Friday, March 27, 2015

Impossible choice ahead for Barry Ashbee Trophy

Kimmo Timonen and Shayne Gostisbehere.

At the outset of the year they were arguably the two best defensemen in the Philadelphia Flyers' system. In mid-Summer, you could have inscribed their selection as the best at their positions for the NHL parent club and its AHL farm team with ink.

And yet, both hardly saw the ice this season thanks to unexpected circumstances -- with the former eventually doing so for a completely different organization.

Ironic, dontcha think?

This season alone, Craig Berube has had to find playing time for 10 different defensemen due to injuries, inconsistent play, call-ups, demotions and trades. It's hard to believe that Timonen, only fully recovered from a series of blood clots which kept him off the ice until late February, wasn't one of them. He was dealt to Chicago on March 2 without suiting up in Orange and Black in legitimate game action.

When that amoebic mass of a defensive corps collectively sports one of the worst penalty-killing percentages in the NHL, ranks 13th out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference in goals allowed, and only recently dragged itself into the middle of the pack in terms of goal scoring, one can list as many positives as negatives for what passes as the cream of the crop.

In that spirit, how can media members properly assess which blueliner is worthy of taking home the Barry Ashbee Trophy this season? It's not difficult to envision the tough-as-nails, long-time minor leaguer is shaking his head from the Great Beyond at the current choices. 

Since the creation of the award which honors the bellwether of the Flyers' blueline in 1975, it's been a virtual slam-dunk selection every single season with the exception of two: 2015 and 1982.

The three-time defending champ and five-time winner Timonen isn't here and didn't skate a shift for Berube when he was given the go-ahead by doctors, and, unless the club wishes to set a far-out precedent, won't end up inching closer Eric Desjardins for the most overall wins at seven.

Could it happen? Sure. Recall that Ian Laperriere won the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to hockey in 2011 without having returned from multiple injuries suffered during the 2009-10 season, issues which forced his retirement. In fact, one can make a case that his complete lack of mistakes makes his 2014-15 ledger pristine, unlike his teammates who were forced to defend without his guidance.

Mark Streit is the team co-leader with nine goals, heads the club with 45 points, and is an anchor for the second power play unit. He's also been the lone member of the rearguard to participate in all 75 games. On the other hand, the 37-year-old has seemed catatonic at times, has made glaring errors on the penalty kill along with the rest of the forwards who collapse towards the puck carrier, and if you put stock in this number, ranks lowest among defensemen at minus-10.

Michael Del Zotto has been a revelation when he's not a healthy scratch, with nine goals and 28 points, picking up where Andrej Meszaros left off for Flyers defensemen allowed to tap into their instinct and join the rush. At 24 he's just developing a killer shot on the move and has been as good as any forward firing from the left wing. Conversely, the Ontarian who played his way out of New York and was unwanted in Nashville has drawn the ire of observers for being too slow at times to pick up the late man when either Steve Mason, Ray Emery or Rob Zepp let rebounds go or when a pass comes to a late-breaking opposition forward.

Luke Schenn has been near invisible on most nights, can't seem to get away with clean checks in the defensive zone, can't seem to figure out a clear path to clearing the puck from his defensive zone. Braydon Coburn is absolved since he's been shipped to Tampa Bay and there seems to be little discussion of the worth of Andrew MacDonald, relative to his contract or to each individual shift when casual observers come away with at least one gripe.

Creating some doubt/discussion/controversy is CSNPhilly.com's intrepid beat writer, a veteran of hockey coverage in this city, who tweeted the following last night: 

Steve Mason said to me last week that N Schultz should be the Barry Ashbee Trophy winner. Many teammates agree

If only the Ashbee were a prize voted upon by fellow teammates, like an insular Lindsay Award, this supposition might gain some traction. Given that it's an honor decided upon by a panel of writers and broadcasters who are familiar with the club's play throughout this nightmare of a season ... on second thought, why not?

Schultz is one of two defensemen, and the only one not protected through injury or lineup choices, to have a positive plus-minus (5). When pressed can you think of anything either overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly negative in his game? A 13-year veteran, that's how Schultz has been able to mold his performance to survive through four NHL organizations. He may lack a little flash, but there's a quiet dedication and attention to whichever role he's given, which makes him a little more than a dark horse candidate.

Back in 1982, persons tasked with selecting the Ashbee winner faced a similar crisis borne of different results.

That squad, split between 72 games of Pat Quinn and eight from Bob McCammon, finished third in the Patrick Division and made the playoffs under the old divisional format. Ultimately, their defensive corps barely kept the club above water, ending the season with only a plus-12 goal differential. They gave up a then-team-record 313 goals over an 80 game schedule, and surrendered 19 more scores in a four-game, first-round loss to the Rangers.

