Apr 27, 2013; Ottawa, ON, CAN; Philadelphia Flyers goalie Steve Mason (35) and Ottawa Senators right wing Daniel Alfredsson (11) exchange words during the first period at Scotiabank Place. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Flight Delay: Flyers Rebuild Takes Step Back Following Lockout Shortened Season

Apr 25, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers right wing Wayne Simmonds (17), center Claude Giroux (28), center Matt Read (24), defenseman Brandon Manning (32) and defenseman Matt Konan (34) acknowledge the crowd after final game of the season against the New York Islanders at the Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers defeated the Islanders, 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the 2012 offseason, following a rather demoralizing Eastern Conference Semifinals loss to the New Jersey Devils, one could argue that the Philadelphia Flyers were as promising a hockey team as there was in the league. After ceremoniously eliminating the Stanley Cup favorite Pittsburgh Penguins in arguably the most entertaining, albeit unusual, series in the first round of the playoffs, their second round exit, and the manner in which it happened, was overlooked due to the promise shown by the young team on the brightest of stages. The team had the makings of an organization that would unseat the Penguins as the premiere organization in the state of Pennsylvania. On the surface, how could one not assume the best for a team that appeared to only be scratching the surface of their potential. They managed to finish the regular season with the Eastern Conference’s third highest point total (103) and managed to do so without the services of the injured Chris Pronger, with a new goalie who had quickly turned into a lightning rod of calamity and controversy due to his erratic play and eccentric personality, and while playing in, arguably, the most difficult division in the NHL that produced four playoff teams. On a personnel basis, how could one not like the Flyers’ chances moving forward? The team’s combination of veterans and young talent on the front line could match up with the likes of any team in the NHL. Players like Max Talbot and Scott Hartnell, once considered agitators with a knack for scoring, were coming off of career years and had assumed leadership roles that softened the blow left by the departures of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. On an even higher note, their youth on the front-end seemed to have taken a huge step in the second half of the season and into the playoffs and appeared to develop into the one of the deepest offensive team in the Eastern Conference. Players with high expectations, such as: Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds had made up for disappointing regular seasons turned in by James vanRiemsdyk and Daniel Briere. Unexpected contributions by the likes of Matt Read and Eric Wellwood gave Flyers fans every reason to believe that general manager Paul Holmgren, whose bold moves throughout his tenure highlighted his management style, had the sort of eye for talent necessary to build a championship contender. In terms of the defense core, Braydon Coburn appeared to finally be tapping into his potential that made him a first round draft pick by the Nashville Predators, an organization with a knack for developing top-notch defensemen. Kimmo Timonen had once again defied father time, being selected to another All Star Game and assuming the leadership role on the back-end. It was assumed that one-time Barry Ashbee award winner, given by the organization to the team’s top defenseman, Andrej Meszaros would be returning to his top-four form following an injury-free offseason. It even appeared that, with the emergence of the young Erik Gustafsson, the perpetually frustrating Matt Carle would be giving his walking papers, giving the team the salary cap space to be major players in a talent-rich free agent class. Perhaps the most inspiring leftover from the 2011-2012 season was the emergence of now-captain Claude Giroux as an elite two-way talent ready to finally fill the void left by Bobby Clarke and carry his team to the Stanley Cup.

Apr 11, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette talks to his team during a timeout against the Ottawa Senators during the third period at the Wells Fargo Center. The Senators defeated the Flyers, 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason, specifically for the Flyers, proved to be as bizarre as any in recent history. The team had select items on their wish-list and, with the financial backing of Ed Snider paired with the aggressive tactics of Holmgren, it was difficult to imagine them not being able to lock up one of the big names on the market. The organization said good-bye to blue-liner Matt Carle, who never was able to regain the form he showed paired with Chris Pronger, as well as team and fan-favorite Jaromir Jagr, whose tireless work ethic and leadership seemed to have given the whole team, most notably Giroux, the confidence to excel moving forward. Management gave goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov the ultimate vote of confidence, moving the promising, albeit ‘untested’ Sergei Bobrovsky to Columbus, where it was assumed he would slip into anonymity (that’s a whole other discussion altogether) Finally, in one of the shocking moves of the offseason, the team decided to give up on the talented, but inconsistent James vanRiemsdyk in a trade for Luke Schenn, a defensive equivalent to JVR who seemed to be craving a change of scenery the same way the former #2 pick did for the Flyers. With the contributions the team had gotten from its young stable of forwards, combined with the defensive deficiencies on the back line, the move made sense and the Flyers said good-bye to the power forward. Meanwhile, the team was as active as ever in a free agency period that, with a work stoppage looming, carried a sense of urgency for teams with cap space. The reports poured in about the Flyers’ involvement with blue-chip free agents such as: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Rick Nash, etc. The almost-universal sentiment regarding the Flyers was that they were a legitimate number one defenseman, similar to Chris Pronger, away from being a Stanley Cup favorite. The team missed out on the likes of Parise and Suter (Minnesota) as well as Nash (New York), but all that quickly became irrelevant when the bombshell of all bombshells was dropped.

