Let’s throw out some statisticals:
The Flyers are 1-5 (one was a shootout loss) in their last 6 games.
They have 3 wins in their last 10 games.
They are fourth in the league in scoring (182 goals)… but 25th in the league in defense (169 goals against).
For the second year in a row, they have lacked jam after the All-Star break.
Those are all facts. Mostly.
So, I want you to nestle in, hockey fans, and remove your orange and black-worldview glasses– we’re going to dig deep and perform a little midseason inspection of your Philadelphia Flyers. And don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing. – snaps latex glove –
When Paul Holmgren took a shotgun to the Flyers’ top two forward lines last offseason, we were all left puzzled and confused, if not somewhat eager. If the Flyers were a Rubik’s Cube (Wikipedia tells me that they are not), what Holmgren did was akin to grabbing a nearly completed puzzle, which had perhaps only one or two carefully-measured twists remaining, and mending it like an autistic child on caffeine pills who just found a new play-thing. Oh the pretty colors! Look, blues and reds and greens and motherfucking Russian goalies! And Max Talbot. Look! Look!
Good luck figuring that out, Philadelphia.
Some (me) thought that Holmgren's actions were frustrating and maddening. What was once an item that needed just a few tweaks, was now a rainbow of madness that, while perhaps reset into a more manageable position, looked horrifyingly different and complicated. I invested five fucking years on this core and now I have to start over? The FACK?!
Others (those who just removed their orange and black glasses– OB Shadzzz, as I call them) loved the move. Holmgren – a visionary not unlike Ben Franklin and Steve Jobs – knew what we wanted before we did. Oh thank you, Master Paul– a Brayden Schenn! I knew I needed one of these! He’s Mike Richards… only newer, and not as experienced! Like an iPad to my fully functioning MacBook Pro. Who needed that thing, anyway? Thanks, Mr. Jobs Homer!
And then there were the more even-keeled folks, who thought that the moves took one step backward for the sake of taking two steps forward. I can dig this. That Homer chief has an eye toward the future… and we got a goalie! I like, I like. Sure, I’ll renew my season tickets.
Still with me? OK, good.
Just like there being three types of reactions to last summer’s craziness, there are also, in my view, three junctures at which the craziness should be judged: initial reaction (decidedly mixed), after year-one (more on that in a second), and following three seasons (more on that in 2014). And, in keeping with the rule of three, I’m going to add a third facet to this convoluted theory: there are three areas in which the offseason moves should be judged– leadership, goaltending, and the loot.
Three types of reactions… at three different stages… based on three different variables– 3… 3… 3. If you had to turn that into a matrix, it would look perhaps something like… a Rubik’s Cube. Yeah, I just blew your fucking mind. Go ahead, take a second…
Back to the story.
Since we’re well into Year 1, let’s take a look at each facet and see if we can determine why the results are trending downward, and why the Flyers can't beat the Rangers…
The organization changed when Mr. Snider picked up his Bat Phone, or whichever other communication instrument he was using at the time, and told Holmgren that he was tired of Peter Laviolette’s oaltender carousel. The team invested in a $51 million Russian, who had been known to be a bit of a flake.
This had to work. There was no Plan B. The Flyers offseason moves, though far-reaching outside the crease, were all built off goaltending.
It hasn’t worked, yet.
Thus far, Ilya Bryzgalov has been a disappointment. It’s not his fault that the Flyers are paying him stupid money. However, when you invest $51 in a goaltender, he needs to not only prevent you from losing, but he also needs to win you games– almost like a good pitcher in baseball.
There are three types of goalies: those who lose you games, those who neither help nor hurt you, and those who win you games. This year, Bryz (and Bob) have probably fallen just below the neutral category… and that’s bad. Bad, bad.
If SABR nerds existed for hockey (thankfully they don’t), they would be screaming about what a shitty value Bryz has been. Sure, he’s entertaining, and, frankly, we like him. But he’s sucked. It’s almost criminal that, two-thirds of the way into the season, we’ve rarely yelled “Wow! What a save!”
