Friday, May 30, 2014

Flyers to gain a new full-time ECHL affiliate

The Philadelphia Flyers will be taking another crack at a full-time ECHL affiliate.

According to the Reading Eagle's hockey reporter, there will be a press conference scheduled for 11 AM Wednesday morning at which time the Royals and Flyers will officially announce a partnership.

Philly had a long-standing affiliation with the Trenton Titans beginning in 1999, only interrupted by the franchise being acquired by New Jersey and resurrected as the Devils from 2007-11. Three seasons ago, the Titans once again became a Flyers farm club, but that agreement was terminated last April 23 when the Titans shocked many with the announcement they had ceased operations.

This past season, the Greenville Road Warriors agreed to an affiliation, only to dump the Flyers before the midpoint of the campaign in favor of the New York Rangers.

The Royals began operation prior to the 2001-02 season, and were originally affiliated with the Los Angeles Kings. In later years, that switched between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, then in 2012, the Washington Capitals announced that Reading would serve as the franchise's primary Double-A club.

That change paid off better than anyone expected, as the Royals took home the 2013 Kelly Cup in a victory over the Stockton Thunder thanks in large part to goaltender Philipp Grubauer, whose stellar performance in Berks County two years back precipitated his rise to the AHL and NHL in his brief career.

In 2013-14, Reading finished first in the Atlantic Division with a 46-22-4 record, but fell short in its title defense after losing a five-game first-round series to the Fort Wayne Komets.

This past Wednesday, the Royals front office gave head coach Larry Courville a legitimate vote of confidence with a contract extension. Courville, who played briefly for the Vancouver Canucks in the late 90s and was a member of the Royals' inaugural roster, is the winningest coach in franchise history and has led the club to five straight postseason berths.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

UFC releases full Atlantic City card

ATLANTIC CITY - The UFC has announced the full undercard for its July 16 event at Revel Resort.

The UFC Fight Night card, which will be televised on FOX Sports 1, is headlined by a five-round lightweight bout between Donald Cerrone and Garden State native Jim Miller.

Cerrone (23-6, 1 NC, fighting out of Albuquerque, N.M.) is currently riding a three-fight win streak and is the fifth-ranked lightweight contender while Miller (24-4, 1 NC, fighting out of Whippany, N.J.) is No. 7 in the world.

The other fights will be:

    Welterweights Rick Story (16-8) vs. John Howard (22-9).
    Lightweights Gleison Tibau (37-10) vs. Pat Healy(31-18, 1 NC).
    Twelfth-ranked lightweight Edson Barboza (13-2) vs. Evan Dunham (14-5).
    Flyweights John Lineker (23-7) vs. Alptekin Ozkilic (9-2).
    Bantamweights Aljamain Sterling (9-0) vs. Hugo Viana (8-2).
    Featherweights Lucas Martins (14-1) vs. Jim Alers (13-1).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Extra Points: The changing dynamics of June 1 | NFL (AP) | Latest news and video on the Dalla...

Extra Points: The changing dynamics of June 1 | NFL (AP) | Latest news and video on the Dalla...

For Flyers, playing is easy; comedy is hard

The Philadelphia Flyers are a proud organization, which boasts the following ledger over their 47-year NHL existence: 39 playoff appearances, 16 division titles, 16 berths in the semifinals, eight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and back-to-back engravings on the silver chalice.

What the organization is missing is one sense of humor, about itself, its former players, its history and its current situation.

Think about it. Ed Snider has set himself up in the history books as the guiding force for this team since before it ever set foot on NHL ice. Over nearly five decades, that's an exhausting prospect, one which requires constant vigilance that the brand and the man should never be disparaged for his time of service and dedication. When was the last time you saw Bob Clarke, or Paul Holmgren -- the men who have guided the on-ice product for 26 of the last 30 seasons from the GM's chair -- crack a smile at anything other than the perfunctory free-agent press conferences?

Maybe when Jeremy Roenick took to the ice pre-game wearing a curly blonde wig, a Clarke #16 jersey from the early 80s along with the requisite first-generation Cooperalls -- and that was more than 10 years ago. I think there was something resembling an upturned mouth from Clarkie's face during the Alumni Game as part of the Winter Classic here 2 1/2 years ago, but, like Bigfoot, concrete evidence has been fleeting.

While the organization projects a serious, single-minded approach to winning, the players themselves are laughing all the way to the bank. A collection of Canadians both urban and country, American kids and slick Europeans provide ample material for the ribbing and inside jokes than punctuate locker-room sessions and various modes of transport during road trips over an 82-game season plus playoffs. Why not tone down the humor from R to PG-13 and make some memorable vignettes?

Given any lingering bad feelings from the league's third lockout in 20 years, the Flyers' subsequent playoff-less Spring in 2013 and the nightmarish start to this past season, it's long past due that the franchise, as a whole, should embrace those cultural and age differences and strike out with some finely-tuned goodwill so the fan base knows that beneath those suits of armor beats the heart of a human being. And I'm not talking about a re-boot of Coatsey's Corner.

Type in "Philadelphia Flyers sense of humor" and the results are right on par with the typical German book on the subject. One picture that did stand out from the crowd was this gem, generated by the Boston Bruins in time for the clubs' NHL-record-making Eastern Conference Semifinal series four years ago. More on them later in this column.

