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New Team, New Genes and New Chemistry, But Have They Changed?

December 26, 2011 1 comment

After the New York Jets did their best Eagles impersonation on Saturday, the Philly sports fever epidemic completed its gradual spread to the Flyers season. Approaching the midpoint of the NHL season, with an avalanche of extra attention heaped on the team via the HBO 24/7 production and the Winter Classic they will host next week, the city’s soul is now officially infected yet again with the hopes and promising play of its hockey club.

The team itself has been beset by the injury bug. This ruthless strain has gone after the team’s best, knocking newly appointed team captain Chris Pronger out for the year and attempting to derail Claude Giroux’s MVP-like clip. It’s been fun to watch this team so far, not just because of the way they keep putting W’s up in the standings, but to see how the genetic makeup of this revamped team fits into the natural selection of the 2011-12 NHL season. So far they have not been surviving, they’ve been setting the pace.

It appears as if the offseason experiment has worked. The Mike Richards departure made sense, as he didn’t seem comfortable as the team’s leader, he underperformed in key spots, and he was seemingly at odds with Head Coach Peter Laviolette. But was it excessive to cut ties with Jeff Carter, a rare NHL player who was nearly a shoe-in for 35-45 goals each year?

The Flyers' offseason moves dared Giroux to become a superstar this year. He has responded by leading the league in scoring.

Apparently not. The team opted to spend big on a goaltending upgrade, the likes of which the team’s front office hasn’t produced over this decade-plus of playoff-bound teams, in favor of an offensive focus. But nearly halfway through the year, the Flyers are ranked No. 2 in the NHL in goals per game. Giroux has smoothly taken over as team (and league) superstar. Rookies like Matt Read and Jakub Voracek have responded with pleasantly surprising point totals. Most importantly, tough guys like Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds and Max Talbot have answered the call for their names on the scoresheet while Danny Briere and James van Riemsdyk have not yet been in the dominant form they’ve shown before.

The team has gotten faster and younger this season, but the impact of the three tough guys mentioned above has helped the team maintain a toughness that is helpful toward their success and likeable by the fans. Everybody loves a team that plays well on the road, and the Flyers have been the best at sending opposing home crowds grumbling toward the exits. Their road success is a sign of a team in a good mental place, a sign of positive team cohesion, a sign that they may have something that has been missing the last couple seasons.

It is clear from their play that they did not stop to feel sorry for themselves when Pronger and Giroux went down, and the behind-the-scenes access of HBO’s 24/7 shows the coaching staff’s key role in establishing that attitude. It has led to some victories in the face of adversity while those two guys were gone.

On further examination of those injuries, it was the four-and-a-half games the team played without Jaromir Jagr when they looked like a discombobulated unit. The realization that the 39-year-old star may be the team’s most important piece is both a blessing and a reason to be alarmed.

The Jagr experiment has been all smiles so far. But are the Flyers too reliant on him?

It shows that Jagr has exceeded his expected impact. The acquisition of the Czech veteran, in the midst of losing Richards and Carter and gaining Bryzgalov, may have been the best result of GM Paul Holmgren’s tinkering. He has helped the power play gain some consistency it has lacked. He has elevated the play of his top line cohorts. He has been more physical than expected, not throwing hits here and there, but still using his big frame to his advantage and not shying away from contact. He is scoring. And he looks like he’s having a load of fun doing all this, giving smiley interviews with Coatsey after the game and clearly contributing to the positive locker room atmosphere.

So why be alarmed? He’s 39, that’s why. No matter how incredible he has been, it’s still a petrifying realization that the success of this team may very well rely on him. Without Jagr the power play likely drops back to the realm of mediocrity. Without Jagr, Giroux and Hartnell have to work that much harder to put pucks in the net at this pace. Without Jagr, the absence of Pronger on the ice will sting that much more. As much as Jagr has shown he’s in shape, as much as he has already responded well in recovering from a groin injury, will he be able to last the season and be this effective in the playoffs? It remains a ginormous question to be answered.

With so many positive things to be said about this team right now, it is still hard to fight the thought that its fate may be no different than that of its predecessors. They are still plagued by inconsistent defense. First and second tier guys like Matt Carle,  Andrej Meszaros, and Kimmo Timonen continue to do enough for approval. They  play solidly for a stretch, get occasional game winners and they certainly never seem like they are dogging it out there. But they also look completely lost too often on coverage by the net, not giving the goaltender a chance on many goals that are being given up.

The omission of Bryzgalov from the positive portion of this midseason analysis is discouraging. Has he been giving up goals on shots from indescribable angles the way Brian Boucher miraculously found a way to do? No. But let’s be honest, he hasn’t been very good. If you look at the league leaders in goaltender save percentage, you will surely do a double take. You’ll squint at the screen harder, and likely even hit refresh before you realize that his name doesn’t appear on the first page. He ranks No. 41 with a .895 percentage, and he is giving up almost three goals per game, good for 34th place in that category. Sergei Bobrovsky ranks higher (albeit not very high) in both. Although Bryzgalov’s existential musings on his humble role in the vast universe are quite charming on camera, he better wake up and realize that his 9-year $51 million significance in the world of Philadelphia sports is a pretty big friggin’ deal, and it’s only going to get bigger come playoff time.

Bryzgalov's play hasn't helped to increase his significance in the "humungous big" universe

The Flyers are a team that’s using scoring across its lines to overcome defensive and goaltending deficiency. This despite the offseason recognition that it will be goaltending that this team needs, and has consistently lacked, in crunch time. It’s a team rolling the right way now but, from a standings perspective, resembles the team that held the No. 1 spot in the conference last year for a while during the throes of season’s midst. At this time last year, the Flyers looked tough to stop. But then they lost their mojo late and got swept by Boston in round one of the playoffs. So has this team changed much? Some struggles at home and recent losses to the cream of the Eastern crop, are elevating concern.

The Eagles flew smack into a glass window this season, completing a depressing 2011 for Philly sports. The Flyers have a chance to swoop in and grab the championship the Phillies and Eagles could have nabbed. More than the usual are paying attention to the Flyers and their sport this time around. It would be a great year to end their 36-year Stanley-Cup-hoisting drought. But then again, every year has seemed like a good year for that.

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November 19, 2011 Leave a comment

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