the Flyers' power-play picture? JVR is coming off personal highs in goals (11) and points (20) on the man advantage.

Hakstol now has a good problem.

"We feel like with this addition on our power play, we can put out two really good units," Hextall said last weekend. "It gives us another left shot, which we needed.

"Hak, we've talked long and hard about it. We know James is very good net front. He's got great hands, he's got good size.

"I don't know where that's going to shake out, but we feel pretty comfortable that our power play has taken a step here."

Simmonds has been the NHL's second-best power-play goal scorer with 86 markers since 2011-12, trailing only Alex Ovechkin and his 131. When an injured Simmonds missed seven games last season from Feb. 20 to March 4, Patrick shined in the net-front role on the first unit and kept it.

To start 2018-19, I would let a healthy Simmonds regain his spot and rediscover his forte while allowing van Riemsdyk and Patrick to bolster your second unit. If things sputter, then the Flyers have flexibility to tinker with their personnel.

However it unfolds, the overlying positive here is the Flyers will have a 30-goal scorer on their second power play.

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