It finally happened. After such a long drought, it finally came to pass.
No, I’m not talking about the end of the Flyers eight-game losing streak – although that too did come to an end Thursday.
Instead, I’m talking about a glimpse of what the Flyers thought they were getting when they signed James van Riemsdyk to a five-year, $35 million contract.
JVR had a hand in both Flyers goals in the team’s first win of 2019. His goal, the game-winner, was a bit fortuitous. His assist on the first goal of the game was nifty.
It was his sixth multiple-point game in 28 games since returning to the Flyers. That’s not a terrible percentage in this day and age.
That said, there have been far too many goose eggs. There were far too many games where JVR has been just a body skating around on the ice. He’s hardly lived up to his reputation as a potential 30-plus goal scorer who sets up shop in the greasy areas in front of the net and goes to work.
Maybe it was returning somewhere he had played before and expecting things to be similar, but they’re not. Maybe it was an expectation that he could play the same way he did in Toronto, where he was pretty successful for six seasons, and found out that won’t fit in the Flyers system.
Heck, the critics will say he’s playing like a guy who is comfortably sitting on his wallet after his big pay day, but knowing JVR, I doubt that’s the case.
A lot of the same weaknesses that have always been in JVR’s game are still there today. They’ve never gone away. But they are the kinds of things you can live with when the guy is potting 30-plus goals in a season.
Except, that wasn’t happening for him with the Flyers.
Yes, he missed some time with an injury that cost him six weeks early in the season, but he has now played in 28 games, and the Flyers were hoping for more than seven goals and nine assists through that many games. Extrapolated over a full 82, that’s about 19 goals and 24 assists for 43 points – a far cry from his totals last season in Toronto where he had 36 goals last season and was between 54 and 62 points in each of the four seasons he played nearly a full schedule of games.
It had gotten so bad for JVR, who before Thursday had only scored one goal in nine games that he was demoted to fourth line duty against Washington on Tuesday.
He cleared the air with coach Scott Gordon and seemed to get a better sense of what the Flyers interim coach wants him to do, and was given a chance to be put back on the top line with Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny against the Stars and it paid off.
It might have been JVR’s best game of the season for the Flyers. One, the team hopes, he can build off of and start playing like the player they were hoping would be a big part of the team’s success in the coming seasons.
“That’s professional sports right there,” van Riemsdyk said. “There should be dialogue between your coaches and players, that’s the only way you get growth. Especially I think for me, again I’m in a new situation and a new team and I want to try to get my bearings right and again there’s always some things you can clarify so things become a little second nature. I mean when you’re playing in a certain place for a long time, things become second nature that maybe they want you to do a little differently here so there’s been some good communication and dialogue about some of that stuff and yeah it’s good.
“I have a good relationship with Gordo since I played for him in Toronto and some USA hockey stuff so I appreciate him taking some time to talk me through some things that he wanted to see and some different things that we’re trying to do. So yeah I think it makes it easier when you have that dialogue.”
Here’s the assist, which was his best play of the game:
— Hockey Daily (@HockeyDaily365) January 11, 2019
Radko Gudas really makes the play with a great keep and shot from the point (more on him later), but JVR made a slick little no-look pass to Konecny to get the Flyers on the board first.
His goal was a bit fluky, but if you get to the spots on the ice where you have your most success, good things can happen:
The pigeon! pic.twitter.com/IvzDUMnW5R
— Broad Street Hockey (@BroadStHockey) January 11, 2019
There’s been a lot of double doinks in Philly sports recently, hasn’t there?
Anyway, JVR addressed this as well, saying that getting to the right spaces on the ice is part of where scoring success comes from in this league.
“The roles that I’ve been in are a lot of net-front stuff and being the stretch guy and a lot of that is reading the other players and playing off their speed. It’s kind of funny because guys who score goals – guys like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos – it’s not like they’re always blasting around and sprinting and stopping. They’re kind of meandering and they find that soft spot. People wonder, ‘how’d they get there?’ Well, they know where to go and how to get to the right spot when [their teammate] is ready to pass it. That’s what you try to learn over the course of your career.”
