When the word came out of practice on Monday morning that the Flyers were slotting struggling forward Jakub Voracek on the left wing alongside Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds, it became clear that Dave Hakstol is running out of options.
The rookie coach has pulled nearly every trick out of his bag in an effort to flip the switch on the 26-year-old star, including dropping him to the fourth line for an extended stretch. So maybe taking him further out of his comfort zone and forcing him onto his off wing will do the trick.
It’s a tough spot for Hakstol, but he has to keep pushing buttons until something clicks. Voracek has one goal so far this season through the season’s first 30 games. One. That total has him on pace to score 2.73 goals during the entire 2015-16 campaign. In most cases like this you’d round up, but the way Voracek’s going that seems like a risky bet.
Because this isn’t just a rough patch of hockey for Voracek. It’s been a rough year.
Since Jan. 1, 2015, Voracek has scored a total of eight goals. Eight. And just two of them—the one he potted this season and another back on March 15 in a 2–1 loss to Ottawa—were scored at five-on-five.
To be fair, the 26-year-old is not a premium scorer. His career high, after all, is just 23 goals for Philadelphia in 2013-14, but even that modest sum seems wildly out of reach at this point. And that’s killing a team that is only four points out of an Eastern Conference wild card spot.
There’s been plenty of criticism suggesting that Voracek is not shooting the puck often enough, but that’s not exactly true. He’s landed 83 on net so far, about 2.77 per game. That’s right about what you’d expect in the wake of his averaging 2.86 and 2.7 during the past two seasons.
Still, it’s obvious that Voracek is demurring on chances routinely, especially on the power play. Not that there’s anything wrong with smart puck movement, but when that’s his first choice every time, he becomes an easier player to defend. That was clearly an issue when he settled for a single shot during 24 shifts in Friday’s 3–1 loss in Dallas.
It’s easy to say that he should be more selfish with the puck on his stick, and no doubt Hakstol has voiced that repeatedly. But it’s not just a matter of shooting more. Even when Voracek does elect to fire away, there is too often a hesitation in his release—a sure sign that he’s overthinking his decision rather than trusting his instincts. And that delay is making it easier for defenders to get sticks in lanes and goaltenders to square up.
Voracek’s confidence is shot right now. And that’s why Hakstol might have to look at a more drastic option if this left wing thing doesn’t unblock Voracek’s offensive mojo. Like, say, scratching him for a game or two.
That view from on high has a way of refocusing a player’s attention. Go back to last year. Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau built a Calder-caliber season out of an early healthy scratch. Ottawa’s Mike Hoffman spent more than a few games in the press box last season and finished strong with 27 goals. His teammate Mark Stone rediscovered his game after a couple nights of eating popcorn up top.
Obviously there’s a bit of apples and oranges there. When they were scratched, those three were young players who were trying to prove they belong in the league. Voracek is a proven commodity, an All-Star who, for a good stretch of last season, led the NHL in scoring. And he’s a proud competitor, someone who wants to be out there helping his teammates. But a benching might be exactly what he needs to change the way he looks at the game.
Hey, who knows? Maybe the left wing shift will ignite his pilot light and get him moving in the right direction. But if it doesn't, Hakstol needs to consider this alternative. At this point, he’s got nothing to lose.