Philadelphia Flyers Hanging Onto Playoff Hopes

We’re 20 games into the 2013-14 NHL season, the unofficial quarter mark of a long 82-game season. The Philadelphia Flyers have had a difficult and trying time. For those of you who missed it, they accomplished the following feats:

-Started 0-3 and fired Head Coach Peter Laviolette on October 7th

-Continued their dismal start to 1-7, falling to the bottom of the NHL standings

-Captain Claude Giroux failed to score a goal in his first 15 games

-Goalie Ray Emery nearly bashed Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby’s skull in during a line brawl in a November 1 loss

-Failed to score more than 2 goals in their first 9 games, and currently stand 28th in the league in offense

-Currently last in the Metropolitan Division standings

So there’s that. But, I contend that things are looking up for the Orange and Black and they can easily continue their quest for a playoff spot. In their last 5 games, the Flyers have 4 wins and one overtime loss, and they are scoring over 3.5 goals per game in that span. Their offense is waking up, with scorers like Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds slowly beginning to tally points. And Philadelphia’s much maligned power play has scored 5 goals in the last 4 games.

And then there’s the curious case of Steve Mason. After winning the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 2009, Mason struggled in Columbus, failing to live up to his rookie hype. He was traded to the Flyers last April, and found the change of scenery to be inviting and motivating. He went 4-2 at the end of last season with an impressive 1.90 GAA. This season, Mason has been the Flyers’ best player. Although his record is a losing one (mostly because of atrocious goal scoring), he has a 2.12 GAA and 93.2% save percentage (both 10th in the NHL). It appears that Philadelphia’s years of goalie woes might be over. At just 25 years of age, Mason has plenty of room for growth.

The Flyers upcoming schedule also shows signs of hope. Tonight, Philadelphia hosts a Buffalo Sabres team that is sinking faster than the Titanic. After that, the Flyers host the Islanders on Friday and travel to Miami to play the Florida Panthers on Monday. And despite all the struggles, all the trials, and all the criticism and public scrutiny, the Flyers are only 3 points out of a playoff spot. That’s extremely easy to make up with 62 games left to play. “The team looks good right now,” defenseman Kimmo Timonen said yesterday. “A lot of things are going well for us now and we have to keep it going.” Indeed, things are going well, and if they continue, the Flyers could rise quickly in the Eastern Conference standings.

Philadelphia Flyers Fire Head Coach Peter Laviolette

lavvyThe Philadelphia Flyers announced this morning that they have fired head coach Peter Laviolette. After starting 0-3, Flyers’ management needed to shake up an organization that has looked non-competitive for the second straight season in a row. After starting last season 0-3 and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the Flyers were outscored in their first three games of 2013 9 goals to 3.

Laviolette joined the Flyers midway through the 2010 season, where he led the Flyers to a dramatic shootout victory on the last day of the season to clinch a playoff spot. The rest is history: the 7th seeded Flyers became the third team in NHL history to come back from a 3 game deficit to win a playoff series against the Boston Bruins. The Flyers then won their first Eastern Conference title since 1997 and came within 2 games of winning the Stanley Cup.

Laviolette also led the Flyers to an Atlantic Division title in 2011 and a dramatic, emotional victory over the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. So what’s my point here? THE WRONG MAN LOST HIS JOB.

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren is responsible for most of the mistakes in the Flyers organization. Sure he was at the helm when the Flyers went to the Cup Finals in 2010, but most of the players weren’t his. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, and Claude Giroux were all products of Bob Clarke’s GM days, not Holmgren’s. Moreover, Holmgren is known for blowing up the Flyers roster, trading captain Mike Richards and leading scorer Jeff Carter in 2011 so the Flyers could sign goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Yeah, that happened.

The result was that Richards, Carter, and Gagne won a Stanley Cup in Los Angeles, the Flyers were embarrassed in the second round of the playoffs, and the Flyers “humongous big” goaltending problems persisted. Bryzgalov will now get million dollar checks from the Flyers until 2017. Think that’s bad? How about the $21 million dollar deals Vincent Lecavlier and Mark Streit signed this past offseason. Both players are in their mid-thirties, an age that most players see their stats and production drop off, not improve.

Bottom line, Paul Holmgren is SCREWING the Flyers’ organization. His propensity for star players forces the Flyers to commit large chunks of their money to big name players who don’t necessarily win games. Goaltending issues STILL exist in Philadelphia after the Ilya Bryzgalov nightmare, a move that Holmgren himself dubbed “a huge mistake”. Now the good ship Flyer doesn’t have an experienced skipper to lead the way. New Flyers coach Craig Berube has been a head coach in the AHL, but has never led an NHL team before. Bottom line, things in Philadelphia are sort of messy.

