From the moment he arrived four seasons ago, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol has spoken of the dirty areas in front of the net, the place where goals are scored and deterred and, ultimately championships won.
The problem then was the room he was in at the time. There was too much room in it. Wayne Simmonds was big enough, and the poster child for what he spoke of, but beyond that, the pickings were, forgive the pun, slim.
Not anymore. This edition of the Flyers has so many bigs and power forwards, it's vexing to figure out how they should be distributed most efficiently.
Besides Simmonds — who hasn't seen any game action yet as he returns from core muscle surgery – the list of Flyers players willing to take some lumber to their lumbar to nest in front of the net is large, and growing. James van Riemsdyk, Oskar Lindblom, Nolan Patrick, and even Sean Couturier are or have become formidable net-front presence. An impressive summer and training camp has catapulted 6-2 Carsen Twarynski's name into that conversation as well, either immediately or the not-so-distant future. Players in the system like college star Wade Allison, 6-6 Isaac Ratcliffe, and 6-4 Matthew Strome could add to that beef.
One thing is clear though: Simmonds is not a lone wolf at the door anymore.
"Definitely changes the personality of the team,'' Simmonds said after practice at Skatezone on Saturday. "We're not always relying on one guy down there. That's a good thing. You need to score goals in this league, and to score more of them, you have to get to the net. The puck always goes by the net before it goes in the net.''
Well, yes, that's true. One reason Shayne Gostisbehere has found the net with three blasts already this preseason is that van Riemsdyk and Twarynski were camped in front, absorbing crosschecks and shoves, distracting the opposing goaltender.
"I definitely take pride in that part of my game,'' said van Riemsdyk. "I think I've worked at it and gotten better at it over the years…''
Including how to absorb a stick across your lower back? "I'm still looking for how to do that,'' he said, laughing. "I think you've just got to suck it up and do what's best for the team.''
That was Simmonds until a core muscle injury last season compromised his stability and strength. As he slowly builds up to full strength, Hakstol has played him in several combos, including, on Saturday, with Lindblom.
Playing two bigs together in basketball requires complementary, not competing, skill sets.
The same is true in hockey, said Hakstol.
"I don't think you want to have the exact same player up there,'' he said. "…That's why sometimes things look really good on paper. And then you find out what the actual chemistry is. I think in Simmer and Oskar there are some complimentary things that fit together there. Simmer is a dominant power forward. He brings different things to the ice than Oskar does. Oskar as a young player, we're already seeing the intelligence he has in the small areas of the game. We'll see if those skill sets fit together.''