Straschnitzki makes new life year after Humboldt crash

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Tom Straschnitzki was wrangling his fussy youngest child when his iPhone buzzed. His hands full, Tom put the phone on speaker and heard the terrifying sound of his oldest son calling from a bus and screaming for help.

”Dad, you’ve got to help this time! You’ve got to save the boys! You’ve gotta help!” Ryan Straschnitzki pleaded.

Straschnitzki’s transport bus was on the way back from his rehabilitation session and it had been rear-ended by a truck at a red light. The impact from the December accident hurled the 19-year-old former hockey prospect from his wheelchair to the floor. The fender-bender not far from his home outside Calgary, Alberta, came 10 months after a devastating collision on a Saskatchewan highway that left several members of his Humboldt Broncos teammates and coaches among the 16 dead , a country in mourning and every parent who has ever put a young athlete on a bus shaken.

Tom and his wife, Michelle, were panicked that their son, paralyzed from the chest down, was in yet another bus accident. They were also bewildered by their son imploring his dad to help other hockey players when he was alone on the transport bus.

Tom tried to talk his son down, bring his mind back to the present and promised him there was no one else to save. Straschnitzki hung up and his parents waited for a few frightening minutes until he calmly called back and said he was fine. He would get on another bus and head home.

Though he downplayed the episode months later, it was no less traumatic for a family still reeling from the one of the worst tragedies in Canadian sports history. In the year since the April 6 accident, grieving families have tried to stitch their lives back together, most moving on without their sons. The Straschnitzkis have a new life, recast as a family of six stuffed in hotel rooms, relying on donations to stretch their meager budget and making sure their son can still live his best life.

”This is the life we have now,” Tom Straschnitzki said. ”And we’re not going to let anyone cry for us.”

Ryan Straschnitzki wears a big smile as he wheels into a Philadelphia hotel lobby in a Philadelphia Flyers sweatshirt and a backward baseball cap. He was in town for a recent checkup at Shriners Hospitals for Children and had spent the previous night at the Flyers game.

Straschnitzki, who turns 20 on April 20, is upbeat in public and has tried to stay positive throughout his daily physiotherapy sessions, sledge hockey practice, interviews and even just the joys of being a young adult. He hangs out with friends, watches Netflix, plays videogames and dabbles with the idea of working for an NHL team or becoming a motivational speaker.

Straschnitzki is idealistic about his recovery and, like countless athletes who suffered physical setbacks, refuses to let doctors define his fate. His playing career snatched away, Straschnitzki has taken assisted steps on a treadmill with the aid of therapists.

”I’m pretty strong-minded,” he said. ”It kind of got to me that, there are ups and downs, but don’t let it get to you and keep pushing forward.”

The Broncos were just teens from across Canada with eyes on hockey scholarships and the NHL when their bus left for a playoff game in Nipawin, Saskatchewan. The survivors now are spread out – center Brayden Camrud returned to play this season for the Broncos – and most sustained permanent physical injuries and other health issues. They remain bonded through a group text chat where they talk hockey or just check in and make sure everyone is OK.

”I’m glad at where the boys are right now,” Ryan Straschnitzki said. ”They’re healing in their own ways. We’re there for each other. The guys who aren’t with us anymore, they left an impact on us. I think we use that as motivation for everything we do now.”

His new life starts with sled hockey – known as sledge hockey outside the U.S. – for players with physical disabilities. Players use two sticks, which have a spike-end for pushing and a blade-end for shooting. The recent stop at Shriners cleared him for contact, reigniting dreams of representing his country at the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing. Straschnitzki has found refuge from the dark days on the ice and plays now not to make a team or impress a coach, but for fun.

”It’s just trying not to get in my own head,” he said. ”My way to escape from all that is on the ice.”

Straschnitzki has mostly vivid memories of the accident but largely avoids describing it. His father has no doubt Straschnitzki is dealing with guilt for simply being alive while so many of his buddies are gone.

The Broncos rebuilt their roster this season and made the playoffs. Straschnitzki couldn’t watch. He skipped the memorial banner ceremony and has yet to return for a game.

”I’m not sure when I’ll go back,” he said. ”I just don’t want to. I don’t think I’m ready. It’s kind of a mix of all sorts of things. I think when I am ready, I’ll go back and visit.”

Tom thinks his son could benefit from counseling, but that ”it takes Ryan a lot to trust people.”

Tom was laid off from New Star Energy shortly after the accident and Michelle Straschnitzki is also out of work even as their lives remain impossibly hectic. There’s always somewhere to be, a function, a trip, rehab, and all the commitments for their other children. They are expected to move into a new house on April 27.

”We’ve got a paralyzed kid here. We need help,” Tom said. ”Jobs are hard right now in Alberta.”

The agonizing reminders of the wreck loom large as the anniversary approaches. Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, the truck driver who caused the crash, was sentenced last month to eight years in prison . He had pleaded guilty earlier this year to 29 counts of dangerous driving.