As a dedicated fan, I am extremely saddened to see Peter Laviolette leave Philadelphia. He brought intensity and energy to a team that led Philadelphia fans on a wild ride in 2010. Now, the Flyers are a team in shambles with a very unsure future. Flyers owner Ed Snider needs to take responsibility and cut the cord between the Flyers and Paul Holmgren.

Ilya Kovalchuk: A Surprising Retirement

Ilya Kovalchuk will return to play hockey in his native Russia in 2013. (Image Source: Getty Images)

Ilya Kovalchuk will return to play hockey in his native Russia in 2013. (Image Source: Getty Images)

One of the most explosive, fastest skaters in the game just retired from the game of hockey to go back to his home country Russia. Only 30 years old, Ilya Kovalchuk decided to retire with a whopping 12 years $77 million remaining on his 15 year $100 million contract he signed with the New Jersey Devils back in 2010. He was the centerpiece of the New Jersey Devils (besides future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur) for the past four seasons leading the Devils to a surprising run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals losing to the Los Angelos Kings in 6 games.

Over his career he had scored 417 goals and registered 816 points in 816 career games for 2 teams. Kovalchuk was the first overall pick back in 2001 by the Atlanta Thrashers (when Atlanta actually had a hockey team). On March 20th, 2012 Kovalchuk was the 87th player to record 400 goals while with the Devils. With the Devils Kovalchuk scored 89 goals, 112 assists for a total of 201 points. The next question after this surprising news, is what do the devils do? Over the last 2 years the Devils have lost 3 of their top players, Kovalchuk to retirement, David Clarkson and Zach Parise to free agency. If this is the beginning to things to come for the Devils, who’s the next to go, Brodeur? The Devils management now has questions to answer during the season. Do they try to contend for the cup within the next few years, or do they rebuild due to this shocking retirement?

Let’s hear your comments.

Philadelphia Flyers Buy Out Ilya Bryzgalov

The Philadelphia Flyers have announced today they will exercise their second compliance buyout on goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren released a statement Tuesday to the media to announce the move. “This was a very difficult business decision to make for us and we want to thank Ilya for his time here and wish him all the best moving forward, Holmgren said.

Bryzgalov was the main piece of a major roster overhaul for the Flyers in 2011. Holmgren traded away captain Mike Richards and leading scorer Jeff Carter to clear cap space for Bryzgalov, who signed a nine-year, $51 million contract with the Flyers. Holmgren believed Bryzgalov was the superstar goalie the Flyers long needed to finally win the Stanley Cup. Bryzgalov showed some glimpses of greatness, but was far too inconsistent, especially in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In two years, Bryzgalov saved 90.5% of shots and allowed 2.61 goals per game. In 11 games in the 2012 playoffs, Bryzgalov was 5-6 with a 3.46 goals allowed average.

The move clears up valuable salary cap space for the Flyers, who will save $5.67 million in 2013-14. The Flyers will pay Bryzgalov $1.6 million over the next 14 years to buyout his contract. That leaves the Flyers with Steve Mason as the starting goalie. Mason, 25, impressed in his 7 games this year with the Flyers, saving 94% of shots with a 1.90 GAA. The Flyers are looking for a backup for Mason as well, and with more cap space, look for a move to be made soon.

Blackhawks Defeat Bruins 3-2; Win 2013 Stanley Cup

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Defenseman Johnny Oduya (#27) and Goalie Corey Crawford celebrate the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup 3-2 victory over the Boston Bruins in TD Garden in Boston. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

In a season where its fate came down to the wire and the NHL almost started digging its own grave, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Boston Bruins 3-2 Monday night in Game Six of an Original Six Stanley Cup match-up that featured some Stanley Cup Final theater that hadn’t been since in almost two decades.

Winning two of their five franchise Stanley Cups in the last three years, the Blackhawks–who won the President’s Trophy–got off to a roaring start without a loss in their first 24 games, concluding their season in TD Garden in Boston.  Giving the Bruins a 1-0 lead in the first period, 2011 Stanley Cup Winner Chris Kelly had a nice set-up from Tyler Seguin from the right circle at 7:19.  Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, who missed the third period due to an undisclosed injury in Game Five, netted the first goal for Chicago in the first.  It was his second goal in the last three games.

