5-on-5 play. After their brief time at the top of the league in even-strength play early on, the Flyers were awful at 5-on-5 for most of the remainder of the schedule. A glance at the club's final stats show a roster riddled with large minus numbers in the plus / minus column. First-year Flyer Bruno Gervais was a team-worst -17, while Danny Briere was at the bottom of the forward position with a -13. Most of any offensive successes Philadelphia scrounged up for much of the season came via the power play.
Inconsistency. Philly’s longest winning streak was only two games heading into the latter stages of the year, until they were able to reel off two four-game stretches (late-March into April and another during the season's last four contests) near the end of the schedule. That’s an often fatal flaw, especially in an abbreviated, 48-game calendar. When you pair that with the fact they twice lost four straight games and also had two different losing streaks of three consecutive contests, it's easy to see how the Flyers missed the postseason. The streaky 'Jekyll and Hyde' persona was on full display during a 10-5 finish to the schedule when they scored 4.3 goals per game in games they won, while averaging an anemic 0.6 goals in their five defeats. The player perhaps best exemplifying Philadelphia’s hot-and-cold ways was Brayden Schenn, averaged nearly a point-per-game with six goals and 19 points in his first 22 contests, only to end the season with just two goals and eight points in his last 26 outings.
Offense. The Flyers mustered a grand total of only three goals in their first three games of the year (all losses), and it was believed to only be a matter of time before Flyers scorers broke loose. That did happen from time-to-time, but the early-season lack of firepower was more a sign of things to come rather than anomaly. Following what was an MVP-type year in 2011/12, captain Claude Giroux barely averaged a point-per-game (48 in 48 games). After racking up a career-high 37 goals last season, Scott Hartnell got off to a slow start then suffered a broken foot and missed a third of the year. Whether due to the departure of Jaromir Jagr or the injury, he never regained his form from the previous season. After a down 2011/12, Briere’s numbers continued to decline this year. He started the year with a broken wrist suffered while playing in Germany during the lockout, and never untracked. He suffered a concussion and missed 10 additional games later in the season and finished with just six goals in 34 contests. After netting 19 goals in the previous year, Max Talbot managed just five goals in 35 games before breaking his leg in a late-season contest.
Lack of resiliency. There was no safe lead against Philadelphia during the 2011/12 campaign, as they overcame a number of multi-goal deficits to post victories in both the regular season and first round of the playoffs. That was hardly the case this year, as the team finished with an awful 1-12-0 record when trailing after one period and an equally disturbing 2-14-0 mark when down heading into the third stanza.
Injuries. Though the team refuses to use injuries as an excuse for their failures, the epidemic of serious injuries -- especially to the team’s defense late in the campaign -- bordered on the absurd. The final count topped 260 man-games lost in the 48-game schedule, even worse than the 440 lost during the previous 82-game season.
Defense. Far and away the biggest contributor to Philadelphia’s lost season, the blue line suffered from offseason shortcomings by management even before the string of late-season injuries. GM Paul Holmgren went all out in attempts to land UFA Ryan Suter and when that did not come to fruition, inked RFA Shea Weber to an offer sheet he believed would be impossible to match for the Nashville Predators. As these pursuits continued, steady puck-moving rear guard and UFA Matt Carle tired of waiting and signed with his former club, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Still needing to make defensive additions, Holmgren scrambled to bring UFA defensemen Gervais and Kurtis Foster into the fold, but they could not help fill what the back line required. Coverage issues were commonplace and led to opponents being left alone in front of netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, resulting in a rash of point-blank deflection and rebound goals allowed. Lacking a puck-mover on defense, Philadelphia struggled for much of the year just to get the puck out of their own zone.
Failure to make necessary adjustments. With the plethora of season-ending injuries on defense and new faces coming in replacements, it appeared a long-overdue defense-first game finally emerged. “I think from a team standpoint the guys have done a nice job with making sure they come back and trying to keep the game simple,” summed up head coach Peter Laviolette following a victory late in the campaign. This became a necessity with the Flyers ongoing paltry offensive production, and a sooner change in style would have likely led to a spot in the postseason. It could have been stubbornness within the coaching staff or a refusal to adopt a systematic change on the part of the players, but the club did not become overall sound defensively until the last month of the season. By that time it was too late.
In spite of so many negatives, several positives did arise along the way:
Special teams. The failures of special teams early in the year are noted, but both units did rebound nicely to place in the top-5 in both categories by season’s end. The power play finished third-overall with a 21.6% success rate -- which included an NHL-best home ice rate of 27.8% -- and the penalty-kill ended fifth-overall with an 85.9% rate.
