Monday, October 13, 2014

Around the Rink: Widespread Panic Edition

It's simple, really.

What you see is what you get, and as long as the players the organization deems the leadership and worthy of being locked up long term without being traded remain in their current positions, we'll all just have to sit here and deal with slow starts.

On Saturday night, Wayne Simmonds and Ray Emery put together the most complete efforts on the entire club, and despite the former's second multi-goal effort and 35 saves from the latter, it didn't mean a thing as a total defensive collapse turned a 3-0 lead into a 4-3 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens. By the skin of their teeth and the ridiculous loser point, the Orange and Black avoided a third straight 0-3-0 start. Let's face it, 0-2-1 doesn't look a whole lot better.

The commonest of all common denominators as the Philadelphia Flyers have started off three consecutive seasons without a victory in their first three games, has been Claude Giroux and his ascension to the captaincy. That is a fact, and as of today, stands alone. I don't really know what to make of it, but it is glaring enough to know he is the only captain in team history to have worn the sacred letter and become stained by such impotence year after year.

Peter Laviolette was sacrificed three games into last season because of the perception of a lingering malaise from the previous, lockout-shortened campaign. The dirt will not be done to Craig Berube so soon. If the Flyers are performing near the bottom of the standings around the holidays, I believe Hextall and Paul Holmgren will have to confront the efficacy of Berube as a long-term solution behind the bench.

In the short term, there are no legitimate replacements on the current staff either in Philadelphia or Lehigh Valley. Even if Terry Murray is somehow enticed to the NHL once more, it would spell disaster to make the move and leave the kids in the lurch without the benefit of a hockey mind possessing 30 years of hard-core experience.

Nonetheless, the dynamic is set. Giroux, bearer of the "C" who is expected to lead with point production and Simmonds, new to the alternate captaincy who has to lead by example in hard work every night. The major difference there is, when Giroux is not scoring he's been largely invisible on ice, while Simmonds is adding scoring touch even when he's not called upon to engage the enemy in the corners or in hand-to-hand combat.

The balance is imperfect, and in order for the club to remain competitive, both men's prime attributes have to be at peak value simultaneously while the rest of the roster executes their roles with a solid level of competence regardless of injuries. That kind of top-down trickle of power is what Bob Clarke was forced to solve when opposing defenses keyed on the Legion of Doom as the primary mover in the mid-90s. It was only when he was able to construct a roster that rolled out four lines that could bedevil the other side did the Flyers embark on a pair of deep and memorable playoff runs.

There's no minor technical reasons to point to when assessing reasons why the Flyers skated up and down with the Bruins in the season opener, then failed to do so against New Jersey and then turned on the jets for most of the Canadiens tilt before collapsing. Pull back to see it is the mix of players and how they translate what goes on in between their ears to what happens with their skates and sticks which is responsible. Until that changes, buckle in for a ride with periods of turbulence.

There is no mythical " complete 60-minute game" which is always spoken of, just a collective ability in maximizing chances and minimizing damage line by line, shift by shift, period by period.

Why hasn't "x-y-z line combination that I just thought of" not come to fruition? Because dealing with a roster whose limitations are evident can't be solved by playing Tetris with the lines. There's no secret power to be unlocked by shuffling players in and out of lines and roles, because it will confuse those players, who need a level of comfort to perform, in the long run.

Sometimes, we have to accept that hockey logic and actual logic find very few crossroads.

Yes, the Flyers' October schedule is chock full of playoff teams. It is also tilted significantly to their advantage, with nine of the first 15 games contested on the comfort of home ice. Even if they aren't tearing through the opposition, it will give Berube and his staff plenty of time to work out the kinks of a new roster before a stretch between November 15 and December 9 -- where nine of 12 are on the road which includes a brief West Coast kick -- requires a higher and more consistent level of execution in all zones.

Fortunes change very quickly in the NHL of the 21st Century. You don't have to look much further at the horrendous start to last year and the finish which accelerated into a playoff berth, or the universal condemnation of the banana-throwing idiot in London, Ontario who tried to impede a Simmonds shootout try which turned to universal condemnation of Simmonds when he uttered a homophobic barb at a hated opponent in Sean Avery to believe it.

