O.K., maybe a period-and-a-half.
No matter, because for the final 30 minutes of the opening game of the season for the Adirondack Phantoms, there were no better players on the ice.
The Phantoms overcame three separate one-goal deficits and used special teams to take over the game – scoring twice on the power play and once shorthanded – to defeat the Portland Pirates 6-3 at Glens Falls Civic Center.
As for Couturier and Schenn, they combined for three goals and two assists for five points.
Not a bad debut, eh?
Couturier scored a power play goal in the second period to tie the game 3-3 and Schenn scored twice in the third period – once on a nifty shorthanded chance and once into an empty net to propel the Phantoms to victory.
“We didn’t generate a whole lot in the first half of the game,” Schenn said. “But once we got those 5-on-3 chances [the Phantoms had three of them in the game] it seemed like our confidence went up and we got into a groove.”
Whatever the impetus, the duo took over.
“They stepped up their game to another level in the third period,” Phantoms coach Terry Murray said. “They showed the NHL experience that they have.”
Couturier scored his first AHL goal on a two-man advantage in the second period when he flipped the rebound of a Danny Syvret shot past Pirates goalie Chad Johnson to tie the score 3-3.
The goal was originally waived off by referee Chris Brown, but was counted after Brown reviewed the video replay.
It was the second time Brown had to go to the replay in the period, spending several minutes trying to determine if a shot by Zac Rinaldo went into the net.
At first glance, the puck seemed to go into the net, hit the back piping and kick back out, but the limited camera angles available to Brown were inconclusive, so he couldn’t allow the goal to count.
“He told me that it looked like the puck was going in but then the video cut out and he could never see it go into the net, so he couldn’t count the goal,” Rinaldo said. “He tried to look at it for a long time, but he just couldn’t see it go in.”
That would have tied the game for the Phantoms after Andy Meile gave Portland a lead 1:14 into the second period, and Couturier’s tally would have put the Phantoms ahead, but the Phantoms were a victim of a lack of technology in their 33-year-old home rink.
They didn’t need technological assistance in the third though.
“I was just standing in front of the net and Holmstrom made a nice pass to me,” McGinn said. “I saw the goalie was bending his knee a little bit so there was a little spot there so I shot it and hoped for the best.”
The Phantoms were protecting the one goal lead well from there, shutting the door defensively, however Matt Ford took a slash penalty with six minutes remaining, giving the Pirates one last chance.
That’s when Schenn took over.
Couturier forced a turnover by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Schenn rushed the puck up ice one-on-one with David Rundblad.
Rundblad tried to wipe Schenn out of the play, but the Phantoms forward was too slick to get rubbed out and instead made a touch pass to himself, stepping around the check, and then snapping a shot off of Johnson’s skate and into the net for a shortie and the needed insurance goal.
Schenn later added an empty-netter, finishing off his three-point night.
“You have to be good on special teams to be a team that is going to win,” Murray said. “The power play came through at the right time, but we got a huge shorthanded goal to secure it for us. It was a great play by Couturier to go straight at the body [of Larsson] to create a loose puck and Schenn did the right thing taking it to the net.
“It was two young guys that really understood the importance of the situation.”
Not to be overshadowed, Scott Munroe finished with 24 saves to earn the win, and after allowing a cheapie in the first period to Larsson, really settled down and kept the Phantoms in the game with some big stops, especially early in the second period.
“I think he really knuckled down after allowing that one goal,” Murray said. “He showed a real professionalism and made some big stops that allowed us to settle into our game and gain composure.”
After Ethan Werek gave the Pirates an early lead, Harry Zolnierczyk scored the first goal of the season for the Phantoms, in typical Harry Z style – crashing the net at top speed.
However, Zolnierczyk wasn’t trying to poke a puck past the goalie or beat him with a nasty wrister, instead he was simply trying to make a pass.
His attempt to find Eric Wellwood on the doorstep instead banked off of Portland defenseman Chris Summers’ skate and bee-lined past Johnson to tie the score 1-1.
The play was made by Rob Bordson, a surprise starter in the Phantoms lineup, as he dipsy-dooed through the Portland defense before dropping a pass to the speedy Zolnierczyk.
A wild final minute of play in the first period saw two goals in 33 seconds.
Ekman-Larsson, the gifted defenseman for Portland who had 14 goals as a rookie for the Phoenix Coyotes last season, beat Munroe with a shot from the point off a faceoff win by Meile at 19:09 to give Portland a 2-1 lead.
But the Phantoms answered quickly when Ben Holmstrom’s shot rebounded out to Garrett Roe who faked a backhander before doing a 360-degree turn and slipping a forehander past the surprised Johnson.
Known more for his vision and playmaking ability than his scoring touch, Roe made a sensational play to score the goal and tie the score with a mere 18 ticks left on the clock.
“The shot came off the goalie’s pads and it was in my feet and I saw the defenseman’s stick coming in there, so I kind of used my foot to protect it, gave up on the backhand and just turned around and fired it,” Roe said. “I had no idea it was going to go in. I think the goalie thought I was going to go backhand too and was a little off his angle, but I’ll take whatever I can get.
And so will the Phantoms, who will take the win and head to Springfield Sunday to begin a four-game road trip against their division rivals.
“We had turnovers and got pretty sloppy in the defensive zone early, not playing with a lot of poise on the puck,” Roe said. “But we turned it around in the second and into the third and simplified things. We started shutting things down. I think it was just a first game thing where we needed to get back in the swing of things. Overall we’re happy, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”
GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – Terry Murray has coached 1,012 NHL games – which is more than any coach in the 76-year history of the American Hockey League.
And yet, prior to opening night for the Phantoms, he admitted that he still gets butterflies.
“You’re just excited to start the new season,” he said. “So, yeah, there are definitely some nerves there.”
