Monday, April 14, 2014

Wayne Simmonds, Flyers MVP

Question: Who is the Philadelphia Flyers' most valuable player this season?

Is it their chosen leader, their newly-anointed shutdown center, their goaltender on the road to redemption?

Answer: the one skater who has consistently excelled in the skill game, physical game, at even strength, on the power play and even those rare times when shorthanded.

Wayne Simmonds rose to all challenges as the 2013-14 season progressed, topping his career-best in goals, 28, set in his first season with the Orange and Black two years ago. In a 6-5 shootout loss to Carolina which ended the regular season on Sunday afternoon, he equaled the mark with a key score in a second-period rally from 4-1 down, then set a new personal record on the game-tying score with less than 10 seconds to play.

Those 29 markers were most on the club. He also managed to set career bests in assists (31) and points (60), held the third-highest shooting percentage for all regulars at 13.9 percent, and has become that net-front presence the club has lacked since Mike Knuble departed in 2009. 

The native of Scarborough, Ontario joined the ranks of the illustrious as one of only two players in franchise history to record three consecutive multi-goal games (Dec. 21-28), joining Reggie Leach (Oct. 11-15, 1981; Jan. 3-7, 1976) in the impressive feat. He also finished atop the club and placed third in the NHL -- to Washington's Alex Ovechkin and San Jose's Joe Pavelski -- with a team-best 15 power-play goals.

Yes, Claude Giroux has finished this season as if he intended to leave October in the dust,  charring his molted skin like a smoking husk, but he's only rocketed into team MVP and Hart Trophy talk in the last month. A few hours ago, his efforts to drag both himself and the rest of his team out of the doldrums and into the postseason was rewarded with the Bobby Clarke Trophy. But ignore the name on the plaque on the trophy. Giroux was a non-factor through the first 15 games.

That's the issue when taking a leap and making choices such as this: how to give proper weight to the team captain, whose job it is to lead through example by putting more points on the board than the rest of his teammates, and who simply does not do it for a significant chunk of time. The fact that Giroux's scoring slump coincided with the Flyers' abysmal start lessens his overall impact.

Simply put, while we can pinpoint the Flyers' late-season success and rise to a postseason berth squarely on that Giroux resurgence, Simmonds has brought it from Day One and that's why he's the right choice. 

While I'm not naive enough to believe Simmonds didn't go through the motions at times, or cynical enough to discount his top-level efforts, as Mark Howe once said, you're having a great year if you limit yourself to 10 bad games, 10 great games and the rest are just consistent.

Simmonds himself acknowledged this earlier in the season, saying: "My first year, I did get to 28 goals, but I feel there were some lapses where I'd go 15 or 16 games. One time I went 17 games without a goal. I've tried to make sure I'm playing a more complete game and more consistently. I'm just getting used to the league more and more. As you get older, the game starts to slow down a little bit."

In the 0-3 start that sacked Peter Laviolette, you could point to Simmonds as the only player who looked like he gave a damn shift to shift, period to period. When the Flyers needed a spark while trailing throughout the whole game to the Washington Capitals on November 1 -- and let's not get into a debate about the particulars and the philosophy behind the line brawl which punctuated the rout during the third period -- he was actively aggressive in his effort to wake up his team. Once Craig Berube gained a better foothold behind the bench, it continued.

How about keeping his team viable in the unnecessary track meet at Columbus with two goals in a December 21 6-3 loss? his two power-play goals in the second period at Edmonton on December 29 which pulled the visitors out of a 2-0 hole? The first score of the contest on February 1 at Los Angeles which broke the Kings' offensive spirits and the assist on Giroux's which broke their backs? Or that virtuoso performance in front of Marc-Andre Fleury in the first period at Pittsburgh three weeks ago, one which tripled the Flyers' edge before the Pens awoke from their slumber. And that fight against Bryan Bickell two days later which provided a jolt of electricity in the final moments that surged on Giroux's OT winner.

The key phrase in Simmond's arrival as a prime mover is contained within a piece written late last month when the Kings came to Philadelphia, by long-time LA Times beat Helene Elliott: "Simmonds didn't view the trade as a rejection of him by the Kings, but of being wanted by the Flyers."

That alone sets a player's mind at ease when he's traded for the first time, and is a huge psychological lift when acclimating to a new team and new surroundings. It's obvious things have turned out better in Philadelphia than they would have in Los Angeles, Stanley Cup or not.

Another key to Simmonds' rise is how he's expected to use his minutes in transition from a grinder with the Kings to a scoring threat for the Flyers. From a Daily News piece three weeks ago: "As the prototypical 'power forward,' Simmonds made his mark by chipping the puck in and grinding it out in the corner to get it for his teammates before heading to the net. Now, focusing more on puck possession, Simmonds seems to be more inclined to gain entry into the offensive zone before either shooting or dishing to linemates." 

His drive to the net and confidence with the puck stood out in stark contrast to Giroux, who at times seemed at a loss on how to proceed during offensive-zone forays, not just in the first quarter of the season, but in particular against teams like the Rangers, Bruins and Blues. 

In addition, Simmonds produced 11 goals in the third period, and four times he was responsible for the club's lone red light -- those times when Giroux was nowhere to be found on the scoresheet or in the offensive zone. There were also 15 multi-point efforts,  44 games in which he recorded at least one point and any point drought which he endured never lasted more than four games.

How about this for a postseason preview -- in a 4-2 victory over the Rangers on March 1, Simmonds made himself known by scoring the game-winning goal, adding an assist, firing three shots, connecting on six hits, stationing himself in front of Henrik Lundqvist, and keeping multiple plays alive. Sounds like a recipe for success to me. He did all that in just 18 minutes of ice time.
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“It’s the type of game we are looking for from everybody,” Berube said to Jack McCaffery following the contest. “He is just hard on pucks, skating, doing all things without the puck. And then when he gets it, he does some real good things with it, skates with it, moves with it, makes hard plays.”
  
Puck possession will be key against the Rangers, a team which has become more dangerous since Alain Vigneault removed the shackles from the conservative, shot-blocking, grease-and-grit John Tortorella era. The Flyers did not hold onto the puck much in their two losses at Madison Square Garden, were outscored by a 7-2 margin, and haven't scored more that two goals there in any of their eight consecutive losses.

Simmonds spent most of that time alone in front, beaten and battered while all passing and shooting lanes were closed off. The remaining time, he was walled off behind the net and along the side boards, pummeled by at least two Blueshirts while trying to keep plays alive. Yet, in the one game he was allowed free rein, New York paid for it dearly.

Points will get you noticed, win contribute directly to wins, but without that total effort in doing all the little things, the points do not accumulate. Giroux seemed to take a quarter of the season to figure it out, but Simmonds had a bead on it from the start.
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