 

It was all too good to be true. Shea Weber, the 26 year old defenseman and captain of the small-market Nashville Predators, who had just lost his defensive partner in Ryan Suter, immediately became the savior that Flyers fans were waiting for and the only viable replacement for the injured Chris Pronger. The days went by and, as fans remained glue to the Twitterverse, all signs pointed to the Predators taking the compensatory picks for their captain and backing off like a puppy with his tail between his legs. As the fates would have it, the thought of Weber coming to Philadelphia typified what would ultimately be a disappointment of a season for the Flyers.

 

Nashville stood up to the big, bad, large-market Flyers and put their franchise’s future on the line by matching the lucrative offer and leaving the Flyers scrambling for answers. With all the top-tier free agents scooped up and with a franchise-wide unwillingness to move Schenn and Couturier, the possibility of acquiring a top-notch defenseman went out the window and the patch-work offseason began. The team acquired journeymen like Kurtis Foster and Bruno Gervais and decided to go with what they had on the back line. After all, for a team whose attacking style had rendered the Pittsburgh Penguins so baffled in the previous postseason, reason stood that they could win without the Pronger-esque presence on the back line. As hockey fans’ nightmare came true, and the league slipped into a work stoppage due to CBA disagreements, the Flyers were one of the teams that appeared best-suited for such an occurrence. Their young players had shown a chemistry and talent level during their impressive late-season run and several of them would be able to play around the world and in the AHL. As the clouds parted and the NHLPA and owners neared an agreement, the anticipation for Flyers’ hockey reached a fever pitch that challenged any of the other teams in the city. Replays of Claude Giroux’s ‘shift’ against the Penguins in their decisive game six victory over their hated rivals propped the team, most notably Giroux, who was named team captain prior to the start of the season, to deity-like status. Yes, everything was looking up for the Flyers as they entered the season looking to take the next step and contend for the Stanley Cup Philadelphia has craved for.

Apr 18, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New Jersey Devils left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky (12) trips Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier (14) as New Jersey Devils center Jacob Josefson (9) picks up the loose puck during the third period at the Wells Fargo Center. The Devils defeated the Flyers, 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Fast forward to another offseason. Flyers fans sit, wondering yet again how their team, once with so much promise, finds themselves in a position where, not only are they further away from a championship then they were a year ago, but on the outside looking in of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Before detailing the problems that occurred during the season, I believe the team suffered from a major issue before setting foot on the ice. I’ll admit, the Flyers series win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2011-2012 playoffs was the most entertaining Philadelphia sports accomplishment of the year. The team finally had the star power to stand up to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni  Malkin and the rest of the hated Penguins and they knocked off the odds-on-favorite to win the Stanley Cup in embarrassing fashion. While this was all well and good at the time, as mentioned earlier in the article, this series win could have been the worst thing to happen to the team in a future standpoint. Let’s say that the roles were reversed in last season’s playoffs between the Pennsylvania rivals. No one would have labeled the Flyers’ season as a failure. They would have pushed a team with two of the best players in the world on it to the brink and would have been considered a victim of circumstances caused by the NHL’s soon-to-be former, ridiculous seeding system. Young players like Giroux, Schenn, Couturier, etc. whose roller coaster regular season would have been derailed in an instant, would have come in hungrier than ever, looking to erase the doubts that they did not have the talent to unseat the mighty Penguins. Maybe the organization takes a different approach to the offseason, not putting all of their stock in the idea that one more piece could give them the squad to take them back to the promised land.