It could also be that it’s Murray’s first game coaching in the AHL in 22 years. Or, it could be that he’s just ready to begin what many believe will be a successful campaign for the Adirondack Phantoms.
Since moving to Northern New York from Philadelphia three seasons ago, the Phantoms have scuffled, and missed the playoffs each season.
But the roster is chock-full of talent this season, loaded with 10 players with NHL experience, so expectations have definitely reached a new level.
“Every team has at least one player with that experience but we’re lucky enough to have a couple handfuls,” said Harry Zolnierczyk, who got to play 37 games with the big club last season. “Then the other guys are playing to try to get to the NHL, so they all want to be playing their best games up front here in the season. It’s going to be pretty intense right off the bat.”
And that intensity will only be driven further by the hopes of the loyal Adirondack fan base that hasn’t seen a Calder Cup title won by the team that makes the Glens Falls Civic Center home since 1991-92.
The players know that. They can feel it in their own locker room.
“The last couple years haven’t worked out the way the organization wanted it to work,” said Brandon Manning, who played four games in the NHL last season. “But the talent is here this year. It’s just a matter of it coming together. We’ve been working on that in training camp, but just this week, coming back up here to Glens Falls, it’s definitely exciting. The hype is there, now all we need to do is come through and it can be a great year for us for sure.”
While the pursuit of the Calder Cup is an ultimate team goal for the Phantoms, the key aspect of the AHL is development – as NHL teams hope to nurture and improve their prospects to the point where they can contribute consistently at the next level.
That’s why Murray is here.
“It’s nice to know that you have a coach with as much as experience as he has,” Zolnierczyk said. “You can definitely learn a lot from him which is great.”
The Phantoms are really deep up front, have a strong defensive corps and have veteran experience in goal with Scott Munroe, who gets the nod over first –year pro and training camp surprise Cal Heeter.
It’s just the right formula, the team hopes, to put together a very successful season.
A visit from an old friend… or two
When the Phantoms last won the Calder Cup in 2005, the veteran anchor of the defense was an AHL legend.
John Slaney, who played in more than 600 games in the AHL in parts of 13 seasons and amassed 519 career points, won his only Calder Cup that season.
At the time, Phantoms coach John Stevens referred to Slaney, one of his alternate captains, as a “coach on the ice.”
Consider that some pretty good foreshadowing on Stevens’ part.
Now, seven years later, Slaney, 40, is starting his second season as an assistant coach of the Portland Pirates, the AHL affiliate for the Phoenix Coyotes.
“Now that it’s my second season it’s a little easier because I know what my role is as a coach and I’m more organized,” Slaney said. “The important thing is developing these kids on the ice and the fundamental part of figuring out what each one of them needs to work on and hopefully I can correct them.”
Slaney is excited for the start of the AHL season because it brings back memories of that 2004-05 season – with all the talent that filtered down from the NHL while the league was on hiatus.
“There’s no question the game is going to be a lot quicker because there’s going to be some really good players that are playing in our league,” Slaney said. “It takes me back (to 2004-05). Those are some good memories for me personally.”
Slaney had 14 goals and 30 assists for 44 points in 78 games for the Phantoms that season and added another three goals and seven assists for 10 points in 21 playoff games, en route to his only professional championship. It was a season he remembers fondly.
“I remember my first NHL game was at the Montreal Forum,” Slaney said. “And you know what hockey is like in Canada, so that was unreal, but when you see what the fans in Philly did, especially that year and in those finals (more than 20,000 filled the Wells Fargo Center for the Calder Cup championship game) it was outstanding. We did it right that year winning the Cup for those people.”
Another Portland connection to the Flyers organization, albeit distantly, is center Brett Hextall.
The son of Flyers goaltending legend, and current Los Angeles Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall, is a Philadelphia native and was a sixth round pick of the Coyotes in 2008.
Now 24, Hextall is entering his second season with the Pirates after playing three seasons at the University of North Dakota. He had seven goals and eight assists for 15 points in 72 games for Portland last season.
Leadership Group Announced
The Phantoms have named Ben Holmstrom as their captain for the 2012-13 season. Holmstrom, 25, has played parts of the last three seasons with the Phantoms and had a nice season for them in 2011-12 with 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points. He has also played seven games in the NHL over the past two seasons with the Flyers.
The two alternate captains are Manning and Danny Syvret. The duo will likely play together as a defensive pairing to start the season for the Phantoms.
How deep are the Phantoms? Only one player on the team has won a Calder Cup – defenseman Jeff Dimmen who won last season with Norfolk – and he can’t crack the starting defensive unit… Look for Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn to play together and not centering two different lines. The organization wants to see Schenn play more on the wing to see if that’s a viable option for him on a more consistent basis at the next level… Scratches for the opener are Mike Testwuide, Shane Harper, Matt Mangene, Dimmen and Zack FitzGerald… Some names you might recognize on the Portland roster: Defenseman David Rundblad (30 games in the NHL last season with Ottawa and Phoenix), Defenseman Chris Summers (21 games with the Coyotes), Center Rob Klinkhammer (15 games with Phoenix), right wing Chris Connor (147 career NHL games with Dallas, Pittsburgh and Detroit), Joel Rechlicz (tough guy with 17 NHL games with the Islanders and Washington), defenseman Michael Stone (13 games with Phoenix), Alexandre Bolduc (48 NHL games with Vancouver and Phoenix), goalie Chad Johnson (six games with the Rangers) and most notably, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who had 13 goals and 19 assists in 82 games with the Coyotes last season.
VOORHEES, N.J. – The cacophonous cries for help on the Flyers blue line resonated throughout much of the summer.
The belief was, (and maybe still is by many), that the biggest need for the Flyers is on defense.