Everything the Flyers did last summer was based off the assumption that their shiny new goalie (and the netminding situation in general) was going to be a net positive for them. Instead, to date, the goaltenders have been no better or worse than they were last season. And that’s a big problem.
So, if we’re comparing the Flyers to the Rangers – which we should be, because that’s the one team that they will undoubtedly have to go through to get the Stanley Cup Finals… and because they’re 0-7 in their last seven games against the Blueshits – there’s little argument that Henrik Lundqvist is the preferred tender of ne.t
Lundqvist is not only consistent, but he also bails his team out when needed. Kimmo Timonen couldn’t have put it any better this weekend when he said – in what was perhaps a shot at Bob and Bryz – that Rangers goalies (Lundqvist) are there to bail the team out during inevitable breakdowns.
In a nutshell, that’s the difference between the Flyers and Rangers, or Flyers and Bruins, in the standings– those teams are 10 and 3 points ahead of the Flyers, respectively, most likely because there were a handful of games in which Lundvist and Tim Thomas bailed them out. That hasn’t been the case for the Flyers. And, for this $51 million experiment to work, in Year 1 or at all, that has to change.
I wish the Flyers had a guy like Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
They used to– his name was Mike Richards.
I know the mere mention of the former One Eight elicits a reaction not unlike bringing up the name of an ex-girlfriend who fucked so hard but broke your heart even harder… and possibly did drugs. But it's necessary to talk about him, because his trading was such a cataclysmic event in Flyers history. Before February of last year, you would not have been able to find one hockey fan on the planet who didn’t think that Mike Richards was a good captain. He led his underdog team to within two games of the Stanley Cup, had already won a gold medal, and was the face of one of the two or three best teams in hockey.
All was good, at least on the outside.
But then he and the boys went to Costa Rica, met Callie, and returned to an awful 4-0 loss in Tampa, which was the beginning of the end of the season… and Richards’ and Jeff Carter’s time in Philly, despite both being inked to decade-long contracts.
Something happened. Whether it was alcohol related, some sort of prescription pill thing, or just because Richards was an asshole… something happened– him and Carter were out. And whatever the reason – perhaps a good one, perhaps not – it won’t be undone.
Plus, if Richards was made to be the fall guy for the second half collapse, then Peter Laviolette - the coach - should have been held accountable, as well. Something like that, if it goes beyond skill level and assets, and into the realm of "leadership," the coach is equally, if not more, at fault.
Just before the trade, Sam Donnellon wrote a column in the Daily News about how the time had come for the Flyers to trade Richards. I blasted him, and, well, he proved to be right about the trade… but not about the fallout. Here’s what I wrote in response to Donnellon’s article back in May:
"That's what I would tell Richards in proposing he take a break from the job. As he himself has said, plenty of guys can wear the C, and Pronger is the obvious choice, when and if he gets healthy. Meanwhile, Mike Richards can deal with the media any way he would like, play unfettered and see whether a little time can heal a reputation that already has taken too many hits."
That makes no sense. Pronger is always hurt and the locker room equivalent of the team dad. He doesn’t hang out with these guys, he can’t relate to them.
While some of that may be inconsequential now, the fact remains– the Flyers handed the captaincy over to an ageing, injury-prone player. How has that worked out?
No one could have predicted Pronger taking a stick to the eye or getting a concussion. Those things could happen to any player. But if it wasn’t his eye or head, it would have been his knee or his hand or his back or some other ailment that comes with being an Amazon-sized veteran in the NHL. The Flyers axed their captain (a standing that they don’t take lightly, in the only sport where such designations really do matter) and their backup plan was risky, at best.
Now here we are– no Richards, no Pronger. No one for the myriad young players to look to and relate to when the goin’ gets tough and the tough gets goin’ and ducks fly together! (sorry).