April 22, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) shakes hands with Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux (28) after game six of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers defeated the Penguns, 5-1. The Flyers won the series 4 games to 2. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

However, the series played out the way it did. Peter Laviolette called Claude Giroux the best player in the world, he was put on the cover of NHL 2013, his Patrick Kane-esque offseason was celebrated by fans who gushed about Giroux like a school-girl , and it was assumed that the young Flyers center had unseated Crosby as the torch-carrier of Pennsylvania hockey dominance. Meanwhile, it was almost ignored that the Flyers were systematically picked apart by a Devils’ squad that, although sprinkled with talent and showed superior discipline in their victory, were considered substantial underdogs entering the series. The Flyers had gone winless against a similar Rangers’ squad who, with the addition of Rick Nash, appeared to have only improved. Finally, they were depending on a young core and a group of overachievers from the year before to duplicate the results of 2011-2012 in an abbreviated season. I’ll admit, after the team beat the Penguins last postseason, I crowned the Flyers the first-round Stanley Cup Champions much like the rest of the rest of the Orange-and-Black faithful. Looking back on it now, after seeing how the Penguins played against the Flyers for the better part of the lockout-shortened season and the team’s continued inability to overcome their woes against the Rangers and Devils, the confidence that flirted with arrogance gained from the series against the Penguins was the forbidden fruit that doomed the Flyers before the season started.

Apr 25, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux (28) lays on the ice after being in the head by the puck against the New York Islanders during the second period at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are though. The team, finally over .500 for the first time all season as 23-22-3, is out of the playoffs yet again and as fans, we wonder how the team can fix its problems. Nearly across the board, the Flyers came up short in areas necessary for gaining a high seed in the playoffs. At 6-10-2, they had the worst in-division record of the Atlantic Division. The team registered 755 penalty minutes, a number good for second-most in the NHL. Despite their impressive power play (21.6%-3rd) and penalty kill (85.9%-5th), their 83 goals at even strength was in the bottom half of the league. Finally, at 2.90 goals against per game, the team’s deficiencies on defense and in net continued to rear its head and became the rallying point of frustrated fans throughout the season. On the individual level, save for maybe Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Zac Rinaldo, and some of the call-ups who will be addressed later, everyone who was expected to contribute took a substantial step back. Most people will point to Ilya Bryzgalov, the much-maligned, handsomely-paid goaltender whose run-ins with the media serve as an unwelcome distraction to the rest of the team’s lack of production. Bryzgalov appeared to have things figured out last March after setting the franchise record for consecutive shutout streak (196:13), until he suffered a stress fracture during a pre-game warm up and, while turning in more solid performances than the other end of the spectrum, has been unable to recapture his effortless dominance of March 2012. Braydon Coburn (1 G, 4 A) showed no resemblance of the offensive game that established himself as the trigger-man of the team the season before and his defensive presence, or lack there of (-10, 41 PIM), made him a suitable replacement for Matt Carle as most frustrating Flyer on the back-end. This forced Kimmo Timonen to handle the primary offensive duties for the team’s defensive corps and, while the 38-year-old performed admirably, notching 29 points in 45 games, one wonders how the elder statesman will hold up moving forward, as the team decided to extend Timonen for another year. On the front end, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, a tandem of players who the team reportedly refused to move for Shea Weber, were perhaps the disappointments of the season. While the duo stood out during their time with the Phantoms during the lockout, it was going to be difficult to gauge the pair of young centers’ progression until they started their second season in the NHL. Schenn, whose physical game paired with his impressive offensive skill-set had some drawing the Mike Richards comparison, and Couturier, who, aside from Giroux, may have turned in the most impressive performance of the team’s first round win against the Penguins, were supposed to round out the team’s enviable group of centers. While the team probably made the smart move holding onto both of them at the trade deadline, it was unsettling how both players disappeared for stretches of games during the season. Paul Holmgren himself admitted that the team, who had placed such high expectations on the budding centermen, suffered greatly from their digressions. Finally, say what you want about his stats (13 G, 35 A), the inconsistent performances of various wingers, or the unreasonable expectations placed on a 25-year-old, but Claude Giroux was not the player who left opposing defenses scratching their heads the better part of the three seasons prior. Whether it was the wrist injuries that Giroux blamed Sidney Crosby for during the offseason, the lesser competition Giroux played against while he was in Germany, or the departure of his mentor, Jaromir Jagr, the darling of the 2012 playoffs was unable to solidify himself as a top-5, maybe even top-10 player in the NHL. The captain took a step back in +/- (-7 down from +6), shot percentage (9.5% down from 11.6%), nearly matched his 82-game penalty minute total (22 in ’13; 29 in ’12) and appeared frustrated most of the time rather than demonstrating an even-keel necessary for the captain of a young team. I do not disagree with the team’s promotion of Giroux to the captaincy and I do feel as if Giroux will get his young career back on track, as his combination of talent and work ethic is among the most impressive in the league. It could simply be a case of a young player who needed a dose of reality to recapture the hunger and drive that typified his game through his first four seasons. However, seeing how the organization has dealt with the likes of former captain Mike Richards and other young talent in the past, one hopes the team shows the patience to allow the young center to regain the confidence that had him mentioned in the same air as Jonathan Toews.

