2010-11 NHL season preview: Philadelphia Flyers

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Thumbnail image for prongerknockshishelmetoff.jpgLast season: (41-35-6, 88 points, 3rd in Atlantic Division, 7th in Eastern Conference) You probably heard the story already if you’re a big hockey fan, but it’s still pretty amazing to think about it. The Flyers went from needing a failed Olli Jokinen shootout attempt on the last day of the season to eek into the playoffs to being down 3-0 to the Boston Bruins in the second round to making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. Sure, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks was disappointing, but the Flyers exceeded just about everyone’s expectations last season.

Head coach: Peter Laviolette pulled off a very Dan Bylsma-like feat with the Flyers last season, taking over a struggling club during the season and installing a more aggressive style that propelled them to the Cup finals. He didn’t win a Cup like Bylsma, but Laviolette has a championship on his resume from his run with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Flyers are in solid hands with Laviolette.

Key departures: F – Simon Gagne, G – Ray Emery, D – Ryan Parent. It’s weird to mention Emery as a “departure” since he seemingly injured himself so long ago. Gagne might be a bit injury-prone, but he’s a speedy sniper who made an impact when he returned to the Flyers during the playoffs. He’d be missed a bit more if Philly wasn’t so loaded at forward.

Key arrivals: F – Nikolai Zherdev, D – Andrej Meszaros, D – Sean O’Donnell, F – Jody Shelley. The Flyers rolled the dice with the talented but flighty Russian Zherdev. They also took on expensive and questionable defenseman Meszaros, sturdy blueliner O’Donnell and fighter Shelley. The Shelley signing would have been ridiculous if Rangers GM Glen Sather didn’t decide to one-up everyone by making Derek Boogaard rich.

leightonandboucherpals.jpgUnder pressure: Most people would say their goalies (Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher) are under the most pressure and that’s probably true. But we’ll get to them in a second.

One other person to watch is sniping center Jeff Carter, a consistent goal scorer whose performance in the playoffs left much to be desired. He’s in a contract year, so don’t be surprised if Carter leads the Flyers in points. (If he can handle the pressure, that is).

Protecting the house: Leighton and Boucher won’t go high in any fantasy hockey drafts and will be the source of plenty of derision in plenty of season previews. Leighton is struggling with back issues and doesn’t have a long track record as a starting goalie. Boucher is a journeyman goalie who is a 1b at best. Neither goalie is a likely Vezina Trophy candidate, but if they stay healthy, they might be sufficient.

Why? Because they play behind what is (on paper) the best defense in the Eastern Conference, if not the NHL. He might not be Mr. Popular, but Chris Pronger is the most intimidating blueliner in the league (sorry, he’s just a little bit nastier than Zdeno Chara). When Scott Stevens retired, Pronger took the mantle as the most sadistic defenseman on ice. Let’s not forget about the Kimmo Timonen, another great (and highly-paid) blueliner in his own right. Matt Carle benefits from Pronger’s imposing presence while Braydon Coburn is a solid companion for Timonen. Sean O’Donnell should be a solid bottom pair guy while Andrej Meszaros might make sense in a smaller role.

It might not rank alongside the Anaheim Ducks defense that included Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, but you won’t find many groups better than Philadelphia’s … especially in the East.

Top line we’d like to see: Carter-Mike Richards-Danny Briere. Richards provides the two-way play and some great leadership (not to mention plenty of skill). Carter can just focus on being a sniper while Briere would abuse teams that would have to focus on him less than his two line mates.

Oh captain, my captain: Richards can do a little bit of everything, from scoring to winning a big faceoff to killing penalties with aplomb. His leadership was challenged when the team faltered and it seemed like Pronger wore the pants in the family, but Richards justifies his position as an NHL captain quite well.

jodyshelleyfights.jpgStreet fighting man: Shelley is (probably) the biggest fighter, but this is the Broad Street Bullies we are talking about here. Throwing knuckles is a requirement in Philadelphia in the same way that employees must brew their own beer at Sam Adams. Dan Carcillo will wrack up the PIMs and keep Shelley company in the penalty box. You have to wonder if scary brain injuries might slow down last year’s leading fighter, Ian Laperriere, though.

Best-case scenario: Carter uses that expiring contract dangling carrot to score 50 goals while Briere capitalizes on his playoff points-leading run by putting up big numbers again. Philadelphia takes advantage of their considerable scoring and defensive depth to win the Atlantic Division. Pronger wins his first Conn Smythe while the Flyers prove that the ‘cheap-goalie plan- works by winning a Cup with the Leighton-Boucher duo.

Worst-case scenario: Chris Pronger shows his rapidly increasing age and goes down with a serious injury. Both Leighton and Boucher flop under the full season focus. Ville Leino and Claude Giroux end up being Fernando Pisani-level busts while the Flyers shockingly miss the playoffs.

Keeping it real: The Flyers really do have a ridiculous amount of depth, especially in the forward position. Just look at that talent: Carter, Richards, Briere, Giroux, Leino, Scott Hartnell and James van Riemsdyk are all worthy contributors who could have nice years. Combine that forward depth with a very good defense and they might not need great goalies.

Make no mistake about it, though, Boucher and Leighton aren’t great goalies. These shortcomings might cost them the Atlantic Division title – I say they battle the Penguins for second place – and will keep them from winning the Cup. They should be interesting to watch, though.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, there’s a part of me that wants to say ‘5 out of 5,’ but instead I’ll go with a 4. The goal situation makes me a little timid, I’ll admit it.

Pre-game reading: NHLers sound off on poor ice conditions

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— Up top, Danny Briere recalls that famous line brawl between the Flyers and Penguins in the 2012 playoffs. The two Pennsylvania rivals meet again Saturday, outdoors at Heinz Field.