Dodging the missed opportunity bite
For one night, JVR was able to get to the right spot multiple times and it parlayed into a Flyers win. One that ended up being a nailbiter because the Flyers missed out on three consecutive odd man rushes. A 3-on-1 (shorthanded) a 2-on-1 (shorthanded) and a 2-on-0 with JVR and Konecny:
Anton Khudobin makes the save on the 2-on-0 rush. pic.twitter.com/ZQ90WmZg47
— Broad Street Hockey (@BroadStHockey) January 11, 2019
“It was funny because me and TK had just been talking about it after the 2-on-1 right before our chance and we were saying how [Stars goalie Anton Khudobin] likes to sit on the pass so we have to shoot one and sure enough we make two passes back and forth like dummies after we had just talked about it,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’s a fine line though, you don’t want to be the guy who goes in on a 2-on-none and misses either.”
Funny game, hockey. In almost any other sport, the players have a me-first attitude. Hockey is the other way around, to a fault sometimes.
“The Kid looks really good.”
On the elevator ride and subsequent jaunt to the locker room after the game, I happened to ride down with Dallas Stars goaltending coach and former Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese.
After checking in on him and his family and talking about how well the Dallas goaltending duo of Khudobin and Ben Bishop have been playing, and crediting their coaching, Reese said, “Nah, my job is to just wave the pom-poms.” He then changed the subject to talk about Carter Hart.
“The kid looks really good,” he said. “His positioning and quickness is good for sure, but the thing that impresses me the most is his poise. He’s not rattled. That’s impressive for a 20-year-old kid.”
This was unsolicited mind you. It’s the kind of thing that indicates there is a buzz going on around the league about Hart and the way he’s looked so far.
His save percentage is now a solid .920. He makes a lot of saves look easy. His flaws – based solely on inexperience rather than an inability to do something – seem to get corrected quickly. Early in the season – in Lehigh Valley – Hart had a tendency to go down too soon and leave room upstairs for goal scorers to shoot for the top shelf. Now, Hart stands taller longer and relies on his quickness to get down, if he has to do so.
He still struggles a little bit with rebound control, but that’s also something that comes with experience. He tracks the puck so well that it won’t hurt him long term.
Hart has been a bit of an eye-opener. His play might just be changing the mind of GM Chuck Fletcher. Hart was originally called up for a short stint in the NHL, but the kid has earned his keep.
Now, to be fair, the Flyers are uber-defensive in front of him. They tend to put their bodies on the line to block more shots for Hart than they do other goalies, so that helps (They blocked 18 against Dallas, with Christian Folin leading the way with seven), so there’s that too. But Hart made 37 saves against a red hot Stars team. That’s no small feat, even if very few of the saves seemed to be of the 10-bell variety.
It’s likely to a point where the Flyers won’t hurt his development – at least for awhile anyway (things can always go sideways at some point) – and will be better suited to have him keep playing.
- Nolan Patrick looked… OK. That’s an improvement over what he’s been looking like recently. But, he’s still giving you the same offensive output as Dale Weise. And his advanced metrics aren’t even as good as Jordan Weal, who can’t stay in the lineup. I still think Patrick would benefit from a little time in Lehigh Valley.
- The defense was decent – Gordon switched up the second and third pairs. He went with Gudas and Shayne Gostisbehere and Folin and Robert Hagg.
- Gudas has been playing pretty solid hockey for the Flyers for an extended period of time now. He’s truly looking like a very useful piece, and maybe one that could interest other teams at the deadline. He’s really been the most consistent defenseman on this team this season (apologies to Travis Sanheim, who has improved greatly).
- There was a moment in the second period where Hagg was getting an extended one-on-one coaching session on the bench from assistant coach Rick Wilson. In the middle of the game, Wilson was hunched over, in Hagg’s ear and drawing frantically on the dry-erase board. There was extended conversation too. Nothing loud or angry. Just a good teaching moment. At the end there were a few pats on the back from Wilson, and Hagg played pretty solid hockey after that. I’m starting to be convinced that the hiring of Wilson may end up being the most underrated move by this organization this season.
- Finally, I’m hearing there could be more news coming about the whole Jori Lehtera cocaine ring situation. While one of the members arrested in the ring is now backing off a story that he sold directly to Lehtera, I was told after the game that there might be another connection directly to Lehtera involved in this in Finland. I’m working to confirm what I was told (I’ve actually called a phone number in Finland for the first time in my life) so until I do, I won’t report it here, but I’m honestly perplexed as to why the Flyers are keeping him on the roster at this point. Just waive Lehtera. No one will claim him because of his salary and this investigation. At which point you can either bury him in the minors or give him his outright release. You can’t tell me that it’s better for this team long-term to keep him on this roster at this point than to give someone like a Nicolas Aube-Kubel a real chance to play in the NHL.