Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The final column of 2014: Voracek, Scoracek.

Courtesy of Amy Irvin
On Monday, for the first time all season, a member of the Philadelphia Flyers was recognized with some kind of award by the National Hockey League.

It was Jakub Voracek, the current team and league points leader, who came away with Second Star honors. The previous week which saw him tied for second among all players with seven points (3G, 4A) in four games to help the Orange and Black wring to five out of a possible eight points including back-to-back road wins in Toronto and Winnipeg on Saturday and Sunday to kick off an eight-game road trip.

Claude Giroux was the last Flyer to gain recognition, with a Third Star mention for March of last year, but Voracek was the club's last weekly winner as First Star for the week ending February 25, 2013. 

After being held off the score sheet in a 3-1 defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning Dec. 16, Voracek potted his 12th goal of the season – and also provided his team's lone marker -- in a 2-1 home shootout loss to the Florida Panthers last Thursday. He then took the reins and did the greatest part to help over the weekend, matching a career high with four assists and set a season high by collecting as many points in a 7-4 decision in Toronto then coming up with two goals -- including the overtime winner only 10 seconds in -- to produce 4-3 triumph in Manitoba's capital.

The dynamic 25-year-old Czech has posted 14 multi-point efforts already this season, and, along with third-ranking scorer, team captain and line mate Giroux, comprise the league's deadliest 1-2 punch at the moment.

A European-trained player, a big part of Voracek's ascension is the confidence he displays with the puck. At the start of his Flyers career, he seemed at times unsure of whether to distribute or shoot, but this season that decisiveness has been on display. It doesn't hurt to have Giroux as a teammate or that others on the ice are able to capitalize.

For example, no way the Voracek of two seasons back has the laser-like focus to snap off a one-timer from Giroux and place it on the short side as he did to open the scoring on Sunday night against the Jets. Similarly, his OT winner was a pure solo effort -- forechecking hard enough to get behind Ondrej Pavelec, smart and quick enough to gather the puck once Dustin Byfuglien was separated from it, then confident enough to not immediately look for a supporting teammate to pass -- his instinct to carry out and face the goaltender one-on-one is something which everyone should be looking for on a consistent basis to complete his game.

He also lucked into an assist on Saturday, when Scott Laughton took a simple drop pass after Voracek did all the work in traversing behind the Toronto net and rocketed a shot past Jonathan Bernier from the left circle. On the power play, he is no longer adrift in his usual perch in the right circle, taking control of puck movement instead of playing decoy for a stray rebound or cross-ice pass poorly defended.

Voracek's continued production is absolutely vital to the relative success the club finds on its remaining six games that will take them across the continent and back to the East before it's over.

At What Price Voracek?

Anyway, it may come to pass that the fate of the Flyers from a personnel standpoint will be decided as early as the point at which they finally reach home on January 6. The question we should be asking is not whether they should focus on "tanking" for a high draft pick or make deals the minute they become available to facilitate a playoff push.

We should be asking GM Ron Hextall which kind of non-playoff team the Flyers should want to be: the kind that lets this unorganized bunch of forwards and defensemen who, depending on the day and mood and game result -- cannot hit, cover their marks, move the puck, produce points consistently, win faceoffs, kill penalties or not be a total Gomer Pyle in general -- limp towards whatever final record becomes them, or does he want to make the kind of deals which ease cap burdens, logjams at center and gives the remaining players time to adjust to one another in order to build towards next season?

For those who wish to just grit through the rest of the year intact, I ask the following:

Is it really worth more to you to have two of what may be the top five scorers in the NHL on the roster while the rest of the supporting offense fails to click consistently and where they can finish in the bottom half of the Metro?

Do you believe Craig Berube simply hasn't found the trick to this morass of a lineup because he hasn't worked through all possible combinations with this roster as it currently stands?

Will you quit complaining game to game, period to period, shift to shift when an R.J. Umberger makes a mistake or Andrew MacDonald fails to carry the puck out of his own end, be happy with whatever will be, and then adjust your expectations accordingly for next year?

What if I were to tell you that Voracek's value in trade is higher than any single player on the team (excepting Giroux whose contract extension and installation as team leader precludes it), and that he would bring at the very least two fresh bodies and possibly three in return given a willing sucker on the other end of the phone?

Under duress on social media yesterday, I used the hypothetical situation of a Voracek to the Nashville Predators in a 3-for-1 swap. Based on the club's needs which are a) a reliable top-pairing defenseman, b) a fourth-line center who has decent faceoff ability and c) a dedicated scorer to round out the first forward lines, I thought I came up with something at least meriting debate, if not for the specific team but for the over-arching idea.

For those who don't wish to raise your noses, sniff the air and dismiss the mere thought as unworthy, I vouched for Derek Roy, Seth Jones and James Neal. Neal's credentials are self-evident. Jones gives Berube a young player NHL-ready who takes the pressure off wondering when the anointed Phantoms/Canadian junior players will be ready, while Roy gives this club slightly more overall than strict defensive-zone specialist Adam Hall did on the last legs of his career.

