Why this year’s Philadelphia Flyers look an awful lot like last season’s Chicago Blackhawks

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It wasn’t always pretty – after all, they needed a shootout win over the New York Rangers on the last game of the regular season to clinch a playoff spot – but the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers found a way to mesh together, bought into new coach’s Peter Laviolette’s system and finished two wins away from a Stanley Cup.

While this might paint the picture in the broadest strokes, there were two ways the Flyers could have reacted this season: 1) by fading into oblivion, thus proving that they merely got hot at the right time or 2) prove that they are a genuine contender with a great season. It seems like they went with option two, considering the fact that Philadelphia is the top team in the Eastern Conference right now.

In fact, the 2010-11 Flyers might be in a remarkably similar situation as the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks team that thwarted them for the ’10 championship. Let’s take a look at the intriguing similarities between the two teams, starting with the most important shared characteristic. For the sake of honest discussion, I’ll also discuss a few key differences that keep the two teams’ similarities from being Sedin twins-level creepy.

Long term core, short term depth

Last season, it seemed like the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation would be even more crippling than it ended up being. Yet they still lost some crucial pieces, particularly Dustin Byfuglien and (admittedly struggling) goalie Antti Niemi.

The Flyers don’t face the same dire situation (CapGeek.com estimates their 2011-12 cap space to be more than $3.64 million with 17 roster spots covered), but Philly will likely lose some of their impressive depth players during the next summer or two.

Ville Leino (unrestricted) and Andreas Nodl (restricted) are free agents this summer along with steady, affordable goalie Brian Boucher. Valuable defensemen Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle will be unrestricted free agents while James van Riemsyk – the second overall pick of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft –  will be a restricted free agent in July 2012. Leino and JVR are particularly likely to see considerable raises, which might price them out of Philly.

In other words, the Flyers boast an outstanding group of top-end players such as Mike Richards and Jeff Carter – much like the Blackhawks still employ Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith – but they’ll only be able to boast almost unfair depth for another season or two.

Laviolette = Joel Quenneville

However you feel about the dismissal of John Stevens, the Flyers are clearly a better hockey team under Laviolette. Much like coach Q, the feisty former Carolina Hurricanes bench boss arrived with instant credibility (and a Cup from his time with the ‘Canes). It’s a telling pattern that talented teams flourish with some new blood, from Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh to Bruce Boudreau in Washington and Guy Boucher in Tampa Bay.

Sergei Bobrovsky = Antti Niemi?

Cristobal Huet was supposed to be the man in Chicago. Michael Leighton was supposed to make good on his surprise Cup run this season. Yet Niemi eventually usurped the pricey Huet and Bobrovsky took advantage of Leighton’s poorly timed injury issues to nab the No. 1 gig.

The best part for Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren is the big difference between the two: while Niemi’s contract expired last summer, Bobrovsky’s entry-level deal won’t run out until the 2012-13 season concludes. (Of course, there’s that other major difference: Niemi already won Chicago a Cup.)

Losing to a champion

I’m not sure if the cliche is as valid in the unpredictable days of the salary cap, but many people think that a team “needs to learn how to lose before they learn how to win.”

There’s some truth to that in the way the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins fell to the Detroit Red Wings before winning Cups the last two seasons. Perhaps the Flyers will take that lessons learned from losing to Chicago and win a Cup this season?

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So as the Flyers and Blackhawks play for the first time since the two teams grappled in the Cup finals, forgive some double-takes in Chicago. It’s just that they might feel like they’re looking back at their 09-10 selves (only in black, white and orange jerseys).

Anders Lee and the friend he’ll never forget

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Arcade games, pizza and his good friend Fenov. It’s a day that Anders Lee will never forget.

As the New York Islanders captain and his wife Grace spent an afternoon with Fenov Pierre-Louis, you wouldn’t have been able to tell what the teenager was going through.

At age nine, Fenov was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer that forms in the nerve tissue of the adrenal glands. He experienced chemotherapy, immunotherapy, numerous surgeries, radiation treatments and stem cell transplants that led to some victories, but also relapses. He fought for nearly half of his life.