However, when getting a closer look at the organizational depth chart, and getting a glimpse at what likely will be the group of rearguards that will make up the six-or-seven defensemen on the Phantoms in the enhanced AHL, it’s easy to see that defense will be a strength for the affiliate, which is a plus for the organization as a whole.
“There are a bunch of defensemen here with NHL experience under their belt, and with the situation in hockey right now, it will be a positive for a lot of us,” said Danny Syvret, 27, who is entering his eighth season as a pro. “We’ll have bigger roles on the Phantoms than if we were back in the NHL and we’ll be better suited to develop ourselves.”
Manning, 22, was an excellent defenseman with the Phantoms last season – when he was healthy – and even made it to the Flyers for four games as a bit of a reward for his fine play.
“He has shown the ability to join the attack,” said Phantoms coach Terry Murray. “He’s got good feet and skates very well. He’s got a bit of an offensive mindset. In the game against Albany [last Tuesday] I saw a skirmish along the boards and he skated right in and supported his teammates from the blue line to make sure they weren’t going to be outnumbered in any of those physical situations, and that’s a good sign to me.”
As for Lauridsen, the 23-year-old is simply imposing in stature, and continues improving in specific aspects of the game.
“He’s a big body,” Murray said of the 6-foot-6 Denmark native. “He’s got size, strength, intensity and emotion in his game. But I’m really starting to see good things from him on the penalty kill. He’s blocking shots and is working very hard to get into those shooting lanes, which is a skill in and of itself.
“If you get a player that size down the road who can play minutes and kill penalties, you want to give him as much time as possible.”
Syvret is a definite on the team, and likely so is Cullen Eddy, who has been a fixture on the Phantoms for the past two seasons.
The battle appears to be for the No. 7 defenseman between Blake Kessel, a Phantoms regular last season, and Zack Fitzgerald, an eight-year AHL vagabond who is on his fifth different AHL team in the last five seasons. In each of his previous stops he has also accrued more than 200 penalty minutes, so he might have an edge as an enforcer.
“It’s good to have veteran players as long as they are the right kind of role model,” Murray said. “As long as the effort and the play is there on a consistent basis – if you have good veterans who bring the right attitude and the work, they’ll lead and show the way.”
Another bonus for this Phantoms team is the roster stability it will have until the NHL season begins. In most years, rosters are constantly in flux, with players moving up and down and not a lot of consistency and cohesiveness forming.
This year will be different.
“It’s going to be different for sure,” said Bourdon. “We’re going to have one team and not guys coming up and down all season. This year we’ll be able to stay together and get a good chemistry and I think we’ll have a very strong unit back here.”
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37
Ron Hextall could have done any number of things with the Stanley Cup.
After all, he had waited 25 years to actually be part of a team that won the most cherished trophy in sports, and although he didn’t win it as a player, but rather as an executive – the assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Kings – it was just as sweet a victory.
So, it’s safe to say no one would begrudge Hextall taking the Cup anywhere in the world to celebrate a victory that took much longer to accomplish than he ever thought.
He took the Cup back to his hometown of Brandon, Manitoba for a charity event and then headed up to his Clear Lake, Manitoba cabin where he spent the day taking pictures with his dad (former NHLer Bryan Hextall) and visiting area landmarks that wrapped up with a party and a bonfire at Ron’s summer home.
But there was a pit stop in between all that celebrating - one that was unexpected by everyone except for Ron Hextall himself.
“I thought [Bob Clarke] was going to be in Manitoba that week and I was going to show up at his place with the Cup,” Hextall said. “I was hoping he could be there so we could take a picture with it, but he wasn’t there yet. His wife Sandy was there though. So, I took the picture anyway.”
And while some would interpret this as a playful way of rubbing it in, that was not Hextall’s intention in the least.
“Back when he won the Cup in the seventies, he didn’t get a chance to spend a day with it because they didn’t do that then. So, I thought it would be a good chance for him to reconnect with it. I was really excited about it because we had talked at the draft and we had realized we were going to be up there the same week. So, I figured I’d surprise him.
“I had the Cup on a Tuesday and he wasn’t getting in until Friday of that week, so I missed him. He did see the picture though of the Cup at his place and he thanked me for it.”
It was a gesture from one friend to another, but it was a kinship that goes well beyond their Manitoba-bred roots.
It was a relationship that really began when Clarke, then the general manager of the Flyers, chose Hextall as a rookie to be the Flyers everyday goalie in a season when they had Stanley Cup aspirations.
It was a risky proposition, but one that almost came to fruition, with the 1986-87 Flyers falling in Game 7 to the legendary Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, et al.
Hextall made it back to the Finals one more time as a Flyers goalie – in 1997 – but that squad was swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
In 1999, upon retiring, Hextall was given a job as a scout with the Flyers, hired by Clarke to stay with the organization.
After a few years as a scout, Hextall was promoted to Director of Pro Player Personnel in 2002.
Four years later, he left the Flyers to become assistant general manager of the Kings, where he’s been for the last six years – and now has a Cup on his resume.
And no matter how many more he may get in his career as a manager in Los Angeles – or wherever the NHL may take him – Hextall will always circle back to his relationship with Clarke as a reason for his success.
“I can’t state enough how much I learned from Bob Clarke,” Hextall said. “He is one of those guys who didn’t talk a lot, but if you watch him – first as a player and then as part of the management team – how he conducted himself and how he was methodical when making decisions, and despite the fact that even though he was competitive as hell he didn’t overreact – there are so many times that I find myself in a position and choosing to react the way Clarke would.
“He was one of those guys where even if your two best players were hurt, you got the sense as a player that he believed the team could still win. Those little lessons that I observed from him helped mold my personality that I have today as an assistant general manager.”
There was no doubt, that with all the Flyers connections on the Kings from management to coaches to players on the ice, that they were an easy team to root for once the Flyers were eliminated.
Yet, while Hextall’s first Cup will always be connected to the Kings, he still considers himself a Flyer at heart and recanted some of his fondest memories of playing in the orange and black.
“Game 6 of the 1987 Finals at the Spectrum that we won against Edmonton was [the most memorable moment] in Philadelphia," Hextall said. “Not only was it a big game but we came from behind – and we had been coming from behind that whole series – and we pushed that Oilers team to a point they never thought they’d be.”
Everyone will remember J.J. Daigneault’s goal in the third period that put the Flyers ahead, but the final minutes of the game were about as frenetic and edge of your seat as maybe any in Flyers history.
The Oilers were buzzing around the Flyers net for the entire end of the game, but Hextall was square to every shot.
Then, with about 10 seconds left in the game, Hextall tried to clear the puck, only to have it intercepted at the blue line by Mark Messier, who skated in alone on Hextall.
“I just made the save,” Hextall says now, 25 years later. “You had to know though, every time you got into one of those situations with Edmonton it was going to be a frantic finish. We had to buckle our seat belts and get it done. They had a great team. I often think back that if we didn’t play them – and they were possibly the greatest team ever – we would have won the Stanley Cup. It’s like – damn – why did it have to be that year?”
Hextall also addressed some of his other memorable moments in his time with the Flyers
- On scoring a goal: “I say to this day it was overrated,” he said. “The part that was special to me was the reaction of my teammates. They all came off the bench. Guys were hooting and hollering. The Flyers got us all a plaque made out of the game sheet. It became more of a team thing. Because of that, it’s something I’ll never forget. I never thought about scoring before it happened. It wasn’t that important to me. It couldn't not be in my mind though because every time I got the puck and there was an empty net the fans would be yelling, ‘Shoot.’ The media kept asking me when I was going to score a goal. It was one of those things that people wouldn’t just let sit on the sideline. I figured at some point I’d have a good opportunity to do it and I happened to have it that night against Boston and it went in the net.”
- On the hit on Chris Chelios in the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals: “I think its safe to say that was one of those points where my emotions got the best of me,” he said. “Everyone remembers what he did to [Brian] Propp earlier in the series, so I guess I didn’t want to go away quietly. When you’re facing the end of a series and you are losing out it is an emotional time and I did what I thought was right. I guess the league didn’t feel the same way though.”
- On the 1987 Canada Cup experience, especially the final series win over the Soviet Union: “I had the best seat in the house,” said Hextall, who was the backup goalie to Grant Fuhr. “In the final game I was on the bench there and it was exciting. Someone asked me [recently] if it was the best hockey I had ever been part of or seen and I said, ‘Yes.’ It was the highest level of hockey ever because it was more than just a hockey game. It was more than just the Canada Cup. At that point in time we all still hated the Russians. To bring that type of emotion into the game and the series there is something I don’t think you can ever duplicate again. We get along with the Russians now. Every team has Russians in their organization and they’re not a lot different then us. The times have changed. It wasn’t like the 1972 series with them when Clarke played and you wanted to rip the guy’s head off, but it wasn’t that far short of that. We really wanted to beat them. It was a clear emotional pinnacle.
- On missing Philadelphia: “That was my home for a long time. My girls still live on the East Coast and my son Brett played on the East Coast last year (with Portland of the AHL). I do spend a decent amount of time in Manchester (N.H.) with our minor league team, but I miss the Philadelphia area. I can’t say enough about the organization and the people in the organization. When you get down to it, an organization is just an organization but what makes it special is the people. From [Chairman] Mr. [Ed] Snider to Clarke to [Paul Holmgren] to everyone in that organization, it’s a special, special organization.”
Ten years ago, the Flyers had four players on their NHL roster who played collegiate hockey instead of Canadian Junior hockey or in European elite leagues.
Signed out of Bemidji State, Matt Read led all rookies in scoring with 24 goals in 2011-12.
But, only one player – Chris Therien – who played at Providence College, came through the Flyers system.
There were seven draft picks in the system at the time who also played college hockey and two AHL free agents who originally signed with the Flyers, but of that group only Patrick Sharp (Vermont) and Neil Little (RPI) ever played in the NHL.
Fast forward a decade.
Now, there are five players already with NHL experience that were signed by the Flyers out of college – all as free agents: Erik Gustafsson (Northern Michigan), Ben Holmstrom (UMass-Lowell), Matt Read (Bemidji State), Harry Zolnierczyk (Brown) and Scott Munroe (Alabama-Huntsville).
There are two other collegiate free agents who are on the brink of breaking through and getting a shot at the NHL level - Mike Testwuide (Colorado College) and Matt Mangene (Maine) – Cal Heeter (Ohio State), who was signed to his first contract this summer and is considered a long range goaltending prospect, and three more who came from other NHL organizations: Matt Ford (Wisconsin), Cullen Eddy (Mercyhurst) and Blake Kessel (New Hampshire).
Finally there are six Flyers draft picks who are currently playing NCAA hockey: Anthony Stolarz (Nebraska-Omaha), Petr Placek (Harvard), Nick Luukko (Vermont), Michael Parks (North Dakota) and Shayne Gostisbehere (Union). A seventh, Oliver Lauridson, left St. Cloud State after last season to join the Adirondack Phantoms in the AHL.
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren at University of Minnesota
“The influx of college players has certainly evolved, not just with our team but with everybody around the league,” said Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. “Let’s face it, there are players that aren’t drafted and end up becoming late bloomers. So, every team now has gotten to the point where they have a [scout] whose job it is to specifically watch colleges.”
That scout for the Flyers is Ross Fitzpatrick.
A seventh round draft pick of the Flyers in the 1980 NHL entry draft, Fitzpatrick was a collegiate product himself, signing with the organization after four years at Western Michigan University.
Fitzpatrick had a cup of coffee in the NHL – playing 20 games after parts of four seasons with the Flyers (scoring five goals and two assists for seven points in that time), but he had a pretty solid AHL career scoring 308 goals and 311 assists for 619 points in 554 career games.
So it’s safe to say he knows what to look for when it comes to organizational depth.
“He’s done a tremendous job the last few years of recruiting,” Holmgren said. “That’s really what the job is – finding talented players and convincing them that our organization is their best chance of making it to the NHL.
“He was a big reason why guys like Read and Gustafsson and Testwuide have come to our organization and that’s been big for us.”
The NCAA ground is fertile now because of advancements in hockey programs at schools across the country. It was a shift in philosophy in the NHL once the salary cap was introduced where teams were looking for players who might be more physically mature than their teenage prospects who might be able to fill the void at a more palatable salary and still maintain the status of being a marginal prospect without just having their ceiling hit in the minors.
“In the last decade, hockey in the U.S. has really blossomed,” said Holmgren. “Look at all the draft picks coming out of the USHL. That’s really the NCAA feeding ground. It’s incredible.”
The USHL has become a strong alternative for players who want to play a good level of junior hockey but want to maintain collegiate eligibility.
Players who play in the Canadian major junior leagues are paid, and therefore lose that eligibility.
Six of the aforementioned players, Holmstrom, Parks, Read, Testwuide, Ford and Kessel, all spent time in the USHL.
And while the skill level of the NCAA might not be as high as Canadian junior hockey, nor is the game schedule as rigorous, the physical aspect of the game is far closer to the NHL.
“College hockey gave me the opportunity to develop my game as I became older and stronger,” Gustafsson said. “Because there are less games, there’s a lot more time for practice and workouts so you can fine tune your game while building up your body. There’s more time to work on the small details in practice while getting stronger and more mature.”
Holmgren also credits USA Hockey for growing the sport nationally, which has made it more prominent at the collegiate level at more schools – especially some non-traditional sports powerhouses.
“USA Hockey has done a fine job at the grassroots level,” Holmgren said. “They get kids playing. Now there are kids drafted from Atlanta, Southern California, Texas… it’s not just the hotbeds of Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota anymore.
“Look at Union College last year reaching the Final Four. I bet most people didn’t even know Union College had a hockey team.”
The year before it was Bemidji State. There’s also RPI and St. Cloud State and Colorado College (not University) among others.
“It’s definitely an area we have put a good amount of emphasis on in recent years,” said Chris Pryor, Flyers Director of Hockey Operations. “We’re seeing more and more guys make it to the NHL and having good careers after coming out of college, so it’s definitely an approach we want to continue using, hopefully with some success, in the future.”
Oh, by the way, before he broke into the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars, Pryor played four years at the University of New Hampshire.
Quick, who is the longest tenured Flyer?
No, it’s Braydon Coburn, you know, the guy who is going to be the de facto No. 1 guy on the Flyers blue line this year.
Sure Timonen is still around, but at 37 he relies more on savvy and guile than peak physical performance to play the game.
Nick Grossmann? Luke Schenn? Nice players both, but neither are No. 1 guys.
So the title falls on Coburn, who will be looked upon to play big minutes and be the shut down rearguard against the best players the opposition has to throw at the Flyers every game.
And he’s ready for it, keeping an even keel.
“I think every year I put a certain amount of pressure on myself and I expect a certain level of play out of myself,” Coburn said. “But you don’t want to get caught up in a situation where you feel like you have to do more than you need to – that’s when guys get out of their comfort zone. I’ve put a lot of thought into it – about where you want to be. I think I’m an older guy here now and I’ve been part of this defense for awhile and with the young guys coming in I feel like I can be a leader for this team.”
It’s funny to hear Coburn refer to himself as an “older guy” as he is still just 27, but in terms of experience, he is certainly older, wiser and more mature than a lot of defensemen.
It is because of that and because he knows he’s going to be leaned on this season more than ever before to be the top defenseman, Coburn has been preparing himself physically.
His training regimen would make the creators of P90X sit in the corner and suck their thumb.
Six days a week Coburn goes through an extensive, 2 ½ - hour workout that includes a regimen of weights, plyometrics and a core workout that is second to none. The process is so long, that Coburn has videos saved to his iPhone to remind him what exercise comes next.
“If you look at him he’s a big guy who can skate really well – he’s one of the better skaters in the league,” said Timonen, who is recovering nicely from offseason back surgery. “It’s all about experience. You play a lot of games in a lot of rinks against a lot of different players. If you’ve got size and speed and you see the game pretty well, with experience you’re going to be a better player. That’s what it’s been for Coby. He’s going to keep getting better and better. I’ve seen this happen many times with different players – you get that experience and you get better.”
For Coburn part of that experience has been playing with some top tier defensemen in his five years with the team.
He has gleaned important aspects of how to play the position – and more importantly how to be a leader – from some of the best of their era.
“Kimmo is the player he is because he’s so smart,” Coburn said. “He knows how the game is played. He’s such a good anticipator. He’s got a great skill set. He’s not the biggest guy or the fastest guy out there, but he does all the little things right. For me I try to take my physical tools and try to add things to my game. Being out there with Kimmo I see first hand how he plays and how he work as a partner – those are things I’ve tried to add to my game through the years. The experience of playing with him is invaluable. Just to have a guy like that – and other guys – like Derian [Hatcher], Chris [Pronger] and Jason Smith has been so valuable to me. They all rubbed off on me in different ways.”
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And now entering his seventh season with the Flyers, Coburn is ready to take on more responsibility not just on the ice but in the locker room as well.
“I’ve played in a lot of different places and played a lot of games that I now think I can pass along knowledge to young guys like those guys did to me,” Coburn said. “Last year was my best year in the sense of being more vocal and being a leader. I think sometimes the best thing you can do is present yourself as a professional and really go about your business in the right way.
“Sometimes guys that are paying attention and watching - that’s what rubs off the most. I remember when I was a young guy I tried to be a sponge and look to see what guys were doing and what made them successful.”
Another thing that made them successful was a consistently optimistic outlook when it came to the teams they played on. There’s a reason Hatcher, Pronger and Smith all have their names etched on the Stanley Cup – because they believed they can win.
Coburn is no different. Despite there being public concerns with the Flyers defense heading into the new season, Coburn still looks at it as a strength.
“Last year you got a good look at some of the pieces on this team,” he said. “At the end of last season when Mez was hurt, [Marc-Andre] Bourdon was a big part of this team. People can be excited about him. He’s got a lot of elements to like in his game. He’s a big guy with a nice shot who’s not afraid to get physical.
“The other young guy – [Erik] Gustafsson – has really kind of blossomed since he first started playing pro here. He’s a guy that really moves the puck well and has a great instinct about him. I know some people compare him to Kimmo and I think that’s a really fair comparison. He’s a little guy who knows how to use his body and is a smart player out there.
“I know Bruno [Gervais] as well. I played with him through the national team programs growing up and he’s a good player who has kind of flown under the radar a little bit, but his skill set is there.”
He sure sounds like a guy ready to anchor a defense. The next step is to see if that translates on the ice. Knowing how solid and consistent Coburn is, the odds are pretty strong in his favor.
If Ilya Bryzgalov were asked to compare his first season in Philadelphia to the title of a book, he very likely would go with “Life, the Universe and Everything,” by Douglas Adams.
After all, it was a whirlwind of a first thrill ride through the corkscrew of a pressure cooker that is hockey in Philadelphia.
It is especially so for a goalie, who all too often is the forgotten man when the team wins – with the exception of a shutout or a stand-on-your-mask performance in the crease – but is the direct target of the public ire when a game goes badly.
And while that is unfair, it’s the way things are in this town, and the way they will always be – until someone not named Bernie Parent skates around the ice in goalie gear hoisting a silver chalice overhead.
And while Bryzgalov may have had a perceived rocky start to his time in Philadelphia, a closer glance at his season shows that it wasn’t as lost as it was often pointed out to be.
After all, Bryzgalov had the best goals against average [2.48] of any Flyers goalie since the lockout – when rules changes were made to increase scoring.
He also won 33 games. That tied for the most since Roman Cechmanek won 35 in 2000-01.
Oh, and he had six shutouts. That would be more than all Flyers goalies combined for in the previous two seasons and tied for the most by one Flyers goalie since Cechmanek had 10 in 2000-01.
“I don’t think last year was as bad as everyone else thinks,” said Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese. “I agree that there were some ups and downs and I think it was a big time learning experience for him coming from Anaheim and Phoenix.
“But if you look at his numbers, they weren’t too bad and he beat the team [Pittsburgh] that a lot of people thought was going to win the Stanley Cup. I know it was a wide-open series and that it was enjoyable to watch for everybody except goalies and goalie coaches. But, both of those teams can score goals – and he won the series. He took a lot of criticism, but he won the series. Then, the New Jersey series was a completely different series, and I thought he was one of our best players.”
Now a new season approaches, and yet questions remain about the Flyers defense and goaltending. And while the defensive questions are fair – after all the Flyers missed out on a couple of big time free agent acquisitions and lost two more defensemen to summer injuries – the goaltending situation is pretty much a known entity.
There’s Bryzgalov, who bears the weight of the Philadelphia hockey universe – unfairly at times - on his shoulders.
However, this is Philadelphia – and while the most scrutinized athlete in town is usually the quarterback of the football team, the hockey goalie is certainly a close second.
It’s going to be up to Bryzgalov to quell the rabble who put such an intense focus on him – and the fact that he has a lengthy and pricey contract.
“I think last year was a learning experience for all of us with Bryz,” Reese said. “It was all kind of new for us and we were trying to help him through it. Did it help? I don’t know. Did it make it worse? I don’t know.
“My focus for him [this season] is not going to be so much the off ice stuff, but rather getting his game to a point where he can be more himself. I say that because when things aren’t going so well and you’re still being funny in the press – it’s not so funny. But when things are going good, it’s all O.K. So our focus is to get Bryz playing to where he can be himself and be more consistent.”
Like he was during the month of March.
Bryzgalov had a stretch last March of 13 starts in which he went 10-2-1 with a 1.21 goals against average, a .957 save percentage and four shutouts.
It was truly a stellar run of games for a goalie.
“When I saw him have a stretch like that - I didn’t even see [Nikolai] Khabibulin have a stretch like that [in 2004 when Reese was the goalie coach in Tampa Bay and they won the Stanley Cup],” Reese said. “Khabibulin never had a stretch like those 13 games Bryz had in March.
“My point is, [Bryzgalov] can do that – we just need him to do it more consistently. Then he can be himself.”
There were other pressures than just being thrown to the lions in a hockey rabid market starving for a champion.
He had to move his family to the Philadelphia area, find schools for his children, get to know his new teammates and feel the pressure of a smart, hard-working, young goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky who was pushing him every day.
“He’s settled now,” said Reese. “He’s got a house, his kids are in school – he knows what to expect. He’s going to be much better.”
And it will help that the 23-year-old Bobrovsky will be fighting for a job in Columbus rather than Philadelphia and that Bryzgalov will be backed up by a veteran like Michael Leighton.