The next time you're inclined to comment on how you don't like the way a defenseman takes his stride, remember the wise words of George Harrison: it's gonna take time, a whole lot of precious time. It's gonna take patience and time to do it right, child. There's 79 games left.

Motion for the Defense

So, it turns out Braydon Coburn's foot injury is only a matter of days, not weeks, until his return.

Pointed out by Bill Meltzer that Coburn was the unlucky recipient of a Torey Krug shot in the skate during Wednesday's season-opening 2-1 loss in Boston, Coburn was conspicuously using crutches during Thursday's home opening ceremonies. And oh, the hue and cry from a fan base whose every momentary reaction to the mess the defense has become ends up needing to be soothed by social media's version of mommy, daddy and teacher.

Weathering this Coburn mess, or any other long-term injury issue which might crop up for the rest of the season, is going to test Ron Hextall's resolve and his public admissions over the development of the blue line going forward.

In the course of a discussion with one of my levelheaded followers, the crux of the issue of which Phantoms defenseman to get the call up to Philadelphia came down to Hextall tipping his hat not through anything he would say, but in the actual player recalled.

People want Shayne Gostisbehere. That's very evident. His call-up at this juncture or at a point in the neat future is an admission that the Union College product possesses the raw skills -- a heavy shot and steady skating -- to aid a defense which has shown itself to be plodding at best. But it's also an alarmist move because Ghost would have gotten all of one week to several weeks of minor-league play along with a few NHL exhibition games before he's thrown back to the lions.

It would make a liar of Hextall, 100 percent, and that ain't happening so close to the start of his tenure.

Phantoms broadcaster Bob Rotruck opined that the first three to the front of the line would most likely be Oliver Lauridsen, Brandon Manning or Mark Alt. Flyers fans being sui generis, right away the analysis of the trio covered all the weak points in each players' game as unsuitable to help the big club. Lauridsen and Manning would be appropriate because of previous NHL experience, while Alt -- in the middle of the pack as far as expectations are concerned -- might get a boost of confidence back down in the AHL with a little taste of the NHL life.

Of course, any of those three might work out. They might not. But since recalling either would amount to little more than a patch job, Hextall would likely bear the brunt of criticism for not providing the "right" guy to take the place of Coburn/whoever's injured in the short term but be praised in the long term for not jumping the gun and rushing to raid Allentown to make Philadelphia marginally better.

It's a delicate dance, and you should let Hexy memorize the cadence and the steps before rushing to judgment.

Evolution of a Fourth Line

When the Panthers outplayed, outhustled and outscored the Flyers in the second round of the 1996 playoffs, it caused a sudden shift in head coach Terry Murray's game planning. Two years running, deeper teams (New Jersey, Florida) caused premature ends to the club's title hopes, and it was clear Murray could no longer go with his best lines and double shift the Legion of Doom and expect his top players to be rested enough to last through the grind of restrictive, clutch-and-grab hockey.

His first answer to the dilemma was in typical franchise fashion: a fourth line comprised completely of guys who made whatever they could out of their time in the NHL either punching or checking the daylights out of the opposition: Dan Kordic, Daniel Lacroix and Scott Daniels. The trio combined for 13 goals, 21 points and 610 of the Eastern Conference champions' 1,699 penalty minutes and were curiously given more playing time in more games than the likes of John Druce.

In a short period of time, the Flyers and the rest of the league followed the (d)evolution of the strategic mindset of the game and were rolling out four lines of equal stature.

Three years after losing the Cup Finals to Detroit, and under the combined tutelage of Roger Neilson and assistant-turned-caretaker Craig Ramsay, the Orange and Black lasted through Game 7 of the third round of the playoffs and the long-term effects of Eric Lindros' post-concussion syndrome with machine-like precision. Using players like Craig Berube, Peter White, Mikael Andersson, Jody Hull and Kent Manderville, Philly was able to match up with and grind down Buffalo and Pittsburgh and match the Devils line-for-line until the final minutes of a terminal contest.

