Monday, January 12, 2015

Philadelphia Flyers: Mid-Season Report



by Rob Riches
Phanatic Hockey Writer
@Riches61  

It may seem hard to believe with almost daily  problems in secondary scoring, defensive coverage and steady goaltending, but the Flyers have just breached the midway point of their 2014-15 campaign.

Monday’s home tilt against Tampa Bay will be the team’s 43rd of the season. They currently sit at 16-19-7 with 39 points -- only good enough for sixth place in the Metropolitan Division and thoughts of postseasons are dancing in their heads with little inkling they've figured out how to commit that to the on-ice product. Their 39 points are 13 points behind the recently red-hot New York Rangers for the division’s third guaranteed playoff berth, and 11 points behind Boston for the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot.

At this midway point, it’s blatantly obvious that a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Orange and Black for the second-consecutive season is going to come at a premium. They have next-to-no shot at the division’s top two spots -- barring a big-time collapse, they will go to Pittsburgh and the surprising New York Islanders in no particular order -- so they’ll have to bank on that third spot, or either of the wild cards. It's a 47 percent chance of postseason play heading into the game against the Bolts.

A bright spot is that the two depicted Flyers above will represent the franchise in Columbus two weekends from now, marking the 32nd time in team history they'll send more than one player to the All-Star Game. 

Prior to the start of this season, I had the opportunity to preview the Flyers’ 2014-15 campaign through four facets -- offense, defense, goaltending and special teams. I’ll break down these four facets, as compared to what I wrote when the season was still fresh.

Offense

By far, the most exciting facet of the Flyers’ game is their offense, led by the NHL’s best one-two punch in captain Claude Giroux and linemate Jakub Voracek. With 50 points, Voracek leads the NHL (16 goals and 34 points) while Giroux’s 46 points -- 14 goals and 32 helpers -- place him fifth in the league.

If Voracek can keep up his scoring pace, he’d finish with 31 goals and 98 points. Those 98 points would be the highest for a team scoring leader since Eric Lindros struck for 115 points in 1995-96.

Giroux projects to finish with 28 goals 91 points at season’s end, which would fall two points short of his career-high 93-point season in 2011-12 and tie his career-high goal total, which he set last season as well as three years back.

Despite boasting some top-flight offensive talent in the era of explosive offense, no Philadelphia Flyer has ever won the Art Ross Trophy -- but Voracek is making a strong case to join an elite group, while Giroux is establishing himself to repeat as a candidate for the Hart Memorial Trophy.

Despite their terrific one-two punch, the Flyers offense is middle-of-the-pack and averages 2.64 goals per game -- tied with Anaheim for 17thin the league. Secondary scoring has also been somewhat erratic at times this season, but there are three Flyers besides Giroux and Voracek -- Wayne Simmonds (16), Sean Couturier (10) and Michael Raffl (10) -- that have reached double-digit figures in goals. With nine goals, it's only a matter of time until Brayden Schenn joins up.

Eleven Flyers also have at least 10 or more points so far, though none have at least 30 aside from Giroux and Voracek. Nonetheless, the club has a long way to go to match last year's 236 goals (2.95 per game) which was good enough for second in the division (behind the Penguins) and tied for fourth in the East.

Defense

If there’s a facet of the Flyers that causes fans to utter the most four-letter expletives, it’s certainly the collection of guys who patrol the defensive zone. Shaky, inconsistent, maligned and frustrating are just four of the many adjectives used to describe the Flyers’ corps of blueliners.

Entering the season, the biggest question mark was the health of Kimmo Timonen, who was diagnosed with blood clots back in August. His health still continues to be a significant question mark, as he’ll find out whether or not he needs to continue taking blood thinners -- and whether or not he has any hopes of continuing his distinguished career -- within the next several days.

It’s simple: if he no longer needs blood thinners, he’s got a good chance of being able to return to active duty. But if he still needs to use them, he won’t be able to play at all. Subsequently, Timonen, who turns 40 in March, will have to contemplate retirement.

If he can return to the Flyers’ blue line, it’s still a matter of curiosity as to what Timonen could bring to the table. While he’s been the most consistent Flyers defenseman over the past several seasons, he still has regressed, and is no longer the same player the Flyers acquired prior to the 2007-08 campaign.

Without his services, the likes of Braydon Coburn, Andrew MacDonald, Nicklas Grossmann (who is set to miss two weeks with an upper-body injury), Luke Schenn, Michael Del Zotto, alternate captain Mark Streit and Nick Schultz are left to pick up the slack. Despite his rep when healthy, Carlo Colaiacavo has seen limited duty since being signed at the end of October, playing in just five games. Of the aforementioned, Streit is the only one to play in each of the team’s 42 games, while he, Coburn and Grossmann are the only defensemen to not have been healthy scratches at any point this season.

While Del Zotto was recently loosed, MacDonald has now drawn the short straw in Craig Berube's macabre wheel of misfortune in terms of who will sit for any given game. 

The Flyers’ defense ranks 23rd in the league in goals allowed, allowing an average of 2.88 goals each game. They also contribute to the team’s rank at 23rd in the league in Corsi for at 47.6 percent, and 22nd in the league in Fenwick for at 47.8 percent.

Goaltending

Steve Mason is the one tasked with bailing out the shaky defense in front of him on a nightly basis, with Ray Emery as his backup. In 29 games so far, Mason stands at 8-12-6 with a 2.46 GAA and .920 save percentage, while Emery is 7-7-1 with a 3.21 GAA and .889 SP in 16 games in his stead.

In my season preview, I mentioned the possibility of regression following Mason’s brilliant first full season in Philadelphia. After all, he regressed significantly in Columbus after his hard-to-match rookie season.

But Mason has continued spectacular play, and has done much better than his record indicates -- further establishing that wins have minimal impact on a goaltender’s performance. During a game on Nov. 24, Mason made 46 saves in a 1-0 shootout loss to the Islanders, a game in which the Flyers could muster just 21 shots over 65 minutes. That performance was ranked No. 4 on a top-10 list of goalie performances this season, courtesy of The Hockey News.

But the Flyers will have to get by without Mason for up to two weeks, after leaving their game Saturday with a lower-body injury. Mason’s been struggling with injuries, after missing four games in December due to a back injury sustained in practice and undergoing an MRI last week -- which proved to be negative. For the second time this season, the Flyers recalled Rob Zepp -- the starter for their American Hockey League affiliate Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

Zepp started just one game for the Flyers the last time he was called up, making 25 saves in a 4-3 overtime win over Winnipeg back on December 21. In 21 games this season for the Phantoms, his record stands at 11-5-4 with a 2.57 GAA and .921 SP. Not too shabby, considering its his first season on North American ice in 10 seasons and the fact that under defensive-oriented head coach Terry Murray, he's facing upwards of 30 shots per appearance.

Mason signed a three-year, $12.3 million contract extension with the Flyers nearly a year ago, and has continued to earn that pay over the course of the season. His injury is likely to sideline him until the All-Star Break, and the Flyers’ slim playoff hopes will only get slimmer with him out of the cage.

Special Teams

Charles Dickens would have a field day with this dichotomy.

The Flyers currently sport one of the NHL’s top power plays, firing at a 21.8 percent clip -- fifth-best in the league. Their 31 power-play goals are the fourth-most scored this season, and their 27.5 percent home power play is the second-best in the league -- yes, despite all the Wells Fargo Center faithful demanding the Flyers to shoot each time they touch the puck. Their road power play ranks 13th in the league, with a 16.4 percentage.

Wayne Simmonds, who ranked third in the league last year with 15 power play goals, is now in a four-way tie for second place, with nine power-play markers. Giroux isn’t far behind, with eight scored on the man-advantage.

The Flyers’ penalty kill, aided and abetted by a frustrating penchant for following the puck-carriere en masse, on the other hand, is abysmal. Operating at 74.8 percent, the penalty kill units -- directed by assistant Ian Laperriere -- rank at 29th in the league. The units have allowed 36 goals on 143 opportunities, and have scored just one short-handed goal -- potted by Sean Couturier in a 4-1 win over the Devils on Dec. 11.

Coburn leads the Flyers in shorthanded ice time per game, with 3:07 minutes. Sean Couturier and Schultz log 2:42 and 2:41 minutes, respectively. The penalty kill units have come under immense scrutiny at times, including a two-game series in mid-November against Columbus and Montreal, as well as following a Dec. 27 loss to Nashville, during which they yielded three goals.

Special teams have been very steady for the Orange and Black over the past several seasons, and that holds true for their power play numbers. The penalty kill is in desperate need of relief, however.

Front Office/Behind the Bench

In his first season in as GM, Ron Hextall is doing a good job sticking with the plan of patience that he has emphasized ever since his introductory press conference in May. He doesn’t have a lot of tools in his arsenal, as bad contracts signed by his predecessor Paul Holmgren have left him handcuffed in the short term.

While Hextall has stressed patience, he did hint recently that changes could be coming to the roster. The Flyers are, after all, a team with a strict “win-now” mindset which comes from the very top, and have not much of an interest in missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

Behind the bench, Berube (58-46-17) has come under fire for questionable lineups that he ices on a night-to-night basis. Las Vegas odds list him as a favorite to be fired, while fans are constantly discussing coaches they’d like to see behind the bench. It seems like Berube has the same expression and body language night after night -- looking emotionless, yet still looking annoyed at the same time. His tools of motivation seem to run the gamut from A to C. Encouragement, then yelling, then benching.

Ultimately though, Berube hasn’t lost the respect of the players in his dressing room. At least publicly, the same faces which have provided the same excuses for inconsistent play the last several years have expressed a liking of Berube, while some have felt as though they are letting him down. His future behind the Flyers’ bench, though, is hard to predict, and one can’t help but speculate as to whether or not he’ll return behind the bench next year.

Undoubtedly, the Flyers’ 2014-15 campaign, while it may not be a winning one, is hardly boring. They have a high-flying offense led by the league’s most dynamic duo in addition to goaltending which can steal as many games as cost, yet are hampered by an inconsistent defensive corps and a horrid penalty kill. 

Outlook

Making the playoffs for a second-consecutive season won’t be easy, but the Flyers aren’t an easy team to discount. Through the end of the month, Philadelphia has six of its next eight games on home ice and, if it should come down to a last stand, the club's final four games of the year take place in friendly environs.

The Flyers established themselves as a formidable second-half club last season. They have the personnel to do it again, but it’s going to be quite a tall order without the will and obliging opposition.
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