On Saturday, the Straschnitzkis will continue their push from helplessness to hopeful and focus on the possibilities ahead. Ryan Straschnitzki just wants to go to the Calgary Flames game Saturday night and not think about the anniversary.

”That’s the day our life changed,” Tom Straschnitzki said. ”This year is the year we begin again.”

Flyers’ Giroux-Couturier duo is great, but they need help

Getty
Leave a comment

The Philadelphia Flyers may not have had much success as a team over the past few seasons but there have been two very important developments during that time.

The first is that Claude Giroux has re-emerged as one of the elite point producers in the league after a three-year decline. He has been so productive that since the start of the 2017-18 season only four players in the league (Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Sidney Crosby) have more total points than his 187.  Just looking at things strictly from an offensive perspective, this is the best two-year run of Giroux’s career.

The second big development is that Sean Couturier has gone from being a reliable, defensive-minded center to one of the most complete and best all-around players in the league, perfectly blending his shutdown defensive play to go with an emerging offensive game that has seen him produce consecutive 30-goal, 76-point seasons (only eight other players in the league matched that).

After finishing as the runner-up in the 2017-18 Selke Trophy voting, he finished sixth this past season and will enter this season as one of the favorites to win it.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

When the Flyers put them together they can be as good as any other duo in the league.

It is when one (or both) is sitting on the bench that things unravel for the Flyers and the team gets its doors blown off. The table below shows what the Flyers’ shot attempt, scoring chance, high-danger scoring chance, and goal differentials when both are on the ice, one is on the ice, and when neither is on the ice. This is all during 5-on-5 play.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

With both, the Flyers are as good as any team in the league. Without one or both they become one of the worst teams in the league. That is the look of a team that has no depth beyond its top few players, and that is simply not good enough to win in the NHL.

This is where Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick become so vital to the Flyers’ chances.

The Giroux-Couturier pairing obviously works, but it has left the team dangerously thin the past couple of seasons. The team has been so thin that when the Flyers tried to split them up and play them on different lines it ended up doing nothing but holding them both back because there was not enough talent around them. They work at their best when they are together, and that is the way it should remain.

For the Flyers to have a chance this season they will need Hayes to be able to provide a capable second-line presence down the middle and prove he was worth that seven-year, $50 million price tag, and for Patrick to continue to evolve and help drive the third line after struggling to breakout in his second year as the second-line center.

Without both of those things happening (and without Carter Hart solidifying the goaltending spot) the Flyers will once again struggle no matter how great Giroux and Couturier are.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers could use breakout season from Nolan Patrick

Getty
Leave a comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

The success or failure of the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers will largely depend on the performance of starting goalie Carter Hart.

If he is good, the Flyers will probably be good. If he is not, there is a pretty good chance it will be more of the same from a year ago.

But for as important as Hart’s development is, the Flyers have another talented, highly touted young player on this roster that could help move them closer to a playoff sport with a big season. That player is 2017 No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick.

Thanks to some lottery luck the Flyers were able to rocket up the draft board and land Patrick, adding a potential impact player to the organization at a time when it probably was not expected. Two years into his career and he has shown some flashes of the potential that made him such a promising draft prospect, especially during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he was one of the Flyers’ best players in their Round 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. During that series he was always looking like he had a chance to do something spectacular on any given shift. It may not have resulted in big numbers, but you could easily see the talent.

He seemed to be a prime breakout candidate heading into 2018-19 based on that showing and progression throughout his rookie year. It did not quite happen as he pretty much duplicated his mostly solid but unspectacular rookie performance while also seeing a concerning dip in his possession and shot attempt numbers.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

A top draft pick not immediately becoming an All-Star level player isn’t necessarily a huge concern. Not everyone is going to step right into the NHL and be Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. Those players are rare, and there is usually a pretty steep learning curve for players trying to break into the league at 18, 19, or 20. There are a lot of really accomplished forwards in the league today that were high first-round draft picks and whose first two years were comparable to Patrick’s at a similar age, including Aleksander Barkov, Phil Kessel, Bo Horvat, Elias Lindholm, Josh Bailey and even Patrick’s own teammate, Sean Couturier.

Most of those players (specifically Barkov and Kessel, also top-five picks) started to take significant steps in year three.

That has to be what the Flyers are looking for from Patrick this season.

He does not need to be an All-Star right now, but there should at least be some kind of sign in his production and performance that he can start to trend in that direction.

If it does not happen in year three, it will probably be time to start wondering just what type of player he is capable of becoming.

The Flyers still have a couple of All-Stars at the top of their lineup in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Couturier, they still have some really good secondary players, and they might finally have the goalie they have been trying to find for decades. There are question marks and holes that still need to be filled for sure, but there is the basic framework of a potentially good team here at some key positions at the top of the roster. Patrick emerging as a top-line player would help them get a lot closer to actually being a good team once again.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers’ Hayes under pressure to produce after big contract

Getty
5 Comments

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

In his short time as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, Chuck Fletcher has already proven to be far more aggressive than his predecessor (Ron Hextall) in building the team’s roster and re-shaping the organization.

