Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Around the Rink: Record-Setters and Remembrance Edition

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

We've hit the quarter pole for the 2014-15 season, and with a 1-0 shootout loss to the New York Islanders, the Flyers have failed to reach the .500 mark, carrying an 8-9-3 record despite Steve Mason recording his first shutout of the season.

That means Craig Berube's record in the first 20 games of both his seasons behind the bench for the club can be classified as, on the surface, modest at best.

He actually had it better last season as his tenure began to unfold just as Claude Giroux awoke from his scoring slumber, and despite canning Peter Laviolette, Berube's record after his first 20 games was 10-8-2. 

Beginning last Saturday in Montreal, the Flyers face 17 of the next 24 games, until January 6, on the road. Included in that punishing run are streaks where seven-of-eight are away from home which began last night on Long Island and will end with the final contest of five straight across the continent in Columbus on December 9, and then a season-high eight straight in parts beyond Philadelphia from Dec. 20 at Toronto through Jan. 3 in New Jersey.

If you haven't been a fan of Berube's line shuffling game-to-game and within any particular game, you might not be pleased at what he has to offer during this crucial stretch. Even when Michael Raffl comes back from his ankle injury, and barring any deals from Ron Hextall, we're looking at the same mess from the bottom three lines which has existed from the outset.

A hard-working man whose hockey intelligence has been debated in certain quarters including right here, it's possible Berube won't be able to squeeze more blood from a stone no matter who was healthy. That brutal late-season stretch where the Flyers had to encounter the Penguins twice, Blackhawks, Blues, Stars, Kings and Rangers in a 10-day span, the players were proving to themselves that they were capable of pushing through and becoming a playoff team.

Only eight months ago, it was a referendum on the ceiling of the current team that they went 5-2-0 including five straight wins to begin that crucible; now, this near-identical crop of talent may essentially be playing for their own jobs and that of their head coach.

Alchemy has long been debunked as junk science and akin to magic, but if any fans believe in Berube's viability as an NHL head coach, he's going to have to try and turn some lead into gold as the Devils, Rangers, Capitals and Islanders have all surpassed the Flyers so far with talent that may not be equal top to bottom. Whatever he's learned about the way this team functions through nine of the first 15 at home and now two shutouts in the span of less than a week, must be put into action.

For those who have been around long enough, you can think of four, five, six other head coaches -- Flyers bosses past and other coaches present -- who might be able to use their brains and experience to make something better of what's here.

On the other hand, he can't make Luke Schenn or Nicklas Grossmann skate faster, can't make Andrew MacDonald not make questionable decisions with and without the puck. And apparently, he can't shake Matt Read and Sean Couturier out of their offensive funks. Nor can he make Vinny Lecavalier any kind of shape that can fit into its proper slot or R.J. Umberger not be a drag on any line which he skates or Brayden Schenn make the consistent decisions that have netted him prime scoring chances in roughly half the games this season. While an argument can be made as to why Jason Akeson is in the press box, it's not Berube's fault an AHL scorer has been miscast as a fourth-liner in the NHL or may not be NHL material at all.

Who knows? The league is living life out of balance in the 21st Century, where home is considered a detriment to morale with the pressure to perform. Bonds are forged on the road where there's little time to practice and a player or coach has to call upon all he's learned to make the best of constant motion in unfamiliar spaces. 

Hextall perhaps didn't foresee having to make some big decisions midway through his first season in Paul Holmgren's chair. While preaching patience with development of talent in the pipeline is good for the long-term vision, there needs to be urgency in the present to remedy a club which is an eyelash away from dropping out of serious playoff contention before the season's half over.

Trail Blazing Jake 

Jakub Voracek's ascension to the top of both the Flyers' scoring list and the NHL's list of crack shots has been nothing short of amazing for a club in desperate need of secondary scoring, but it's not unprecedented.

Nonetheless, with points in 17 of Philadelphia's first 20 games of a season, the 25-year-old Czech winger has gained the eye of the tiger thus far and joined some elite company in franchise annals.

Thanks to Flyers History, I managed to uncover at least 13 players who have recorded at least one point in 15 of the club's first 20 games during a season. Unfortunately, all of 1983-84 has been left off the ledger (Thanks, Flyers History). It's a partially incomplete list, but taking into account only those skaters who were healthy and performing well enough to participate in each of the team's first 20 games of a given season, the following, in alphabetical order, have attained that rarified air:

Bill Barber (15-of-20, 1979-80; 16-of-20, 1980-81)
Rod Brind'Amour (15-of-20, 1998-99)
Bobby Clarke (16-of-20, 1975-76; 17-of-20, 1979-80)
Peter Forsberg (17-of-20, 2005-06)
Simon Gagne (16-of-20, 2005-06)
Tim Kerr (18-of-20, 1985-86)
Eric Lindros (17-of-20, 1992-93) 
Ken Linseman (15-of-20, 1979-80)
Dave Poulin (15-of-20, 1985-86)
Brian Propp (17-of-20, 1979-80; 15-of-20, 1984-85; 17-of-20, 1985-86; 15-of-20, 1986-87)
Mark Recchi (19-of-20, 1992-93)
Mike Richards (16-of-20, 2007-08; 15-of-20, 2008-09)

Yes, it was no surprise that the majority of those compilations occurred during the NHL's rise in scoring, and yes, it was a surprise that Propp came away with the most instances of a single player given that Clarke hit the 100-point plateau in each of his three seasons where he was awarded the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Voracek has been one of just three players nobody has had to wring hands over this year, Giroux and Mason the others. There's an inevitable drop-off coming, something which even Wayne Gretzky could not avoid during the years he rewrote the record books, but if the last 60 games are anything like the first, Philadelphia will have its second straight Hart Trophy candidate. As always, ask that question in January or February when the stats match the effort and might overcome attrition. 

Saint Patrick at the Pearly Gates

Most of the hockey world was shocked to wake up Monday morning and find out that Pat Quinn, a former NHL defenseman and head coach for five clubs passed away at the age of 71.

The Hamilton, ON native's coaching career began in earnest in the Philadelphia organization, at the outset of the 1978-79 season for the club's AHL affiliate in Maine. He lasted all of 47 games there -- but not due to failure. He guided the Mariners to a 27-13-7 record, but in early February, with Bob McCammon floundering as a rookie NHL head coach and the Flyers treading water at 22-17-11, Quinn was elevated from Portland to the big club.

He finished the year 18-8-4 -- despite his big crisis in having to figure out who would tend goal after the career-ending eye injury suffered by Bernie Parent less than three weeks into his new job -- and helped a club at the end of the Broad Street Bullies era pull out a playoff series win over Vancouver before the Rangers ran roughshod in the quarterfinals.

Everybody knows what happened the next season: a Patrick Division title, best record in the NHL at 48-12-20 and a still-standing professional-sports record of 35 straight games without a loss. That the Flyers lost to the Islanders in the Stanley Cup Final is a testament to how much healthier and better rested their opponents were in the end: Philly finished the regular season just 3-5-5 and Bobby Clarke admitted in Full Spectrum that his team "was not in good shape."

Nonetheless, Quinn became just the second Flyers head coach to that point who earned the Jack Adams Trophy as the best bench boss in the league. 

The Orange and Black finished with 97 points in 1980-81 but suffered a surprise Game 7 Spectrum loss to the Calgary Flames in the second round, then despite a 7-0-1 start in 1981-82, they struggled through prolonged losses of Clarke and Paul Holmgren as well as the cutting of Reggie Leach to make way for younger talent which was not up to speed.  Quinn was dumped with eight games left in that season for none other than McCammon -- who proved himself back down at Maine by winning a Calder Cup.

Quinn's first game back in Philadelphia behind the L.A. Kings bench occurred on Feb. 7, 1985. In a stunner, the Flyers raced out to a 4-0 lead after only 21:13 of regulation behind goals from Mark Howe, Brian Propp, Dave Poulin and Ron Sutter.

However, the purple and gold reversed course, managing to tie the game thanks to scores from future part-time Flyer and Hershey Bear player Carl Mokosak, Brian Engblom and back-to-back markers from Bernie Nicholls before the end of the second period.

"Of course this was special. I loved the place ... I had wonderful years here, and that's sort of an emotional thing I'll always treasure," Quinn told the Inquirer after the game, which allowed Los Angeles an even split (1-1-1) of the season series.

He couldn't resist a barb at the way the game turned out: "I think they got a little fat when they were up 4-0. It happens to teams." Which of course, drew the predictable flat response from Mike Keenan: "What Pat Quinn said about us being fat cats is not accurate. The demeanor of this team is that we're not cocky. We're not that kind of team."

Keep in mind, that despite the blown lead, the Flyers were 29-16-7 and nine points behind Washington for first place in the Patrick Division, but the Kings were only 23-21-10 though 19 points away from last-place Vancouver and 26 away from Edmonton in the Smythe Division.

