Risk Factors: Philadelphia Flyers edition

27 Comments

From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Philadelphia Flyers

1. The defense. Duh. A concern even prior to losing Kimmo Timonen (blood clots), the blueline is Philly’s biggest issue heading into this season — something head coach Craig Berube confirmed following a 6-3 exhibition loss to the Rangers.

“They’ve got to turn it up — they’ve got to play better,” Berube said of his blueline, per CSN. “It’s not just on them. It’s a team thing.

“We have to play better defense.”

The Flyers’ D has its problems. First and foremost is mobility, or lack thereof: Mark Streit (37 in December) and Nicklas Grossmann (30 in January) aren’t winning any speed-skating competitions while Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn are more physical defenders than agile ones.

There are also continuity and chemistry issues. Of the projected top six — Streit, Grossmann, Coburn, Schenn, Andrew MacDonald and Michael Del Zotto — only Coburn has been with the team for more than two seasons as the Flyers have constantly tinkered with their defensive mix. Schenn found a comfortable partner in MacDonald last year when the Isles blueliner came over at the deadline, but now Schenn’s paired with Del Zotto (who was signed in August as a stopgap replacement for Timonen), meaning MacDonald now skates with Coburn on what the club is calling its “top” pairing. That leaves Streit and Grossman as the other unit.

And if the blueline is hit by injury? Yikes. Reserve depth consists of journeyman Nick Schultz and whoever they can call up from AHL Lehigh Valley. Philadelphia was remarkably fortunate with regards to health last season — Streit, Coburn, Schenn, Timonen and Grossman combined to miss just 12 games — so it’s scary to think what the blueline might look like if one (or more) of the top six get hurt.

Finally, there’s Philly’s lack of an elite, top-line, heavy-minute shutdown guy. It’s something even GM Ron Hextall admits is missing.

“I’ve said it time and time again. We maybe don’t have that top guy, that No. 1 guy, but probably 20 teams in the league say the same thing,” he said, per NJ.com. “We’re going to go with the guys we’ve got.”

2. Steve Mason has expectations. Mason entered last season as a reclamation project in progress, looking to beat out Ray Emery for the No. 1 gig while playing on a relatively modest ($1.5 million) contract. Now, things are dramatically different; the 26-year-old is Philly’s clear-cut starter, one of the NHL’s 20 highest-paid goalies and counted on to maintain the form that saw him go 33-18-7 with a .917 save percentage and 2.50 GAA last season.

That requires consistency, though, and consistency has never really been Mason’s strong suit.

After one banner campaign in Columbus, he struggled to match that level in the three seasons following and battled with the mental side of things — “I think a lot of things here just got into his head,” former Jacket and current Flyer R.J. Umberger said at the time. Mason also struggled right around the time the ink dried on his three-year, $12.3 million extension with the Flyers, finishing January with a 5-5-1 record and .889 save percentage.

It’s also worth noting that, in Columbus, Mason had three years to try and rediscover his game. Tough to imagine Philly — a notorious goalie graveyard — giving him similar leeway.

3. The Vinny distraction. Roughly one year after giving Vincent Lecavalier a five-year, $22.5 million deal, the Flyers openly shopped him around the league. Ottawa, Nashville and Edmonton were just a few of the rumored landing spots for a guy that arrived with great fanfare, but is now a problem the team doesn’t really know how to solve.

The issue, in a nutshell: Lecavalier is 34 and slowed a bit, but still an offense-first guy that needs a quality role to be productive. That, however, doesn’t mesh with Berube, who wants sound two-way play and defensive responsibility from his big-minute centers — hence Vinny’s demotion to the fourth line last year and the on-again, off-again shift to left wing.

The Flyers need to find somewhere for Lecavalier to play. At first, they hoped it’d be in another city and now — well, at least to start the season — it’ll be back at center, where he’s the No. 3 behind Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux.

But how long will that last?

It’s no secret Berube has issues with Lecavalier, something made crystal clear during the summer when Berube was asked how Lecavalier should deal with all the trade rumors:

“Get over it,” [Berube said].

Berube’s response to apparently being stuck for another season with an aging four-time All-Star whose defensive liabilities outweighed the 20 goals he scored in 69 games as a new Flyer in 2013-14?

“He just needs to change his game a little bit,” Berube said during a recent interview. “We talked about that after the season and he’s willing to do that.”

The change is reflected in Lecavalier’s projected wingers this season: Michael Raffl and R.J. Umberger, energy guys that aren’t exactly known for their offensive prowess. There’s no guarantee the trio will click and if they don’t…well, what then?

The bottom line is this: Lecavalier signed in Philly to be the No. 2 center in Peter Laviolette’s uptempo system, then got blindsided three games into his Flyers career when Lavvy was dumped and Berube took the reins. Now he’s playing in a role that doesn’t really fit his skill set, for a head coach that doesn’t really know what to do with him. It’s a distraction already. And it could easily get bigger.