Young faces on defense. As defenders dropped with an assortment of season-ending injuries, the youngsters recalled from Adirondack made their late-season marks. Erik Gustafsson, who has had varying success with the Flyers in portions of the past two years, clearly lacked confidence after returning from an injury and was sent to the Phantoms. He was noticeably an entirely improved player upon recall when injuries swept the Philadelphia blue line. Gustafsson led the team in ice time in three of the last seven games while exhibiting stellar play in each contest. He posted three goals and six points and a +7 rating while logging a heavy workload in 13 April games, and the Swede would seem to be destined for a spot on the 2013-14 Flyers opening night squad. Hulking Oliver Lauridsen provided a physical presence and even threw in a couple of game-winning goals in a 15-game, late-season stint. The 6’ 6”, 220-pound defender’s skating still needs work, but he did not look out of place at all against NHL opponents. Both Brandon Manning and Matt Konan also played well while taking on significant minutes during a smaller portion of contests than Lauridsen, but the showing of the young blue liners has to give the organization hope that the cupboard isn’t as bare as some believed with regards to the prospects -- especially on defense.
Late-season play against playoff-bound teams. While Philadelphia lost a high percentage of early-season games against better NHL clubs, they thrived against those teams late in the season. While a playoff berth increasingly faded from a realistic outcome for the Flyers and teams were fighting for their postseason lives or vying for higher positioning in the standings, nine of the Flyers last 10 wins came versus squads that qualified for the playoffs. The biggest problem down the stretch run was they did not perform as well against non-playoff teams, with three of their final five defeats coming at the hands of teams that failed to qualify.
Team play following systematic adjustment. “Defense wins championships” is a statement that is proven nearly every year in each sport, and this rings true specifically in the NHL. The Flyers fell behind often in contests for much of the year while employing Laviolette's attack-first style of play, while their late-season good fortune came by playing a very patient, defense-oriented game. They took care of their own end and pounced on turnovers to begin counter-strikes, akin to the way the New Jersey Devils have frustrated them through for years. It will be worth keeping an eye towards the direction Laviolette and his coaching staff take their roster come October.
There were several individual positives that bode well for the franchise as they look towards next year:
Jakub Voracek -- In spite of the negatives that come along with a non-playoff year, Voracek flourished in what would become a breakout season. The 23-year-old Czech led all Flyers with 22 goals, good for eighth-best in the NHL. The most consistently productive offensive player was often electrifying, recording his first NHL hat trick -- including the game-winning goal late in regulation -- in a memorable late-February 6-5 triumph over the arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins. For his efforts Voracek was named the club’s Most Valuable Player, and it would seem he is tapping into the immense potential that caused the Columbus Blue Jackets to draft him seventh-overall in the 2007 draft.
Zac Rinaldo -- One of the league’s most-feared body checkers Rinaldo added a good deal of discipline to his portfolio and as a result became a hugely effective skater. Rinaldo’s goal total increased from the year before in less than half the games (from two in 66 contests in 2011/12 to three in 32 this past year), while his PIM numbers dropped by almost a minute-per-contest (232 in 66 games to 85 in 32 this year). The club appeared to gain momentum following one of his big hits, and many of his teammates cited his often-brutal physicality as a catalyst over the course of the campaign. The Philadelphia Flyers Fan Club chose Rinaldo as the 2012/13 Gene Hart Memorial Award winner, bestowed upon the player who demonstrated the most “Heart” during the season. When I asked Rinaldo what he believed his top-end potential is in an exclusive interview in late-March, he did not see any limitations as to what he can achieve. “I can’t answer that,” he told me. “I want to answer that, but the sky’s the limit for me. I don’t want to answer that, because there’s no limit to what I feel I can do.” With a new two-year contract in hand, Rinaldo’s fiery confidence and physicality are traits that will be gladly welcomed for the 2013/14 season.
Steve Mason -- Mason literally vacated the penthouse in favor of the outhouse in his tenure with the Blue Jackets, but the 2009 Calder Trophy winner was very good after being acquired ahead of the NHL trade deadline. The 6’ 4”, 217-pounder lost his first two decisions with the Flyers – which included a 1-0 loss in Buffalo where he received no offensive support -- but then reeled off four straight wins. Those victories included performances of 38, 39, and 43 saves, and Mason completed his Philadelphia portion of the campaign at 4-2-0, with a 1.90 GAA and .944 save percentage in his seven outings. Adding Mason solidifies a solid Flyers' tandem in net after a year in which Bryzgalov played almost exclusively with Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher as his backups.
Looking ahead, likely personnel moves for last year's roster over the summer may include:
Much of the top-six should remain in place. If UFA Simon Gagne were to accept what amounts to a hometown discount, he will return. Gagne's legs still possess the speed necessary to compete at this level and still provides timely offense. If he does re-sign, it will be interesting to see which line combination Laviolette will have him be a part. Gagne's speed aided him in keeping up with Giroux and Voracek on the top line, but it really depends on whether or not Holmgren acquires a true sniper over the summer to play on the left side of that trio.
Second-year forward Matt Read played through a painful ribcage injury, but his tremendous versatility has become a luxury for Philadelphia. His entry-level deal expires after next season and with upcoming contracts of other Flyers coming due at the same time (especially that of Giroux), Read -- who turns 27 years old in June -- could become a casualty of the situation and may be dealt. In addition to his stellar play on both sides of the team's special teams units and ability to play all three forward positions on any line, when Read was combined with center Brayden Schenn and right wing Wayne Simmonds in the latter stages of the schedule, it provided the club with a very effective second line.
The previously mentioned decreasing offensive production as Philadelphia's highest-paid player brings the almost certain amnesty buyout of Briere and the remaining two years of his $6.5 million annual pact. This would free up monies, as Holmgren has to contend with the salary cap shrinking by $6 million for the upcoming season. Sean Couturier labored through a disappointing sophomore season, managing just four goals and 15 points while being utilized in an ultra-defensive role. His play improved dramatically in the last quarter, and he chipped in on the offensive side of things, as well. Next season is crucial for the 20-year-old, who exhibited a great deal of promise during his rookie campaign. Rinaldo (see above) could end up on the right side of Couturier with Hartnell or Talbot on the left.
Another forward who will be moving on is UFA Ruslan Fedotenko. He performed well in a checking line role and was integral on the third-ranked PK, but Fedotenko is set for an increase on his $1.75 million contract and the Flyers will not have room for that. There will be interest in “Rusty”, and he may find a playoff team seeking to add his skillset if he does not end up signing in the KHL in a much-desired larger role. Adam Hall ($650k), acquired at the trade deadline and also an UFA, was excellent on the PK and in the faceoff circle and his 6’ 3”, 213-pound frame would fit in well on the fourth line. Despite the fact Hall isn’t expecting a big raise and would be able to be re-signed, it appears Holmgren would like to go in another direction.
The Flyers may have one of 2012 first-round draft pick Scott Laughton, Talbot, or even Adirondack captain Ben Holmstrom tabbed to be inserted into Fedotenko’s expected roster vacancy. Laughton, who just turned 19 years old, would seem a lock to start the year in Philadelphia, and could even see a spot on the third line if Couturier is moved as part of a package for a top-two defenseman. Talbot (broken leg) and Holmstrom (torn ACL) are coming off serious injuries. Talbot may end up on the third line with Couturier and Rinaldo if Hartnell returns to the top line. Jay Rosehill, who also inked a two-year contract extension and lends the versatility of being able to fill-in on defense, was effective in a checking line / enforcer role and the Flyers will be expecting the same next year. Mike Knuble was signed as an UFA early on in an attempt to help a struggling young team find its way. The classy 40-year-old winger was, as always, the consummate professional. He provided leadership and the occasional bit of offense when Laviolette plugged him into the lineup and while the will still remains, the legs are not cooperating. Knuble will likely retire. 22-year-old Tye McGinn brought a bit of a power forward’s game to Philly, but suffered a broken orbital bone in a fight with then-Toronto Maple Leaf Mike Brown. After recovering, McGinn played well for Adirondack and may get another long look in camp this summer.
Barring any trades, the Flyers will expect veterans Luke Schenn, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann, Andrej Meszaros, Bruno Gervais to return next year.
Schenn and Timonen were the glue that kept the Philadelphia defense together as the unit often resembled a MASH triage, and helped youngsters as they came up to replace the fallen blue liners. They will be expected to do much the same in the upcoming campaign. Schenn struggled early on as he attempted to adapt to new teammates and a new system, and was sometimes viewed by fans as a scapegoat because of James van Riemsdyk’s fast start with the Maple Leafs. Schenn improved vastly as the season progressed and finished up in the league leaders in hits and became a force on the club's blue line. Timonen ranked fourth among NHL defenders in scoring, even though he was oft times injured and brought his same warrior mentality to each game. He many times takes a beating in front of the crease and in the corners from much larger skaters, but rarely ends up out of position as a result. Timonen finally succumbed to the injury bug late in the schedule with a broken bone in his foot.
