Flyers Have Building Blocks to Get Back on Track
By Bill Meltzer
Even before the opening faceoff dropped on the 48-game 2013 season, the Philadelphia Flyers understood the campaign would be akin to running a short-distance sprint rather than a marathon. Unfortunately, the team got out of the gates slowly and was unable to close the gap.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said left winger Scott Hartnell. “I really believe that. I think the guys in here have enough character, enough professionalism to go home this summer, watch these playoffs with fire in your step to get to the gym to work out, to skate, to do things that I can do to make the team better. That’s probably the most important thing we’ve got to do.”
However, when one steps back and takes a deeper look at the season, there are many positives upon which the club can build to re-establish itself as a playoff team next year.
Start with special teams play. After having difficulties on both the power play and penalty kill in the early going of the season, the Flyers finished atop the NHL in their combined power play and penalty killing ranking. Breaking it down individually, the Flyers finished third in the NHL on the power play (21.6 percent, including an NHL-best 27.8 percent at home). The club placed fifth in the NHL on the penalty kill (85.9 percent, 87.9 percent at home).
Five-on-five play was a major trouble spot this season but has typically been a Flyers’ strength. As recently as 2011-12, the team ranked sixth in the league with 168 five-on-five goals at even strength play. While no one denies that there are adjustments to be made on both sides of the puck, the team is likely to get bounceback seasons next year from some its personnel that experienced down-years in the shortened campaign.
“For our team, we had a lot of guys who can make plays and be offensive,” said Hartnell. “In (D zone) we tried to be like a couple other teams in our division. We’re not used to that system. It takes a little adjustment time and this year we couldn’t afford that adjustment period. You start off 3-10 or whatever we were and we dug ourselves a hole. It was frustrating to watch, to play it. I think as the season went on . . .if this were an 82-game season, we would make it for sure. Our last 15 games, I think we won 11 or 10 of them. If we played 30 more games, we’re right there.’’
The Flyers defeated each of the other 14 teams in the Eastern Conference at least once during their respective 2013 season series. While this is cold comfort for a team that fell short of reaching the postseason, it was still a feat that shows potential for the Flyers to move back up in the standings a year from now. In fact, there have been full 82-game seasons in club history where the Flyers have posted 100-plus points and were still swept in their season series by a couple troublesome opponents.
Most of the Flyers’ key personnel, with the major exception of stalwart defenseman Kimmo Timonen, is comprised of players in their 20s to early 30s. Players such as Brayden Schenn (a 21-years-old) and Sean Couturier (age 20) are still in the developmental phases of their NHL careers. Even veterans such as Claude Giroux (age 25), Jakub Voracek (age 23), Wayne Simmonds (age 24) and Luke Schenn (age 23) still have not reached what are generally considered the prime of most players’ careers.
Voracek, the winner of the Bobby Clarke Trophy as the team’s most valuable player and the Pelle Lindbergh Award as its most improved player, is a good example of a Flyers player who figures to be a solid player for many years to come. Over his last 74 games as a Flyer, dating back to the 2011-12 stretch drive and playoffs through the end of this season, Voracek has produced 31 goals, 40 assists and 71 points. His success this year, in which he emerged as a top-line winger, was the next step of fulfilling the potential that made him a high-end 1st-round draft pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2007.
Likewise, defenseman Luke Schenn continued his evolution toward fulfilling the promise that made him a top-five pick by Toronto in the 2008 Draft. He finished the 2013 campaign as the NHL's leading hitter among defensemen (187 credited hits in 47 games played) and as the 17th-best shot blocker (102 blocks). He also took significant strides in bettering his positional play. Young defensemen in the NHL, even top-end picks, typically face a steep learning curve that lasts up to five years from the time they are drafted. Schenn is now rapidly emerging as a leader on the Philadelphia blueline.
There is also promising talent in the pipeline. Scott Laughton, the team’s first-round pick in 2012, opened this season in the NHL and stands a good chance at making the club as a full-time roster player next year. At the minor league level, several players on the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms, such as forward Tye McGinn and defensemen Erik Gustafsson and Oliver Lauridsen, proved to be effective NHL call-up players this year when they got the chance to play with the big club. Gustafsson in particular appears to have a golden opportunity to earn a full-time NHL roster spot come next season.
The 2013 NHL Draft is widely believed to be one of the deepest in recent years in terms of available talent with the potential to become NHL standouts within the next few years. The Flyers, who hold the default 10th pick of the first round prior to Monday’s Draft lottery, stand a good chance of adding a player who will be ready to contribute in the near future. Additionally, the Flyers have held onto a relatively full complement of picks in the subsequent rounds of the upcoming Draft.
While the 2013 season was not what anyone associated with the Flyers wanted it to be, there is plenty of reason to believe the club’s absence from the Stanley Cup playoffs will be just a one-year blip on the radar screen. There are already many important building blocks in place as an important off-season in team history approaches.
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