That hasn't always been the case. Although it's regrettably not online, I have several game tapes from the 1990-91 season where the Flyers' Wives Fight for Lives Carnival is advertised in 30-second blurbs.

One particular spot features a mixture of players speaking about the cause in their native tongues. Rick Tocchet speaks in English, Kjell Samuelsson in Swedish, Jiri Latal in Czech, and when it comes time for Craig Berube to have his say, all he can speak is garbled nonsense. After his teammates yell at him to put in his teeth, what comes out is clear: the number to call for tickets. Another bright idea was to outfit the guys in fedoras, sunglasses and musical instruments and do a "so-bad-it's-good" send-up of the Super Bowl Shuffle to promote the Carnival. It wasn't fall-on-the-floor brilliance, but typical understated, clever humor that can only come from players taught to be humble in whatever they do.

Years pass, and golden opportunities to showcase the Crazy Eights Line, the Legion of Doom, the Minnesota Line, Carter & Richards, the Ginger Savior and others fall by the wayside. Roenick arrives in 2001 and tries to liven things up, but he's stuck musing about how to figure out when 95 North becomes 295 South while shilling for BMWs. Even the following memorable ads featuring some likely and unlikely players weren't promoting the Philadelphia Flyers, but the league as a whole and a phone company:

What the rest of the NHL does

It doesn't seem to matter. Whether you're a successful club in southern California trying to compete with the weather and a million other distractions, or an Original Six franchise trying to recapture the hearts and minds of the next generation, you're not too cool for school and satisfied living off your reputation to poke a little fun.

To wit, a commercial featuring Cherry Hill's Own Bobby Ryan for the Anaheim Ducks:

How about Ollie Kolzig going up against a paperboy:

Sometimes, the Evil Empire can poke fun at itself with ease:

Still, one team stands out above all others when lampooning parts of their culture which many opposing fans have derided over the years: the Boston Bruins.

Starting in 2009, the B's rolled out an ad campaign aimed at getting their fans ready for the coming resurgence. It had been roughly a decade and a half since hockey really mattered in the Hub, so the wizards who put the package together had a broad canvas with which to paint.  Featuring a massive, yet non-threatening grizzly as the team mascot and arbiter of what's good as a Bruins fan, there has been four years' worth of chuckles.

They've addressed dating. Visiting fans packing TD Garden. Proper bathroom etiquette. Manners. Interspecies love. And more. 

However, where the club really leaves no left turn unstoned, is in the serial, zany and unhinged episodes of "Bear and the Gang." Everyone is involved, from the players to the head coach, front office personnel along with the broadcasters and national anthem singer which local social media seems to drown in Haterade over and over again.

Episode One dragged them all out at once:

After that, we had Claude Julien breaking up a romantic interlude,  the 80's sitcom intro, the ultimate cheeseball Christmas short, and...uhhh...this "exercise" clip.

What Flyers can do to spice things up

They can move away from using those under contract for blatant advertising, like in this 1996 clip featuring LeClair, Lindros and Renberg, and open themselves up to something greater than the typical in-house "humor" regarding which player is the worst gift giver at Christmas.

The club missed a golden opportunity two years back to turn the locker room "controversy" over Ilya Bryzgalov's play and personality and cut the press off at the knees with a humorous commercial or two. No reason to think Bryz couldn't have been paired up with Neil DeGrasse Tyson to explore the cosmos. A large part of effective humor is learning how to use a player or goaltender's uniqueness and spin it into something the fan base can get behind. It definitely could have humanized him.

Aside from actual skill set, personality is what lures people to the team and to the sport, but the Flyers have consistently acted as if they're above advertising -- besides the laughs we might get in guessing at which point in a nationally-televised playoff game the crawl will appear promoting ticket plans for the following season.

Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux actually participating in a Harlem Globetrotters game this past season was practically begging for a crossover ad with the Sixers, but that was another missed opportunity.  Hartnell and his interactions with Cy Clark, the Hulk Hogan look-alike in Pittsburgh two years ago, was aces as well.

How about something involving all the college kids Holmgren signed at the end of the season to populate the Phantoms' roster, along with Matt Read, trying to "teach" the players who came up through juniors about the basics of hockey? Steve Mason in his crease, actually constructing a wall to keep pucks away? The possibilities are endless, if one member of the front office with some wild ideas and a sense of playfulness exists.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Extra Points: Blame both sides for painkiller abuse | NFL (AP) | Latest news and video on the...

Extra Points: Blame both sides for painkiller abuse | NFL (AP) | Latest news and video on the...

Penn State hockey announces 2014-15 Big Ten schedule

The Penn State Nittany Lions will open up their 2014-15 Big Ten conference schedule with two games at Yost Ice Arena against the Michigan Wolverines on November 21-22.

After two more road games, December 5-6, at Wisconsin, Guy Gadowsky's Nits will open up their Pegula Ice Arena conference slate with back-to-back contests on January 9-10 against rival Ohio State.

Check out the remainder of PSU's conference sked here, and see the full Big Ten schedule here.