March 2, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Ottawa Senators defenseman Eric Gryba (62) checks Philadelphia Flyers center Danny Briere (48) during the second period at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Although the season is considered a failure for the most part, there were some silver linings to point to moving forward. For one, this was one of the more injured teams in the NHL. The Flyers ranked third in man-games-lost due to injury and, particularly on the blue line, the chemistry suffered dramatically. Nicklas Grossman, who was playing as well as any defender on the team, suffered a bizarre injury during a practice that also claimed Danny Briere. Andrej Meszaros, who continued his injury riddled Flyers career, was limited to just 11 games this season. Max Talbot suffered an unsightly broken leg right as he was starting to recapture his 2012 form and the team was forced to fill in the areas as best they could.

As far as surprise performances go, the Flyers had at least one stand out performer in all three phases of the team by season’s end. Jakub Voracek, who had faced criticism for not shooting enough, led the team with 22 goals and developed into the sort of first line center that had people praising the organization for the Flyers trading Jeff Carter. Luke Schenn, who faced the sort of criticism similar to JVR for being an underachieving top-5 pick in a major hockey market, finished the season as the team’s best defensive defenseman. The 23-year old, who has been touted in the past as ‘the next Adam Foote’ , shook off some early struggles and, looking back on the trade, I would say the team is satisfied with the decision to say good-bye to vanRiemsdyk.

Finally, although all signs point to his success being a mirage (small sample size, low pressure situation, fans desire for him to succeed), it is very hard to ignore the performance of goaltender Steve Mason. Mason, who fell from grace in Columbus in favor of former Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky, was acquired at the trade deadline by the Flyers in what appeared to be a low-profile move. Seeing as Ilya Bryzgalov had started all but two games for the Flyers, it was in the team’s best interest to bring in a more serviceable backup than Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. It is hard to imagine that management expected Mason to be one of the best goalies in the NHL over a small sample size. Mason appeared in seven games for the Flyers, boasting an impressive .944 save percentage to go along with a 1.90 GAA. While the Flyers were all but out of contention, Mason was most impressive against playoff teams looking to improve seeding. In wins against the Rangers (6th seed), the Bruins (4th seed), and the Senators (7th seed), Mason stopped 120 of a possible 125 shots and displayed a calm confidence that made it easy to see why Mason was once an NHL Rookie of the Year. In addition to his impressive stats, Mason displayed some skills that have gotten Bryzgalov in trouble in the past. He showed off impressive stickhandling skills, an ability to clear the crease without help from his teammates, and an ability to bounce back from the few goals he did let up. While some look at the situation as a negative, considering the team may have another goaltender controversy on their hands, with Mason’s low price tag and the uncertain nature of Bryzgalov’s future, it is a benefit to have a serviceable netminder with starter potential waiting in the wings. There is no way the organization can buy out Bryzgalov and annoint Mason the starter this offseason, but it does give the franchise a bit more flexibility in an area where they were hamstrung by Bryzgalov’s brutal contract.

As far as what is on the horizon for the Flyers, Scott Hartnell probably tabbed it best, citing the team’s need to improve in the defensive zone, specifically with the assistance of a top-pairing defenseman. While there are some veteran free agents who could serve as a temporary fix for a blue-line in desperate need of NHL-ready talent (Mark Streit, Sergei Gonchar, and Ryan Whitney) they would only mask the fact that the franchise has done a miserable job of developing home-grown talent on the blue line. The team could test fate again, trying to pry one of the St. Louis Blues talented restricted free agent defenseman (Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk) via trade or another offer sheet but that seems like a reach at this point. Following tonight’s NHL Draft lottery, the Flyers hold the 11th pick in what is widely considered to be a very deep draft. While a late season surge prevented the Flyers from holding down a top pick and dashing the dreams of Seth Jones donning the orange and black, if the team hangs on to their pick they are more likely than not to net a quality prospect that, if developed with patience, should turn out to be a very good player down the road. However it is not likely that whomever this prospect is will be ready to contribute on the NHL level this season.

