“If at first you don’t succeed, try again.”
During six previous opportunities to match their wins-losses record, the Philadelphia Flyers clawed their way to the precipice before having the ground give way beneath them.
Unless you’re the Chicago Blackhawks, this strange season has made for a perpetual scramble. There is so little time to adjust that that every single inch of progress or failure is magnified to the nth degree.
The Flyers entered this campaign with question marks and this season hasn’t offered sweeping answers to them. As they have been part of the scramble, every other game seems to become critical to the overall campaign. When opportunities are squandered, the margin for error shrinks substantially.
Despite their inability to string together more than two wins in a row, the Flyers have made it to .500 at the 23 game mark. Victories over the Washington Capitals and the Ottawa Senators last week, have put them at 11-11-1.
There have been a variety of reasons for why a lineup as talent laden as Philadelphia’s has struggled to reach this point. So let’s look at things from a half-full and half-empty perspective.
There’s little question that Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren entered the season with the belief that the young core of forwards that he invested heavily in would take the next step in their development.
Right wingers Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds, two of the players Holmgren signed to multi-year contract extensions have played a major role in becoming reliable offensive zone threats. Voracek has emerged as the team leader in points (nine goals, 16 assists for 25 points), while Simmonds has 17 points in 20 games, while leading the team in game winning goals (three).
While initially starting the season playing on Claude Giroux’s right wing, Brayden Schenn has hit his stride as the team’s second line center, working a partnership with Simmonds and Danny Briere into a 6-13-19 line. A great example of his development at the pivot was an under duress feed to Simon Gagne that led to the latter’s power play goal.
While out with a rib cartilage injury, right wing Matt Read is second on the team in goal scoring with seven and was developing good chemistry on the top line. His speed, creativity, and utility have been readily apparent this season. His return gives the Flyers an even greater attacking threat.
After a period of dormancy and questions as to whether the team captaincy was weighing on him, Giroux’s play has ascended to levels closer in keeping to last year’s breakout. He has climbed back to 22 points while playing with Voracek as the primary puck carrier on his line, while Scott Hartnell, recently recovered from a foot injury, takes his customary place in the slot and along the half board while creating havoc.
Defenseman Nicklas Grossmann has been a pillar, leading the league in blocked shots with 66 and Luke Schenn has played a consistent, physical game while partnering with Kimmo Timonen, as steady a customer as they come.
Last season Ilya Bryzgalov had difficulties adapting to his new environs. One season later, he has turned in more strong performances than weak ones. His stat line doesn’t jump out as elite level (2.61 goals against average, .907 save percentage), but he has handled more than a lion’s share of responsibility in keeping the team steady through early difficulties. When locked in, he looks the goaltender the Flyers thought they were getting last season.
Special teams wise, the Flyers penalty killing has been a source of improvement as the season has worn on. Max Talbot, while not producing at the same scoring clip as last season (far from it, actually), has been the cornerstone in making them a top ten unit (eighth in the NHL).
On a different scale, the continued development of Zac Rinaldo from penalty magnet to speedy shift disturber has shown that he has useful elements to his game beyond his ability to tussle. Rookie Tye McGinn knows how to be effective as tough forward willing to go to the net for rebounds and also show the ability to defend teammates when the time calls…although his recent orbital bone injury suffered in a fight with then Toronto Maple Leaf, now Edmonton Oiler Mike Brown might act as a means to pick some of his dance partners a little better. Still, the willingness to do so combined with his other skills are pluses in his favor.
Checking forward Ruslan Fedotenko has been solid as a stop gap center for the fourth line. Before his term in the KHL, Fedotenko never played pivot before in his professional career, so his recent experience has been a boon for Laviolette.
Coming into this shortened season, one of the Flyers’ primary concerns was the play of their defense. So their underwhelming performance so far in surrendering nearly three goals per game isn’t really a surprise.
But it is a major concern.
One major change from last season has been the team’s lack of mobility from the back end. While solid two way play comes as a result of forwards and defense working cohesively, the current groupings make it pretty difficult to play “giddy-up and go” hockey. Losing Matt Carle to Tampa Bay in free agency has stung somewhat in that department.
The hope remains that the return of the oft injured Andrej Meszaros can provide that additional push for quick transitions. While only playing four games so far this season, Meszaros was averaging 18:09 ice time, which has a ripple effect in the deployment of the team’s other defensemen.
While Timonen continues to handle the tough assignments, play on the power play, and generally play in the same role as he has during his Flyers tenure, his lack of foot speed has become a cause of concern. His former partner Braydon Coburn has not picked up on his performance from the latter part of the previous campaign and has garnered too many minor penalty infractions. His best performances seem to come when he is paired with Grossmann.
Erik Gustafsson and Bruno Gervais can skate but don’t have enough high level instinct to crack the team’s top two pairings. When Gervais was paired with Coburn, the partnership helped out neither player.
In short, the team’s swinging and missing on Ryan Suter and Shea Weber has made them look vulnerable to fleet teams that can counter quickly. In short there’s too much spacing and the Flyers have to guard against that.
Checking line center Sean Couturier has definitely felt the bite of a sophomore slump. While still considered an elite defensive prospect with plenty of offensive upside, he has been on the ice for a decent number of goals against (as his minus six rating attests to). The recent addition of a veteran two way presence in left wing Simon Gagne (acquired from a conditional fourth round pick from Los Angeles) was made with some thought in giving Couturier assistance in his development.
The Flyers’ power play was moribund at times in the early going, but has made a steady climb back into the top ten (ninth overall). The main issues for the man advantage unit? One, to improve road performance (16.2 percent as opposed to 26.2 percent at home. Second, the ability of the second unit to maintain the offensive flow of the first unit is critical. Too many times has the team seen choppy play and moments of indecision. The addition of Gagne to the second unit adds a competent veteran with plenty of experience and speed to maintain that flow.
The use (or overuse, depending on your viewpoint) of Bryzgalov, who has started 21 out of 23 game this season, becomes somewhat of a cause of concern if the team can’t spot start Brian Boucher a little more regularly. But the team’s current standing really doesn’t afford them such a luxury. While Bryzgalov likes regular work, having such a compacted schedule doesn’t allow for many opportunities for recovery.
It’s been a bit of a half full and half empty season for head coach Peter Laviolette. He has adjusted the team’s defensive system to meet the challenges that this shortened season has brought. Again it’s concerning that this team hasn’t put together a winning streak of longer than two games. If the Flyers can’t begin to string longer periods of success together, especially when teams in their division have games in hand on them, then they will be skating along the edge of playoff contention until the end of the season.
While the Flyers have shown signs of getting their act together and moving into contention, the next ten days (with games against the Rangers, Penguins, Bruins, Sabres, and a home and home against the Devils) looms particularly large.
Anthony Mingioni covers the Philadelphia Flyers and the National Hockey League for Sportsology and Center Ice Philly Magazine.
You can follow him on Twitter: @AnthonyMingioni or contact him via email at email@example.com
photo by del Tufo
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