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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Flyers Season Review

Well, well, it's been quite a while since I've had the pleasure of dissecting how the Flyers are throwing away a perfectly good season. Thankfully, they stormed into the break with two unexpected, and franky unbelievable come from behind wins against the Devils (remember in the 90's when the Devils were up by one goal in the third period and you just knew there was no point in watching the game anymore? I really, really don't miss those days), followed by a pair of victories over the Canadiens whom the Flyers are dueling for a lower half playoff spot.

Truth is, the Flyers have no excuse not to make the playoffs at this point. We started off well, then hit the lull. John Stevens was fired and replaced with Peter Laviolette, and I had no issue with it. I had issue with the way the team played for the next stretch under Peter, but I settled for chalking it up to "getting used to the new system". Well, they have had plenty of time to get used to his system, and the team is still marked by inconsistent play. Perhaps the wins over the devils will buttress their confidence, especially Simon Gagne, who's nose for the net seemed to have disappeared until he single-handedly won the second game in overtime. Perhaps the shellacking of the Canadiens 6-2 a day after nearly giving up, but holding on to a 3-0 lead will shake guys like Briere and Hartnell out of their funk.

It's hard to say what will happen from here on out. What I do know is that the Flyers have a lot more talent than most of the teams they are fighting for playoff spots with. The division isn't even out of the question if the Devils and Penguins stumble through the final quarter, but my sights are merely set on a playoff spot (and hopefully avoiding either the Caps or the Pens in the first round).

Moving on to player contributions. Defense first. Pronger has been a force in the back, as expected, even though it's quite obvious he's lost a step. He can be beat with speed to the outside, but he is still chewing up minutes like crazy and using his body very well. Everyone knows we signed him for the playoffs, and his impact will be most noticeable there. Timonen has been his usual self, not underrated in our eyes but perhaps still around the league. He doesn't have the big body, but he's one of the most positionally sound defensemen around, and quite the passer to boot. One of the main problems with the offense last year was the inability of our defensemen to make good first passes out of the zone, but Pronger and Timonen are leading the way for guys like Carle and Coburn, and that aspect of our game has truly improved under Laviolette's attacking system. Krajicek has filled in admirably on the third line since acquired, and I think we're all pretty pleased to not see OKT back there anymore. Tough luck on injuries for him, but he's Detroit's problem now. As for the others - Bartulis, and the injured Parent and Syvret, they've been average at best. Bartulis has been forced into extended action sooner than we anticipated, so I have no issues with his play (go Latvia!). Overall, the defense has absolutely been a strength of the team, allowing 2.63 goals per game (11th in the NHL), and 28.2 shots per game (4th). With Pronger leading the way, and a group of forwards who don't mind getting dirty, blocked shots are a regular theme.

On to the forwards. It feels like this group has traded slumps back and forth between them all season. We lost Knuble and Lupul in the offseason, but I don't think that's the real issue here. Maybe it's taking too much time for lines to mesh, maybe certain people (I'm looking directly at you Scott Hartnell) have forgotten how to put the puck in the net. Maybe we were expecting too much out of Giroux (who has looked elite at times in his puckhandling and passing) and van Riemsdyk (who has had a very good rookie year, but still drives us crazy when his slick skating and sweet shot disappear for stretches at a time). I'm certainly not putting blame on the latter two. JVR is a rook, he's still learning, and he's been great. Giroux has been shuffled around, like a lot of the guys, between Richards' line, down to play with JVR and Asham, and other combinations as well. When you've got a rookie and a grinder on your wings, it's not easy to shine. The fourth line has been excellent when healthy - Laperriere, Betts (who we recently re-signed to a 2 year deal at a very reasonable cap hit, pleasing me much), and Carcillo. Though Laviolette has now moved Carcillo onto the top line with Richie and Gags, so we'll see how long that lasts.

Let's face it, this group of forwards is built to spread scoring out. Carter isn't going to score 48 goals again this year, but that is okay. We didn't nab Kovalchuk, so we don't have that overwhelming star force. Richards and Carter are the offensive leaders, but they are also two-way players, and we are counting on more than just them to fuel us. Briere has been mediocre for his contract numbers, but perhaps the switch back to left wing and a hat trick against those Montreal fans that just love him so much will give him back his drive. Powerplay is sitting at 5th in the league at 22.2%, which is remarkable considering they have been faltering lately, but still proves that the Flyers are capable of putting pucks in the net at all times. Do we need to trade someone to shake up the offense? Maybe. But the only person I'd like to see go is Hartnell, and he has a no-movement clause, an inflated salary, and perhaps too strong of a connection to the other players. If he can curtail his boneheaded penalties and work off this epic cold streak, he can stay around.

I've been rambling for long enough and still have to cover the goaltenders, so I'm going to leave trade rumors for after the Olympics. Casey put up a nice Olympic preview there, check it out. And now, the epicenter of the Flyers struggles since Ron Hextall left - goaltenders.

Ray Emery looked like a reasonably solid pickup at the beginning of the season. He played well for the most part, flashing across the crease and making the saves he needed to. He seems to lose track of the puck sometimes and sits idle instead of scrambling back into the crease, but for the most part, he was decent, and better than a lot of people expected when they heckled the signing in the offseason. He hasn't blown up at anyone, punched any trainers in the face, or gotten himself in any trouble (that I know of). Boucher.. hasn't gotten much time at all. Sorry Boush, it looks like you are stuck as a backup, and possibly even third goalie if Emery comes back from injury. At this point, I don't think that would be a wise decision. A torn labrum for a goalie after abdominal surgery at 27? Rumors are floating around that this could be career-threatening for Emery - and if he needs surgery, why throw him back into the net? He relies on quickness and movement, and if he's not 100%, we shouldn't be playing him.

And besides, Michael Leighton has done everything we could ask of him to earn the starting job. I'm just as worried as the next guy that he's going to revert back to his career norm and start giving up softies every game instead of every once and a while. Is he the guy? Maybe. In 18 games he's put up some very impressive statistics - 12-3-2 with a .925 sv% and 2.19 GAA. If he qualified, those numbers would be in the top 10 in the league, easily. He says he's slightly adjusted his game by not challenging shooters quite as much, leading to better positioning. There are still rumors connecting Flyers to goaltenders on the market, such as Vokoun and Roloson, but with our cap situation very tight and our moveable pieces with no-trade clauses, I think we're going to have to ride Leighton to the end, and I'm okay with that. I don't want to move someone like Giroux or JVR out of panic, especially when Leighton has done everything to earn our trust. It's a sketchy situation, like always, and could yet again be the downfall of a Flyers season.

But here's one observer with some hope. Because when it comes to the Flyers, that's about all you can have.

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