With that in mind, I do not expect this team to field the same group of defensemen next year as they did this year. Their performance was simply unacceptable and it is unfair to the fan base and the rest of the team to continue to put out a subpar group along the blue line. The true dilemma for this franchise moving forward, if they do wish to acquire a top-pairing defenseman, is whether or not they are willing to part with Sean Couturier. It is true that Couturier experienced a dramatic sophomore slump and, save for a few inspiring stretches in the later parts of the season, was a colossal disappointment for the Flyers this year. With his defensive ability, many saw Couturier as a prospect that could contribute in a major way on the NHL level while allowing his offensive game along the way. His work against Evgeni Malkin in the 2012 playoffs was no fluke and there is no reason to believe that he shouldn’t display that sort of expertise on the defensive end against the top players in the league. Unfortunately, with the Flyers consistently being in some level of a ‘win-now’ mode, it is tough to imagine the organization will continue to show the patience with a player who contributed so little on the offensive end. Combined with former first round pick Scott Laughton, who impressed in his brief stint at the NHL level, waiting in the wings, there has been speculation that the team would consider moving the young centerman for a young, keystone, puck moving defenseman who could hold down the number one role. It is hard to say what the organization’s final decision on the matter will be, considering their hesitancy to include Couturier in a deal for Shea Weber last summer, but a lesser package might not yield the sort of return that the Flyers would need as far as a Stanley Cup caliber blue-liner. Something will be done though. Ed Snider is not getting younger any time soon and his desire to bring another Stanley Cup back to Broad Street has been apparent through the past few years.

If Couturier makes it through the offseason without changing addresses, I do believe that he, along with Brayden Schenn and Claude Giroux, dictate the success, both future and immediate for this Flyers’ team. Going back through the recent Stanley Cup winners; one constant remains, and that is their strength at the center position both offensively and defensively. Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier have both displayed, albeit for short bursts at a time, that they can be high-level pivots in the NHL. They are big, strong, smart with at the very least above-average offensive games and a clutch-factor very rare in young players. With Claude Giroux widely considered to be one of the top-five centers in the game moving forward, if both Schenn and Couturier can reach their potential in some respect, there is no reason to believe the Flyers can’t put out a lineup that features three top-40 centers in the league, a very formidable threat. The Flyers do need to improve their blue line drastically, but the organization probably sees the other two centers as future assistant captains following up Giroux. They are some of the highest-level prospects the Flyers have had in their system for quite some time and it would throw off their plans in a big way should either of them, let alone both, continue to struggle following early success.

Looking back on the past two offseasons, I would argue that next year’s team will probably be closer to the outlook of the franchise following last season. While it might not involve a thrilling series win over the Penguins, I do think it will come with some form of playoff success and the sort of rebound seasons from important players that will re-inspire the future hope once had for this group of players. While there will certainly be some new faces on next year’s squad, I would say for the most part, including the recently endorsed Peter Laviolette, the team will look very similar. The team will probably have to move a top forward, perhaps Matt Read, in a deal to acquire a new defenseman, but the organization looks at Schenn and Couturier with too much regard to move them for anything less than a defenseman with top-10 potential. That being said, with how Paul Holmgren has approached the last few offseasons, he is tied to this group of players and they will need to succeed should he be considered a success. The Flyers are always a team that is interesting to follow during the offseason, and with the new amnesty-clause included in the CBA, that will certainly continue. One hopes that the struggles that this young core dealt with this year proves to be the same motivation that fueled a very talented Chicago Blackhawks group that topped the Flyers in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. Sometimes it takes hitting a new low after experiencing unexpected highs to forge the sort of chemistry and resilience necessary for a championship run. It will be interesting to see how this team and organization responds to the struggles of this year and should be as interesting as ever to follow in the coming months.

Stay tuned throughout the offseason, as I will detail the Flyers prospects, any offseason moves, and tune in on the Stanley Cup Playoffs along the way. Never as fun without the Flyers involved but always one of the most fascinating events in sports.

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Stats Courtesy of NHL.com

Tags: Claude Giroux Flye Peter Laviolette

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