Ahh, the Flyers. Yes, they’re still playing. Yes, they’re still technically still in a playoff race, sitting five points out of the final spot with eight games to go.
Yes, I know it’s easy for them to get lost in the shuffle these days. There’s so much going on around the Philadelphia sports world that it’s easy to forget about the hockey team.
While you were caught up in betting on the NCAA tournament and watching Villanova survive and advance against St. Mary’s, or lamenting the botched firing of Phil Martelli by St. Joe’s, or were celebrating Bryce Harper’s two-homer game in Spring Training, or were still basking in the glow of the Sixers big win over Boston or were caught nodding in approval of the Eagles bringing back Vinny Curry, the Flyers were in Chicago in yet another do or die game Thursday.
And like Villanova, they survived… and advanced another day while still technically in the race with a 3-1 win over the Blackhawks. And they did it behind the work of three players who continue to be superb when they play – Carter Hart, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier.
So, while hockey is just a blip on your sports radar at the moment, I figured I’ll just give you a quick taste on those three as it’s no doubt that they’ve been the three players who have had the biggest impact in keeping the Flyers afloat this long.
1. Carter Hart
Another ho-hum 40 save performance for the 20-year-old rookie. That makes 15 wins for Hart, which already ties him for 26th all-time for the Flyers with Darren Jensen and Bobby Taylor.
Yes, it’s comical to see where he ranks in victories already, but considering the Flyers had only 12 wins at the time he was called up (12-16-3), it’s a pretty impressive total made even more special by the fact that he missed almost three weeks (eight games) with an ankle injury.
He has a solid 2.66 goals against average and a really strong .922 save percentage in his 26 games this season. And although he’s only 2-4 in his last six starts, since coming back from the injury, he has stopped 141 of 149 shots in four games (.946 save percentage).
No, it’s not time for a coronation and crowning Hart as a goaltending king, but it’s definitely fair to call him an above-average goalie with an even higher ceiling.
He has a chance to reach 20 wins this season, and that should get him real Calder Trophy consideration.
Although the Flyers remain a long-shot to reach the playoffs, they aren’t going to suddenly give Hart time off until they are officially eliminated. And since their tragic number is currently 13 points, that means the soonest they can be officially eliminated is four games from now, and that would assume Montreal goes undefeated and the Flyers lose all four in regulation – which is an unlikely scenario.
So they’re still going to be chasing that final playoff spot into the final week of the season and with only two sets of back-to-backs remaining, including one this weekend – the Islanders Saturday and the Capitals Sunday, It’s a good bet that Hart will start six of the final eight games.
And as long as he’s between the pipes, the Flyers will have a chance to win. Even when the Flyers aren’t winning the time of possession or shot battles – which are often indicators of teams that win more than they lose – those stats can always be tossed out the window when you have a good goalie.
So, these Flyers can win anytime Hart starts, and that’s huge, even if they don’t make the playoffs this year.
2. Sean Couturier
Coots has carried the Flyers offensively for the past two months. In the Flyers’ last 32 games, Couturier has 16 goals and 27 assists for 43 points.
I know plus-minus isn’t a good stat, but considering how many points he has in this time-frame, it’s a good bet that he was involved with the offense most of the time, so being a plus-23 in those 32 games is pretty damn good.
He’s only had five games without registering at least one point and hasn’t gone consecutive games without a point since early January.
He has 31 goals and 72 points for the season and barring injury is likely going to eclipse his career-best 76 points that he posted last season, when he was runner-up in Selke Trophy voting for the best two-way forward in the NHL to Anze Kopitar of the LA Kings.
Kopitar isn’t going to be in that conversation this year, but the three guys who I would vote for to be the finalists this season are Couturier, Boston’s Patrice Bergeron (who finished third last season and has won the award four times) and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews (who won the award once and was a finalist three other times).
NOTE: (Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) vote for the Selke Trophy each year, among other awards. They get to rank their top five when they submit their ballots. While I used to be a member of the PHWA and have a vote, I am not a member at this time, so my vote here won’t be tallied. Other names that I have heard as potential finalists are Alexsander Barkov in Florida and Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. I can see Crosby – he’s actually had a very good season defensively and he’s typical Sid on offense – I’d probably rank him fourth – and although Barkov is dynamic and does all his scoring against the best players on the opposition, the fact is, he doesn’t stand out like the other guys do in the defensive end. If I had to pick a fifth place person I’d probably go with Mark Stone, now with Vegas but a guy who was a plus-player for much of the season on a horrid Ottawa team.)
The interesting thing is, the numbers of my three finalists are almost identical:
- Toews 31
- Couturier 31
- Bergeron 30
- Toews 73
- Couturier 72
- Bergeron 71
- Couturier 56.7
- Bergeron 56.7
- Toews 56.0
POWER PLAY GOALS
- Bergeron 8
- Toews 8
- Couturier 7
The only thing to note here is Bergeron missed 16 games this season with injuries, so he’d likely be ahead of both Toews and Couturier in most of these counting stats had he not missed time.
And although Bergeron has to be considered a front-runner, especially since he is the one guy who most likely will have earned a postseason berth with his play, I would argue that Couturier had to endure an in-season “training camp” at the start of the season.
Having missed most of camp recovering from offseason knee surgery, Couturier was mostly just a body on the ice for the Flyers first 11 games of the season.
Through those first 11 games, Couturier had three goals and no assists. That means he’s only two points behind Bergeron since, and has only played three more games.
So, in the end, the counting numbers between these three are pretty much a wash.
Couturier averages 22 minutes per game. Toews 20 and Bergeron 18. So Couturier is relied on to do more and be more for the Flyers on a nightly basis.
Consider this too – Couturier had to play a majority of the season with ineffective goaltending behind him.
The save percentage by his goalies while he’s been on the ice is .887. That’s not good. By comparison, Toews is .899 and Bergeron is .903.
As such, Couturier is more a victim of bad luck than the others.
I don’t expect Couturier will win the Selke this year and frankly, he may not even be a finalist because the Flyers won’t make the playoffs and too many writers only look at counting stats and team success when they vote for these awards, but for my money Couturier deserves to be there again and very well should win it.
3. James van Riemsdyk
Well, one thing is for certain, JVR has not forgotten how to score goals. He has 26 goals now after scoring again against Chicago. That’s 11 goals in his last 13 games. He’s red hot. He has a shot at hitting the 30-goal plateau too, which would be incredible since he missed six weeks earlier this season with a knee injury.
But he remains an enigma at times. Yes, he’s gotten hot here at the end of the season and has been playing his best hockey, but there’s a reason he was shuttled to the third and fourth lines several times this season. He doesn’t really get the job done when he’s not scoring, which, until this past month, wasn’t happening frequently enough.
Him getting hot at the right time could end up being a good thing for the Flyers – especially if he reaches that 30-goal mark.
Would it be easier to consider moving four years and $28 million in an offseason trade with 30 goals in a season that was cut short by 16 games?
And, it could even bring a return.
JVR will still be an effective goal scorer for the Flyers if he stays next season, and if GM Chuck Fletcher is able to upgrade the roster enough around him, then you can live with his shortcomings if he’s going to still put the puck in the net.
But, with so many RFA’s in house needing to get paid and the need to upgrade other spots as well, JVR comes off as a guy, who, to me, would be a great asset to use to ship out to improve the roster for next season.
And if him getting to 30 goals this season makes that easier, then here’s hoping he keeps putting the puck in the net over the final two weeks of the season.