Philadelphia Flyers: 6 Things We've Learned 6 Games into Season

Bill MatzContributor IIIJanuary 28, 2013

Philadelphia Flyers: 6 Things We've Learned 6 Games into Season

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    Two wins, four losses. It did not take long for the "HOCKEY'S BACK!" shine to wear off of the 2013 Philadelphia Flyers.  

    No, despite the first victory over the New York Rangers since Mike Richards' era and a 7-1 drubbing of a depleted Florida Panthers squad, the beginning to this lockout-abbreviated NHL season for the Orange and Black has been concerning to the Philly Faithful.  

    One-eight of the way through the regular season, the Flyguys are in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, albeit only one point out of the eighth playoff spot.  

    While there is a greater sense of urgency placed on each individual game in a season cut 37-games short, the Flyers still have 42 opportunities to right the ship.

    But, when the first and last playoff spots are separated by three points in the standings one-eighth of the way through the season, it is fitting to have concern when a team loses four of its first six in regulation.  

    So what have we learned about the Philadelphia Flyers six games into 2013?  Well...   

Claude Giroux Is Not the Best Player in the World

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    Newly appointed Flyers' captain Claude Giroux broke out last season, registering 93 regular season points, putting on an amazing offensive display in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins and landing on the cover of EA Sports NHL 13 video game.  

    Coming into this year, Giroux was expected to build upon his success that lit up the hockey world a year ago, and to this point he has not.  

    Captain Claude has four points (two goals, two assists) through six games, meaning his points-per-game pace is about half of last year's output (0.66 vs 1.20 in 2011-12).  

    But beyond the scoring numbers "G" just does not seem to be making the impact plays on a nightly basis everybody expected following last season's playoff run.  

    Giroux has a pedestrian plus-1 rating, has registered only 10 shots on goal and two hits. Not the type of nightly effort from a captain who expects to be raising Lord Stanley's Cup this summer.  

    Giroux is not alone. Brayden Schenn and Jake Voracek (signed to a four-year, $17 million contract in the offseason) also have not demonstrated the type of progression expected after impressive debuts in orange and black a season ago.  

    But Claude Giroux, who coach Peter Laviolette called the "best player in the world" following No. 28's opening shift in Game 6 against the Penguins in the 2012 playoffs, needs to step up and earn the title if his team is going to have a chance of besting last season's outcome.  

Ilya Bryzgalov Is Not a Complete Disaster

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    As has been the case for my entire lifetime, the Flyers, again, had questions about their goaltender heading into this season.  

    After signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million deal last offseason, Bryz had an interesting yet underwhelming debut season with Philly.  

    Coming out of the lockout Bryz was the number one candidate to be bought out of his contract after the season, without a cap hit, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement's newly instituted compliance buyout.

    Bryzgalov stood out in the Flyers' first victory of the season, beating the New York Rangers for the first time as a Flyer.  

    While the enigmatic Russian has not shown signs of the mental lapses and collapses that plagued his first year in the City of Brotherly Love, he still really has not played up to his contract as the fourth-highest cap hit among all NHL goaltenders.

    The 32-year-old goalie remains a buyout candidate unless he begins shutting teams out and winning games on nights the offense doesn't show up, but, at least for this season, No. 30 is not the top concern for fans or the front-office.  

    Bryz's 298 minutes played rank second in the league among goalies, and he will need to continue to flourish under a heavy workload because if Sunday's 5-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning is any indication, Philadelphia does not have a viable backup behind him.  

Peter Laviolette's Style Has Not Changed

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    Peter Laviolette is still going with his pedal-to-the-metal attacking style, and all the flaws  are still glaring.  

    Despite a defensive unit that averages over 215 pounds, Lavy's forwards are "going for it," leaving their less than strong skating defense out to dry more times than not.  

    Philly gave up more odd-man rushes in Buffalo than anybody would even care to count, and coverage in the defensive zone by the forwards looks more like a secondary responsibility to getting open for a home-run pass for the group as a whole.

    The on-ice irresponsibility goes beyond defensive assignments, as Laviolette's team is still incapable of staying out of the penalty box.  

    The Flyers average 20.7 penalty minutes per game, fourth most in the league. Their 124 penalty minutes is most in the NHL.   

    Their league-leading 39 minor penalties are six ahead of the next team (Tampa Bay has 33 minor penalties), and their two bench minors are second only to, oddly enough, last year's Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Devils and Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings (3).   

    For a team that struggles on defense (18 goals against, third-highest total in the league), and has only killed 69 percent of its penalties (fourth-worst in the league) the Flyers are not helping themselves.

    While this team needs to be physical—stick penalties, unsportsmanlike conducts and too many men on the ice infractions—are not the way to win hockey games.  