His biggest player move to date might just be the sequence of events that saw him acquire the unrestricted free agent rights to forward Kevin Hayes, and then promptly sign him to a massive seven-year, $50 million contract.

The $7.1 million cap hit per season places him third on the team (behind only Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek) and among the top-50 players in the entire league. That sort of contract is going to bring some serious expectations regardless of what we already know about the player.

What we know about Hayes is this: He is a pretty good player and would be a fine complementary piece for a Stanley Cup contender. He will help the Flyers and probably make them marginally better.

But when you are one of the highest paid players in the league, taking up 9 percent of your team’s allotted salary cap space, and signed for seven years the expectation is going to be a lot higher than “pretty good player” and simply making the team a little better. For that price and that commitment you need to be getting an impact player that is going to dramatically change the outlook of your team.

For as solid as Hayes has been throughout his career he has never really come close to being that sort of player.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Patrick the X-factor]

He has never scored fewer than 14 goals in a season, but has scored more than 17 just once (this past season).

He has failed to top the 40-point mark just once in five years, but has only topped the 50 point mark in a season one time (again, this past season).

He is not a player that dramatically drives possession and flips the ice territorially in his team’s favor (career 48 percent Corsi player; only twice over 50 percent in a single season).

You can pretty much pencil him in for 15 goals and 45 points every year and probably never miss the mark on him. He is consistently good, but never really takes a step above that. Now that he is entering his age 27 season it is fair to wonder if he will ever do that.

The question that has to be asked is if he continues to produce and play like he has over the first five years of his career how much patience will Flyers fans have for that? More importantly, how much patience will the Flyers themselves have for that?

Every dollar a team spends in a salary capped league is a dollar they can not spend on someone else, and tying up more than $7 million per season in a player that is only giving second-or third-line production without dramatically impacting the game in other areas is something that can quickly turn out to be problematic for a team that has hopes of building a contender. There is a reason most long-term free agent contracts end in either a trade or a buyout; teams have to pay a premium for a player that has probably already played their best hockey for someone else.

Hayes is a fine NHL player, but for the price the Flyers paid to get him they will probably need him to be more than that if they want to avoid buying out his contract or frantically trying to trade it in a couple of years.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Is Carter Hart the real deal?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

Let’s take a look three questions facing the 2019-20 Flyers:

1. Is Carter Hart the real deal? 

This is the same sort of question that’s being posed about Jordan Binnington this offseason.

Both Hart and Binnington began their seasons, loosely, around the holidays. That meant they didn’t play full campaigns and weren’t exposed to the rigors that a full NHL season can bring.

But if you’re a Philly fan, you have to like the sample size you were given. Hart didn’t exactly fold under pressure. If anything, he seemed to thrive in the environment and fans certainly got behind him.

That being said, the expectations have been turned up to max at this point. And that’s where the real challenge for the 21-year-old begins.

And given his tender age, one could question whether or not he’s being rushed — even with his breakout performance in the second half.

For him to build off last year, the team in front of him has to follow. The Flyers allowed the second-most five-on-five goals last season. Team defense was flat-out atrocious at times, yet Hart put up a respectable .917 save percentage.

Hart may very well be the real deal. It’s up to the Flyers not to ruin that.

2. What impact will Kevin Hayes have? 

On paper, $50 million over seven years is a lot for a guy who has reached 50 points just once in his five-year NHL career.

But let’s put the money aside for a second and look at where Hayes may help the squad.

As the team’s de-facto second-center, Hayes now allows Claude Giroux to move out to the wing, where he scored 102 points two seasons ago. Giroux is a point-per-game player at center, surely, but diversifying and adding 20-ish more points isn’t a bad thing, and Hayes allows for that.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure | Patrick the X-factor]

As the team’s second-line center, Hayes’ presence also allows Nolan Patrick to move to the third-line role where the former No. 2 overall pick can develop his game further while facing lesser competition. Patrick, despite his high draft position, could have used a year in the American Hockey League. He wasn’t afforded that chance.

Hayes can also bring solid contributions to the penalty kill, a real sore spot for the Flyers last season. He should complement Sean Couturier well in that regard and it should boost the teams 26th ranking at the same time.

3. Are the Flyers reverting to old ways? 

It’s a question I asked back in June after the Hayes signing and I think it still is worth pondering now.

Ron Hextall tried to do what has made other teams successful in the long run — a slow build, through the draft, developing talent in house and building up an asset base. His patient approach clearly wore on the impatient higher-ups in Philly.

Enter Chuck Fletcher. He’s the exact opposite of Hextall, preferring a win-now-style approach that has included trips to the bargain bin while casting a large contract to a middle-of-the-road centerman.

Methodical rebuilds aren’t a Philly thing. But maybe they should start, especially is Hart shows to be a legitimate No. 1 this season. That’s something you can build around, however enticing it might be to think you can just win now.

The last thing the Flyers need is to heap so much pressure on a young Hart that he implodes because of it. There’s been enough of that sort of thing with goalies in Philly over the years.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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