“You learn from someone like that who’s going through some really tough times, a lot of treatment, a lot of pain and not necessarily a good outlook,” Lee told Pro Hockey Talk this week. “But to have a smile on his face like he did and how optimistic he was and how positive he was, it kind of just puts life into perspective a little bit. To go through a tough time in the rink, sometimes it’s feels like it’s everything around you, but it’s really not, it’s a small part of our lives. That part of gaining a little bit of perspective and enjoying this and making the most of it really is special. He was a perfect example of that.”

Lee first learned of Fenov after seeing a speech the teenager gave following a 2016 event. At that time, the Islanders forward was researching ways to make an impact in the community. The KanJam event and helping pediatric cancer patients matched what he was looking for. He was already familiar with the game, having played it regularly while at Notre Dame.

The first Anders Lee Kancer Jam was held in 2017 and raised over $90,000. Last season’s event broke the $100,000 mark. All proceeds benefit Cohen Children’s Medical Center, a Long Island hospital that Islanders players have visited annually.

Sadly, Fenov passed away in July at the age of 17, two months after he joined Lee in Denmark as the Islanders forward represented the U.S. at the IIHF World Championship and later fulfilled a lifelong dream of touring Italy. His absence at this year’s event, which will take place after Sunday’s afternoon game versus the Dallas Stars, will give it a different feel.

“It changes. You have this wonderful friendship with someone and it’s for such a short period of time and it was so special,” Lee said. “But now that we’ve lost Fenov, this does mean a lot even more to me and to Grace, to everyone involved. It’s definitely going to be tough the first time without him. He was the one who I handed the mic to first because he always had something special to say. This year I’m obviously not going to be able to hand it to him. I’ll have to fill his shoes a little bit.”

The idea for Jam Kancer in the Kan was hatched in 2014 by Jamey Crimmins, who raised money for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center by running with “Fred’s Team” during that year’s New York City Marathon. Crimmins’ father-in-law and close friend passed away from cancer and after playing Kan Jam that summer, he decided to use the popular outdoor frisbee game as another way to fundraise. The first event in 2014 raised $14,296 with 24 teams participating.

Current NHLers Kevin Shattenkirk of the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian held events last season. Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller of the Tampa Bay Lightning will host their own “Kan Jam” in February.

Lee’s Islanders teammates will all be on hand Sunday. The tournament will feature players paired up against teams of two who have raised at least $2,000. There will also be some pediatric cancer patients in attendance, allowing them a few hours away from hospitals and treatment for smiles and some fun.

To Lee, Fenov was “the toughest guy” he knew. The relationship left a lasting impact on the Islanders captain. Never one to allow a slump or tough times to wear on him, being able to be around the teenager and see him inspire others while going through a battle of his own was something that will not be forgotten.

“Any one who had a chance to meet him understood how wise beyond his years he really was and the presence that he had when you were around him and with him,” said Lee. “Fenov was one of the most caring people I’ve ever met. You never would have known what he was going through, that’s how strong he was. He didn’t ever let it get to him. He always had a smile on his face. [He was] one of those people that comes in your life and just makes an immediate impact on you.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Gavin McHale’s unforgettable night as Capitals’ backup goalie

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The calls started to pour in around 5 p.m. CT on Wednesday.

Gavin McHale, a former Western Hockey League goaltender whose NHL dream ended a decade ago, was finishing up practice with the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team. The 31-year-old goaltending coach did what most do these days when work is over: he checked his phone.

What was different than other days was a screen littered with roughly 10 missed calls, most of them from Winnipeg Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger, and another from a random Pennsylvania number.

Both were calling about the same thing.

A few hours earlier, Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby tweaked something in his upper-body during an informal skate at Bell MTS Place. Holtby was slated to start Wednesday night’s game against the Jets, but whatever happened during that brief morning jaunt on the ice turned an expected start into a game-time decision.

Capitals head coach Todd Reirdan spoke with the media at 4:45 p.m. and not a peep was shared about Holtby. But the situation seemed in flux enough that McHale needed to be summoned.

By 5:15 p.m. CT, McHale had caught wind of the situation and was now in his car weaving through traffic to get to from the south end of the city to the Jets’ downtown arena. With the revelation that Holtby would sit due to injury, McHale was set to be signed to an amateur tryout contract and serve as Pheonix Copley’s backup.

“I don’t think I can say those words but (I’m) trying to tell everyone I know that’s close to me and get to the rink as fast as possible,” McHale said of the thoughts racing through his head.