Two seasons later, Quinn was suspended by the NHL for maneuvering behind the scenes to become the coach and GM of the Vancouver Canucks. The man picked by the Canucks to act as caretaker before Quinn was allowed to work in the league again? Bob McCammon. "Cagey" held on for 3 1/2 seasons before Quinn came back to the bench at the end of the 1990-91 season.

There Ain't No Island left for Islanders Like Him

When I woke up yesterday morning and saw the New York Islanders in first place, there were tears in my ears as I lay there and thoughts turned 3 1/2 hours to the North and East. 

My friend, Ted Graboski, died in July. He was 35 years old, left behind a wife and 5-month-old son and was driven to the brink of some dark places either directly or indirectly by the woman he chose as his wife. He now occupies a similar space as some other random flotsam and jetsam in the Atlantic Ocean, and with any luck and the flow of the Gulf Stream, by now, he's floating somewhere up near Newfoundland.

I did not find out about it until a random internet search turned up his death notice in the Bridgehampton, New York paper one dark and cool late October early morning when I could not unwind sufficiently from a work shift lasting into the wee small hours. 

He was a year younger than me and a year behind at Boston College. We became friends through a class in the first semester of my junior year, and really began to click once we were paired together on WZBC's presentation of BC Eagles hockey during the first semester of my senior year. We were like bookends, chaos and mayhem with boyish charm, and I won't lie -- we made a killing with the ladies. Something like 80 percent efficiency, which never happened before and will neve, ever happen again.

And then the bastard went off and spent a semester in Scotland, leaving me to finish up my collegiate career getting drunk largely playing Trivial Pursuit, FIFA and Madden with my roommates, though I forged a closer personal and professional bond with another classmate from my year who now plies his trade down in North Carolina.

Anyway, Ted was a supreme dumb Polack, an inveterate Yankee fan, loved his family, was the last child and only son of four, loved the land of his native Long Island and never missed a chance to help his father plant potatoes on the family farm each Spring. He was also a long-suffering supporter of the New York Islanders.

When we first crossed paths, the Isles were the dregs of the NHL, pinning their defensive hopes on a gangly Slovakian rookie named Zdeno Chara, their goaltending hopes on Tommy Salo and Wade Flaherty, and giving Ziggy Palffy absolutely nothing to work with up front.

As a second-generation Polish-American, he was enamored with Mariusz Czerkawski. There were many times he'd proudly show off his Isles home jersey emblazoned with #21 on the back, and crow about how he was the best player (once Palffy was shipped to LA) on a horrendous team and how that was an ironic statement about ethnicity and hockey life. That uniform hung proudly in a Glasgow dorm, in the Hamptons and in multiple closets in high-rise apartments in Manhattan before its final resting place in Bayside, Queens.

When the Islanders raced out to that unexpected 11-1-1-1 start to the 2001-02 season, guess who was on the phone leaving messages at my house because his team was in first place and my team just had Jeremy Roenick? I waited until the end of the year to razz the crap out of him because the Flyers and Islanders both were bounced in the first round ... but he still got the best of me with the Isles losing in seven to the Leafs and the Flyers scored two goals in a five-game loss to the Senators.

And when Czerkawski returned to Uniondale in 2003 after an unproductive one-year exile on Ste. Catherine Street, he'd clog up my cell phone talking about the Great Mariush.

My last meaningful interaction with Ted came just after the Phillies lost to the Yankees in the 2009 World Series, and again, no shortage of playful razzing as we exchanged phone messages and finally caught up for real on the phone near Christmas.

Flash forward to the start of this season, and I'm not believing what I see each night on the highlights or each day in the standings: the Islanders were challenging the revamped Penguins for Metro Division superiority. So, they ended up with a convincing weekend sweep of Pittsburgh and occupy first place for the first time this "late" in a season in forever.

Damn, do I ever wish Ted was on this plane of existence to experience it. I just might have to adopt them in his place, because the club is fresh and young and there is no ceiling yet. I know two things for sure: He'd have been to 20 home games if he could this year in the final season at the Mausoleum, and he'd NEVER deign to travel into Brooklyn to see the Islanders, even from Queens.

I'm 36. No brothers or sisters, my cousins are much older, have kids of their own. Unmarried, no significant other, sports media keeps me busy at times when others would be social. Parents about to retire to Arizona in less than two years. There's only one thing I really want for Christmas but I doubt I will be successful: that Czerkawski jersey.

It would hang in my closet next to my original Boston College jersey -- the one with most signatures from that national finalist team from 2000 and the road Flyers orange uniform signed by several players from the 80s -- and never be touched, and never be sold, and only dragged out for special occasions, like a hockey league championship as a personal talisman.
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