Penn State finished sixth out of six teams in the inaugural Big Ten hockey season, going 3-16-1.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Extra Points: If you build it, the NFL will come - Football Wires -

Extra Points: If you build it, the NFL will come - Football Wires -

Sixers to select 3rd and 10th in upcoming NBA Draft

PHILADELPHIA – Tanking isn't what it's all cracked up to me.

At the end of the day, 19 wins bought the the 76ers the third overall pick in June's NBA Draft. The Sixers will also receive the 10th overall pick from New Orleans as part of the Jrue Holiday trade last summer in which Philadelphia also acquired the rights to Nerlens Noel, the sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft.

"This is an exciting night for our franchise," absentee general manager Sam Hinkie said in a rare appearance in front of the media . "We all know the NBA Draft is an important way for us to add players, and the depth of talent available this year is a great start."

This marks the third time the Sixers have held the third overall pick, with the most recent selection being Jerry Stackhouse in 1995.  Recent notable players drafted third overall include Bradley Beal (2012), James Harden (2009), Deron Williams (2005) and Carmelo Anthony (2003).  Michael Jordan was the third overall pick in 1984.

This is the first time the Sixers have held multiple lottery picks heading into a draft.  The Sixers also own four second round picks in the upcoming draft (32nd, 39th, 47th and 54th overall picks).

Last season, the Sixers had the 11th overall pick and selected Michael Carter-Williams who was recently named Rookie of the Year.  He became the first “double-digit” draft pick to win the award since Mark Jackson in 1988.

The 2014 NBA Draft will be held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Thursday, June 26 at 7 p.m

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Chip finally gets his Beau

NT Beau Allen
PHILADELPHIA - It took far longer than expected but Eagles coach Chip Kelly finally landed that 330-pound fish he set his eyes on five years ago.

Beau Allen first captured the attention of Kelly and his defensive line coach, Jerry Azzinaro, in suburban Minneapolis at Minnetonka High School, when the duo recruited the big man to play nose tackle for the University of Oregon. At the time Allen was rated as the top-ranked defensive tackle in the state
according to ESPN/Scouts Inc. and the fifth-best prospect in all of Minnesota, according to Rivals.

Allen, however, decided playing his college ball closer to home would be a better fit and chose to head east, hopping the border and ending up in Madison at the University of Wisconsin where his grandfather starred as a member of the UW swim team back in the 1950s.

Allen's decision proved to be a prudent one as he developed into a two-year starter with the Badgers while toiling in a school record 54 games.

A three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection, Allen recorded 94 tackles, including 15.0 for loss, and 8.0 sacks over his final two years, being honored as an All Big-Ten honorable mention on both occasions and catching the eye of NFL scouts.

In the end, Allen proved to be a draftable commodity, landing with the Philadelphia Eagles, who took him with the 224th overall pick in the seventh round.

"It's nerve-racking as it is, but once you get down into the seventh round, you get a whole bunch of calls from different teams about free agency and stuff," Allen said.  "You can never give up hope about being drafted. You never want to abandon that."

The City of Brotherly Love, of course, happens to be the current home of Kelly, who left Oregon for the challenge of the NFL, and Azzinaro.

And neither forgot the big kid from Minnetonka.

"(Azzinaro) introduced himself to me at (Wisconsin) pro day and reminded me that he recruited me," Allen said. "I don't really remember too much about that -- it was a long time ago. But we just talked a little bit at pro day. He's an easy guy to talk to."

Seventh-round picks generally aren't guaranteed anything in the NFL but Allen landed in a place which desperately needs help at the nose tackle position.

Veteran Isaac Sopoaga started the 2013 campaign as the Eagles' starter at the position but quickly flamed out before being traded in-season. He was replaced by former LSU standout Bennie Logan, who flashed at times in his rookie season but at just over 300 pounds is a bit undersized to anchor the middle of
Philadelphia's 3-4 scheme.

Allen arrived in Philly 20 to 30 pounds heavier than Logan with much-needed experience as a starting nose guard in the 3-4 after Wisconsin changed fronts during his senior season. Previously Allen played the zero-technique in a 4-3 alignment for three years.

"I think I'm a prototypical size for a nose tackle," Allen said. "I think I play the game hard, and I like to think I'm a smart football player. I can learn the scheme, and I think those are important aspects."

Allen agreed to a four-year deal with the Eagles last Thursday and was on the practice field by Friday as Philadelphia kicked off its three-day rookie camp.

"I felt good about it," Allen said of his first taste of the NFL. "You have to learn the little nuances from taking reps. At the beginning of practice, I was lining up too close to the ball, by the end of practice, I learned you have to back off the ball a little bit."

Allen will begin his sojourn with the Eagles like most rookies, behind both Logan and another second-year player, Damion Square, on the depth chart.

He does have one advantage over most first-year NFL players, though ... Allen knows he's wanted.

"During the draft I was keeping an eye on the Eagles' picks because I secretly wanted to come here. Crossing my fingers is kind of an anxious thing to do, but it all worked out."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Union hit new low, allow 5 goals in loss to Revs

Chester, Pa. – The Philadelphia Union fell to New England Revolution Saturday night at PPL Park, 5-3.

Vincent Nogueira, Sheanon Williams and Sebastien Le Toux all tallied for the Union, but it wasn’t enough to stop a five-goal effort from New England on the night.

“It is really frustrating to lose again at home and to give up that many goals, it’s upsetting,” Cruz offered after the match. “We said that Wednesday [in a win over Sporting Kansas City] means nothing if we come out and do what we did today. We are unhappy and everyone is frustrated, but three games in seven days is extremely tough, bodies are tired… and that’s not an excuse, it’s just the reality.”

Following a pair of goals from New England’s A.J. Soares and Diego Fagundez in the first half hour of play, midfielder Vincent Nogueira hit a rocket from roughly 25 yards out on a ball laid off at the top of New England’s (6-3-2, 20 points) 18-yard-box by midfielder Danny Cruz in the 36th minute. The goal for Nogueira was his second of the season and for Cruz it marked the second game in a row in which he made the scoring summary.

“Let’s face it…everything they shot was a goal and it was just simply one of those nights,” said Union defender Sheanon Williams.

After New England scored three unanswered goals to open the second half, the Union (2-6-5, 11 points) also responded with goals from Williams and Le Toux. Williams scored in the 76th minute and Le Toux scored on a penalty kick after forward Antoine Hoppenot was taken down inside the box.

The Union held an edge in possession (55-45 percent), number of passes (362-294) and passing accuracy (76-71 percent) and compiled its second straight multi-goal effort and its first three-goal outing since a 3-1 win over Chivas USA at PPL Park on July 12, 2013.

One distinct positive was the play of Zach Pfeffer, who entered the match in the 73rd minute. The match was Pfeffer’s first this year and the first for any Union homegrown product in MLS play since he appeared in the club’s Eastern Conference clash against New York on Oct. 27, 2012.

“Every appearance that you get, you have to make the most out of it,” Pfeffer said postgame. “This was a big opportunity, but it was kind of in disguise; we were not doing well in the game and were down by a lot of goals but it was chance for me to progress and try to help the team.”

Now, it’s a week of practice before a weeklong trip out West to play the pair of Los Angeles based MLS clubs. First up is a showdown with the Galaxy on May 25 (8 p.m., Comcast SportsNet, Univision Deportes Network) followed by a clash with Chivas USA (10:30 p.m., Comcast SportsNet) on May 31. The Union then returns to PPL Park to host Vancouver on June 7 (7 p.m.) in the final MLS match before the League breaks play for the upcoming FIFA World Cup in June.


 New England Revolution 5, Philadelphia Union 3

 Saturday, May 17; 7:00 p.m. ET

 PPL Park

 Chester, Pa.


 NE: Soares 13’ (Tierney)

 NE: Fagunduz 26’ (Bunbury, Nguyen)

 PHI: Nogueira 36’ (Cruz)

 NE: Nguyen 49’ (Kobayashi)

 NE: Tierney

 NE: Mullins 67’ (Fagundez)

 PHI: Williams 76’ (Berry, Le Toux)

 PHI: Le Toux 90+2’


 PHI: Berry 67’ (yellow)

 PHI: Okugo 78’ (yellow)

 PHI: Maidana 82’ (red)

 NE: Nguyen 88 (yellow)


MacMath, Williams, Wheeler (Hoppenot 52’), Berry, Gaddis, Okugo, Nogueira, Fernandes (Pfeffer 73’), Maidana, Wenger, Cruz (Le Toux 61’).


Knighton, Farrell, Barnes, Soares, Tierney, Kobayashi (Caldwell 59’), Nguyen, Dorman (Nuemann 75’), Fagundez (Rowe 69’), Bunbury, Mullins.

Soul weather the Storm with dominating second half

PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia Soul outscored the Tampa Bay Storm 21-0 in the third quarter and cruised to the American Conference victory, 62-34, in front of 8,058 fans at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night. 

The Soul were led by Ryan McDaniel’s four receiving touchdowns and a defense that forced four turnovers on four interceptions.

“We realized we need to have all three pieces to win – offense, defense and special teams,” said Soul head coach Clint Dolezel.  “In the second half, we really came together and dominated using all three pieces.”

McDaniel finished the night by completing nine receptions for 72 yards and four out of our nine touchdowns.  Tiger Jones added six catches for 83 yards and one touchdown. Robert Redd had five kickoff returns for 67 yards.  He also had three receptions for 31 yards.  Derrick Ross had 13 rushing yards and made AFL history with being the first player to have over 2,000 rushing yards in AFL history.

Brandon Perkins helped the team with one interception for 16 yards and two pass breakups.  Rayshaun Kizer had 3.0 total tackles and two interceptions with three pass breakups.

The Soul started off the game scoring their first series with a 10-yard pass to Jones.  Five minutes later Tampa Bay responded with a 3-yard rushing touchdown by B.J. Hall.  Yet, Juan Bongarra missed the extra point leaving the score at 7-6.  Lacey finished off the quarter with a one-handed touchdown catch.

McDaniel scored his first touchdown of the game with 12:58 left in the second quarter.  Tampa Bay scored back-to-back touchdowns with 11:10 and then 9:42 left, with Rod Isaac returning a 7-yard interception, Dan Raudabaugh’s first of the game McDaniel then had his second touchdown of the game with a 4-yard pass from Raudabaugh.  With 0:12 left before halftime BJ Hall threw an 11-yard pass to Joe Hills scoring a touchdown for the Storm, with the score being 28-27 at the end of the first half. Notably, Ross became the AFL’s first in history to rush 2,000 yards. 

The Soul dominated the 3rd quarter starting with Romain’s interception then making a lateral pass to Goosby, bringing the score to 35-27.  With 8:19 left in the quarter, Robinson created pressure forcing an interception by Perkins leading to a 16-yard touchdown.  A few minutes later, McDaniel receives a 4-yard pass from Raudabaugh, making it 49-27 at the end of the quarter.

The Storm scored the first touchdown of the fourth quarter with Hall 7-yard pass to Hills.  A minute later the Soul responded with a 6-yard kickoff return by Martinez connecting to Shaw making the score 56-34. With 4:40 left in the fourth, Raughdabaugh made a 3-yard pass to McDaniel making that his fourth touchdown for the night.  The Soul defeated the Storm with a final score of 62-34.

Next week, in Week 11 the Soul will be taking on the Cleveland Gladiators on Friday, May 23 on the road.

Russell Athletic Offensive Player: Philadelphia’s Ryan McDaniel

Riddell Defensive Player: Philadelphia’s Brandon Perkins

J Lewis Small AFL Playmaker:  Philadelphia’s Rayshaun Kizer

Cutter’s Catch of the Game: Philadelphia’s V’Keon Lacey’s one-handed TD catch in first quarter

Spalding Highlight of the Game: Philadelphia’s James Romain’s INT and lateral to Joe Goosby for a TD in the third quarter

From active duty to the NFL, Eagles' Villanueva chases his dream

PHILADELPHIA - At the end of the day most NFL fans arerooting for their favorite laundry.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld captured that sentiment beautifully in one of his on-
stage bits: "Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because
the players are always changing; the team could move to another city,"
Seinfeld began before deadpanning, "you're actually rooting for the clothes
when you get right down to it."

The whole concept was never more evident to me than in 2009 when Minnesota
Vikings fans embraced Bret Favre in record time even though perhaps no one
tormented them more over the years.

To the Vikings' faithful, Favre turned in his black hat after a quick pit stop
in New York (the Green and Gold) for the white one (Purple) and all was right
in the world. It was almost like a great babyface turn in professional
wrestling, sort of like when Hulk Hogan returned to the Red and Yellow after
spending years spraying on the fake beard and playing the role of "Hollywood"
Hogan for the dastardly NWO.

There are some athletes you can never justify rooting against, however, no
matter what color scheme they're wearing.

Interestingly it was the uniform that Alejandro Villanueva used to wear that
will make it virtually impossible for fans of the New York Giants, Dallas
Cowboys and Washington Redskins to dislike him even though he now calls
Philadelphia home.

Villanueva spent his last four years in the Army, a timeframe which included
three different stints in Afghanistan totaling 20 months, before resigning his
commission earlier in May to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL and
signing with the Eagles.

"Football is my passion," Villanueva said on Friday as Philadelphia kicked off
its three-day rookie minicamp. "Even when I was in Afghanistan, I was always
turning on (Armed Forces Network) and watching the games. It's a beautiful
game. Obviously, I love competing and I'm taking this as a professional job,
not just as entertainment. Afghanistan is over now, and I've just got to look
past it."

Villanueva signed with the Birds on May 5, turning in his camouflage for the
Midnight Green and agreeing to serve the final year of his active-duty
military obligation in the reserves.

The Eagles, perhaps enamored by Villanueva's impressive length, project the 6-
foot-9, 277-pound West Point grad at defensive end despite the fact he led the
Army in receiving as a senior in 2009 with 34 catches, 522 yards and five

"I left West Point very unsure about my abilities, because I played three
different positions (defensive end, wide receiver and offensive tackle) and
was never able to build upon what I learned at each position," Villanueva said

If a college was recruiting Villanueva now, it would probably label the raw
talent as an "athlete" while trying to find a position for him.

"I played here in Philadelphia (in the Army-Navy Game) as a tackle and as a
wide receiver. I never knew what my potential could be," Villanueva said. "The
last time I hung up my cleats for Army, I said, 'Man, if I just had one more
season at wide receiver, I could've gotten a thousand yards.' Or if I could've
had another season at tackle, I would've gotten a lot better."

Eagles coach Chip Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman echoed that untapped
potential argument when they scouted Villanueva at an NFL Super Regional
scouting combine in Detroit, inviting him to town for a private workout.

"When we brought him in to work him out, we started to look at him as an
offensive lineman," Kelly said. "We thought he was a big, tall (offensive)
tackle type. But then when you kind of saw him running around, we thought
maybe the best position for him would be defensive end in our system."

Villanueva did start his college career on the defensive side of the ball and
ran a 5.08 40-yard dash while showing off a solid 33-inch vertical leap in the
Motor City, flashing the baseline physical skills a five-technique end needs
to play in the 3-4 alignment Philadelphia defensive coordinator Billy Davis

And then there's that length, the 6-9 frame which serves as a siren's song to
NFL teams envisioning a JJ Watt-like bat-down machine.

"He's just very athletic. He's got a great vertical jump," Kelly said. "He can
actually move and bend and a lot of different things."

Meanwhile, while far too many other NFL prospects were concerned about chasing
girls or far worse peccadilloes over the prior four years, Villanueva was busy
earning the Bronze Star for Valor after rescuing wounded soldiers from an
isolated outpost during an ambush by the Taliban.

"When you talk about the character component with him, I can't tell you how
impressed you are with him as a person," Kelly continued. "He's a guy that if
you're going to take a shot on somebody, then you'd like to have him on your

Villanueva remains a significant NFL long shot. He hasn't played organized
football since he lined up at tight end in the 2010 East-West Shrine Game and
he will be trying to learn a new position, competing against top-tier athletes
who haven't had a four-year layoff from the game.

"I have very high expectations," Villanueva countered. "I've got a big frame
and the coaches have a lot of expectations as far as what I can do in the

Don't bet against him.

As difficult as making an NFL football team can be, it's a walk in the park
compared to the three tours of Afghanistan Villanueva endured.

"I think that with football and the military, you just take one day at a
time," Villanueva said. "There are a lot of days in Afghanistan where you have
really rough days where not everybody makes it back from a mission or somebody
gets hurt. In the military you owe it your guys and in football you owe it to

And we all owe plenty to Villanueva no matter what uniform he ends up wearing.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Turnabout is fair play as Gustafsson departs for Mother Russia

In the end, all Erik Gustafsson did was exactly what the Philadelphia Flyers had done to him: left them out of the decision-making process for the next phase of his career.

Gustafsson himself confirmed to Flyers GM Ron Hextall on Friday afternoon that the 25-year-old defenseman has signed a contract with Avangard Omsk for the 2014-15 season. Thus, the Gus Bus pulled out of one station and will land in another literally half the world away, 5,617 miles distant.

"I spoke with Erik today and he informed me that he does in fact, have a deal in place to play overseas. Although we are disappointed in his decision, we wish him all the best," said Hextall. 

That doesn't exactly sound like a front-office mover too upset to see the young man go, so maybe Gustafsson won't shed a tear on his way out.

A restricted free agent in July who made $1,000,000 this season to sit out 51 regular-season games, Gustafsson had been rumored to be heading to the Kontinental Hockey League according to reports out of Russia earlier in the day.

Per a team insider, the Flyers are still expected to make a qualifying offer by June 30 anyway, in order to retain his rights until his European contract expires. Once the offer is made, the club has him in the fold until 2016, at which time he'll be an unrestricted free agent.

By quick calculations, the Swedish puck-mover, never more than a spare defenseman under both Peter Laviolette and Craig Berube, made approximately $32.258.06 per appearance this past season, and a whopping $100,000 per point (10). The final count of his Philadelphia tenure: 91 contests, six goals, 17 assists and a plus-14 rating. 

Having apparently replaced the late and not-so-lamented Michael Leighton as the organizational yo-yo, Gustafsson appeared sparingly over parts of four seasons with the franchise, and also took part in nine postseason contests -- the majority of which came two seasons ago against the Pittsburgh Penguins where his effortless stride and ability to see passing lanes made the Flyers' offense click against an opponent which wanted to play an up-tempo style.

He continued to demonstrate those qualities for the remainder of his time here, particularly in the final games of the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, but it apparently made no difference, if you believe the following "off-the-record" report from several scouts who talked to HockeyBuzz' Flyers reporter:

"Wrote one scout via email, ' I think Gus is a number 7 dman on most NHL teams. I like his try and he has some offense, but a lack of size and average skills will limit his upside. As long as his salary remains on the low side, he is an asset. He is replaceable if he wants too much money for me.'

The second scout also felt that Gustafsson was no more than a 'serviceable seventh defenseman' in the NHL. The other thought he could still improve enough to hold down a number six spot but "he is not there yet.'"

The National Hockey League is no longer the premier location in which to show off one's skills. Failing to crack a lineup in North America, a player now has multiple options at his disposal across the Atlantic, which offer more playing time and a shorter schedule for pay commensurate with what was given in the NHL.

That goes double for European-bred players, where the effort to come over to the AHL and NHL can be taxing from the standpoint of both hockey and social culture, and who have the luxury of returning to their country of origin to complete their playing days. Why should Gustafsson, or anyone else submarined by scouting reports, be cowed by it when opportunity knocks somewhere else? Scouts, for all the intensive traveling and analysis they undertake, can be wrong.

Thomas Eriksson, a native Swede who played here for parts of six seasons, returned to his country early in the 1981-82 season, as Jay Greenberg related in Full Spectrum, suspecting "European bias" from then head coach Pat Quinn. He eventually was persuaded to return in 1983 when Bob McCammon was at the helm, but his career was ended due to knee issues in 1986. Mike Keenan infamously said of Eriksson, who did much to help the Lindbergh family through the tragedy of Pelle's death in the Fall of 1985: "Thomas was a good person. I'm just not sure he wanted to be a good hockey player."