McHale is one of several emergency puckstoppers in Winnipeg. When it’s his turn to be on-call he’ll get to the game with a guest — on Wednesday it was his mom, Val — and eat the press box meal before nestling into his seat to watch among media members and team staffers high above the ice. When the game ends, he exits along with 15,000 others.

Wednesday wasn’t like all the rest.

McHale wasn’t afforded his complimentary pre-game grub. He didn’t sit down next to his mother, either. She was joined by her husband, Ian, in the press box while their son was a few floors below in the visitors’ dressing room suiting up for the game.

“I think every single person in this room introduced themselves to me so it just made me feel a lot more calm and they just kind of let me do my thing,” McHale said. “They had to get ready for a game so it just made me feel really welcomed.”

By 6:40 p.m. CT, McHale, wearing No. 41 in Capitals away threads, stepped onto the ice for his first NHL warmup.

The only shots McHale would see on Wednesday were the ones whizzing by him during warmup, the first courtesy of Alex Ovechkin.

“I was hoping no one saw that,” McHale said afterward.

They did.

It’s hard to miss the 6-foot-7 netminder. But you can forgive him for giving up a few softies as he spelled Copley pre-game.

“Ah, pretty star-struck,” McHale said. “And then star-struck for the next three or four after that until I kind of settled in and the guys said a couple of things to me.”

Crazy enough, it’s not the first time McHale has had to make haste in an emergency role. Heck, it’s not even the first time this year.

On Feb. 16, McHale had to rush down from the press box during the second intermission of Winnipeg’s game against Colorado. Avalanche starter Jonathan Bernier picked up and injury, meaning backup Semyon Varlamov was summoned onto the ice and McHale had to quickly don his goalie garb for the final 20 minutes.

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[ABOUT LAST NIGHT] … “We’ll come get you if we need you.” – @nhljets assistant GM Craig Heisinger on October 4th, 2017, my first game as the Emergency backup. … I looked over at @kbabb9 and we chuckled, knowing that shit would have to go sideways for that to happen. … Since then, every time I’ve been working a game and a goalie gets knocked or nudged or twists the wrong way, my heart stops. … “Will this be the moment I throw an NHL jersey over my head for real?” … Last night was an odd game, the Jets pulling away from the visiting @coloradoavalanche. I even mentioned something to my guest, @c_hodgyyy in the second period when Avs goalie Jonathan Bernier got hit awkwardly. … As the teams skated out for the third period, I noticed the Avalanche had switched their goalie. Totally normal, especially when you’re down 4-0 after two periods. … But Bernier didn’t come out of the tunnel to take his place as backup… GULP. … I turned to watch Jets PR guy Scott Brown walking directly towards me with a smile on his face. … “You’re needed in the Avalanche dressing room. Let’s go.” … I turned to Colin and all I could mustre was “holy fuck” as I stood up and bee-lined it out of the press box. … I put my gear on as fast as I ever have, knowing that I was now one play away from stepping onto the ice in an NHL game. … My heart raced as I slung my equipment onto my body. Then, I realized my childhood dream of slipping a real life @NHL jersey over my head. … It was number 61 and the name bar had been taped over, but I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t even get to keep it, but I can now say that I have dressed for an NHL team, albeit for half a period and I wasn’t even allowed to leave the dressing room. … No contract to sign. No fame (except in my small circle of family and friends) and not even a memento from the team. … But the opportunity to be one play away from PLAYING IN THE NHL? I’ll take any amount of proverbial shit in my pants for that. … #grateful #nhl #avalanche #jets #emergencygoalie #theshow #mchalestrength #tarpsoptional

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A little different, eh?

“It was kind of late in the game so it was a little bit of a different experience than getting the whole pregame experience and all that,” McHale said.

Just after 7 p.m. CT, McHale stood for the anthems at the entrance of the visitors’ tunnel across from Washington’s bench. Sporting a Capitals ball cap, he peered on for the next three periods.

At one point, Copley took a puck off the mask, dislodging it.

“I was thinking, ‘Get that thing on as fast as you can,'” McHale said.

Copley did, and he would go on to stop 21 shots in a 3-1 loss to the Jets.

McHale’s name will forever be on an NHL scoresheet. Playing time or not, he had made it to The Show.

