Flyers’ options for third-line center

Updated: July 5, 2018 at 3:10 pm by Wes Herrmann

With the news that Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall will not fill Valtteri Filppula’s center spot out-of-house on the third line, competition has been created among Philly’s forwards.

Although often lamented for his play, Filppula had an important role for the Flyers on the third line. He was counted on for depth scoring and defensive responsibility.

This season will also feature a change in quality of linemates. With the addition of James van Riemsdyk, Oskar Lindblom and Wayne Simmonds figure to be on the third line.

With an even more emphasis on improving, these are the options for the center spot on the third line:

Scott Laughton

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the third-line center hole is Laughton’s to lose, but he’s the safe bet.

The 24 year old had a rebound of sorts last year after spending the 2016-17 with the Phantoms for all but two games. Laughton had 107 NHL games under his belt at that point and showed the potential of a top-six forward after being drafted in the first round in 2012.

The top six days have escaped Laughton, but scoring 10 goals and 10 assists in a fourth-line role last year showed he may have some third-line ability.

Defensively, I think Laughton can handle the minutes and matchups against other team’s second lines — especially if he has stronger linemates. Offensively is where I start to get a little concerned.

Although the Ontario native hit double-digit in goals, it’d be nice to see some more creativity. As a fourth-liner Laughton played more of a dump-and-chase role. A top-nine spot should come up with more talented offensive responsibility.

Still, I don’t think any of the other options on this list can match Laughton’s defensive work and if he can work on his offensive game, he’ll be able to fill the role even better.

Jordan Weal

After Weal’s 2017-18 season, I wasn’t sure where he’d fit into the roster for this upcoming year. It looks like Hextall may have an idea in mind — noting the former King as an option for the third-line.

I won’t hold too much stock in Hextall naming Weal before Laughton. He was just talking and didn’t have time to go over a list of options in his head while answering questions, but it definitely shows the GM is making Weal a possibility.

Weal first made a name for himself at the tailend of the 2016-17 season when he scored 12 points in 23 games. He followed that up with just 21 in 69 contests this year and only impressed a few times.

But his inclusion by Hextall is surprising because Weal’s only played center a handful of times since his promotion to the Flyers. He did center the Phantom’s first line two years ago, though.

When Weal’s on his game, he’s more of an offensive weapon than Laughton. Defensively, he’s weaker, but Philly may not even be looking for a shutdown third unit.

Weal will have to look more like his 2016-17 self to earn the third-line spot, but Hextall has made it so you can’t count him out yet.

Morgan Frost

If Flyers Twitter had a vote, Frost would be the one taking the open position. The 19 year old has captured fan’s hearts after scoring 112 points in 67 games in the OHL, plus 29 more in 24 playoff contests.

The 27th pick in the 2017 draft oozes with talent and speed. At this point, Frost is the most premier forward prospect in the Philadelphia system.

But that doesn’t mean Frost will be ready for the NHL this season — something Hextall has noted often.

The Ontario native slowed down heavily in the playoffs, implying the same would happen over the course of an 82-game NHL season. Although Frost put on 10 pounds over the course of the season, to reach a total of 184, Hextall has repeated numerous times that he’d like the prospect to get even stronger.

Many have pointed out that 184 pounds is the same amount of weight as Claude Giroux, who scored over 100 points last season. But body mass and strength along the boards and with the puck are two different things.

On top of that, transitioning a defensive game, even though Frost is defensively sound, to the NHL is tough. Just ask Nolan Patrick about his first half of the season last year.

I believe Frost is a dark horse pick at this point in July. It will take some added work over the summer plus a huge training camp to sway Hextall for Frost over the other names on this list.

Mikhail Vorobyev

Another prospect, Vorobyev at least has a year of AHL seasoning, unlike Frost. But even then, the Russian only played 67 games between the regular season and playoffs.

However, Vorobyev’s 29 points in the regular season were nothing to scoff at and his playdriving metrics were even better. The 21 year old — like many other Flyers prospects — has been praised for his playmaking ability and two-way work.

With a third line that’s likely to consist of Simmonds and Lindblom, having a playmaking center seems like a natural fit. But like Frost, it will come down to the question of whether Hextall views Vorobyev as NHL-ready.

Last season was Vorobyev’s first on NHL ice and for most Europeans it takes some time to adapt. Will Hextall view the 67 games in the AHL enough for a full NHL season? That doesn’t sound like the GM but Vorobyev got off to a good start in development camp.

Mike Vecchione

Vecchione is one of the more divisive players in the Flyers’ organization. Some view him as an NHL bottom-six center while others don’t believe he has an NHL future. For full transparency, I’m part of the latter group.

However, there’s no denying Vecchione’s skill and resume. He centered the Phantoms’ first line and played on the first power play unit, scoring 40 points in 63 games. He’s also a strong two-way center and works hard.

That being said, I can’t imagine him winning the third-line role over Laughton or Weal. Although 40 points in 63 games isn’t bad, you’d expect more of an offensive impact with the minutes Vecchione received.

However, should Laughton win the 3C spot and Weal stays on the wing, Vecchione could be a fourth-line center option.

Jori Lehtera

If Morgan Frost is Flyers’ fan’s dream for the third line, Lehtera is their nightmare — and rightfully so.

Lehtera has slowed down to a snail’s pace and the offensive ability he once had that led to 44 points has evaporated. Despite all that, the Finn is still a Dave Hakstol favorite.

Like Brandon Manning and Chris VandeVelde before him, it’s because Lehtera is a veteran, works hard — especially along the boards — and defensively, isn’t bad. That earned the 30 year old a fourth-line spot by December last season.

However, Lehtera was never really bumped up to the third line last year and with a deeper lineup and more prospects close to ready, I don’t expect it this season. A fourth-line role is definitely reasonable, but I think even Hakstol knows Lehtera isn’t cut out for the third line anymore.

Training Camp Invite

Nothing wrong with a little more competition. Hextall hasn’t gone down the veteran tryout route before, but it’s an option every year for a team looking to add some depth.

The issue, though, is that there isn’t much depth left already in free agency.

A shallow center pool to begin with has shrunk to a puddle before the end of the first week of free agency. Some of the more well-known names include Antoine Vermette, Daniel Winnik and Dominick Moore.

But there is one possible third-line center left in Nick Shore. The former King was selected by Los Angeles when Hextall was still in the organization and the now-25 year old has racked up three straight double-digit point seasons.

Last year was his most tumultuous as Shore played for three different teams and was a part of two trades. Despite that, he posted a career high in points with 19.

The Colorado native has also posted CorsiFor percentages above 51.7 percent every year he’s been in the league. With numbers like that, a winger combo of Simmonds and Lindblom working with Shore could mean more offensive production.

Of course, it’s still early in the summer with plenty of time until September. If Shore does reach a contract with a new team, Hextall should stay away from the PTO road.

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