Austria might not be known as a hockey hotbed. In fact, the small central European nation has only ever produced seven NHL players, and of those only three have made it past the 200 games mark. Don’t let that fool you though, in the South of the country hockey is a big deal, no more so than in the border town of Villach. Nestled in a pristine Alpine setting, just a stone’s throw from both Italy and Slovenia, the town’s name has become close to synonymous with hockey.
The whole region has a fantastic hockey pedigree. Future Hall of Famer Anže Kopitar grew up just half an hour away from the second-biggest city in Carinthia, and the majority of the Austrian, Slovenian and Italian national hockey teams are from the immediate area. Fifty-six players dressed for the Austrian national team in 2016-17, and the region of Carinthia – especially the two main cities of Klagenfurt and Villach – provided a large number of representatives. Arguably two of the best three Austrian players in NHL history are from the town of 60,000 people.
Michael Raffl grew up in that kind of hockey loving environment. His father Peter was an Austrian international, who suited up in the 1984 and 1988 Winter Olympics. His uncle Gerald Rauchenwald went to two World Championships with the national team. Hockey is in the lifeblood of the mountains of Carinthia, and hockey certainly flows through the veins of the Flyers Austrian winger.
But when the Flyers signed Raffl as a free agent in May of 2013, very few people in North America had ever heard of him. That was not exactly a surprise. Raffl had been playing in the Swedish second tier – the Allsvenskan – and was not a big name even in Sweden. Even those who followed European hockey closely thought that most likely the Flyers had taken a punt on a player with a solid skillset who would likely spend the majority of the season in the AHL.
It’s almost five years later and the man from Villach has only ever seen two games of AHL action. He had an excellent camp in his first season, and was unfortunate to start his season in the AHL due to a numbers crunch. But after three points in two games with the Phantoms, he was back up with the Flyers less than a week into the season, and he has been there ever since.
325 games later and the man from the banks of the river Drau has become something of a cult player in Orange and Black. He may be underappreciated by some, but there is a legitimate argument to be made that the Flyers have not had a better defensive winger since Simon Gagne, and have not had a more important bottom-six forward since the days of Sami Kapanen. Some of his appeal certainly comes from his personality. Likeable, open and jovial, it is hard not to appreciate Raffl. However, his play over the course of his NHL career has been more impressive than anyone could have imagined when the Flyers signed him from across the pond.
At this point it would not surprise me if some readers are scratching their heads in wonder at the deification of simply a ‘solid third liner’. But delve deeper into what Raffl has done over his career and the numbers really do jump off the page.
We will start with some of the more believable figures. Growing up immersed in hockey it is not an enormous surprise that Raffl thinks the game so well. Sean Couturier is clearly the Flyers most instinctive defensive forward, he is never out of position and rarely loses a battle, but after Couturier there is certainly an argument for Raffl to be considered for second spot on that list. Simply from the ‘eye test’, how many times can you remember Raffl being lost in coverage, or cause a clear scoring chance for the opposition? The answer: not many.
The numbers back this up. His defensive acumen is reflected by a dazzling set of metrics that can hold their own against virtually every winger in the NHL. 422 forwards have played over 1500 minutes at 5v5 since Raffl entered the NHL, and 33 have seen that much ice for the Flyers, and he has been consistently near the top of them across a range of defensive metrics.
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As can be seen, Raffl drives play, suppresses shots, and prevents chances at an excellent level. When he is on the ice good things happen, and while at times he has benefitted from playing with Giroux and Couturier, he has generally helped raise the level of play of those around him.
But how does he do this?
To be clichéd it is because he does all of the little things right. He is strong down low, excellent on the boards, has an active stick, clogs lanes in the neutral zone, is aware defensively, is a relentless fore checker, is not scared to go to the slot and the net, and is always willing to do the dirty work for his line. He may not be flashy, or obviously skillful, but he thinks the game at a high level, which combined with his good size and skating means he is a handful for opposition players to beat in 1-on-1 battles.
You still might be sat there thinking “ok, he is a good play driver who brings good defense,” but even that underplays just what Raffl does for his team. What if I told you that he scores like a first liner? No, I would scoff too. But he does. Since joining the Flyers not one player has produced goals at a higher rate at 5v5 than the Austrian forward. It seems crazy, but that is a fact. Here are the five Flyers with the highest 5v5 scoring rates since the start of the 2013-14 season
Some may simply rebuke that statistic by saying that the Flyers have not exactly set the world alight at 5v5 over the last few seasons. That would be correct. However, when you look at Raffl’s rate of scoring when compared to the NHL as a whole it is still excellent. His 0.77 G/60 since the start of his NHL career is 90th amongst the 422 forwards who have seen 1500+ minutes of ice time.
The list of names that Raffl has out produced on a per-minute basis is truly stunning. Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Eric Staal, Taylor Hall, Gabriel Landeskog, Marian Hossa, Mark Scheifele, Nathan MacKinnon… there is no argument that – per minute – Raffl has produced at an exceptional level at 5v5. 0.77 G/60 is first line level production.
Yes, Raffl only averages 15 goals per 82 games, but he is hardly ever used on the power-play and has seen below 14 minutes a night over his career. Like his possession and defensive game, his goal scoring acumen can be hard to explain at face value. His shot is solid but not elite, his hands are at times clunky, and he is not exactly Wayne Simmonds in and around the crease. Once again he relies on out-thinking the opposition to score. He creates space by finding the weak spots in opposition coverage, and then lets his skating and strength help him do the rest.
Raffl also has an almost unbelievable knack of scoring timely goals. Case in point, at 5v5 this season only Couturier has scored more than Raffl’s eight goals when within a goal of the opponent. Last season the same could be said, with Couturier having nine goals in such a situation to Raffl’s eight. In 2015-16 Raffl had ten goals when the score was within one, behind only Simmonds and Schenn – who had twelve each. In fact, since entering the league Raffl has scored 42 goals in such ‘close’ game situations at 5v5. He has ‘only’ scored 52 goals at 5v5 full-stop. Almost a quarter of his 61 career goals have been game-winners.
And the cost of all this? $2.35m a year. In terms of value there cannot be many UFA eligible third liners in the NHL who bring more to the table than Raffl. He is a true ‘money-puck’ player. He might ‘only’ bring 10-15 goals and 25-30 points a season to the table, but considering they are virtually all at even strength that is nothing to scoff at. Furthermore, his fantastic defensive game and versatility – he seems at home no matter who he plays with, and has played all three forward positions in the NHL – mean you can often see him out late in games defending leads.
At 29 years old with only a year left on his deal after the current season it remains to be seen how much longer Raffl will be a Flyer, but if you were to choose a bottom-six veteran winger to provide experience and value for a contender there cannot be many better options around the NHL than the man from Villach. On a true contender Raffl would slot in perfectly as a complimentary third line winger who can get 25-30 points a season. Hopefully for both Raffl and Flyers fans he is playing that kind of role on a Stanley Cup level team in the not so distant future.
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