Due to increasing globalization of the sport, I can't imagine any such words will flash across the gray matter or pass the lips of anyone in the Flyers' front office even if they held Gustafsson in such low regard as a player. Still, it's hard not to think some kind of bias creeped into their handling of the young man.

Best case scenario, Gustafsson uses his time in Eurasia to his benefit, with each shift intending to show the Flyers brass how wrong they were, and he decides to come back as the club holds his rights, determined to demonstrate ability of a top-four blueliner. Middle case, he does the same but spurns the Flyers for another team willing to take a "chance" on bringing him back. Worst case, the NHL never sees Gustafsson again, and we endure another merry-go-round of accusations that the organizational philosophy failed once again with a prospect on the verge.

Gustafsson's longest continuous streak in the lineup this past season was nine games, from November 9-27. Some might say that coincides with Claude Giroux's awakening and the rest of the club followed. But he then sat for 16 in a row from late December through late January, and rode the pine for 14 straight after the Olympic break before a perfunctory three-game audition at the end of the year. What exactly was Holmgren, Hextall and Berube looking for? More points? More physicality? More...height and weight? You can't teach height and you can't teach those skills in which he's invested a partial NHL career.

It's intriguing to note that, while Hextall made a big show about using stats and analytics at his introductory press conference last week, his first major non-act as a GM was to kiss Gustafsson goodbye.

For all intents and purposes, the "Free Gus" movement stemmed from the fact that advanced stats demonstrated his value to overall game flow, offensive-zone push and puck possession. This would have been a fine test-case for Hextall's new philosophy going forward. Instead, it appears on first glance that the traditional whisper-down-the-lane of scouting persuaded the higher-ups that Gustafsson wasn't going to make an impact at present.

Farewell, young man. We hardly knew you, though those who exist in a higher pay grade apparently knew you enough to hedge their bets. Dos vidanya, and knock 'em dead over there.

Monday, May 12, 2014

MO Radio Show on Sports Live w/NFL Insider John McMullen 05/12 by Mo Radio Show | Sports Podcasts

MO Radio Show on Sports Live w/NFL Insider John McMullen 05/12 by Mo Radio Show | Sports Podcasts

Craig Berube and the coaching conundrum

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Despite having his first season behind an NHL bench resemble more of a frozen taffy pull than a straightforward dessert course, Craig Berube is apparently comfortable at the highest level, serving the Philadelphia Flyers as their latest head coach. 

"Yeah, I enjoyed it.  I like coaching.  There’s ups and downs, went through tough times and good times," the succinct Berube said nine days ago. "I like coming to the rink and working with the players.  I like coaching the games and being on the bench.  It was very enjoyable.  I’m very fortunate to have a job like that, especially here in Philadelphia."

That's good, because until Berube proves that he can't hack it and raise the Flyers to the level of Stanley Cup contenders, he's here to stay. Another example of a good soldier who did everything he was told and was eventually rewarded with the highest honor a member of the rank-and-file could achieve. He's the fifth former homegrown player (Paul Holmgren, Terry Murray, Bill Barber, John Stevens) to hold the position.

Despite the roller-coaster ride that marked the 2013-14 season, one in which he finished with a 42-27-10 record, it was a smoother track than his first entry into the NHL.

Named bench boss of the Philadelphia Phantoms prior to the start of the 2006-07 season, Berube was called up to the big club less than two weeks into the season after the shakeup of Black Sunday, October 22, 2006. He stayed for the remainder of the year, then went back across the street to resume head-coaching duties in the AHL, ending up 46-27-7 and beating Albany before losing to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the second round. That was good enough to earn him a shot at an assistantship with the Flyers after Murray departed to take the top gig with the Los Angeles Kings.

Fast forward to October 8, 2013, and the 49-year-old native of Calahoo, Alberta finally got first crack behind an NHL bench and he didn't need to move far once Peter Laviolette was shown the door. It came 9,697 days after the Flyers gave him his playing debut, in a 3-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins late in the 1986-87 season.

So in light of being shoved into the spotlight, to what can Berube attribute his success in this crucible?

"I’m honest with our guys.  I really am.  I believe in them and I let them know that, and I know how good they can be and I let them know that.  I demand a lot.  To me, I thought they worked extremely hard for me and the coaches. They competed hard.  I thought they were motivated as a team and a group."

Here's some honesty back atcha. Hard work, a franchise trademark, is one thing. It's long past time for those in charge of steering the club to begin working smart. Berube, who carved out a career on work, muscle and will for 17 seasons, can't rest on his laurels. True Stanley Cup-caliber coaches are a rare and special breed, but for Berube as the in-house choice to take this team to the proverbial next level, it requires a helping of his work ethic, but adding in brains and adaptability that has to come from somewhere to make it all click.

I recall the first house-lighting scene in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," when the 250,000 bulbs fail to perform on cue as promised to illuminate the Griswold abode. Audrey, the frazzled and embarrassed teenage daughter, says to her mother's father in defense of main character and clan leader Clark Griswold: "He worked really hard on this, grandpa."

Grandpa's response: "So do washing machines."

