Scott Hartnell vs. Jakub Voracek… not exactly a master vs. apprentice showdown but there is still quite a lot of merit to this Cage Match. I know a lot of people would be quick to take Voracek since he apparently has star written all over him but there is a proven over potential angle that needs to be heard as well.
I totally get the Voracek hype. There are so many things to like. The most obvious of which are his pure physical skills. Voracek is pretty big but he looks huge and he is awful fast too. On top of that he has glorious hands. There were a number of times this season when I saw Voracek skating and thought it was Jagr. Voracek absolutely passes all the visual tests of what you might be looking for in an up-and-comer. What’s more, Jagr is apparently going to test the open market.
I suppose that means, “Cha-ching!” Time to start cashing in your Voracek bonds right now. The logic being that Voracek is bound to start picking up Jagr’s minutes. First of all, just because Voracek sometimes looks like Jagr does not necessarily mean he will play like him. Secondly, let’s do a quick minutes comparison. Voracek received 16:18 minutes per game last season with 3:22 on the power play. Jagr skated 16:20 minutes per game last season with 3:15 on the power play. Obviously Voracek cannot simply usurp all of Jagr’s minutes.
Now it is worth noting that the majority of Voracek’s even strength minutes this past season came playing on the third line as Frozenpool will show us:
There is legitimacy to the argument that since Voracek spent only 17.5% of his shifts on the Giroux line last season that he could easily take Jagr’s abundant top line minutes.
There are several problems with that argument. The first being uncertainty. We simply do not know for certain if Voracek will be stepping into Jagr’s role. Do you know who else could get those top line minutes? Jagr himself (since we do not actually know for certain he will sign elsewhere), Matt Read, Wayne Simmonds, James van Riemsdyk, Rick Nash(!), or any other new acquisition.
Another aspect of uncertainty is whether or not Voracek will even be effective if given those more time on the top line. Voracek only scored three even strength points last season while paired with Giroux and Hartnell. That amounts to only 7.9% of his even strength production, which means he was less effective skating with Giroux than he was skating with other players. This is not entirely fair to Voracek since it takes time to develop chemistry and perhaps this is merely an aberration due to sample size but at the very least there is no evidence that spending more time with Giroux is actually of benefit to Voracek.
Especially concerning in this regard is the fact that while skating on the third line Voracek also faced easier competition than he would expect to face skating on the Giroux line. There is no telling how Voracek will adapt when things get tougher.
There is also the issue of power play time that has yet to be addressed. Voracek spent the majority of last season skating on the top power play unit. He simply cannot take Jagr’s minutes because he was being given the exact same minutes, albeit in a different role.
Voracek’s role on the power play last season was as the fourth forward on the top power play unit, which is sometimes mistaken for the second point man. To be fair, the point is where Voracek lined up on power plays and he did have a number of responsibilities that a defenseman would normally have (ie. guarding the blue line against clearances, and being one of the first two men back against the counterattack) but once the play was established in the offensive zone Voracek was hardly a defenseman. Take a look at Voracek’s position on a typical Flyers power play.
This is a snapshot of a Flyers power play goal where Timonen sets up Giroux for the one-timer. As it happens Voracek actually initiates this play after Giroux wins the faceoff, however Voracek does not get a point on the play. All of this is rather irrelevant to the point of this snapshot. Look at how far away Voracek is from the play.
He is the furthest man from the puck. The Flyers top power play unit is centered around Giroux with the puck on the left half boards. Giroux, not Timonen, is the power play quarter back with Timonen at the point in the middle of the ice, Simmonds parked in front of the goalie or just to the left of the crease and Hartnell manning the slot. With the puck on Giroux’s stick Voracek is almost always two passes away. This makes it extremely difficult for Voracek to score on the power play.
To make matters worse, Voracek’s shot is highly mediocre. Any time the Flyers would work the puck around to Voracek he would undoubtedly miss his opening as is made obvious by the zero power play goals he scored last season. This is a huge area where Voracek could most certainly improve but getting back to the whole concept of uncertainty, we simply do not know if he has or will.
What we do know for certain is what Hartnell is. Yes he is entirely one of the most annoying players we have in this league and he is most definitely coming off a career season but we also know that Hartnell is locked in beside Giroux. These two definitely have chemistry. He does all the dirty work that Giroux needs. Hartnell skated over 90% of his shifts with Giroux last season and that is highly unlikely to change so while Voracek can hope to get on that top line, Hartnell is a lock.
What’s more, those Jaromir-Jagr-power-play-minutes that have been misappropriated to Voracek, well they can actually be put into Hartnell’s back pocket. To open last season Hartnell was only being played 2:29 per game on the power play, skating on the second unit. By mid-season, however, Hartnell had taken Jagr’s spot on the top power play unit.
If we once again take a look at that snapshot of the Flyers power play we can see Hartnell’s role.
Hartnell is parked directly in the middle of the ice on the Flyers power play. While the defense is no doubt always aware of his presence, Hartnell is always one pass away regardless of where the puck is on the ice. Hartnell is also always in position for a one-timer, deflection or rebound attempt. This is arguably the most ideal position to be on the ice, particularly while skating with someone of Giroux’s class. Hartnell has the size, skills and drive to be extremely effective in this position as demonstrated by his 16 goal, 23 PPP performance last season. While this was well above his previously posted career high and some regression is to be expected we can also be certain that Hartnell is being put in the best position to succeed given his skills.
We must also not discount that Hartnell has scored 30 goals and 60 points in a season before. This is not a complete aberration. Hartnell has as much pedigree as Voracek and at 30 years of age he now has the experience and maturity to perform at the peak of his abilities. Again there is regression to be expected but Hartnell has also never been given quite this strong an opportunity so do not overestimate that regression. In other words, I am saying that 60-points is definitely in play for next season.
60-points would be considered a breakout for Voracek. If we consider the fact that until he improves on his shooting ability Voracek is unlikely to get much more power play production then we can only look for improvements at even strength. The problem is that Voracek was already the third leading even strength scorer for the Flyers last season. I find it somewhat difficult to believe that he would score all that much more than the 38 even strength points he had last season. If I were the Flyers I would be hoping he can continue to provide that sort of secondary scoring again next season.
There is only so much puck to go around. Giroux is going to dominate the puck when he is on the ice so the same factors that plague Voracek on the power play would most likely plague Voracek at even strength. Voracek is a fantastic playmaker when he has the puck. The problem is that Giroux is just way better and the Flyers have yet to find the right combination to maximize Voracek’s skills.
Maybe the Flyers find that combination. Maybe Voracek needs a different team to see himself maximized, a la Blake Wheeler last year. Maybe Voracek can find another level on his own. Maybe Voracek improves his shooting. Or maybe we will be waiting another year.
The point is the Flyers have found the combination that works for Hartnell. Hartnell has found that next level on his own and we definitely are not waiting on Hartnell any longer. We know that Hartnell can handle the pressure of being a top line player and skating with the best consistently. All of this does not even consider the fact that Hartnell is way better than Voracek in virtually any peripheral category you can think of but I would go so far as to say that in points only Hartnell is probably the better option. Proven over potential, every time. Hartnell gives you that much more of a chance at winning. Maybe the difference is only five points next season, instead of 18 but there should still be a difference.
I understand the allure of chasing potential but you really have to understand that Voracek is so boom or bust right now. Maybe after the pre-season when the teams have had training camp and the rosters are basically set we will have a better idea what to expect from Voracek but at this juncture anyone projecting a breakout season is just guessing based on appearances. Hartnell is right now the smarter choice because you at least know what you are getting.