Brayden Schenn and Sam Gagner have definitely had their ups and downs as Philadelphia Flyers.
For Schenn, that means a slow development curve since being acquired in the Mike Richards trade with Los Angeles several years ago. Coming over as a very hot prospect, his offensive growth at the NHL level could most generously be described as "slow and steady."
His name was in and out of trade rumors, and his reputation may have been at an all-time low this offseason. He saw fellow phenom center Sean Couturier get a long-term deal, while GM Ron Hextall said "let's wait and see" on a contract for Schenn. By training camp, he started on the fifth line, and Hextall reviewed his play as merely "okay."
For Gagner, he couldn't even get in the lineup most of the year. He joined the Flyers as a pure throw-in to balance salaries in the Nicklas Grossmann trade in the offseason, amidst lots of talk the Flyers would turn around and buy him out.
The buyout didn't come, but neither did the lineup opportunities. He was often a healthy scratch for the Flyers, and when he did play, it was usually on fourth line duty. The situation then got even worse, as Gagner was sent down to the AHL for the first time in his career.
To their credit, neither player complained. They both showed up for work, and were patient. Now their patience is paying off.
At this point, Schenn could be said to be having the "breakout year" for which everyone is always hoping. He is, in fact, the Flyers' leading scoring since Jan. 1, with 17 goals and 32 points.
Gagner is also having lots of recent success. Always more of a set-up man than a goal-scorer, Gagner has five goals in his last nine games.
Much of the success Schenn and Gagner are enjoying can be traced back to roles. Schenn has been entrenched on the top power-play unit all season. He has shown significant improvement in Scott Hartnell's old role in the high slot, getting off better shots and hustling to loose pucks. The result is a career high 1o power-play goals, and he may double up his previous career high of seven by the time the season is done.
At even strength, Schenn has seen most of his time with Claude Giroux or Couturier. Schenn has really hit his stride playing with Giroux. Giroux has been most productive this season when paired with Wayne Simmonds and Schenn, accumulating even better shot attempt and goal rates than when he plays alongside Jakub Voracek.
This season has shown that Schenn's future is probably as a complementary top-6 forward. He's not at his best creating chances himself, but he's very good off the puck. He has a knack for popping up in scoring locations to pull the trigger on a scoring chance, and that's when he's not banging bodies as one of the team's most enthusiastic hitters. He's not a possession driver like Voracek, or even Michael Raffl, but he is now very effective playing with playmakers and other talented forwards.
Switching back to Gagner, he is another player who needs to be with talented players. Early in the season he saw a lot of time Scott Laughton and Vincent Lecavalier, and it didn't work out very well. He wasn't scoring, and had poor possession.
As the chart shows, it's been a huge difference for Gagner playing with Couturier. Scoring rates are nearly three times as high, and shot attempts for are up while shot attempts against are down. Furthermore, it's not just a one way effect for Gagner. Gagner is one of Couturier's most statistically productive partners, and Couturier's numbers rise with Gagner at this side compared to nearly every other linemate.
Unmistakably, scoring from depth players is a crucial element the Flyers' renewed push for a playoff spot that started last month. Part of that is a credit to players like Gagner and Schenn themselves improving their game, but the commitment must also come from the coaches to put these players in positions to succeed. Now the Flyers have created a virtuous cycle between improving players and trusting coaches.
Voracek will likely return to the lineup for a few days, and will go back to the top of the Flyers lineup. This will make nervous moments for both Schenn and Gagner, but particularly for Gagner. It's both a blessing and a curse that Gagner is so much more effective with scoring players, because it gives the coaches a reason to sit him if he is bumped from Couturier's line.
Schenn's season has likely cemented his future as a Flyer. Gagner's future with the Flyers, both in the short-term and long-term, is highly uncertain. However, even if nothing else goes right for him in Philadelphia, Gagner really came through on the top-6 during the most important stretch of the season for the Flyers.
Marc Naples is a contributor to Flyerdelphia and Sports Talk Philly. Follow him on Twitter@SuperScrub47.