“Michael had some bad luck after 2010,” Reese said. “He ran into the injuries and it was hard for Michael to get back because of how Bob was playing. But what convinced us that he was good for this role was how he handled last season.
“He went down [to the Phantoms] and had a terrific attitude. He brought a calmness to the young guys and a winning attitude. A lot of guys in his situation would have said, ‘I’ll just go down there, make my money and move on.’ He didn’t do that. That carried over as to the reason we signed him. [General Manager Paul Holmgren] was really impressed with his work ethic and his attitude, and that’s why he’s back.”
It will also help Reese as a coach that both Bryzgalov and Leighton play a similar style in goal.
“We can work on similar things – beat the pass, play deeper in net, those sort of things,” Reese said. “The team won’t have to adjust one night to the next depending on what guy was going to play in net.”
It also helps that Leighton isn’t a real threat to steal the starting job from Bryzgalov.
“Bryz is going to play most of the games,” Reese said. “[Michael] is aware of that. It’s a role that he’s going to have to put the effort in and be prepared for it. It’s a job that he has to take a lot of pride in. This might be his last kick at the can. He knows that if he has a good rapport with Bryz and things go well, maybe he can get a few more years out of it.”
The Flyers have set it up for Bryzgalov to do nothing but succeed. Reese is committed to that. Leighton is committed to that. The rest of the coaches and management is committed to that.
Now, it’s up to Bryzgalov to provide the missing link.
“This year he knows what to expect,” Reese said. “He’s a big boy. The focus for me is going to be on the ice.
“He is a bona fide number one goalie in this league and he’s good enough to win the Stanley Cup. Now, will we do it? We’ll see. But he’s good enough.”
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VOORHEES, N.J. – The only remnant is a 2-inch pink scar on his left wrist.
For Erik Gustafsson though, it is a reminder of just how hard it is to make it to the NHL.
With the Flyers in need of a defenseman because of various injuries last season, Gustafsson, along with fellow defensive prospects Marc-Andre Bourdon and Kevin Marshall were given the chance to play a good chunk of games at the NHL level for the first time.
Gustafsson and Bourdon were both impressing the Flyers brass enough that the team traded Marshall, and leaned on their other two, young, defensive prospects to fill the void at the NHL level.
It was the culmination of a lifelong pursuit for Gustafsson, who felt he was ready to stake a claim to a regular NHL spot and not let go.
At first, it appeared positive for Gustafsson. In just his fifth game of the season, he became the first Flyers rookie to post a rating of plus-6 in a game since 1984.
And while he was certainly receiving plenty of accolades for that performance – a game in which he played 23 minutes, the most amount of ice time in his young career - he was probably a bit fortunate that night, not really being involved in three of the six goals he was on the ice for, it was the last game he’d play in quite awhile.
In that memorable game, Gustafsson damaged the sheathing that protects tendons in his wrist and needed it to be repaired surgically.
He didn’t make it back to the NHL for nine weeks.
Even then, he really wasn’t himself. Taking a couple months off in the middle of a season is terrible for an athlete. It’s almost like the offseason workouts and training camp have to commence all over again.
He played another month without accumulating even one point. He only took six shots in that span.
But all the while he was taking regular, or semi-regular shifts, and gaining plenty of experience.
He played pretty continually through the end of March before taking another hiatus.
He returned in the playoffs against Pittsburgh, even scoring a goal in the series clinching game against the Pens – when he played 22:09.
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He also skated in each of the five playoff games against New Jersey, which had the Flyers feeling good about Gustafsson, 23, moving forward.
Now, after another summer of training and working on his strength and speed, Gustafsson is ready to finish what he started a season ago.
“It’s been a great summer,” he said. “I’ve had no setbacks at all. I’ve been working a little bit on strengthening the wrist, but otherwise I’ve just been working on the strength schedule (assistant strength and conditioning coach) Ryan Podell gave me and I feel like I’m in really good shape.”
Gustafsson also practiced during the summer in Sweden with Timra IK of the Swedish Elite League and is looking forward for the start of the NHL season, so he can solidify his chances of being in the NHL every day.
“I think this is the best opportunity I’ve had so far within the Flyers organization,” he said. “I think I finally found my game at the end of last year, and I hope I can carry that over and be even better this year. I want to show everyone that I deserve a spot on the roster and to get [more] playing time.”
And considering the Flyers situation on defense, which is marred with injuries, there is a chance that Gustafsson can do just that.
“He’s come along nicely,” said general manager Paul Holmgren. “His first year here he was able to get in a full season with the Phantoms and put up really good numbers as an offensive guy who played all situations and was able to pick up the tempo of the game.
“He had to get quicker and his skating needed to improve while he was adapting. I think the brief number of games that he played for the Flyers – he did a good job of containing, and that’s what stood out in our minds.
“He’s always going to have some difficulty because he’s a smaller statured guy, especially compared to some of the forwards he plays against, but if you’re smart, and you have a good stick and are competitive, you can play around those deficiencies.”
And that’s what the Flyers believe they have in Gustafsson. Good thing for them, he feels the same way.
The transformation for Scott Hartnell has been impressive.
Going from just being a run-of-the-mill hockey player to an NHL All-Star in the span of two years should not be understated. The commitment and an on-point work ethic are necessary to make such a transition.
That, of course, is magnified even more when it happens with a player who has been a professional for a decade.
It would have been easy for Hartnell to just continue on his path of complacency – of just being a guy with enough natural ability to get by, stay in the NHL and collect a paycheck.
But Hartnell wanted to make a difference. He didn’t just want to be another guy in the league. He wanted to be a reliable contributor - someone who can leave an indelible mark on the sport.
And ever since a heart-to-heart with Flyers coach Peter Laviolette early in the magical 2010 playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final, Hartnell has done just that.
