Monday, Jan. 14, 2013 -
Over the weekend, the Players certified the CBA, and the memorandum of understanding was signed by both the NHL and PA. Kicking off the official beginning to the abbreviated 2013 season was the full NHL schedule. The Philadelphia Flyers schedule, naturally, came to light.
Our boys begin at home, Saturday, January 19, versus the hated Pittsburgh Penguins. The contest will be on primetime television, NBC, so that the world can get their second-filling of one of hockey's most blood-thirsty rivalries today. Puck drops at 3:00pm EST.
As the schedule continues through January, Philadelphia hits the road against Buffalo, New Jersey, Florida Tampa Bay and then Broadway to face the Rangers. Our only other January home game is sprinkled in the middle when the Blueshirts visit the Well on Thursday, the 24th.
Perhaps we'll have better luck against the Rangers THIS season, eh? Our last win against Tortorella & Co. came almost two years ago when the Flyers skated past our Atlantic Division rivals, 4 - 2, on February 20, 2011. Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Daniel Carcillo and Kris Versteeg each scored a goal, and Brian Boucher carried the 'W'.
We face the Rangers twice this January (24, 29) and then take a hiatus from the matchup until March 5. So, if the Flyers don't come away with at least one win against NYR in our next two contests, we'll officially pass the two-year mark. That's a hard stat to swallow. Especially considering they're a divisional combatant who we face (on a regular basis) six times through the season.
But, like any other year, we have new faces and more experience. Our sophomore skaters really hit their momentum in the latter half of the 2011-12 season. Couturier and Brayden Schenn have been dominating in the AHL during the lockout, and have returned to camp in mid-season form. It's tough to tell whether Ilya Bryzgalov's grown under the pressures of being a Philadelphia twinesitter, but a full year in this hockey market under his belt can't hurt. Our blue line is suspect given the injuries and the loss of our puck-moving defenseman Matt Carle. But additions in Luke Schenn, Kurtis Foster and Bruno Gervais will round out the pairings with grit, physicality, and -- more importantly -- a right-handed stick on the blue line.
Kurtis Foster, a 31-year old veteran who has a battleship's Mark 7 for a slap shot, was signed to a 1-year, $950K contract on Saturday, and will join the ranks on the Flyers power-play. A guy like Foster will be most effective at keeping the puck in the offensive zone from his strongside -- something we've been missing on the right side of the rink. He'll also be valued at putting the puck on net from the points or the top of the slot. Once the rubber's sent packing towards the cage at speeds high enough to blow the skirt off a nun, garbagemen like Scott Hartnell or Wayne Simmonds will be able to pickup the rebounds for second-chance goals.
Foster is by no means a top four d-man, but you can never round out a roster with enough veteran blue liners. Bench boss Peter Laviolette spoke after the first day of training camp, and had nothing but great things to say about Kurtis. Mostly to do with that shot of his. That'll be something great to look forward to, and will payoff with our net presence.
Speaking of the net (no, not that shitty film with Sandra Bullock) -- Paul Holmgren re-acquired Brian Boucher from Carolina over the weekend. If he passes his physical, Boosh will be heading straight to Adirondack to tend goal with the Phantoms. He will NOT participate in the Flyers week-long training camp. Michael Leighton is still the auxiliary puck-stopper to Ilya Bryzgalov.
It's great seeing Boosh back in the Philadelphia program, even if he is only serving as an insurance policy to Michael Leighton. Boucher will cost next to nothing in Glens Falls, and we even received a prospect defenseman out of the deal in Mark Alt.
Philadelphia's minor leaguer, Luke Pither, was given to Carolina to seal the deal.
Sunday morning began training camp League-wide. Every team's players were glad to be back on the ice for their Clubs, as were their fans. But no other following was happier to see their skating soldiers than Flyers fanatics --
President and Chief Operating Officer of Comcast-Spectacor, Peter Luuko, spoke to the media about the attendance at Day 1's session -- "I think today proved that it’s all about the Flyers. They’re Philly’s team."
Well, it certainly ain't the Sixers. The Eagles have left a bad taste in our mouths. And the Phillies are older than George Burns' molars.
The Flyers will carry our city's heart and flag through one of the most treacherous, high-tempo'd gamuts of athleticism that professional sports could berth. Will the shortened season be a positive or negative to the Broad Street Bullies? That question's better answered with depth and youth. And, maybe, some age.
My first thought is the Flyers will benefit from a shortened season. Not only because of our youth that's stretched through the depth of our roster, but because it will salvage a percentage of durability in our veteran players. Namely Kimmo Timonen.
Timonen's currently skating on the final year of his 6yr, $38-Million contract. Coming up this March, Kimmo turns the boyish age of 38. I don't need to tell any Flyers fan (or opposing fan, for that matter) how valuable Timonen is on our blue line. It is imperative that Kimmo gets the rest he'll need throughout the condensed schedule, as well as receiving less than 23 - 25-minutes of ice time per game.
Our defense is, without a doubt, the weakest link on our chain. That's not to say the players we have on the blue line can't get the job done, but the Flyers are still without a true #1 D-man, and employ more #5 - 6 defensemen than top four pairings.
Blue liners like Braydon Coburn, Niklas Grossmann, and Andrej Meszaros (when healthy) will have to step up and take the reps in bulk. Luke Schenn will need to prove his worth almost immediately, and with very little "new team" growing pains. The absence of Erik Gustafsson and Marc-Andre Bourdon in the beginning of the season will leave Peter Laviolette without a degree of bang and puck-possession from the bulwark of his roster. It'll definitely take some savvy game planning from our head coach, which he's more than qualified to do so.
Receiving praises from Laviolette are Luke Schenn and Scott Laughton, who both turned in quite the workout at Day 1 of practice on Sunday. We're all depending on Luke to find his consistency, but Laughton is the wild card here.
Our 2012 first round draft pick made the trip into Vorhees, NJ, to show his parenting NHL Club what he's worth at such a pubescent age of 18. Being a natural centerman, Scott makes a strong argument for himself to split the wings from the fourth line center position. Scouts labeled him as a Mike Richards type player, in the sense that he plays two-ways effectively and adds that "sandpaper" aspect you find in most bottom-six forwards.
With Danny Briere visiting a doctor this week for his wrist, Laughton will get some serious looks to fill a spot left open by Briere's vacancy. Being 18 years old, Scott's entry-level contract has the ability to slide should the Flyers decide to save a season on his contract and send him back to Juniors. However, Philly's management doesn't have to make that decision before camp's over.
Similar to Sean Couturier last season, Laughton is under the age of 21, and signed to an ELC. Under normal circumstances, a player in Laughton's case could receive a 10-game trial in a NHL season before his Club demotes him back to whichever Junior level team he skates for. But because of the lockout and shortened schedule, Laughton will only get a 5-game trial run should the Flyers decide to do so.
I am personally hoping Scott Laughton gets his chance. Not only that, I hope he permanently cracks this roster and remains with the Flyers from here on out.
Allow me to explain...
The future of the Flyers is already here; Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, and even Luke Schenn build the core of this team. The summation of potential between these skaters reaches altitudes that tickle the feet of the Stanley Cup (metaphorically, of course). My argument for Scott Laughton is that if we're going to continue allowing our future to grow together through the trials and errors of the National Hockey League, then we might as well include ALL of our future core players.
I'm not trying to compare Laughton's status to Giroux's, the Schenn Bros'. or Cooter's. They've at least proven themselves under some form of NHL caliber or another. But Laughton has a chance to learn from his peers while his peers continue to learn for themselves. A chemistry and bond then forms and glues these players together. They rise with one another, as well as fall.
If Scott Laughton gets his 5-game chance, I am not expecting another Sean Couturier to climb from the baby formula of an Under-21 skater again. We must admit, in the case of Couturier's first season, it was a once-in-a-generation of players. But I do have positive expectations for Laughton.
So, if Laughton cracks this roster, what are the forward line combinations, you may ask? Given our players are healthy, I'd expect our lines to look like this --
|(LW) Scott Hartnell
||(C) Claude Giroux
||(RW) Jakub Voracek / Brayden Schenn
||Brayden Schenn / Jakub Voracek
||Eric Wellwood (Zac Rinaldo / Jody Shelley / Tom Sestito)
This past Sunday, Brayden Schenn and Jakub Voracek both took reps on the front line with Hartnell and Giroux. If this turns into a battle for the right-wing spot, then I expect Voracek to win it over.