The NHL's head-coach discard pile is heaped with hard-working players turned coaches who rode to a certain level of success on one philosophy then fell quickly by the wayside: Terry Crisp, Mike Sullivan, Craig MacTavish, any of the Sutter brothers (excepting Darryl in LA). Stevens is a recent example in Philly. His dump-and-chase style turned "dump-and-hunt" had the opposition jumping passing lanes, his skilled players stuck in mud and all on-ice personnel going through the motions.

But if Berube thinks that a radical change from the norm, encapsulated by the following response, is the key to securing the future of the franchise, he'll have to rearrange his priorities.

"There’s always things that come up with players.  I think the biggest part of coaching is trying to get all your players on the same page and making them all happy.  There’s ice times, there’s guys not playing, it’s a lot of different things that go on in there.  That’s part of it, and a lot of times it’s a hard job that way."

To be the bench boss in the 21st Century NHL is to be a micro manager on some levels, but I'm not sure how much ego placation imbues the role rather than manipulation to get all players on the same page.. How many times is it referenced in a broadcast about the Canadiens of the 1970s hating Scotty Bowman 364 days of the year, but collecting Stanley Cup rings on the 365th? Though the organization may not want to admit it, Mike Keenan shook up a lot of coaching conventions in the mid-80s with his unique mix of intelligence, psychology and methodology which turned a bunch of kids and success-starved veterans into a Cup threat.

Berube doesn't need to be a mind-game playing hard ass, but since Keenan, the franchise hasn't had a head coach come close to the level of smarts and innovation, drive to execute a game plan, the pure will to win and confidence it reflected. Perhaps Iron Mike, who is fresh from leading Metallurg Magnitogorsk to a KHL championship, should be on speed dial to lend some insight.

All "Chief" represents at the moment, is a successful change of personality from one regime to the next. How the rest of his tenure plays out, is up to his own internal drive to improve and adapt to the roster provided. History suggests that his time will be short if accommodations are not made. 

In 2000, Barber went through the same channels i.e. apprenticeship with the Phantoms before getting the nod to replace the taciturn Craig Ramsay and though he injected old-time "Flyers hockey" into his lifeless team and won a Jack Adams Award, he was undone by his inability to formulate a game plan relevant to the era and a mutiny among key veterans. Enter Ken Hitchcock in '02, from outside the "family" and he brought rigid systems and a Cup-winning pedigree but was ultimately rendered powerless in the shift from a veteran-laden roster to a younger mix. Then, it was back to the well to select Stevens who was eight games into his first NHL assistantship in '06, and he was cast aside when his failure to adapt turned a talented roster into skating zombies much like Ramsay's laconic bent years earlier. In comes Laviolette just over three years later, a firebrand with a recent Cup win in his pocket, shaking things up, with a high-tempo system that relied on players who demonstrate speed, quick thinking and conditioning, ruthlessly cut short when that roster proved too slow for his methods.

One smart thing Berube has avoided so far, is suggesting his next club, which lost to the Rangers in a seven-game series, should mirror the team which vanquished them. He appears to be skirting the tender trap in favor of bigger prey.

"I don’t know.  I don’t look at it like I want our team to be like that team.  I like our team to have our own identity," Berube said when asked what kind of team he could assemble might have beaten New York. "You want to be the Boston Bruins because pretty consistently they’re there every year… we’re not the Boston Bruins.  There’s different players.  We have our own identity and we’re going to build on that and get better."

Building that better roster may have a better shot at becoming better if new GM Ron Hextall is allowed to take what he absorbed over six years in Los Angeles and apply it here. After that, it's up to Berube to make the pieces fit.  He thinks he has the start of something good, and in forward-thinking fashion, isn't just looking for hard work, but smart work, in all areas of the ice.

"This year I thought we became a faster team, a more puck-oriented team that got on the forecheck, but we kept the puck a lot more and made a lot more plays coming out of our end.  I think that we want to keep the puck.  We want to be a puck-oriented team, but at the same time we need to get better without the puck.  I think we can check better than we have.  I want to get our team to where we don’t have the puck, we’re going to put puck pressure on and get it back.  We can be better defensively."

The how becomes more important than the who, or the why.  Berube's master stroke in taking over for Laviolette was tailoring his system to the players provided, but that's no different than what occurred in the coaching changes outlined above -- and the effects were only temporary. There are potential seismic alterations ahead in the offseason period between the draft and free agency which can render his best laid plans moot. One only has to look at Vinny Lecavalier's signing to see how things can go awry in short order with a coaching change.

Under Barber in 2001-02, the Flyers finished three points back of the previous year's pace and also failed to win a playoff series. Hitchcock was six points back of his initial pace in '04, but took the club from the second round to the Eastern Finals. Stevens saw a 39-point uptick in his second season and the Orange and Black went to the third round in '08. Laviolette engineered an 18-point jump from '10 to '11, but his playoff sojourn stopped after 11 controversial games.

It remains to be seen what Berube has in mind for steadying the ship for his first full season as head coach, and there's some question where the organization will turn if it's clear he's not the guy. Terry Murray is with the Phantoms for the moment, but neither of Berube's two assistants are close to NHL ready if things take a drastic turn. That would suggest another turn to the outside for assistance.

Time's yours, Chief, and so is the faith of your bosses. Use it well.