Anyway, the Flyers don’t have a leader.*
*The most-heard refrain is that it could be Claude Giroux. He’s not the answer. Some players are best left being skill guys, free to do their thing and not be burdened with the additional expectations that come with being a captain. That's Claude.
3) The Loot
Whether you agreed with last summer's moves or not, it’s hard to deny that the key skaters the Flyers obtained – Jaromir Jagr, Max Talbot, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier – have all been pleasant surprises.
Couturier played his way into the lineup during a 10-game trial at the beginning of the season. He’s a solid two-way player who kills penalties, scores, and shows the patience of someone who has been in the league for 10 years. He is beyond impressive.
Schenn was hurt early on and hasn’t paid immediate dividends, but the small sample size shows that he is very similar to Mike Richards– stronger than he looks, with short bursts of testosterone. But his inexperience shows quite a bit.
Voracek and Simmonds have been as advertised– skilled, sizable scorers, who have added both speed and toughness to the team.
Finally, we get to Jagr and Talbot, the two guys who, if this summer’s moves were meant more to reload rather than retool, needed to play a key role.
Let’s start with Jagr: He was better than expected early on, but now his age appears to be catching up with him. The skill is of a 25-year-old, but the body – groin – is of a 40-year-old. Ultimately, as expected, it will be his health which determines his postseason contributions.
Talbot is a winner. Even though he’s not incredibly skilled, he plays a style of hockey that is well-received in Philadelphia, or anywhere. He probably fits in somewhere between Rod Brind’Amour and Shjon Podein in terms of talent, and that’s not a horrible place to be.
So that’s all roses. The Flyers scored some nice, mostly young players, for both now and the future… but more-so for the future– and that’s the problem right now.
I remember listening in to Holmgren’s conference call on the Friday night before Fourth of July weekend, the evening of the first day of free agency. Homer had already obtained Jagr and Talbot, and, a week earlier, Schenn, Simmonds and Voracek. On the call, Homer was asked, several times, if the Flyers were done for the day. The conjecture, at the time, was that the Flyers could be players in prying Steven Stamkos away from the Lightning, or, more likely, signing free agent Brad Richards.
They didn’t get either player, and Richards signed with New York, where he has 17 goals and 22 assists this season.
We now have three areas – goaltending, leadership and immediate returns – in which to judge this past summer’s craziness. The goaltending, which had be a huge win for the Flyers, hasn’t lived up to expectations. Not even close. As such, the teams ahead of the Flyers – the Rangers and Bruins – have backstops in Lundqvist and Thomas that are the difference between being good-to-very good (Flyers) and being great (Rangers and Bruins).
By trading Mike Richards, and now with the unfortunate injury to Pronger, the Flyers are left without their two main leaders (not to mention two of their best players) from a year ago. The Rangers, however, have an intangibles-laden two-way forward in Callahan… the Flyers have…???… an angry Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell??
Finally, while the moves yielded some very good young players for the Flyers, they were left without two of their best two-way forwards– Richards and Carter. Though guys like Couturier and Schenn have impressed at both ends of the ice, it’s difficult to make up for the lost experience of veteran players, as immature as they may have been off the ice. That’s a big reason why the Flyers often see mind-boggling defensive zone breakdowns this year. And the only acquisition(s) that may have offset those losses, at least in Year 1 (a big-name player like Brad Richards, Steven Stamkos or a defenseman), never happened.
So here we are– a good team, but one with a disturbing goaltender situation, bubbling questions as to who the leaders are, and solid young talent that isn’t quite ready to fill the shoes of players who came before them.
Years 2 and 3 of this experiment are looking real good (save for the goaltender thing), but for the same to be said for Year 1 – this season - the Flyers need to do something. As you know, a top-flight defenseman to help with defensive zone coverage and to cover up some goaltending issues would be the answer. Otherwise, the Flyers have no shot of beating the Rangers or Bruins in the playoffs.