And now, he’s being rewarded for his efforts.
The Flyers have signed Hartnell to a six-year contract extension today, locking up one of the game’s best power forwards through the 2018-19 season.
“We are pleased to announce that we have agreed with Scott on a multi-year extension,” said general manager Paul Holmgren in a statement. “Scott has been a very good player for us over the last five seasons and we look forward to many more good years to come.”
Hartnell agreed to a deal now rather than wait for after the new collective bargaining agreement is signed.
It guaranteed him money for a sixth year, which is something the NHL is trying to prevent as part of their negotiations. The league wants to cap contracts at a five-year maximum.
“I plan on playing all six years and playing my heart out for the city of Philadelphia, the fans and of course the bosses upstairs,” Hartnell said. “I don’t think my value would have changed much in a year… I thought about honestly waiting until the new CBA was signed so the rollback wouldn’t affect me. But if there is a rollback that will [set] a new marketplace as well. So it was six in one hand and half a dozen in a nother. I just know I love Philly and I want to be there. I’m not going to be sour about it. I’m just going to put on my skates and go out there and work hard every day.”
Since that 2010 playoff run, Hartnell has been nothing short of excellent for the Flyers.
He played a full season in 2010-11 and had a solid year with 24 goals and 25 assists for 49 points. But it was last season that he really became the All-Star caliber talent that ultimately enticed the Flyers to lock him up for practically the rest of the decade.
Hartnell, moved to the Flyers top line alongside Claude Giroux, posted career highs in goals (37) assists (30 – which matched a career best) and points (67) and was named the NHL Eastern Conference All-Star team for the first time.
It was another chat with Laviolette at the start of last season that fueled Hartnell. He had started the first five games on the fourth line and wasn’t getting power play time, but after talking to Laviolette, he was given a chance with Giroux and Jaromir Jagr and it paid major dividends.
“I love the way Lavvy coaches,” Hartnell said. “He’s an offensive-minded coach and loves guys to get it on the forecheck and guys that hit. He’s a real motivator for me. He can call you out in a particular group or in front of everyone or sit you down if you need a spanking to get going again. Hopefully we can continue that chemistry and build on bigger and better years for the Flyers.”
But it was so much more than that.
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Hartnell, who at times before his renaissance was a target of fan anger and occasional ridicule, made peace with his quirks and decided to modify his guarded public persona and put them to good use.
He began engaging the Flyers fans on social media, which immediately showed those cheering for the team that he was as personable and fun as his teammates knew him to be.
“The Flyers made a commitment to me five years ago to be a Flyer and I’ve loved every second of it,” Hartnell said. “We have a great team, a great bunch of guys, a great future and a chance to win the Stanley Cup.”
He also began to play along with the fans counting how many times he fell down on the ice, turning the Twitter count into a charitable arm that exploded at the All Star game last year when #HartnellDown went viral, and made him an immensely popular player across two countries.
But, aside from his image, Hartnell also did something else that really wowed Flyers management – he became an off-ice mentor to a lot of the Flyers younger players. He took guys like Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and Matt Read under his wing.
That was put on full display during HBO’s 24/7 special last year when Hartnell had all three guys over his house for Christmas.
But, it was a lot more than just being a holiday host. He was a positive influence in the locker room on a team that featured seven rookies for much of the season.
In the past, every time Hartnell was questioned by the media about the possibility of waiving the no trade clause in his contract if he was asked, Hartnell always answered that he’d decline.
His constant answer was something along the lines of “I love it in Philadelphia. I love this organization. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Now, he doesn’t have to be.
The Wayne train will be rolling through Philadelphia for the next seven years.
That’s because the Flyers have signed forward Wayne Simmonds to a contract extension that will keep him as a Flyer through the 2018-19 season at a very palatable cap hit of $3.97 million.
Considering Simmonds scored 28 goals last season and finished with 49 points – both career highs – the Flyers wanted to lock him up as a key member of the young core of the team – Simmonds turns 24 a week from Sunday - as quickly as possible.
Both sides took a bit of a gamble in the deal, but that’s ultimately what makes it such a good agreement for both the Flyers and Simmonds.
“We are pleased to announce that we have agreed to a multi-year extension with Wayne Simmonds,” general manager Paul Holmgren said. “Wayne plays the game with courage and honor and we believe he will continue to be a very good winger for our organization.”
The extension doesn’t kick in or affect the salary cap until the 2013-14 season. Simmonds will play the 2012-13 season on the final year of his old contract that has a salary cap hit of $1.75 million.
Simmonds has 67 goals and 75 assists for 142 points in 322 career NHL games for the Kings and Flyers.
“Philadelphia has been a great place to me,” Simmonds said. “I signed this extension because I want to help bring a SC to Philly. I just want to be another piece of the puzzle. We have a great young core in place and this is where I want to be for a long time.”
Simmonds sacrificed his remaining restricted free agency years and even a few years of possible unrestricted free agency to sign this guaranteed contract.
“A deal came up where it was smart for me to take it to be part of the Flyers organization for a substantial amount of time and I jumped on it,” Simmonds said.
“I thought I had a pretty productive season last year. I didn’t know where I stood on the contract side. Homer came to us with a contract extension and I discussed it with my agent and the three of us all thought it was a good idea.”
The gritty power forward is being paid based on his production from last year, and now with the Jaromir Jagr and James van Riemsdyk playing elsewhere, Simmonds is going to have the spotlight shine on him even more when it comes to expected offensive production.
“I don’t feel pressure but I’m going to go out there and work as hard as I can every day and continue to progress as a player,” he said. “We certainly have the talent on our team. I think I can continually improve. I’m not going to put numbers on it, but I definitely think I’m going to get better the more I play.”