VOORHEES, NJ -- Claude Giroux scored 93 points last season for the Philadelphia Flyers, or 17 more than his previous career high. His coach Peter Laviolette called him “the best player in the world.”
Skating with Giroux, Scott Hartnell scored a career best 37 goals and 67 points, earning the veteran forward an NHL All-Star Game appearance and a six-year contract extension.
The common denominator between the two career years? The addition of Jaromir Jagr to their line, as the legendary winger returned to the NHL after three seasons in the KHL to score 54 points in 73 games.
“Jags plays different than anybody else in the League. He’s so strong on that puck. I think he thinks three plays ahead of almost everybody else on the ice,” said Hartnell at Flyers training camp on Monday in Voorhees, NJ.
But heading into the 2013 season, the common denominator has been deleted. Jagr signed a one-year, $4.55 million deal with the Dallas Stars last summer, leaving a hole on the Flyers’ explosive top line.
It’s a job Brayden Schenn intends to win.
Schenn, 21, was placed on the top line to start camp, having earned his shot in the last year.
The first impression he made was in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the rookie center played a physical game against the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils, finishing his first NHL postseason with three goals and six assists.
The second impression was in the American Hockey League during the NHL lockout – or as Laviolette refers to it, “the situation” – where Schenn scored 33 points in 33 games, including 13 goals.
That Schenn excelled both as a center and a right wing in the AHL led to his audition on the top line with the Flyers – along with the fact that he's already played 33 games this season.
“He’s getting older, more experienced. He’s a talented kid,” said Laviolette. “There’s been a progression that leads to opportunity.”
Is he comfortable on the wing?
“If you asked that a year ago, I would have said center,” Schennn said on Monday. “I go wherever I think I can play.”
Hartnell thinks Schenn meshes well on his line with Giroux.
“He’s a big body. If you remember in that Pittsburgh series, he was mowing guys over, controlling that puck, he was making plays, doing what you want a big power forward to do,” said Hartnell.
“He’s got some touch around the net, too. You just try and feed him the pucks, go to the net and my job’s pretty easy: Just pick up the rebounds if they don’t score on the first shot.”
Schenn was happy to hear the endorsement.
“Any time you get those words from a guy that’s been around a long time, it means a lot,” he said. “Hartsy goes to the net pretty hard. Giroux, the more he has the puck on his stick, the better he is. For me, [I have to] work hard, get him the puck and try to find chemistry as quick as possible.”
The short camp works in Schenn’s favor – without exhibition games, there’s a chance he could start the season getting a look on the top line.
That said, there’s also competition for the gig. One player that could covet the spot next to Giroux and Hartnell: Forward Jakub Voracek, who’s started the truncated preseason on a line with Sean Couturier.
“Jake’s a special player,” said Hartnell. “You look at him off the ice, and he doesn’t look like he’s in the best shape. We always bug him that it’s between me and him as far as you needs to join Fat Club.”
Was Voracek expecting to get a look on the top line? “It’s a four month season,” he said. “It’s not my job to get the lines together.”
OK then …
Schenn said he isn’t taking anything for granted, despite getting the first shot at the top line vacancy.
“Nothing’s safe,” he said. “I want to go in there, win that spot and hopefully stay there.”
There are 1,283 games and 653 goals separating Jaromir Jagr and Brayden Schenn. Asking a second-year forward to fill the skates of an NHL legend is foolhardy; expecting him to replicate the offensive results produced by Giroux and Hartnell when they skated with Jagr is equally imprudent.
But what he lacks in Jagr-ocity, Schenn makes up for in youthful exuberance.
“It’s a little bit of a big gap to fill,” said Hartnell. “But you look around the room and there’s a lot of young guys with a lot of enthusiasm – the young legs, I guess you could say.”
Schenn said he's ready for the challenge.
“It’s not intimidating at all,” Schenn said. “I just have to take it in stride, play my game."