From the moment he joined the first line in early January, Travis Konecny has played like a bat out of hell. Eighteen of his 22 goals this season have been scored from Jan. 4 on, and 13 of his 22 assists have come over that span as well.
So it seemed odd, or worse, when last Saturday’s lineup in Carolina had Michael Raffl on the right side of that first line, with Konecny dropped all the way down to a third line, playing with Wayne Simmonds on a line centered by Val Filppula.
Messing with a winning formula would seem a sure-fire way of becoming an ex-coach. And that’s happened. But remaining static while your team struggles with scoring balance is also an avenue to the golf course, and the Flyers, before coach Dave Hakstol shuffled it up last Saturday, had lost of seven of eight games.
“Sometimes it gets stale, right?” said Wayne Simmonds. “It’s a long season, 82 games.”
The recent row of losses were often marked by a lack of secondary scoring, something that had plagued this team earlier this season when it lost 10 straight games and seemed on the brink of a major shakeup. Hakstol’s maneuvers back then, which included moving Jakub Voracek off the first line despite his phenomenal success there, dropping a struggling Nolan Patrick as far down as the fourth line and abandoning a platoon in goal to ride Brian Elliott exclusively, factored greatly into their emergence from that slump and reentrance into the playoff conversation.
When the season began, the first line of Claude Giroux and Voracek centered by Sean Couturier took off immediately. All three jumped to a career-best pace, but players like Konecny and Patrick were clearly wrestling with their games. Voracek, who was first or second in assists back then, was eventually dropped to the second and even third lines to get more balance, grouped at various times this season with Simmonds and Patrick, Valterri Filppula and Michael Raffle, and most recently, Patrick and fellow rookie Oskar Lindblom.
There was risk in each of those moves, as there was in sending Travis Sanheim back to the minors. This is a young team full of young minds, sharpening even further that fine line between a panic move, and a wise one.
“Especially with young guys,’’ said Wayne Simmonds. “Gauging them and thinking they’re ready for harder minutes, or longer exposure.’’
So how does he decide? When does he decide? How does he explain to a young player, or a veteran for that matter, that a lower line and lesser minutes is not necessarily a demotion as it is a quest for balance.
Does he even explain?
“I can’t give you a distinct answer on that,’’ said Hakstol. “Because every situation I a little bit different…Communication is very important. Sometimes I know I go short on that. I think we all do at times. Communication is very important. But there’s a time and a place…
“There’s no point to having a meeting just to have a meeting. Sometimes it’s not needed.’’
“Sometimes,’’ said Simmonds, who has bounced around the lineup this season as he has bounced from one injury to another, “you don’t want to know.
“It’s the mind of an athlete – you’re always thinking and guessing why they’re making those moves, who moves up, who moves down. Sometimes you can read it as a negative when it’s really not, when it’s a positive.’’
The Flyers won that game in Carolina last Saturday, 4-2, Raffl breaking a 16-game goal-less streak with an empty-net goal to ice the game. Konecny also scored, as did his latest linemate Filppula – breaking a 25-game drought.
They won the next day too, a 6-3 victory over Washington in which Raffl was lost with an upper-body injury, forcing Hakstol to juggle once again. Konecny returned to the first line, Jordan Weal took his place on the third line, and Wayne Simmonds, who had one goal in the six games since he returned from injury, scored twice.
With Konecny back on the first line and Weal back on the third line Thursday night, three of the Flyers four lines scored in a 4-3 victory over the Rangers. Three wins in four games, seven of a possible eight points since the coach’s latest chemistry experiment.
“I think it’s all about finding a winning recipe,’’ said Couturier, one of the few players who has not moved this season. “Teams get to know your strengths and weaknesses. They get a study pre-scout. You don’t want to panic right away. But when you go through a tough stretch some things have to change. You can’ t just keep it going.’’