Coburn appeared overwhelmed with added ice time and responsibilities, but could be effective if used as a fourth or fifth defenseman. Grossmann was a rock prior to going out of the lineup with a concussion, and was actually among the NHL’s shot blocking leaders at the time of his injury. Meszaros has had three major surgeries in just over a full calendar year, and it is not known if he’ll be able to be counted on to contribute much in the final year of his contract. Gervais also has one year left on his contract, but should be a seventh or even eighth defenseman. In 37 games the 28-year-old was a team-worst -17 before missing the rest of the season with a torn abdominal muscle. Kent Huskins played well after being picked up from the Detroit Red Wings at the trade deadline, but fell victim to a season-ending concussion in a game against Montreal. Even though Huskins fit in well and seemed to lend a calming, veteran presence, Holmgren does not appear open to the idea of re-signing the pending UFA.
In their ongoing search to replace the puck-moving capabilities lost last summer with the departure of unrestricted free agent Matt Carle, the Philadelphia Flyers may have been very interested Tuesday when it was reported that Mark Streit will not be returning to the New York Islanders.
The 35-year-old did not accept the club's best offer and will instead test the free agent waters.
While Philadelphia would like to get bigger throughout their lineup, the 5' 11", 191-pound defender would be a welcome addition to the team's defensive corp. He's an excellent puck handler, a power play quarterback that has shown consistent production on the Island as well as with the Montreal Canadiens prior to that. 38 of his 65 career NHL goals and 105 of 223 assists have come while his club was skating with the man advantage.
Streit has also been very durable. With the exception of a shoulder injury that cost him the entirety of the 2010/11 campaign, he has missed just 15 of a possible 506 regular season games. The native of Bern, Switzerland has appeared in all 132 contests since returning from his lost 2010/11.
The soon-to-be former Isles' captain would be a top-2 blue liner the Flyers so desperately need. With 6' 5", 220-pound Braydon Coburn, 6' 2", 229-pound Luke Schenn, 6' 4", 230-pound Nicklas Grossmann, 6' 2", 220-pound Andrej Meszaros, and 6' 6", 220-pound Oliver Lauridsen having a strong stretch run when recalled due to injuries, his lack of size should hardly be an issue.
Bryzgalov was the early-season MVP for a floundering club. Despite little in the way of offensive support, he kept the team in almost every game while starting nearly every contest. It wasn’t until the late stages of the schedule that Mason won a game, as the Flyers became the NHL's last team to have one goaltender solely responsible for all of his team’s wins. The amnesty buyout issue has been rumored regarding Bryzgalov and the seven seasons he has remaining on his contract. I do believe if the Flyers end up using an amnesty buyout on the goaltender, they will wait until the summer of 2014. Mason looked fantastic in his seven games with the team, but that was a minutely small window with which to prepare the future of your goal crease. It may happen that Mason plays well this year and if he badly outplays Bryzgalov over the course of a full season, the writing could be on the wall regarding the 32-year-old Russian. He has played very well in his two seasons in Philadelphia, despite many distractions.
Potential 2012-13 rookies:
The addition of a couple of free agent wingers may also provide the team with further options.
20-year-old Petr Straka, an over-age junior playing for Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the QMJHL, became a highly sought after forward – as many as a dozen teams were bidding for his services -- when Columbus failed to sign their second round pick (55th-overall) in the 2010 entry draft and he became a free agent. The Czech notched 41 goals, 82 points, and +33 in 55 games this past season, then posted 11 goals and 25 points in 19 playoff contests. “I can’t wait to be in Philadelphia for camp next year,” Straka told me in an exclusive interview following the signing. “I will do everything I can to make the fans, and obviously the organization, happy, and pay back the trust they put on me. It’s a great organization with a great history, it’s just a pleasure for me to become a Flyer.”
24-year-old free agent Michael Raffl, whom Comcast-Spectacor President Peter Luukko called “a late-bloomer”, scored 24 goals and posted 46 points in 49 games for Sweden’s Leksands IF this past year. He became a hot commodity and was pursued by several teams, with Philadelphia inking the Austrian to a two-way deal at the end of May.
Like the dreaded 2006-07 campaign the 2012-13 season will be regarded as one to forget for the Flyers, but there should be no need for dramatic changes.
The year had all the makings of an aberration, beginning with the terrible offseason, the lockout, and encompassing much of the regular season. While excelling in some areas for the first three-quarters of the season, the team did just enough to counteract the positives on the way to a non-playoff finish. When they played well at even strength, special teams were horrible. When they made the adjustments to the PP and PK units, their 5-on-5 play was awful. Bryzgalov was the club’s MVP for much of the year, but the team didn’t give him enough in the way of offensive support. When they did, it seemed the goaltender may have been worn down from playing almost every minute of the season between the pipes.
It could be that it was just one of those years, and it should be treated accordingly. Panic and trading off youngsters in a flurry of impatience is exactly the opposite of what is necessary moving forward.
Holmgren deemed Laviolette’s job as safe, and that’s a good thing for maintaining stability heading into the new year. But it’s probable that all bets would be off should the Flyers get off to another slow start in October.
David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period.