The Boston crowd started chanting “We want the Cup!” after a Milan Lucic go-ahead goal with eight minutes remaining, but minutes later, the arena would be empty, clad for a few Blackhawks fans.  However, a flair for the dramatic–what defined Chicago’s season–would come around in the third period as Bryan Bickell would score at 18:44 with Dave Bolland giving the Hawks the 3-2 lead as the Bruins had just 59 seconds left until futility.

An afterthought in their 2010 season, Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford stopped 23 shots while his counterpart Tuukka Rask made 28.  For the series, the Blackhawks outscored the Bruins 17-15, and although the Bruins were hoping from overtime, as in three of the first four games, it ultimately would not come.

Of Chicago’s last 10 goals scored in the Final, Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara was on the ice for nine; after the game, Bruins coach Claude Julien admitted Chara “wasn’t 100 percent.”  Neither was Boston center and alternate Captain Patrice Bergeron.  Although playing Game Six, Bergeron finished the season with a broken rib, torn cartilage, and a separated shoulder.  Bergeron finished with four power-play goals for Boston in the playoffs, which is second best in Bruins franchise history.

Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane won the 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy, which is awarded to the Most Valuble Player in the Stanley Cup Final.  In Kane’s last eight games, Kane tallied seven goals, including an assist on Chicago defenseman’s Brent Seabrook overtime winner in Game 4.  In Game 5 against the Los Angeles Kings, Kane netted a hat trick.  The 24-year-old has a flair for the dramatic, including scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Chicago out-shot Boston 31-25, while Boston had the edge in faceoff wins, 36-28.  Despite a champion now crowned, the NHL doesn’t have a long layover from the public spectrum as the NHL Draft kicks off in Newark at the Prudential Center this Sunday June 30.

Philadelphia Flyers Brace For Offseason Frenzy

Simon Gagne is currently a free agent, but is likely to return to Philadelphia next season.

Simon Gagne is currently a free agent, but is likely to return to Philadelphia next season.

When a team misses the playoffs, chances are some players get traded, released, or bought out. When that team is the Philadelphia Flyers, all hell tends to break loose. Flyers owner Ed Snider and General Manager Paul Holmgren are well known for their lack of patience and have made many controversial moves over the years to improve the Flyers’ chances of raising the Stanley Cup. In 2011, after losing in the second round of the playoffs, Holmgren traded captain Mike Richards and leading scorer Jeff Carter away for several young players and draft picks. The Flyers signed “superstar” goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine year deal to secure their shaky goaltending position. The result: Carter and Richards (and former Flyer Simon Gagne) won the Stanley Cup with Los Angeles, and the Flyers lost again in the second round, though this time with a perplexing and slightly absurd character between the pipes (see: Bear in Woods, the Universe speeches).

The lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season was not friendly to the Flyers, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Multiple injuries plagued Philadelphia’s blue line, and the Flyers’ goaltending questions continued (thanks to whoever traded away 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky). Now, under the newly ratified collective bargaining agreement, the NHL salary cap for the 2013-14 season stands at $64.3 million. As of today, the Flyers’ cap payroll stands at $7.8 million over the limit. That means Philadelphia will have to make some moves this offseason to avoid hefty cap penalties from the NHL. Here’s what could happen in the days and weeks ahead.

1. Flyers sign D Mark Streit

Sources close to the Flyers reported that the Flyers agreed to a four-year, $21.5 million deal with 35-year-old defenseman Mark Streit. However, Flyers management claims they are still negotiating with the veteran blueliner and no deal has been confirmed. Streit scored 27 points in 48 games last year for the Islanders, where he also served as captain for two years. Streit is known as an offensive defender, a player who can move the puck well and score points while still providing a strong body on the blueline. It’s an interesting move that solidifies the holes left in the blueline by past injuries (and Chris Pronger’s concussion), but at 35, Streit could be more susceptible to injury and decreased productivity. A risky move by Paul Holmgren to replace Pronger.

2. Flyers Buy Out Danny Briere and Ilya Bryzgalov

Since the Streit signing would put Philadelphia more than $12 million over the cap limit, some players would fall victim to the new buy out rule. Danny Briere is the most likely player to be bought out by the Flyers. He struggled in 2013, scoring just 16 points in 34 games for Philadelphia. He also sustained several injuries that kept him sidelined. At $6.5 million per year, Briere is simply too expensive to keep in Philadelphia, and Flyers fans will have to bid farewell to the veteran sniper. (All Briere jerseys on sale!)