— It has not been a good year for NHL ice, and a number of players are starting to get fed up. For example, Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, who said, “It’s been awful. I don’t know what it is. Even in our building this year. I thought it was really good [when we came] back for World Cup and right after that for the first little bit. But the last little bit, it’s been so bad. The puck’s all over the place.” Guess we know how he’ll be filling out his survey. (ESPN)

— The days leading up to the trade deadline can be pretty stressful for players who may get moved. And if they do get moved, the days after can be pretty tough, too. “I saw my daughters four days out of three months when I went to Pittsburgh,” said Hurricanes forward Lee Stempniak, who’s been dealt three straight years at the deadline. “When I was traded to Winnipeg, I didn’t see my daughters for the two months or more I was there because of the schedule.” (The News & Observer)

— On the 2017 NHL draft, which may not have the star power of the last two drafts, but will still have some pretty good players available. Especially centers. (USA Today)

— San Jose’s Brent Burns is trying to become only the second defenseman in NHL history to win a scoring title. With 64 points, Burns is only three points back of Connor McDavid for the league lead, with Sidney Crosby in the mix as well. Bobby Orr won the Art Ross Trophy twice, the last time in 1974-75 when he piled up 135 points in 80 games for the Boston Bruins.  (Canadian Press)

— Another Shark, Joe Thornton, is just two assists from 1,000 in the NHL. Only 12 players have accomplished that, with Wayne Gretzky’s 1,963 helpers leading the way. Joe Sakic’s 1,016 are the closest to Thornton’s 998. (The Mercury News)

Enjoy the games!

Bolts rule out Callahan indefinitely following second hip surgery

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Tampa Bay forward Ryan Callahan, who’s only played 18 games this year while recovering from offseason hip surgery, has undergone a follow-up procedure and will be sidelined indefinitely.

The Bolts made the announcement on Wednesday, just hours after a big 4-1 win over Edmonton. Callahan wasn’t in the lineup to face the Oilers — he hasn’t played since early January, when he skated just under 15 minutes in a loss to Philly.

The nature of this ailment has to be concerning.

Callahan, who turns 32 next month, is in the third of a six-year, $34.8 million deal with a $5.8M average annual cap hit. And this lingering hip problem comes on the heels of a disappointing ’15-16 campaign, in which Callahan scored just 10 goals and 28 points — the lowest marks since his rookie campaign.

As such, Tampa Bay is now bracing for an immediate future without a huge part of its leadership group. Captain Steve Stamkos has resumed skating, but there’s no set date for his return from major knee surgery.

Callahan, who’s been an alternate captain in each of the last three seasons, won’t be playing anytime soon either.

 

Kadri ‘not worried’ after Chiarot predicts revenge for big hit (Video)

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Toronto forward Nazem Kadri drew the ire of Jets d-man Ben Chiarot on Tuesday night for a big — albeit questionable — hit in the Leafs’ OT win.

Chiarot was visibly displeased following the game and alluded to getting even.

“It’s not the right time or place to chase him down, but there will be a time down the line,” he said, per Sportsnet. “Might not be this year, might not be next year.

“But there will be a time where the shoe will be on the other foot.”

Today, Kadri responded.

“I’m not worried at all,” Kadri said, per TSN. “I’ll be here for hopefully a few years. But like I said, if that was one of my teammates getting hit like that, I probably wouldn’t be too happy, so I expect that kind of reaction.”

Kadri’s hit, which went unpenalized, drew the ire of Chiarot’s head coach as well. Jets bench boss Paul Maurice was also visibly displeased following the game.

“He’s six inches in the air when he makes contact,” Maurice said, per Sportsnet. “In my mind, from the rear view, the first thing that moves on Benny is the helmet. Didn’t like it.”

Kadri’s been involved in a few high-profile collisions this season. He pasted Sabres captain Brian Gionta in a game earlier this month, and avoided suspension for a controversial hit on Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin back in November.

Have the Blackhawks finally found their first-line LW?

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A three-point night for Nick Schmaltz, which included a nifty pass to Jonathan Toews for the game-winner, must have Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wondering how to approach the trade deadline.

The way the 20-year-old rookie has been playing, does Bowman really need to add a first-line left winger before next Wednesday?

It’s a valid question. Only a month ago, Bowman was reportedly sniffing around the likes of Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.

But Schmaltz has since caught fire, with two goals and five assists in his last six games. The rookie from Wisconsin had one goal and two assists in Tuesday’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota.

“He’s been really good,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Tuesday] was the most we’ve ever seen him with the puck. I don’t know how many times he evaded coverage, and all of a sudden he loses the guy on him and a play develops. That play against the grain to [Toews] was spectacular.”

Toews, of course, has been through a whole host of linemates this season, and only in the last month has the captain really started to produce offensively. Richard Panik and Marian Hossa are two veteran options to skate on his right side, but the left side has been a running audition.

Schmaltz, a first-round draft pick in 2014, only got called back up to the NHL in mid-January.

One month later, Toews is liking the chemistry that’s developed between himself, Schmaltz and Panik.

“We’ve been given the chance to spend a few games together, get some consistency, get some feel and some confidence,” said Toews. “The biggest thing for the three of us is if we go through a game without scoring, we’re given a chance to go out in the next game and try and redeem ourselves and contribute offensively.

“It’s a lot of fun, because I think we’re feeling it. [Schmaltz and Panik] are playing so well at both ends of the rink. They’re playing with a ton of confidence with the puck.”

The ‘Hawks have two games left before the March 1 deadline. They host Arizona tomorrow and St. Louis Sunday.