The Philadelphia Flyers have never been a team to shy away from media attention, and this offseason the franchise seemed to be the focus of the hockey world.
From the drama of trading away the captain and top goal-scorer, as well as signing a franchise goaltender all in the same day, to robbing Jaromir Jagr from the Pittsburgh Penguins and nabbing highly touted prospects in Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, the fanbase and media had little idea what to make of the new team.
With the regular season more than one-third over, the Flyers find themselves atop the Eastern Conference, with their top center leading the league in points and the entire offense the front-runner in goals scored, despite featuring a plethora of rookies, unproven players and non-traditional goal-scorers.
Late-period goals: For all of Philadelphia’s success this season, they seem to be in the habit of giving up goals at the worst possible time: at the end of a period.
They gave up two late first-period goals to the Capitals to allow Washington to win the teams’ first meeting of the season. They gave up a ninth and game-winning goal to Winnipeg in the final few minutes of the third a few games later.
In late November, Carolina’s Jeff Skinner scored a goal with fifteen seconds left in the first to give the Canes a 2-0 lead. These deflating goals threaten to derail the team’s season if they continue to occur as the games get more and more important.
Coaching stubbornly on nationally-televised games: The Flyers drew some negative media attention during a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning that aired on the VS. Network.
Fed up with Lightning coach Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 trap scheme, Peter Laviolette had his defensemen gain control of the puck in the defensive zone and hold it. And hold it. And hold it.
Much to the dismay of an overzealous media, the Flyers were willing to let time simply run off the clock rather than play into Tampa’s hand. Analysts, anchors and fans alike made the apparent chess match on ice the topic of discussion the next day, debating whether or not the NHL needs to add an NBA-style shot clock.
Seriously. The reaction was ridiculous, no doubt, but the whole incident was a bit of a black eye for a very proud hockey organization.
Brayden Schenn: Schenn’s talents remain to be seen, and while his time will certainly come, it is becoming more and more clear that that time isn’t as soon as many fans hoped.
With the emergence of Sean Couturier and Matt Read and the abundance of centers on the Flyers’ roster, Schenn has had trouble finding his place in Philly. He has played in only six games, is yet to score a point, and is a minus-six for the season.
He missed time with a broken foot earlier in the season and is now out indefinitely with concussion-like symptoms. So far, the supposed best part of the Mike Richards trade has been a non-factor.
Durability: Every team deals with injuries, but the Flyers have some major concerns.
As mentioned, Brayden Schenn’s highly-anticipated rookie season has been derailed by injuries. More importantly, the Flyers have seen their captain, Chris Pronger, go down on more than one occasion, already dealing with an eye injury, knee surgery and concussion-like symptoms.
Most recently, superstar center Claude Giroux took a teammate’s knee to the back of his head, causing him to leave the game against Tampa Bay. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov also left the game with a lower body injury.
James van Riemsdyk, Andreas Lilja and Jaromir Jagr have spent time dealing with injuries as well. The team has been resilient through it all, but the team has missed quite a bit of manpower this early in the year.
Goals against: If the playoffs started today, only two of the sixteen teams who qualified will have given up more goals than the Flyers.
While the offense has been a point of celebration, the defense has been a point of concern. Injuries, missed assignments and sloppy play have plagued the Flyers, and despite the team’s good record, many of this season’s losses are a direct result of bad defense.
If the Flyers want to make a playoff run, they will need to tighten up in their own zone.
James van Riemsdyk: JVR and Claude Giroux were supposed to be the two players that stepped into the roles left by Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
Giroux did. Van Riemsdyk did not.
Van Riemsdyk’s modest 16 points are overshadowed by the fact that he has not proven to be an offensive force; he isn’t creating chances and getting unlucky, he is simply not much of a factor in the offensive zone.
He is also one of only three regular-season starters to be a minus in the plus-minus category.
The emergency reserve defensemen: No team wants to resort to its eighth and ninth defensemen on the depth chart, but with injuries to Chris Pronger, Andreas Lilja and Erik Gustafsson, the Flyers have found themselves starting Marc-Andre Bourdon and Kevin Marshall in recent games.
Bourdon has used the body well but still looks young, and he nearly got himself a suspension with a boarding penalty on Buffalo’s Nathan Gerbe. Somehow, Brendan Shanahan let Bourdon off the hook.
Marshall has made it clear that he is not yet ready to play defense at the NHL level, missing assignments and making boneheaded mistakes like taking the shooter in a two-on-one.
The Flyers cannot function for long in this scenario, having to choose between grueling ice time for the top four defensemen or running the risk of giving up bad goals with Bourdon and Marshall involved.
Penalties: The Flyers lead the league in PIMs, as well as minor penalties, indicating that the team still hasn’t improved the discipline that has plagued this franchise for years.
While the penalty killing has been good, the epidemic of undisciplined hockey that has swept through this team has the Flyers playing too much of each game in their own end.
The one redeeming aspects of the “Penalties” category is that the Flyers are eighth in the league in power-play opportunities, meaning that the team is nearly as good at drawing penalties as it is at taking them.
Extra hockey: The Flyers are a modest 3-2 in overtime and 0-1 in shootouts, but they started 0-3 in games that went beyond regulation, so they seem to be hitting their stride lately.
The organization is infamously poor when it comes to shootouts, so the fact that they have only had to play one in 28 games is a relief. The potential problems in the shootout could be the reason the team is extremely aggressive in the five minutes, four-on-four OT, a strategy that has paid off lately.
The goaltending: Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky have save percentages hovering around .900% and goals-against averages around 2.8, numbers that are disappointing for netminders with a combined cap hit of over $7 million.
However, both goalies have shown that they are capable of making the saves they need to make. The defense around them has been sub-par compared to the 2010-11 season, and there is no reason yet to believe the Bryzgalov will give up an abundance of soft goals like those that have plagued the Flyers through Boucher, Leighton and Co.
Andrej Meszaros: Meszaros has been surprisingly absent from the scene, totaling only seven points through the team’s first 28 games. Those seven points are the lowest of any player on the team that has played in at least 20 games with the exceptions of Zac Rinaldo and Andreas Lilja.
However, with Chris Pronger missing significant time this season, Meszaros has been expected to be a physical force in the defensive zone, and he has proven himself there. He leads the team in hits and is fourth in blocked shots, and has cut down significantly on giveaways.
The Winter Classic approach: The Winter Classic needs little additional hype, but in the weeks leading up to the big game, the Flyers have been a bit disappointing when it comes to the storyline.
They came out flat in a 2-0 loss to the Rangers in late November, in what was essentially the first preview games for the WC.
In addition, Chris Pronger will be out until after the game, and leading-scorer Claude Giroux may end up missing time with a head injury himself. The Flyers as a collective are still a compelling group, but the individuals the hockey world was hoping to see may have difficulty making an appearance at the big show.
The coaching: Peter Laviolette has been given a very young offense and has already dealt with some significant injuries, and he still has his team atop the Eastern Conference.
This is largely due to the resilient attitude he has instilled within the group; the team has had quite a few slow starts to games, and his second-period adjustments have allowed the Flyers to come from behind on numerous occasions.
Aside from the slow starts to games and some lackadaisical play in the last minute of periods, Laviolette’s coaching has been very solid.
Toughness: The Flyers are not as big and intimidating as they have been in years past.
Enforcer Jody Shelley has played in only ten games, and his expected replacement, Tom Sestito, was sent to the minors before the regular season started. Much of the Flyers’ toughness has come from the fisticuffs of smaller players like Wayne Simmonds, Scott Hartnell and of course, Zac Rinaldo.
Give the team credit: toughness has transitioned from simply meaning “fighting” to becoming an attitude that all players can adopt.
Scott Hartnell: Scott Hartnell started the season very poorly, and the media and fans reignited the seasonal “get him to waive his no-trade clause” chatter.
Then Scotty got his groove back.
The once-scapegoat is now second on the team in scoring with 26 points, including 14 goals. Playing with Claude Giroux and Jaromir Jagr, Hartnell is now one of the hottest hands in hockey.
And just so his defensive contributions don’t go unnoticed, he has the highest plus-minus rating of anyone on the team at plus-17, seven points higher than anyone else on the roster.
The prominent rookies: Rookies Sean Couturier and Matt Read have surprised the hockey world with their performance this season.
Read, an undrafted rookie out of Bemidji State, 11 goals and 19 points on the year and has seen regular time on the power-play and penalty-kill.
Couturier does not log Read’s ice time, but considering that the now-19 year-old was expected to spend this season in juniors, he didn’t take long to prove he’s ready to play in the NHL.
If Claude Giroux’s head injury keeps him out in the near future, Couturier may find himself with the chance to dazzle on a scoring line instead of playing with the team’s checkers.
Claude Giroux: Giroux was expected to find his way into the offensive and defensive roles filled by Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and he has already exceeded their abilities.
He leads the league in scoring as of this writing, and is undoubtedly the only reason Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell are having such excellent seasons. There is no doubt that Giroux makes the entire team around him better, and thus he is the biggest reason the Flyers are the top team in the Eastern Conference.
The offseason moves: With all due respect to Richards and Carter, very few people in Philadelphia miss them.
Jakub Voracek has found his niche on the team and Sean Couturier was the steal of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Wayne Simmonds has provided some much-needed toughness in the offensive zone and while Brayden Schenn is yet to make his mark, he is still thought of as the crown jewel of these trades.
We can’t be sure how exactly Paul Holmgren knew what he was doing, but dammit, he definitely knew.
Playing away from home: The Flyers have ten road wins in 14 games this season, and playing away from the Wells Fargo Center is clearly a non-factor for the team.
The Flyers seem to thrive on the energy of opposing crowds, as evidenced by two recent three-goal comebacks in Anaheim and Buffalo. With the more demanding travel schedule that comes with realignment, the Flyers will apparently be better prepared than most as they are unfazed by new territory.
The offense: The Flyers were the first team to reach 100 goals in the 2011-12 season, and they have done it through a balanced offense.
Twelve players have at least ten points; five have 20 or more, and Claude Giroux sits atop the league with 39.
The Flyers have gotten goals from every player with at least 13 starts except Andreas Lilja and Kimmo Timonen (who makes up for it with his 20 assists). The unexpected explosiveness of this new-look offense is a welcome surprise in the City of Brotherly Love.