I’m going to give this writing about the Flyers thing another try, at least for the rest of the 2013 season. I want to thank Fan Sided and Section 215 for giving me the opportunity, as well as editor Tim Kelly — who’s somehow only a high school junior — for recruiting me. In the past, I’ve waxed poetic on the Flyers for my own personal blog (“Rumbling, Bumbling, Stumbling, Tumbling”) and the soon-to-be-defunct SB Nation Philly. A few examples from the archive: “Claude Giroux: Superstar”, “No Average Bob”, “Something Was Rotten in Philadelphia”, “A 2012 Philadelphia Flyers Offseason Plan”.
I promised myself I wouldn’t write about hockey during the lockout. Now, I’d still stay up to date on labor negotiations and fly into a blinding rage when the owners and players blamed each other for the breakdown of talks. But my own personal form of protest was simply not to write about the Flyers, or the league at all. Silence. Total radio silence. Why devote my attention and time to that humiliating circus of finicky arrogance? Anyway, once the two sides came to an agreement and play got started, I too began to dive back into the sport. It was pretty easy, and I do love the Flyers. There’s some resentment, to be sure, but as I watch, it’s like… ah, come on, I can’t hate you.
If I knew how to access my tweets from a month ago without manually growing through all the tweets I’ve made, I could show you how I felt about the Flyers going into the shortened season. I was nervous, definitely not confident. Almost felt the way I did about the Phillies before last season. This uneasiness that the team isn’t as good as everyone wants to think. With the Phillies, it was their age, fading stars, injuries and lack of depth. For the Flyers, it was that the players whom they chose to replace Jaromir Jagr, James van Riemsdyk and Matt Carle didn’t seem adequate, the kids they’d be heavily relying upon weren’t ready to take the next step, and that there wasn’t a backup plan in case they didn’t. And who knew what the Ilya Bryzgalov show would have in store. Well, turns out that Bryazgalov has been the least of this team’s worries a quarter through the strike-shortened. In fact, he’s been the only saving grace.
I felt the Flyers were a fringe playoff team for 2013. That lot of things would have to go right for the team be among the elite. Nothing screamed Cup contender. Maybe one of those #6 seeds that could upset the champion of the weakest division, but then lose in round two. The Flyers went into the season with a true wildcard at goalie, a forward group with only a few proven scorers and a lot of youngsters needing to produce, a collection of #2-6 defensemen with no true alpha dog. We’ve been hoping for Braydon Coburn to reach that status, but it hasn’t materialized. Kimmo Timonen turns 38 in a month and, while still an invaluable presence and performer, is in the twilight of his career. Andrej Meszaros came back from a torn Achilles tendon only to immediately suffer a shoulder injury that will keep him out until March. Nicklas Grossmann has been up and down — mostly down. Kurtis Foster was a depth signing who has carved himself a nice niche on the third pairing. The same goes for Bruno Gervais, who is better served not playing at all. Erik Gustafsson, hampered by a high ankle sprain earlier in the season, is playing for Adirondack, and Marc-Andre Bourdon is still experiencing the dreaded post-concussion symptoms.
Major offseason trade acquisition Luke Schenn has had his ups and downs but certainly brings an element to the defense that, when applied correctly, is an asset. The shame is that he will always be viewed through a prism that depends upon how James van Riemsdyk performs for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Early returns have spiteful Flyers fans saying “I told you so” already. I was ambivalent about the trade when it happened since I didn’t particularly care for JVR’s style of play. I had doubts about whether he’d ever fully put it all together, whether he had the requisite mindset, toughness and grit to do what he had to optimize the size and talent. At the same time I acknowledged the flashes, how presumptuous and myopic it was to write JVR off at the tender age of 23 after an injury-marred season. That new contract would become an issue if he didn’t immediately start scoring as a top-6 winger, and the Flyers panicked. They do this from time to time.
The Luke Schenn fit felt natural, and not just because brother Brayden was anointed a building block for the franchise. Luke is, like JVR, a former high draft pick and first-rate prospect who had fallen out of favor due to a convergence of pressure, circumstance and inconsistent play. He represents a big, physical, shot-blocking presence who brings leadership intangibles to the table and a much-needed right-handed shot to the Flyers’ blue line. Yes, Schenn is prone to mental brain farts and appropriately slapped with the “cement feet” label. But, whatever, I want to give him a shot. After nearly a month, I can see why Luke was such a polarizing player in Toronto. There are moments you love, moments that drive you insane. Times you appreciate his utility, times you curse his presence in the NHL. I’m still learning. For Luke’s sake, I only once permitted (allowed?) myself to see the replay of JVR blowing by him for the final goal in that ugly defeat to Toronto.
