There’s a change in the wind and it’s impossible to ignore. This Flyers’ season feels different from the ones in years passed. Too frequent were the slow starts, failed comebacks and, at times, blatant laziness on display for the passionate followers of this franchise. We, as a fanbase, are being subjected to something we haven’t been in a long, long time… Fun.
The youth infusion has turned an aging core into one that can out-skate, outhit and outwork any opponent they face on any given night. It doesn’t hurt that the arrival of our prospects has seemed to jumpstart a lot of our veteran players games, many of whom are perennially slow out of the gate (looking at you, Claude Giroux).
The offense is no longer a 6-man show that anxiously awaits their next powerplay opportunity. They’re capable of taking the play to the other team, thanks, in large part, to the arrival of the new-look, offensively capable 4th line. A well-rounded offense that can score no matter who’s on the ice takes pressure off the top-line guys and forces teams to spread out their shutdown units across all 12 forwards.
For the last three years, the Flyers’ 4th line almost always consisted of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and the oft-criticized Chris Vandevelde. The third member of the checking unit resembled something of a revolving door. Although, no matter who was there, they had one task and one task only: assist PEB and Vandevelde in shutting down the opposing teams top-unit.
The shut down duo was largely successful at limiting the opposing team’s top player’s scoring chances. Whether it was a blocked shot or a well-timed poke check, coaches across the league consistently noticed their defensive capabilities. For all their worth in their own zone, the 4th line consistently struggled to produce anything even resembling offensive pressure.
Vandevelde, who almost always had coach Dave Hakstol’s glaring approval, had been a constant source of discontent for Flyers’ fans the past three seasons. Over the course of his 232 games donning the Orange & Black, he only managed to post 17 goals and 27 assists. Along with his lack of point production, he was no where near the defensive-stalwart that Bellemare was regarded as. Many fans, myself included, would’ve considered any replacement for him an upgrade. The team opting not to offer VV an extension and let him go to free agency broke very few hearts this offseason.
On the other hand, losing Bellemare wasn’t as easily forgettable. Due to this year’s expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights, the team saw the departure of the 4th line winger and newly appointed assistant captain for nothing. Somewhat shockingly, Hextall opted to protect Scott Laughton instead of PEB and effectively wiped the slate clean for the back end of the roster. Bellemare’s numbers over his three seasons with the team were even worse than Vandevelde’s, posting 17 goals and 17 assists in 5 more games played than the centerman.
Regardless of his defensive capabilities, Bellemare was one of the worst forwards in the league at even strength over the last three seasons. His lines inability to score was a glaring issue night in and night out for the team and at the time of their departure, it was fair to assume the roster would be better off without them.
Fast-forward a few months and the club stands 7 games into the 2017-18 season. They’re a respectable 4-3-0 and had scored 26 goals in their first 6 games before getting shut out by the Predators on Thursday. Scoring is up and the team’s confidence is soaring. They’re stronger, faster and much more talented and for the first time in years, the 4th line isn’t a glaring weak spot for the team.
Scott Laughton, Taylor Leier and Michael Raffl have come together to form the new look bottom 3 forward group. They’re still extremely effective defensively, combining for a +3 rating this season. Unlike last years 4th line though, they’re a threatening presence offensively. While they’re not necessarily lighting the world on fire points-wise, they collectively have 2 goals and 2 assists, they are providing constant pressure in the offensive zone. They’ve had a ton of grade-A scoring chances while still managing to be responsible defensively, something the Flyers’ roster has really been missing of late.
Although the entire 4th line looks to have made the Flyers a true four tiered threat, one player in particular seems to be doing his part to bring this franchise back to relevance. Scott Laughton has elevated his game to a whole new level. He’s scored a pair of goals and an assist and looks like a different player than years passed. When the organization protected Laughton from being chosen in the expansion draft, it seemed like they may have been trying to save face a bit because of the high draft pick they spent on him.
It’s still early, but it seems that the faith Hextall showed in him this offseason has translated into a real confidence boost. The 23-year-old showed a lot of promise when he was drafted and has since been overshadowed by the great drafting of Hextall and the Flyers’ scouting department. So far, he looks to finally be finding a home in the NHL on the Flyers’ 4th line and could prove to be a huge piece in their success down the stretch.
There’s a lot to be excited about in the City of Brotherly Love this season and in the years to come. Now we can add the emergence of this offensively-capable 4th line to the list. Nolan Patrick, Scott Laughton, Travis Konecny and the rest of the gang have a lot in store for us this year. The future is bright here in Flyerland for the first time in a long time. Live it up, it’s only getting better from here.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
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