Keefe: Toronto has enough talent for quick progress

Leave a comment

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — New Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe spent a decent chunk of a 30-minute morning skate on Thursday teaching instead of running drills.

There’s a lot for his new team to learn and not much time to do it.

The 39-year-old Keefe is now in charge of the Maple Leafs after veteran coach Mike Babcock was fired Wednesday with the team mired in a six-game losing streak.

Keefe was officially introduced Thursday morning as the 31st head coach in Maple Leafs history. He’s got a long history with general manager Kyle Dubas, who hopes Keefe is the right choice to help Toronto bounce back from a disappointing 9-10-4 start.

Keefe believes it can be done.

”We’ve got a lot of talent and the ability to make life hard on the other team in a lot of ways,” he said. ”Focusing on that, we believe, will produce positive results. Because the players are good enough for that to happen.”

Keefe inherits a roster that includes talented forwards like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

Tavares said there were ”many mixed emotions” because Babcock was so dedicated and committed to the team. He said the team feels a burden because it hasn’t played up to expectations but is ”turning the page” and moving forward.

”Sheldon’s got a great mind for the game,” Tavares said. ”We’re excited about the energy and the things he’s bringing and trying to improve from where we’re at.”

Keefe will make his coaching debut during Toronto’s game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.

Dubas said the franchise must show patience as Keefe, a first-time NHL coach, embarks on the difficult task of taking over a team midseason and trying to quickly turn things around.

He’s confident the players understand there will be ups and down.

He’s also aware that outside perception might be a little less forgiving.

”It’s all part of what makes working and playing in Toronto great,” Dubas said. ”You can’t go anywhere in Toronto without people caring deeply about the team. I read the greatest quote this morning on the way here: ‘You can look at it as a burden or look at it as a trampoline.”’

Toronto is a team that needs quite a bounce.

The 56-year-old Babcock went 173-133-45 in his four-plus seasons with Toronto and made the playoffs the past three years, though the Maple Leafs lost in the first round each time. When the team started slowly this season, Dubas and team President Brendan Shanahan knew it was time for a change.

Shanahan flew to Arizona on Wednesday to break the news to Babcock, whom he hired in 2015.

He acknowledged it was a hard day. Some more hard days may follow as Keefe tries to quickly implement his system, though the franchise is confident it’s headed in the right direction.

Keefe was in his fifth season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. He was 199-89-31 with the Marlies and helped the franchise win its first Calder Cup championship in 2018.

Several of the Leafs’ current players were coached by Keefe when he was with the Marlies, which is the franchise’s top minor-league affiliate.

PHT Morning Skate: Challenging Byfuglien’s suspension; Where is Sharks’ offense?

Leave a comment
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.

• Should the Montreal Canadiens hire Mike Babcock? (Montreal Gazette)

• The Devils have been struggling badly on special teams. (All About the Jersey)

• Lightning forward Yanni Gourde is even better than you think. (Raw Charge)

• How easy will it be to fix the Toronto Maple Leafs? (Pension Plan Puppets)

Brett Connolly has been a very useful asset for the Florida Panthers. (Rat Trick)

• The Coyotes goalie tandem has been terrific this season. (Five For Howling)

• The NHLPA is challenging the Dustin Byfuglien suspension. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• The Bolts can benefit from this difficult start. (NHL.com)

• Where is the San Jose Sharks’ offense? (Rotoworld)

• The Ducks are satisfied with Garnet Hathaway‘s three-game suspension. (OC Register)

• Sheldon Keefe has a quiet confidence about him that should help him guide the Leafs. (TSN)

Zack Kassian has found a spot on the Oilers’ top line. (Sportsnet)

• There’s a lot of questions facing Keefe and his level of success will depend on how many he can answer. (Editor in Leaf)

Patrice Bergeron is starting to get healthier. (NBC Sports Boston)

• The Blue Jackets have added Paul MacLean to their staff (NHL.com/BlueJackets)

Brendan Perlini talks about his fresh start in Detroit and his English upbringing. (Sporting News)

• Isles goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin wants to be in the NHL next season. (The Sports Daily)

• Kris Versteeg left the Rockford Ice Hogs on Sunday and the team isn’t in a rush to name a new captain. (Second City Hockey)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Streaks good and bad around NHL; Leafs turn the page

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Turning over new Maple Leafs

One streak did end, although Sheldon Keefe has to hope that his NHL head coaching career will begin with a streak that goes beyond a debut win. The Maple Leafs ended their losing streak at six games by beating the Coyotes 3-1 in their first game after Mike Babcock fired. Read up on that win here.

From hot streaks to cold

The Islanders maintained their now-franchise-record breaking point streak of 16 games by beating the Penguins in overtime. In doing so, the Isles are also on a five-game winning streak. The Dallas Stars matched that winning streak with their fifth victory in a row, and are pretty hot in their own right, going 9-0-1 in their last 10 games. They’re also 12-1-1 in their last 14 contests.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Flames put forth a painful, pitiful effort in dropping their sixth straight loss. The Predators were more competitive in many ways on Thursday, but Nashville has also lost six in a row. Tense times for two teams that expected to be Western Conference contenders.

Three Stars

1. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

Heading into Thursday’s game, Giroux was on a three-game pointless streak, and only had a single point (one goal) over his past six games. The veteran forward exploded with a two-goal, two-assist performance to help the Flyers beat the Hurricanes.

Giroux’s two assists were primary assists, and his second goal ended up being the game-winner. He even threw in a 17-10 mark on faceoffs for good measure.

2. Zach Sanford, St. Louis Blues

Despite a modest 13:19 in ice time on Thursday, Sanford helped lead the charge as the Blues humiliated a flustered Flames team. Sanford scored the game’s first goal (thus getting a GWG) and added three assists during a four-point performance that was almost as impressive as Giroux’s output.

If you’d prefer handing this star to Jordan Binnington for his 40-save shutout, that’s totally understandable.

3. Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

Florida found itself down 4-0 with less than two minutes remaining in the second period, yet managed to enter the third period down a more palatable 4-2. From there, Ekblad took over, scoring a goal and an assist during the third period, then adding the overtime game-winner to lock up a comeback win for Florida. Like Giroux, Ekblad came into the night’s action on a cold streak, having only managed a goal over seven games.

For me, Ekblad’s little trot after the OT-GWG breaks the tie with other players who scored three points on Thursday:

Highlight of the Night

No doubt about it, that goes Tuukka Rask, whose save rivals Marc-Andre Fleury for the save of the week/month/year. This post has more.

Benn the Bulldozer

On a less busy night, Jamie Benn trucking Mark Scheifele than scoring a pretty game-winning goal would be the top dog. It’s at least worth watching:

Factoids

  • The Panthers have now overcome four-goal deficits to win games twice in 2019-20, joining the 1983-84 Oilers as the only teams to manage such wins twice in the same season, according to NHL PR.
  • Sportsnet notes that the Flames are on a streak of 362:46 without taking a lead, the longest stretch in franchise history. Um, at least they haven’t squandered any leads, then? The Maple Leafs’ run without a lead ended at 446:47 when Tyson Barrie scored the opening goal on Thursday, also according to Sportsnet.
  • Via NHL PR: Cale Makar is the first Avs/Nordiques rookie defenseman to generate at least 15 points in a single month, and sixth overall among the franchise’s defensemen.

Scores

BOS 3 – BUF 2
FLA 5 – ANA 4 (OT)
NYI 4 – PIT 3 (OT)
PHI 5 – CAR 3
CBJ 5 – DET 4
STL 5 – CGY 0
VAN 6 – NSH 3
MIN 3 – COL 2
TBL 4 – CHI 2
DAL 5 – WPG 3
TOR 3 – ARI 1
SJS 2 – VGK 1 (OT)
LAK 5 – EDM 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Maple Leafs end skid in first Babcock-less game

Getty Images
Leave a comment

If it weren’t for Vinnie Hinostroza spoiling Frederik Andersen‘s shutout with 17 seconds left, Thursday would have been just about perfect for the Toronto Maple Leafs during their first game post-Mike Babcock.

Most importantly, the Maple Leafs ended their six-game losing streak with a win. (Yes, that makes brand-new head coach Sheldon Keefe 1-0-0.)

The symmetry starts to go up a notch when you consider that, on this night, Tyson Barrie finally scored his first goal of the 2019-20 season, which is also his first with the Maple Leafs. Barrie is up there when you picture Leafs with relief of Babcock grief, so scoring here almost feels on-the-nose:

That Barrie goal gave the Maple Leafs a coveted 1-0 lead, and that’s quite a reversal from how things could have felt if Andersen didn’t make this great glove save (which would have stood out even more if Tuukka Rask didn’t give Marc-Andre Fleury competition with an absolutely ludicrous stop).

The underlying numbers are promising, too. In particular, it has to be uplifting to see that the Maple Leafs managed an impressive 18-7 advantage in high-danger chances at all strengths, according to Natural Stat Trick.

There’s a lot to like for the Leafs, but there’s also no denying that the Maple Leafs have a lot of work to do — and a hole they need to dig out of. That win merely brought them back to “.500,” as they’re now 10-10-4 for 24 standings points in 24 games. They wouldn’t make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began on Thursday night, and Toronto’s ninth place standing is even inflated when you realize that teams right behind them hold games in hand. (Toronto’s 24 games played ties for the most in the NHL, while teams like the Lightning [22 points in 19 GP] loom large.)

Ultimately, though, the Maple Leafs can only control what they’re doing on the ice. So far, so good then, when you consider how they’re playing with Keefe pulling the strings instead of Babs.

More on Babcock, Leafs:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.