That is absolutely NOT a dig at Schenn or his ability to dominate from the right side. To be honest, I'd be fine with either him or Jake taking the reins from Giroux's flank.
If you recall, one of the things that made the Hartnell-Giroux-Jagr line so deadly was Jagr's size and ability to carry the puck from neutral ice over the blue line. Jaromir Jagr has always harnessed the talent to keep the puck far away from his body and contention, yet keep full control of where it's going. It was a mixture of Jagr's skill and size that completed this deadly combination.
Once Jagr broke the plain, Giroux positioned himself just outside the slot, while Hartnell forced himself in front of the net. Jagr then distributed the puck as the threesome opened up chances against their opposition.
Voracek reminds me a lot of Jagr from that standpoint. Jake brings the puck over the blue line with authority and something Jagr was missing -- speed. That combination of redheaded freaks would have all the necessary tools to finish a scary amount of chances.
Adding Brayden into a Danny Briere-Matt Read combo could pay dividends almost immediately. Read is such a versatile player that he can skate on any line and produce. That's why I think it's crucial to keep him with Danny Briere.
Briere experienced a 2011-12 season of highs and lows. He's one of this team's leaders, and the highest paid Flyer to boot. If Philadelphia is going to make a strong Cup run, it's essential that Danny Boy finds the scorer within him and keeps it going through the abbreviated schedule.
One of the problems Briere faced last year were his linemates; he never belonged to a permanent combination. His wingers were switched out as often as a couple change their bed sheets. And since Read develops chemistry no matter who he's with, what better center do you line him up with than Danny Briere? And fringing from Danny's right side is a crease-crashing, gritty Brayden Schenn. You have finesse, presence around & behind the net, and some JAM!
Bringing up the rear are our checking lines. Ones which don't flow without their fair share of scoring, either. Max Talbot may be coming off a career year in goals-scored, but it'd be ridiculous to expect him to do the same, or better, in this 2013 season. Same can be said for Wayne Simmonds, who also potted a career high in pucks.
The both of them add a lethal aggregate on the forecheck, as well as defensive-offensive presence in our own zone. Playing the role of fulcrum to this snarly crew is second-year skater Sean Couturier.
Talbot and Cooter played amazingly well together on the PK, as well as 5-on-5 situations. It'd be criminal to break those two up. Throwing the Wayne Train to their right side will add size that Talbot lacks and that Couturier can't distribute in the crease. It'd be the ultimate checking line, and goals-scored from the combo will come in clutch situations.
Rounding out the bottom nine are Fedotenko, Laughton and Wellwood. That one wing spot (currently filled by Wellwood) is up for grabs between Wellwood, Rinaldo, Shelley and Sestito. But for the sake of having a complete combination of skillsets, I rest on Eric Wellwood -- and his speed -- to skate the majority of games from that position.
Ruslan Fedotenko re-joins the Flyers after spending the last 10-years with the Bolts, Islanders, Penguins and Rangers. He brings an immeasurable amount of Stanley Cup experience back to Philadelphia with him, winning one with the Lightning and another with the Penguins.
Fedotenko plays a very disciplined game, even for being a grinder. He'd takeover the Momma Bear role to a line of young skaters in Wellwood and Laughton, raising them to be systematic gamers who know when and where to apply their abilities. Wellwood's speed cannot be taught, and seeing it out on the ice last season was very exciting. Having linemates like Fedotenko and Laughton will free up the puck and break it up ice, but the finishing factor will remain the question-mark to this potentially effective combination.
We're now 6-days from the season opener at the Wells Fargo Center. And just like the beginning of last year, our minds are flooded with more questions than answers. But unlike last year, we have more expectation from this group of Flyers, and all the confidence in their core of players.
Bovada.com has Philadelphia at 12/1 odds at winning the Stanley Cup. If this were any other season, I'd say to hell with the odds, just get out there and produce. If we experience a skid of losses, there's time to regroup and turn the season around. But now, with the condensed schedule, we're forced to treat each game like a Playoff tilt. Our extremely competitive Conference and Division leaves very little room for error. Will the pressure make or break this Philadelphia Flyers squad?
Let's just be thankful we have the opportunity to find out.
Check out The Pack on Facebook!
You can follow Michael DeNicola on Twitter: @MikeyD_OandBP
Contact The Pack here...