By David Strehle
NHL Hot Stove Managing Editor
In the post-lockout NHL, the Philadelphia Flyers have consistently possessed one of the deepest stables of forwards in the League. Seemingly always included in the ensemble are an impressive number of scorers, providing the team with a potent arsenal for their attack.
In late-summer, many NHL insiders considered the consequences to Paul Holmgren’s off-season moves, and speculated that there may just be big trouble in Philadelphia this year. The sweeping overhaul up front changed the very makeup of the group.
Some even speculated that there could be a domino affect caused by the expected decrease in his team’s scoring ability, which could foster the beginning of the end of Holmgren’s GM position with the Flyers.
(Photo credit: Len Redkoles / NHLI, via Getty Images)
Borne out of a glaring need to rectify a continued deficiency in the club’s net, Holmren traded away two very proven goal-scoring commodities in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Carter led the Flyers in goals scored in each of the past three seasons, hitting the back of the net 115 during that span. Richards had been counted on to consistently add somewhere in the neighborhood of the 30 markers annually, even though his production dropped off to just 23 last year.
Even though the players he received in return had come into the League with the usual talk of heightened potential of a huge upside, they also brought along quite a few question marks as well.
Winger Jakub Voracek was the seventh-overall selection of the Blue Jackets in the 2007 draft. The Kladno, Czech-native has an explosive skating stride and displayed elite offensive abilities at every level of hockey. He scored 39 goals over the course of three years in Columbus, with a season-high of 16 coming in 2009-10. Was Voracek just about ready to explode with the Jackets, or was he only going to be a consistent 15-20 goal contributor each season in Columbus?
Voracek is 22 years old and stands 6′ 2″, and weighing in at 214 pounds. So far in the infancy of the new campaign, Voracek has played the wing on a line with center Danny Briere and Wayne Simmonds. In the first three games, Voracek has two goals, and is a +3. He also netted the game-winning goal on opening night against the Boston Bruins.
Also acquired in the deal was the eighth-overall selection in last June’s draft, which Philly turned into versatile, two-way centerman Sean Couturier. The Drummondville Voltigeurs star was actually ranked as the top prospect available in the draft until contracting mononucleosis, at which time his stock plummeted.
Couturier is just 18-years-old, is 6′ 3″, and weighs in just under 200 pounds. Hi’s free fall in the draft rankings may just turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Flyers, especially since he was still available at the eighth spot. The Jordan Staal-like pivot scored 77 goals and posted 192 points in 126 QMJHL games over the last two seasons, but perhaps his +117 rating was most impressive of all his statistics. The late draft guru EJ McGuire stated earlier this year that if Couturier ever filled out his frame, he could be as dominant a player as Eric Lindros had been.
Even though he exhibited a strong defensive responsibility and keen hockey sense in the preseason, it seemed he would be headed back to the “Q” for more time to develop phyiscally. But Couturier defied the odds and instead opened the 2011-12 campaign with the big club. In the first three contests of the new season, he has logged an increasing number of minutes per game, and has seen the second-highest amount of ice time in each game to defensive-specialist Talbot. It remains to be seen if he will remain with the club past the 10-game slide rule limit, but there is no doubt that Couturier has a long career ahead of him with the Flyers.
When James van Riemsdyk (another young building block for the Flyers; 22 years old, 6′ 3″, 200 pounds), was asked about the similarities between himself and Couturier, he said “I was still playing in college (at age 18) and he is definitely farther along than I was,” said the Flyers second-overall pick in the 2007 draft. ”I think the maturity in his game is impressive. He plays both ends of the ice and he has been great so far. From day one he has been awesome.”
Brayden Schenn was considered the centerpiece in the Richards deal with the Kings. He had a fantastic junior career with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings - as well as with the Canadian National Junior team – and was selected fifth-overall in the 2009 draft by Los Angeles. Schenn managed just two assists in nine games with the Kings over two seasons, and suffered a shoulder injury in last year’s WJC’s.
Schenn looks to be a contributor at some point this season, but a slight shoulder injury and the usual cap space issues that the team face each year – as well as a $1.4 million bonus that will not count against Schenn’s cap hit since he didn’t start the year in Philadelphia - are keeping him with the Flyers AHL-affiliate Adirondack Phantoms.
Look for a roster move to be made and Schenn to be with the big club soon.
Taken in the second round of the same 2007 draft class as Voracek, Simmonds has had numbers that were strikingly similar to that of Voracek’s. As a matter of fact, they each have scored the exact same amount of goals in each of their three seasons in the League. Simmonds was relegated to the bottom six in Los Angeles, so his numbers might not be a good testament as to just what kind of production he is capable of.
Simmonds is 23, stands 6′ 2″, and weighs 183 pounds. He was embroiled in two preseason incidents that garnered international media attention, but it is crystal clear that he has been able to move beyond the media frenzy and is concentrating solely on hockey. Simmonds has used his big frame to the utmost advantage in the early going, and has become an immovable force in front of the opposition net on the Flyers first power play unit. Playing with Jagr and the flashy Claude Giroux, there has been an instant chemistry with the trio. When screening the opposition goalie, his big number 17 on the back recalls the days that a big, young power forward named Paul Holmgren patrolled the right wing – and crashed the opposition cage - for Philadelphia.
His play on the unit has been good enough to replace winger Scott Hartnell, who has also been moved off of the Briere line. Hartnell has been playing the left side of the third line, with Couturier and Matt Read.