Another player to be bought out will be goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. His contract lasts 7 more years at $5.66 million per year. The 32-year-old Bryzgalov never played like the elite goaltender Paul Holmgren thought he was buying, especially in the 2012 playoffs, where he allowed more than 3 goals per game. More known for his antics and puzzling comments than his stellar play, Bryzgalov will have to find another job in the fall. (Perhaps bear hunting?)

3. Reload with Backup Players

The Flyers will primarily have to find another goaltender to complement Steve Mason. A popular name is Los Angeles’ Jonathan Bernier, who turns 25 in August. He has proven he can play, saving 91 % of shots in his young NHL career, but could struggle to play behind Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick in LA. Bernier would be another young player the Flyers could develop, and could team with Steve Mason to develop a formidable goaltending platoon.

Then the Flyers need to find some third and fourth line players to replace outgoing players. Simon Gagne has said he would take a pay cut to remain in Philadelphia, and he would be a valuable asset to the Flyers. Mike Knuble could also re-sign, but at a discounted price. On the defensive side, Erik Gustaffson and Mat Walker would be great young players to re-sign.

The bottom line is, the Philadelphia Flyers have to make some moves this summer to rebuild a team that can win a Stanley Cup. Head Coach Peter Laviolette will return, and the new-look Flyers will hope to bring the Stanley Cup back to the City of Brotherly Love for the first time in 39 years.

Pittsburgh Penguins Left With Many Questions After Loss

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For the record, I’m a diehard Philadelphia Flyers fan, so it might seem biased for me to write about the Penguins losing. But Penguins fans will agree that after a season with astronomical expectations, an elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals at the hands of the Boston Bruins was a disappointing outcome.

The top-seeded Penguins lost tonight in the Eastern Conference Finals, ending a 2013 season filled with star talents and high hopes. Without a doubt, the Penguins were one of the most dynamic teams in the NHL this season, easily winning the Atlantic Division by 16 points and claiming the top seed in the 2013 playoffs. Their 3.4 goals per game led all NHL clubs in 2013, and forwards Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Pascal Dupuis each scored 20 goals in the lockout-shortened season. Captain Sidney Crosby ranked third in the league in total points with 56.

Heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins were filled with confidence, poise, and leadership. They got off to a flying start, shutting out the #8 New York Islanders 5-0 in their first playoff game. But much like last year’s playoff series against the Flyers, the Penguins’ main problem was the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. After his initial shutout, Fleury allowed an average of 4.7 goals per game before being benched in favor of backup Thomas Vokoun. Fleury allowed several goals from shots made behind the goal line, and again lacked confidence between the pipes.

Vokoun was a suitable replacement, besting Fleury’s goals allowed average by more than one goal. And the Penguins still put up great offensive numbers, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang among the top five point scorers in the playoffs. But still the Penguins struggled to get wins. Perhaps it was the strong momentum and fan support of the Bruins in the months of the “Boston Strong” movement. Maybe it had something to do with team chemistry, though.

Penguins GM Ray Shero was a big buyer at this season’s April 3 trade deadline, adding several veteran names to add depth to the already dynamic Penguins roster. They acquired Dallas Stars captain LW Brenden Morrow to bolster the third line, and Calgary Flames captain RW Jarome Iginla to provide another scoring threat. They also traded for 34-year-old defenceman Douglas Murray from the San Jose Sharks. And that was in addition to Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Dupuis, Kunitz, Letang, and Orpik.

But as the 2013 offseason arrives for the Penguins, there are many questions to answer. Chieflly, what to do with Marc-Andre Fleury. He is 28, with plenty of time left in the NHL, but he hasn’t won a playoff series as starter since the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. He is due to receive $5 million for the next two years before becoming a free agent in 2015. If he can’t improve his confidence in the playoffs, he may be on a short leash. The Penguins are also greatly restricted by the new salary cap; they have $61 million already committed for next year and the cap is $64 million. Notable names left off next year’s roster include Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Pascal Dupuis, Douglas Murray, and Mark Eaton. This is primarily affected by the “megacontracts” of Sidney Crosby ($8.7 million cap hit), Evgeni Malkin ($8.7 million), James Neal ($5 million), and Paul Martin ($5 million).

So after a tremendous regular season, the Penguins are left hoping for more and wondering why their playoff run came to a screeching halt on Boston. But make no mistake: the Penguins are still a great team with elite talent, and they will continue to be a frustrating and intimidating opponent. Even for the Flyers.