The Defense Is Deep, but Not Very Good

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    After general manager Paul Holmgren swung and missed on defensive studs Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, the Philly blue line became the team's biggest question mark.  

    Matt Carle left via free agency.  Kimmo Timonen is another year older (will turn 38 in March), and fresh off offseason back surgery.  Andrej Meszaros is fresh off an Achilles' tendon tear and is already out with a shoulder injury.  

    Luke Schenn, Bruno Gervais and Kurtis Foster were acquired in the offseason to strengthen the D-corps, but the group is still missing the standout it had in Chris Pronger when Philly made its first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 13 years in 2010.  

    Six games into the season, fans and most likely the front-office personnel are clamoring for Marc-Andre Bourdon and Erik Gustafsson to return to health and contribute to a leaky defensive unit.  Hell, at this point I think most fans would take Brandon Manning over Andreas Lilja.  

    There is still time for this unit to gel and become a cohesive squad. 

    Luke Schenn has been as advertised, leading the team in hits (19) and has been better both passing and shooting than expected (although his five giveaways lead the team).

    Braydon Coburn and Nick Grossmann have been, well, Coburn and Grossmann—capable of both impressing and frustrating viewers within the same shift.  

    As a unit, the Flyers D is plus-2 with eight points (1G, 7A) and 39 penalty minutes.  These numbers suggest what was suspected heading into the year—the group is not awful, but there is certainly a lot of room for improvement.  

Power Outage

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    There has not been a ton of celebrating for an offense that finished third in the league in goals and had the sixth-best power play a year ago.  

    Philly's 13 goals is tenth in the Eastern Conference, and if you take out the seven-spot the Flyguys hung on the Florida Panthers, the orange and black have averaged under two goals per game so far this year.  

    Furthermore, the power play is ranked 25th in the league, cashing in at an abysmal 12.9 percent.  

    The New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils created a blueprint for defeating the high-octane Flyers last season.  

    With all of Philly's skill, they operate like a power play offense and those teams simply took away the Flyers' puck-carriers' time and space, not allowing for some of the most creative playmakers in the league to work their magic on the offensive end.  

    In losing Jaromir Jagr to free agency and James van Riemsdyk in the trade that landed Luke Schenn, the Flyers gave up some of what they could have used more of against the better defensive teams in the league last year—big bodies capable of winning battles along the boards and maintaining possession of the puck around the net.  

    Scott Hartnell's injury depletes further the number of large-bodied wingers capable of mucking and grinding to scratch out offensive zone possession and, ultimately, score tough goals. 

    The pressure the Rangers and Devils applied to the Flyers' offense is being emulated by more opponents who have realized the only way to combat Philadelphia's skill and speed is to reduce the amount of ice they have to work with.

    Once the forwards start pressing, the turnovers will come and then the opponent has an odd-man rush against a slow defensive pairing.  

    Not every team has the personnel to D-up the Girouxs and Voraceks and Brieres of the world, but a few strong checking forwards can create a lot of problems for the Flyers' offense.  

The Philadelphia Flyers Are Not Serious Stanley Cup Contenders

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    As currently constituted, the Flyers are not one of the best teams in the league. 

    The offense is inconsistent; the defense cannot skate and nobody knows what to really expect from the goalie once the "buyout" whispers start to pick up at the end of the year.  

    But that does not mean this team is an utter disaster.  

    The average age of the skaters on this Flyers team is roughly 28-years-old, and even that number is skewed by a few old heads (Fedotenko 34; Shelley 36; Lilja 37; Knuble 40).  

    The Flyers have 17 skaters signed for next year (discounting Pronger), and that team's average age will be around 26-years-old.  

    The Flyers' front-office will have an estimated $7.3 million in cap space this summer and that number could be much higher if one or both of their compliance buyouts are used.

    The top candidates for buyouts would be Danny Briere (35-years-old, $6.5 million cap hit 2013-14 and 2014-15) and Ilya Bryzgalov (32-years-old, $5.7 million cap hit through 2019-20).  

    Buying out one or both contracts would open up a lot money for Philly to pursue a few defensemen to match their offensive fire power.  

    I realize it has been nearly four decades since the Flyers last lifted the Stanley Cup, but, for the first time in a long time, the Broad Street Bullies are committed to building something, as evidenced by their refusal to trade Couturier and/or B. Schenn during Shea Weber's discussions over the summer.

    This team is good enough to make the playoffs and even win a round or two.  But to consider them on par with the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks of the league is delusional.   

    Thanks to good return on a few trades and solid drafting, this team has a lot of time to grow together and become a seriously dominant force, a la the Detroit Red Wings.  

    But, of course, they still have to find their Lidstrom.