“He’s a big body,” said head coach Peter Laviolette after the club’s 5-4 victory over the Canucks Wednesday night. ”He’s not afraid to get in there. Usually, that’s one of those hard areas to get to. He gets there, he’s got a good stick and is a skilled guy, but he’s willing to pay the price in there. I think that’s important.”
One of the most-curious acquisitions Holmgren made during the summer was 39-year-old winger Jaromir Jagr. Just when it looked as though the Czech-native was destined to sign in Pittsburgh, the NHL where it all began for him, Jagr instead made a last-minute change and decided to sign with the Penguins arch-rival Flyers. No one knew what to expect, since it had been three seasons since the sure first-ballot Hall-of-Famer left for the KHL.
Plain and simple, Jagr is a giant of the game. At 6′ 3″ and 240 pounds, he has always been impossible to knock off the puck for any opponent. His instant chemistry with Giroux was obvious from the time they took to the ice together, and with van Riemsdyk, have formed a viable top attack unit. And those worried about Jagr’s subsequent entry into the 40-and-over-club in February need not fret. His training habits are legendary, and should keep him in excellent game shape through the entire year.
After a preseason in which he led the Flyers in scoring, Jagr has just two assists in the first three contests. But there has been a number of glorious chances for the line, and they will be a lot of fun to watch over the rest of the season.
“I don’t think we are anywhere near as good as we can be,” said van Riemsdyk of his line. ”I think we have a lot more to give and I think we can do better. Which I think is a good thing.”
It definitely is a good thing for the team, as well as the fans.
Bob McKenzie's bold Calder pick via Twitter.
Read was a free agent signing out of Bemidji State University this past May. With the knowledge that he had a one-way contract, there was a very good chance that Read could make the club out of training camp. How good was Read in the preseason? It caused TSN’s Bob McKenzie to make a rather bold prediction regarding the 25-year-old forward.
After a few exhibition games where he looked right at home, there was no question as to where Read would make his residence once the final roster was announced. He scored his first NHL goal against the New Jersey Devils in the second game of the year, and along with Couturier, has been another revelation as a rookie penalty-killer. Read has also taken shifts playing the right point on the club’s power play, providing yet more versatility and possible movement for Laviolette to employ.
Most Philadelphians remember Max Talbot as the guy who pretty much single-handedly turned around Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals – by getting pummeled in a fight, nonetheless. After the Flyers had taken a 3-0 lead early in the second period, it appeared the Flyers would be forcing a deciding Game 7. That’s when Talbot goaded Dan Carcillo into a fight. Carcillo pounded Talbot mercilessly, and the crowd was roaring with approval. But Talbot put his index finger to his lips and gave a “Shhhh!” to all in attendance, and it was if an evil spell had been cast upon anything wearing Orange-and-Black the rest of the afternoon. Pittsburgh scored seconds later on their way to a 6-3 win. Talbot’s contribution was remembered by his teammates several weeks later when the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup.
After signing with the Flyers this summer as a free agent, Talbot has been singing another tune. “I’ve been playing against those fans for about six years so I know what they’re all about,” Talbot said of the Philly faithful just before the home opener. ”It’s nice to be on the right side this time.” He seems to know exactly what to say.
Talbot’s defensive work at even strength against the opposition’s top offensive units and on the penalty kill will no doubt prove invaluable to the Flyers.
In the process of all of these transactions, Holmgren actually corrected another shortcoming in the Orange-and-Black lineup, and that is a lack of size on the wings.
What he did was take two of the team’s premier centers – a position that the team is rich in – and turned them into four improved wingers on the top two lines – and another for the third line once Schenn is recalled.
As the dust has settled on an eventful off-season, the ultimate conclusion to the work that Holmgren put forth was the Flyers got younger, bigger, and deeper up front. They quite possibly may even be a much better team in the process.
Instead of Kris Versteeg (5″ 11″, 183), Darroll Powe (5″ 11″, 212), Ville Leino (6′ 1″, 190), Carcillo (6’0″, 203), and Nikolay Zherdev (6′ 2″, 203), the club has a cast of younger, tireless workers.
And he did it, for the most part, without the benefit of high-end draft picks year after year. Because of the success of the franchise year-in and year-out, Holmgren is picking at the end of each round. And as he makes trades in an attempt to push his club over the top, his top round picks are usually sacrificed in the process.
It’s still early in the year but with the revamping of his forward ranks over the summer, it appears that Holmgren has assembled a team that can play almost any style an opponent chooses. They’ve ground out two tight road affairs – 2-1 in Boston and 3-0 against the Devils – and outscored the Canucks a 5-4 victory over the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners.
According to defenseman Chris Pronger, the formula for winning is pretty simple. “Make sure night in and night out it’s wave after wave,” the captain stated. “Get on the forecheck and skate, use the young bodies we’ve got up front to skate, skate teams into the ground.”
And thanks to Holmgren, the club has the younger legs up front in which to employ that tactic.
Perhaps Ilya Bryzgalov, the free agent cure to Philadelphia’s persistent shortcomings between the pipes, said it best after Wednesday’s home opener against Vancouver.
“If you see the locker room, we have different experienced guys,” the first year Flyer goaltender pointed out. ”We have young guys with high talent and big masters of the puck like Jarmir Jagr, and then young players like Claude Giroux, James Van Riemsdyk who are high-skilled, too. You know, it’s big players and big names and high skills, and when you give them the chance they can score the goals.”
If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter – @David_Strehle
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