Throughout their storied history, the Flyers have had a fondness for fourth lines with as much grit as possible. Riley Cote, Jody Shelley, Zac Rinaldo, and Jay Rosehill just to name a few from the past decade. That in itself is not surprising as the “Broad Street Bully” reputation had to be lived up to somehow, but more recently as the definition of a fourth liner has changed, the Flyers have found it more prudent to stack the fourth line with players who bring more to the table than just an iron chin and a pair of fists.
Last year, the Flyers tried to really distance themselves from the stigma of a “goon line” by fielding a fourth unit featuring a combination of Nick Cousins, Pierre-Edourard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde, and Roman Lyubimov, a complete switch from what was seen in prior years. Cousins brought some young energy, VandeVelde brought some veteran presence, while Bellemare and Lyubimov provided some penalty kill expertise.
Or at least that is what was supposed to happen.
The fourth line last year was a frustrating, under-performing mess of a unit that could never really seem to do one thing exceedingly well. Bellemare and VandeVelde became staples in the lineup regardless, for whatever reason, playing 82 and 81 games respectively, even though the penalty kill, led primarily by those two, placed a mediocre 21st in the league, while both were also minus players. Even though those two were obviously not expected to produce points, it would have been nice to see more than a combined total of 23 in their 163 games. They were also unable to play as a shutdown unit because of their below average speed and inability to keep the puck in the offensive zone for an extended period of time. Basically, they were on the ice to hopefully not get scored on, dump the puck, and go for a change after 50 seconds.
However, this year the Flyers blew it all up, every player listed above was either traded or let go, and they started with a fresh fourth line to start the season. Presently, the fourth unit consists of Taylor Leier, Scott Laughton, and Michael Raffl. The new look line features much more speed than that of last year, as well as some goal scoring talent and potential. Laughton and Leier are both young prospects who have shown flashes of goal scoring ability, Laughton with a 40 goal season with Oshawa in the OHL, and Leier with a 20 goal season in the AHL with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Those two players have lots of drive and hunger to make their presence known in the team, and it was shown in the preseason through their good play which secured both players a roster spot. Rounding out the trio is Michael Raffl, entering his fifth year with the team. Raffl is the veteran presence on this line, he provides the steady all around play to balance out the chaotic speed provided by Laughton and Leier. In addition to that, Raffl has proven that he can score reliably at an NHL level, his best season being his 31 points in 2015-16. Noticeably absent from this group, in addition to the fighters, are the prototypical “checking forwards” present last year. All three of Raffl, Laughton and Leier were drafted or signed to provide scoring depth, and that’s what they are known for before they came to the Flyers. However, they were able to transition their games to more suit what the team needed, becoming more well rounded players in the process. Leier and Laughton have become trusted penalty killers and defensively responsible forwards under the tutelage of Leigh Valley head coach Scott Gordon, which in the end is what most likely made the difference in them making the opening night lineup over veterans such as Matt Read and Jori Lethera. Raffl on the other hand, has proven to be very versatile, being a player who has suited up on all four lines for the Flyers over the past 2 years, even playing on the first with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek for some time. This versatility has allowed the Flyers management to drop him down to the fourth line without any fear of adjustment or growing pains, he also provides another big body on the forecheck along with Scott Laughton. The line in theory sounds like a vast improvement over prior attempts, but how has it looked in practice?
Well, so far, so good.
Through the small three game sample size available at the time of writing, the line has arguably been one of the best the Flyers have iced, they have shown to be an absolute menace on the forecheck, wreaking havoc on opposing defenses, and causing a plethora of turnovers. And unlike fourth lines of the past, this one can actually finish their chances, now they haven’t yet put up anything as of yet, but there is promise there on the offensive end, which was not the case last year. The three have gelled surprisingly well, mostly due to the prior chemistry of Leier and Laughton from their time in the AHL. Laughton and Leier have become a solid duo on the penalty kill, a surprising development from two players who were not even expected to make the roster at the start of the season. Meanwhile, Raffl has taken to his new role well, and compliments the young exuberance well with his more physical style.
Overall, the Flyers reboot of their bottom three seems to be a success, there is much more talent than before, they play a much more dynamic game than the fourth lines of old, and they have an upside that has not really been present in the past. It is encouraging to see that the Flyers are adapting to the modern NHL trend of having four lines who can score, instead of just saturating the fourth line with role players.