PHILADELPHIA ― Scott Hartnell was a prominent figure on the Flyers power play during his seven seasons in Philadelphia, even leading the team with a career-high 16 goals on the man-advantage during the 2011-12 campaign.
That same season was also when the Flyers brought Brayden Schenn, along with Wayne Simmonds into the fold in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings. It also turned out to be Schenn’s first look on the power play after having just played nine NHL games in two seasons with the Kings.
Operating on the second power play unit, Schenn turned in a modest four goals and one assist in his first go-round in Philly. More importantly, though, he spent that season and the next two studying how Hartnell conducted himself in the slot on the unit before Hartnell was traded to Columbus in 2015.
“He was always good to me and helping me out along the way,” Schenn said. “Just watching him and his shot. He scored a lot of goals from that spot. If you watch him, he was always smart and got to the right areas and that’s something you can just pick up from a guy.”
Fast forward to the 2016-17 season and the No. 5 pick in 2009 draft finds himself all alone at the top of the NHL’s scoring leaders on the power play with 12 goals, ahead of names like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.
The 25-year-old center let out a smile when asked how it feels to see his and only his name atop the chart entering the All-Star break.
“There’s a lot of top-end talent around the league and a lot of studs that play on the power play, so to be in that category as far as power play goes, I’m happy,” Schenn said.
Schenn has worked alongside Claude Giroux, Simmonds and Jake Voracek for three seasons now. Individually, the latter three are some of the best players in the world with all having earned All-Star recognition at some point in their careers.
Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Schenn has totaled 22 goals on the man advantage. That number puts him fifth among all players over the timeframe with Ovechkin leading the way at 29.
“He gets to those right spots,” said Simmonds, who is second in the NHL behind Schenn with 10 power play goals. Simmonds also was quick to point out that Schenn has a “deadly” shot from the slot. “He’s in that support role for those guys who have the puck so if he’s not there, it allows the [opponents] to rush and close the ice off. With him being in the position he is, it allows us to open the ice a little bit more and creates a little bit more seams.”
The 6-foot-1 Saskatchewan native’s willingness to get to those “dirty areas” is certainly a skill. It takes a special type of person to accept being hacked at and battered on a regular basis in the area right in front of the goalie and nestled inside the slot.
“It’s not easy to play that middle guy because you don’t get as many touches,” Voracek said. “You don’t create a play, you just have to be in the right spot and you get rewarded if you make the right move.
“You have to go, turn around and twist those hips to find a shot. [Hartnell] was very good at it as well. To watch that [for three years], I think it helped him timing-wise.”
Schenn will be the first to agree that being able to watch Hartnell and essentially slide into the very same role after his departure paid dividends.
Yet, it wasn’t an overnight switch for him. Schenn scored seven goals in his first full season after having put up four goals in 2014-15 when Hartnell battled injuries. Being able to work with the same faces for all of these years and putting in the hours to get better at the skills that are required for his position have culminated into the season he’s currently having.
“We watch a lot of video and stuff like that and talk among the five guys,” Schenn said. “It may not be the prettiest job being in the middle there as far as the support and getting the greasy goals, but it’s important.”
His captain and the longest-tenured players on the Flyers can’t help but notice the growth of Schenn. Giroux also sees a mirror-like reflection between his old running mate in Hartnell and Schenn.
“They’re similar,” Giroux said. “They support the puck well and they have good vision.
“This year he’s improved a lot. The reason why is he’s working so hard at it. When you play in the same position for a while, you get this chemistry going and you communicate well.”
Following Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes—in which Schenn tallied his 12th PPG of the season and 100th goal of his career—the Flyers own a top-10 power play unit (21.47%) and find themselves with the third-most goals on the man advantage at 38.
Four of the five players on the top unit have been together for three years now with Shayne Gostisbehere taking over at the blue line about a quarter of the way into last season. There’s certainly some truth to continuity paying off over time.
Gostisbehere may be the youngest guy on the top line, but he’s well aware of where to get the puck to: the stick of Schenn.
“When he’s open, we try to get him the puck as quick as possible,” Gostisbehere said. “He finds that area. It’s one thing for [Giroux[ to make that pass, but for Brayden to find that hole, that’s a big part and a certain skill… he’s a very key part of our power play.”
In juniors, Schenn says that he spent all of time on the power play along the half-wall and never in the slot like he is now. That is why it was so imperative for him to be able to take a few seasons and study what does and doesn’t work in the slot so that when it came his time, he would be able to step right in.
For that, Schenn is forever grateful for having had Hartnell around and his teammates, most of whom played with his mentor, can clearly see the work that Schenn put in.
“They both have a great shot,” Voracek said. “ If you don’t have a good shot and you’re playing there, you’ve got to get better at it or how are you gonna score? That’s why he’s scoring because he used to work on for a long time. He’s like Hartsy, he just stuck with it.”