What's worse, the Flyers allowed 14 hat tricks by the opposition. They fell victim to not one, not two, but three separate five-goal games: one each from Wayne Gretzky, Bryan Trottier and Willy Lindstrom and a four-goal effort from Kent Nilsson.

None of the 12 defenseman who dressed at one time or another played the full season. Jim Watson was the closest with 76 appearances, while Brad Marsh -- acquired from Calgary in November -- participated in all 66 games the Flyers played from that point.

Behn Wilson potted 13 goals but was used as a winger at times, and fought near-constant issues with discipline, puck movement and coverage. Bob Hoffmeyer, Fred Arthur, Mark Botell, Steve Smith and Reid Bailey were stop-gap solutions due to epidemic injuries and lack of organizational depth. Their chief offensive threat, Bob Dailey, saw his career ended after just 12 games due to a horrifically-broken leg suffered in Buffalo during a race for a puck.

The answer was apparently to reward Frank Bathe. A tough player from the Streak team of 1979-80 who resembled a lumberjack and who paid a constant price through repeated injury, Bathe missed all of November, December, January and February while battling back issues which eventually cost him his career. His final ledger: 28 games played, four points (1G, 3A), 68 penalty minutes, plus-11 rating.

By that logic, wouldn't Carlo Colaiacovo be in the running this year?

When will 'Ghost' re-appear?

During the second period of Wednesday night's Flyers-Blackhawks game, Flyers GM Ron Hextall announced that the unlucky rookie Gostisbehere would, in fact, be shut down for the remainder of the current season. The Union College product had been skating since early January, rehabbing from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered with the Phantoms on Nov. 7 and the required surgery performed less than a week later.

Hextall explained the rationale behind his final answer and denied that the franchise d-man suffered some kind of setback: “No, all the new research says eight months until it’s fully healed. Is there a chance of him getting hurt? Yes. The risk is too high to take the chance basically. The risk reward doesn't add up.”

It was clear at the outset of the injury that Gostisbehere didn't suffer the kind of torsional ACL tear that football or basketball players suffer which ends seasons, may involve a reconstruction, and requires a 6-to-8 month rehab and recovery.

However, the kind of time frame Hextall referenced is not new in college or professional sports. In the span of one afternoon at the Meadowlands in October of 1993, Eagles offensive stars Randall Cunningham and Fred Barnett both suffered torn ACLs whose torsion forced them out of action for the 6-to-8 month time frame -- and medical science has progressed from that juncture nearly a generation ago.

Either Hextall has remained ignorant of medical technology outside the game of hockey, the doctors he's consulted have engaged in a fabrication, or he's telling a fib to back up the manner in which he hedged several weeks prior.

Gostisbehere was lucky, since his ACL tear was obviously not of the kind which need total reconstruction or replacement, but the carrot that was dangled all along of a four-month time frame for recovery should have set off alarm bells to casual observers from the start.

If you recall, back on March 5, Phantoms head coach Terry Murray made a surprise announcement that Gostisbehere was not healing in time to make a comeback and would be shut down for the season. By the end of that night's Flyers game, a 3-1 win over the Blues, Hextall emphatically denied that the situation had progressed to a point of finality.

The timetable cited then was two weeks, the official announcement was made in 20 days. In the meantime, both the Flyers and Phantoms have been virtually eliminated from playoff contention.

While the lack of clear communication between levels of the franchise is not promising, once any ideas of a conspiracy are shaken from the gray matter, Hextall continued on and provided some insight into Gostisbehere's process for returning to action in the Fall.

"He's gained a lot of weight, he's a lot stronger, so it hasn't been a total loss. He's watched a lot of games, he's learned how to be a pro. There's been a lot of benefit ... as much as playing? Of course not. He's going to dictate that (readiness to play). Come into camp and see where things go."

Gostisbehere is incredibly lucky to have sustained that type of injury so young. Lesser knee procedures, such as Steve Mason's meniscectomy which was required to keep that tissue from twisting inside the knee joint, often mean the affected area will never be 100 percent back to where it was before any damage was done.

With a conservative estimate of eight months, that means Gostisbehere should be bursting to hit the ice following medical clearance in July, with two good months of hardcore exertion before camps open in mid-September. Lehigh Valley ranks 13th in the East in goals allowed and 12th in goals for, and an additional offensive presence besides Brandon Manning is desperately needed next year.

In the interest of shepherding the potential heir to the Howe-Desjardins-Timonen lineage on the blueline, Hextall and Murray ought to be crystal clear in their plans for the young man going forward.
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