At forward, Scott Hartnell’s broken foot was the tip of the iceberg; fortunately, word is he’ll be back sooner rather than later. Claude Giroux, without much in the way of consistent linemates, is still struggling to find his magical scoring touch. Even so, he’s improved his game yet again and become one of the league’s top faceoff men. Defensive effort at times has been, dare I say, lazy, but Giroux showed his special mettle in the Flyers’ most recent win over Winnipeg. That shift where he helped kill almost an entire power play late in the game, then skated the puck out of the zone, toyed with the Jets for a bit, sent a pass back to the defense and got off the ice. You know what I’m talking about. It was reminiscent of the team’s first win of the season, that exorcistic (made-up word that should be a real word) 2-1 home victory over the Rangers, where it was as if in the final minutes of the game Giroux kept telling his teammates to ice the puck because he’d win the resulting faceoff. Which, of course, he did.
Wayne Simmonds looked well on his way to fulfilling the ambiguously racist yet undoubtedly affectionate Night Train nickname that fans may or may not have bestowed upon him; then John Erskine elbowed him in the face. Sean Couturier, at the tender age of 20, is still his precocious, responsible self defensively and flashes the offensive talent that makes you so hopeful for his development. Brayden Schenn, after excelling in the AHL, took a bit to find his footing with the Flyers but has picked up his play of late — both physically and on the score sheet — after discovering chemistry with Jakub Voracek, who, in addition to being lovable, continues to steadily improve. Matt Read is still blessed with hockey IQ and is the fastest skater on the team, with a laser of a wrist shot that he needs to unleash more. Danny Briere has his warts and is a one-dimensional player whose one dimension, offense, is beginning to erode. I’ll still trust him in money situations until he gives me a reason not to, which I’m sure is coming soon. For the record, while I immediately liked the new #21, Scott Laughton, and his style better than the previous one, I fully support the Flyers’ decision to send him back to juniors, where his offensive game can properly develop with top-line minutes. He’s a good one, a keeper. Not a piece I want to use in some ham-fisted desperation trade that sacrifices young potential for a declining star who won’t put the team over the top anyway — especially not one who could be nothing more than a brief rental (*cough*Jerome Iginla*cough*). You know, the kind of move that will make me want to pull my hair out.
Mike Knuble, who’s closer to 41 than 40, was signed off his couch and is playing regular minutes. Maxime Talbot is, predictably, not the offensive force he was last season. Having ol’ Rusty and trusty Ruslan Fedetenko back after a decade-long absence has been a nice trip down nostalgia lane. Tye McGinn is emerging as a solid player with net presence and the ability to create space on the ice for his linemates. I have a soft spot for Zac Rinaldo because of the unique energy he can bring to the team — I describe him as delightfully psycho, an act which has its benefits. Even Tom Sestito scored both goals in a pivotal early season win over the Lightning.
Then there’s Ilya Bryzgalov, the surprise backbone of what has otherwise been an often middling, sometimes infuriating and rarely dominant Flyers team. There have been a few hiccups along the way, but we’ve seen a focused, confident and in-control Bryz. He’s been the difference, in a good way. Night and day from last season, and so necessary. We’ll see if he maintains this level of play over the coming months, but I shudder to think where we’d be with the 2011-2012 version of him. Probably jockeying for early poll position in the Seth Jones lottery. I don’t want to sound like the jerk who’s rooting for his team to miss the playoffs, but in the long run winning that lottery will turn out to be the best thing that ever happens to one lucky NHL franchise. I mean it.
Out of the 12 games so far, I’ve only seen half all the way through. Sometimes real life obligations get in the way, so I have to follow the game on my phone. No matter what, if the Flyers are playing, I’m somewhere following on my phone, simultaneously thirsting and terrified for updates. Regardless if I was able to watch the day/night before, I always go through every game highlight at the Flyers’ official team website. I watch when I can, and when I can is more often than not. I won’t be writing game recaps, but articles like this one.
Outlandish prediction (because why else do people really write/blog, right?): If the Flyers are still a middling squad this time next year, Peter Laviolette will get fired and replaced by current Phantoms head coach Terry Murray, who got the ultimate rough end of his parting with the Kings. Let Terry finish his head coaching career where he had the best shot at winning it all, but this time with a Stanley Cup to take care of that unfinished business.