That eventually gave way to the second solid fourth-line combo which lasted only one season: Hull-Manderville and free agent Paul Ranheim, whose 22 goals and 47 points in 2001 alleviated the stress placed on the lineup with Lindros holding out and John LeClair lost for 66 games along with injuries to Simon Gagne and Keith Primeau.

The grouping with the least amount of playing time which featured expert penalty-killers, faceoff men and physical presence in all three zones was the archetype for the next decade. Players such as Branko Radivojevic, Claude Lapointe, Radovan Somik and Turner Stevenson found their way onto the fourth line, but it wasn't until John Stevens' bright idea to link Jim Dowd-Sami Kapanen-Patrick Thoresen together in 2007 where its impact was next felt. After contributing many key shifts through three rounds in the '08 playoffs, Dowd was not re-signed, Kapanen retired and Thoresen took his talents to Europe after he was low-balled by the front office on a new contract.

Arron Asham, Blair Betts, Darroll Powe and Ian Laperriere were key components in Peter Laviolette's resurrection of the Flyers from the moment he took over in December of 2009 -- with Asham and Betts scoring some goals during the last two rounds of the 2010 postseason most second-liners could draw inspiration from.

The transitory nature of the bottom-most of the bottom-six forwards took a turn this season under new GM Ron Hextall. Adam Hall, a veteran face-off man, was not brought back. On its face, pairing the top scorer from your chief minor-league affiliate, a French-born, Swedish-trained winger with zero NHL experience and a guy harangued repeatedly for his lack of discipline as he's lauded for some abstract nouns might seem like a huge chance is being taken.

And it is, but not without method to the madness.

Why would Jason Akeson -- a player whose skill set (puck-handling, speed, maneuverability) -- might suggest a better role on any other AHL or NHL club, be wasted in less than 10 minutes a game? Who is Pierre-Edouard Bellemare? Why is Zac Rinaldo still here? 

The answer seems that Hextall is attempting to drag the fourth line out of the stone age and into the realm of the useful, just as his fourth line in Los Angeles contributed in a significant way to two Cup winners in a three-year span. With this shift, fourth-liners won't be seen as mere minute-eaters whose primary responsibility will be to muck it up in the corners and in the faceoff dot. They will be a significant threat to move and possess the puck in all three zones.

Dwight King, Trevor Lewis and Jordan Nolan combined for 27 goals and 51 points with a combined 78 PIM in the regular season and backed it up with seven goals and 16 points in their Stanley Cup quest last year.

In molding the Flyers' fourth line with guys who are much more than just muckers, Hextall is placing faith in Akeson, Rinaldo and Bellemare to use their unique attributes and integrate them as a cohesive whole -- Akeson to move and keep the puck, Rinaldo to cause havoc and win battles with his propensity for contact and Bellemare to use his size to create space and push through tight checking. It's up to Berube to know how and when to unleash the line and up to the players to execute their roles properly.

Phantoms Mark III kick off season right

On Saturday night in Northeast Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms made their debut as the third iteration of the Flyers' primary minor-league affiliate, coming away with a 5-2 victory over the Wilkes-Barre Penguins. Chris VandeVelde made it into the history books by recording the first goal in the current location's history with 1:10 remaining in the opening period. Rob Zepp stopped 21 shots to record the first victory.

That makes two successful bows in three tries for the Phantoms in their 19-year history spanning three locations.

Under Bill Barber, the Philadelphia Phantoms won the club's first-ever game in the AHL's headquarters in Springfield, MA on October 4, 1996 by a 6-3 count. Just five years ago, in the first scheduled contest for the Adirondack Phantoms, Greg Gilbert presided over a 3-2 loss to the Worcester Sharks at the Glens Falls Civic Center.

Only five days from now, the Phantoms, with Terry Murray at the helm, will make their home debut in the first of a home-and-home series with the club that calls its previous arena home, the Adirondack Flames.

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