“It’s definitely not something I thought would happen in the last 10 years since the career took a downturn,” McHale said. “But it was a pretty exciting experience.”

On Thursday, McHale returned to his coaching gig with a story to tell. He’ll now have some bragging rights, too, for his beer league buddies who play weekly at Bell MTS Iceplex.

“I think the biggest thing is that every guy in here was so nice to me and made me feel so good,” he said. “Just to be a person is a really important piece of what hockey players are. This was a pretty successful team last year, so to be welcomed in like that in a bit of a crazy situation was a pretty nice feeling.”

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Watson reinstated to Predators’ roster after suspension

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Forward Austin Watson has been reinstated to the Predators’ roster after serving an 18-game suspension for domestic abuse, and he issued a statement apologizing to everyone for the June incident that cost him the start of the season.

Watson issued the statement Wednesday through the NHL Players’ Association thanking his family, friends and the Nashville Predators for their continued support.

”It is a privilege to play in the National Hockey League, and I am grateful to be able to once again compete with my teammates,” Watson said. ”I apologize to Jennifer, my family, Jennifer’s family, my teammates, the Nashville community, and the Nashville Predators for the negative attention that has come from the events on June 16th.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman suspended Watson for 27 games on Sept. 12 for unacceptable off-ice conduct after an investigation and a hearing with Watson after he pleaded no contest in July to a charge of domestic assault stemming from an incident in June. Arbitrator Shyam Das reduced the suspension to 18 games, allowing Watson to return to the ice Thursday night in Arizona.

The NHL does not have a written domestic abuse policy and has chosen to judge each incident separately. Slava Voynov is currently still suspended indefinitely for a 2014 incident.

Watson concluded his statement asking for privacy on this issue.

”Out of respect for my family’s health, well-being, and privacy, I will have no further comment on this matter moving forward,” Watson said.

The Predators, who are wrapping up a five-game road trip in Arizona, also issued a statement saying Watson has served his suspension and the organization continues to support Watson, his girlfriend and their baby as they work together as a family. The team statement also noted that the Predators also will have no further comment ”on this matter.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Paul Martin retires; Nylander wait continues

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Up top, introducing “Desert Gold,” an inside look into the Vegas Golden Knights’ incredible run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Watch the first episode on Saturday, Nov. 27th on NBCSports.com and Facebook Watch.

• Paul Martin’s 14-year NHL career has come to an end as the longtime defenseman has announced his retirement. [Gophers]

Sidney Crosby‘s status for Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning is unclear after he was evaluated for an upper-body injury following practice. [Tribune-Review]

• Did you hear about the Twitter accounts that were recently created and have put out a strong defense of the Ottawa Senators? Never a dull moment. [Silver Seven Sens]

• With six of their next seven games away from TD Garden, the Boston Bruins are hoping to build some momentum. [Bruins Daily]

• Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Mark Chipman will join the Hockey Hall of Fame Selection Committee, replacing writer Eric Duhatschek and the late Bill Torrey. [HHOF]

• The longer the Toronto Maple Leafs wait to sign William Nylander, the more beneficial it could be for them. [TSN]

• Speaking of Nylander, here are 29 reasons why the Tampa Bay Lightning should trade for him. [Raw Charge]

Erik Haula’s injury has opened the door for Cody Eakin as the Golden Knights forward showed Wednesday night. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• The 2019 NWHL All-Star Game will be held in Nashville as part of a doubleheader with the Predators on Feb. 10. [NWHL]

• The only choice for the Calgary Flames when it comes to Mike Smith is patience. [Flames Nation]

• How sustainable is this start by the Vancouver Canucks? [Sportsnet]

• NHL superstars talk about the key issues surrounding the next CBA. [ESPN]

• The next few weeks are pretty important for the future of the Anaheim Ducks. [Anaheim Calling]

• “For the first time in program history, Sun Devil Hockey cracked the top-20 in this week’s USCHO Coaches’ Poll at No. 18 after the best start in program history.” [Sun Devils]

• The Dallas Stars power play is really missing John Klingberg. [Blackout Dallas]

Niklas Kronwall’s presence has been impactful for the Detroit Red Wings this season. [Octopus Thrower]

• Finally, what a save by Worcester Railers goaltender Evan Buitenhuis: