Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Around the Rink: Distant Early Warning edition

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Just breathe.

That's the only real bit of advice I have for the weary, bleary-eyed Flyers fan after the seven-game mark of this abbreviated season.

Yes, 2-5-0 looks bad. A 1-4-0 road record looks worse, and the lack of production (2.0 goals-per-game) and punchless power play has you all on edge thinking about the organization's internal nuclear options to bring about change.

Still, we're only one-seventh of the way through this schedule. The goal differential is only minus-six. There's been one blowout loss and one blowout win. The January sked as presented was brutal at best. It's no time to be caught with paralysis by analysis.

The depth so touted by the front office will only be beneficial from this point forward. There will be another team, most likely in the Western Conference, also looking for a jolt, a trading partner on more equal footing who won't be trying to steal Paul Holmgren blind the way Keith Allen stripped lesser teams 40 years ago.

That reputation is hard to live down, because every other team wants a piece of a valuable Flyers player regardless of position.  Except, unlike other years where the lineup only needs to be bolstered, there is genuine need to right the ship. Comparisons to 1995 will be inevitable, so here goes...

Terry Murray's club was hovering in the depths, having started 3-6-1 and scoring only 22 goals (2.2 gpg) over 10 games. It was unthinkable with the top six forwards consisting of the Captain (Eric Lindros), a center coming off back-to-back 100-point seasons (Mark Recchi), the other member of the Crazy Eights (Brent Fedyk), two character guys with faceoff and checking skills (Rod Brind'Amour and Kevin Dineen) along with a snakebitter sniper teetering on the brink of respect (Josef Beranek).

Nonetheless, by process of elimination, Recchi was sacrificed to Montreal in early February for two franchise-changing players (John LeClair, Eric Desjardins) and a throw-in (Gilbert Dionne). Recchi was the most tradeable asset the club featured at the time, and Bob Clarke acknowledged this, saying he "wasn't down on Mark at all" in making the trade. 

Eventually, of the remaining five, only Beranek (swapped to Vancouver for an enforcer, Shawn Antoski, which didn't work out in the long run) was shipped away by the end of that memorable season.

Point is, the dream of touting depth on the front lines with all the youth the 2013 Flyers possess will be nothing more than a pipe dream unless there's a big winning streak coming. Mike Knuble, at age 40, cannot make up for the contributions Scott Hartnell made to the attitude, character and production of the team. Jake Voracek needs a playmaking center, preferably European, to light a fire under his ass. The defense, stripped of Chris Pronger and Matt Carle, is tenuous at best.

From the current top six forwards, Holmgren ain't getting rid of the Captain (Claude Giroux), the best overall player on the squad thus far (Wayne Simmonds), or a bona-fide two-way threat (Sean Couturier). That leaves Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Danny Briere as likely suspects. Briere is in the sixth year of his 8-year deal signed in 2007, Voracek's cap hit for his new contract extension may be a problem as well as his Beranek-like reluctance to engage in "Flyers-like hockey," and Schenn is someone with whom Holmgren may have to be dragged kicking and screaming to part ways.

Nonetheless, it has to be done. And the right deal has to come along for the right parts.

Once upon a time, the Quebec Nordiques had Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, Andrei Kovalenko, Martin Rucinsky, Valeri Kamensky and Scott Young. Pierre Lacroix had the stones to jettison all but the first name and the last two in order to make the Nords/Avs a cup contender within a two-year period. He understood it was the value in filling the gaps that made virtually every player potential trade bait, and was lucky in that every deal worked out the way he intended.

I recognize that a cap-friendly world makes dealing a bit more complicated than it was 15 years ago, but Holmgren has to be emboldened to take the risk. With old Uncle Ed peering over everybody's shoulder, the mere smell of a key transaction should be enough for the boss to suggest pulling the trigger.


Which brings me to a larger point. Everybody just chill.

The NHL has been back for all of 11 days and emotions are running the gamut in such a short span. Fans in San Jose are sky high, thinking this is the year. In Washington, there's embarrassment and resignation. In Phoenix, they come dressed as empty seats.

So much for just enjoying things. Collectively, I have to hand it to you. The Show has been welcomed back with such an intense and consumptive feeling, the likes of which we haven't seen since Lenny went on his rampage in "Of Mice and Men."

We won't get to see how the year will shake out until we're halfway through, so please just enjoy it for what it is, because it could have been nothing. The start isn't what's important, it's the finish.

Marleau Down Dirty Shame

I guess it's better late than never for Patrick Marleau, the closest thing the San Jose Sharks have to a franchise icon.

He's on an insane tear thus far, with nine goals and 14 points in only six games to help his club go 6-0-0 for the first time ever. It's far and away the best start to his 16-year career, and he snagged a piece of NHL history for being just the second player in league annals to record three straight multi-goal efforts (he ended with four straight) to begin a season.

Not on the list: Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Phil Esposito, Jari Kurri, Wayne Gretzky or Brett Hull.

Marleau also began the season with five consecutive multi-point contests -- a team record, and has also scored at least a point in every single game for the Pacific Division leaders.

As impressive as the burst has been, you know it can't last. And with the way the Sharks have been on the cusp of contention for the last five years, you wonder if the 33-year-old will have enough in the tank to play consistently once this streak bottoms out. Where was this in 2008, 2009 and 2010 when San Jose needed it most? That's the most perplexing attribute of Marleau's career arc. Perhaps the oddity of a shortened schedule will keep him fresh for the playoff push.

The Old Master has been cheated

Unable to totally pull himself away from the game he loves, Buffalo Sabres telecaster Rick Jeanneret said in the offseason that 2012-13 would be his last one behind the microphone.

With the schedule cut down from 82 to 48 games plus playoffs, it's unfair if that remains to be the case. Jeanneret, who has been involved with Sabres broadcasts for all but one year of their existence, deserves the chance to go out on a full slate.

Local broadcasters aside, there have been few voices throughout all levels of hockey that energize this columnist when watching either at work or at home. Sure, like all partisan hires, Jeanneret is a homer, but he brings unusual dexterity when crossing game analysis with rooting interest.

Plus, he possesses THE finest volume and emotion of any current broadcaster when Buffalo scores, particularly at home, and has authored what I consider to be THE best overtime playoff call in modern NHL history -- which is approaching its 20th anniversary in late April.

I hope there will be some kind of petition floated to kep him one more year if Jeanneret decides to step aside later this Spring, because I'd have no problem signing it and encouraging hockey fans everywhere to do the same.

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