If you recall, the Mark Recchi to Montreal swap in February of 1995 was not engineered as the blockbuster it became. Bob Clarke simply needed to make a trade which would upshift a team wallowing sixth in a seven-team division and make them playoff-worthy in the short term during a lockout-compressed schedule.

John LeClair, though a playoff record holder thanks to his back-to-back road overtime winners in 1993 against the Kings, wasn't projected to be more than a 25-30 goal man at his peak. Eric Desjardins, despite his Cup-game-winning hat trick at the Forum, wasn't considered a game-changer for the Habs. And Gilbert Dionne was a capable third-line player for Montreal.

Even after LeClair was placed on a line with Lindros and Mikael Renberg, who could have thought he would eventually be placed in the Pantheon of goal scorers along with Reggie Leach and Tim Kerr? Who thought that Rico would not only be the best blueliner on the team, but be worthy of a night in his honor as one of the franchise greats?

And the sucker at the time was Serge Savard, who felt the relentless heat and weight of history as the Canadiens slid to the bottom of the Northeast Division less than two years from winning their last Stanley Cup. That deal did more than anything else to seal the end of his 12-year tenure as Habs GM.

At the time, Recchi was coming off two straight 100-point seasons but was struggling mightily to score at the outset of the year (five points in 10 games), so his value wasn't as close to being as scorching hot as Voracek's is right now.

So we might have a lineup that looks like this, provided the mythical deal comes through:


MacDonald/Coburn/Jones/Grossmann/Schultz/Colaiacovo/Del Zotto/Schenn

Do it or don't do it, the possibility is too tantalizing not to let it haunt you for a few moments. If that's no better than what the club ices night after night on its roller-coaster ride towards irrelevance, and you think Hextall needs to deal, which team provides the right pieces and who would be the next subject of P.T. Barnum's famous quote?

Just like in high school math, show your work.

Going over like a lead balloon

No horrible puns here, nor will there be fawning, praiseful human-interest content on Rob Zepp winning his NHL debut on Sunday in Winnipeg. It was memorable that his teammates picked him up and erased a two-goal deficit at the outset of the third period to win and we hope he has about 20 more of those up his sleeve for Lehigh Valley.

The 33-year-old Phantoms starter did place himself in elite company as far as the Philadelphia Flyers are concerned, one of just a handful of goaltenders to don the orange and black and record a victory in his first NHL start. The others:

Sergei Bobrovsky: 29 saves in a 3-2 win at Pittsburgh on Oct. 7, 2010.
Antero Niittymaki: 20 saves in a 5-1 win against Washington on Feb. 4, 2004.
Ron Hextall: 22 saves in a 2-1 win against Edmonton, October 9, 1986.
Bob Froese: 24 saves in an 8-4 win against Hartford, Jan. 8, 1983.
Robbie Moore: 22 saves in a 5-0 win against Colorado, Mar. 6, 1979.
Pete Peeters: 16 saves in a 4-1 win against St. Louis, Dec. 17, 1978. 

Down with Disease

The Flyers -- their players, coaches, trainers, support staff and their equipment -- are about to land in Minnesota, one of the four clubs which was hit hard by the mumps early in the season after an October road trip which took the team to Southern California. It's the third stop of this elongated run between the calendar years, and the last one before a four-day holiday break and return to Nashville.

Ron Hextall was asked for his feelings on the matter, apropos of nothing, last week.

“It’s a concern. Absolutely. It’s been rampant around the league. And it’s not a one-day thing. I’ve talked to other managers too that it had gone through their team and their docs have told them that everybody on their team has been exposed to it but only certain people are susceptible for whatever reason. We’ve talked long and hard about it. Talked to our medical staff numerous times and we’ve addressed it as best as we can.”

The following is what should concern us most about the team's overall future health. 

 “We’ve got it covered as much as we can. Clean buildings and wash your hands and vaccines and everything else you can do. "We’ve done everything we can do to protect our players and our staff.”

Extra vaccinations are smart. Not to be trite, but you can't catch mumps from sitting in your stall or on a leather couch. And yes, dumping gallons of chemicals all over the place and encouraging repeated hand-washing takes care of a lot of psychological or psychosomatic issues.

Where players can be afflicted without much notice is in close contact on the ice. Hextall missed an obvious way in which mumps can be spread: aerosolized droplets of saliva that escape whenever someone speaks. That means keeping a close watch on what spills out when mouth guards are removed. It also extends to the nastiness which results from face-washes and spittle that can be transferred when trash-talking between whistles.

But what do you do about it as a head coach? Short of playing mommy and reminding his charges about manners, or adopting college rules where full plastic face shields are the norm, it seems odd for Berube to encourage his team to hit hard, but embrace a "say it, don't spray it" mindset when you've got a hold of an opposing player.

Actually, there is one thing Chief can do, he can tell Giroux to quit the juvenile antics of biting another player's jersey just for kicks.

The Penguins just sent three more players home to be tested, and there are an untold number of other players who may become infected in the near future. Luckily, the Flyers don't play Pittsburgh until late January. They do, however, face the Devils, who claim two players stricken, at the end of the road on January 3.

By the way, did I happen to mention that mumps can cause sterility in the adult male population?

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