Taking a Flyer: What Is Ailing the Orange and Black?

By David Strehle
ot Stove Managing Editor

Last night’s 5-1 debacle in Tampa Bay, in which the Philadelphia Flyers outshot the Lightning, 32-16, raised numerous questions to explore regarding the recent play of the orange-and-black.

Sure, there are a number of injuries, but just about every team is going through the same situation as Philly. After watching the Pittsburgh Penguins constant rotation of players between Wilkes Barre-Scranton and the ‘Burgh over the past two seasons, injuries cannot be used as an excuse.

After playing perhaps their most complete game of the season in a 5-1 win over the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on December 13, the Flyers barely held on for a 4-3 victory in Montreal two nights later. Things have gone downhill ever since.

Following a seven-game winning streak that pushed them to the apex of the Eastern Conference standings, the team has now dropped four of its last five contests (1-3-1). In the process, the New York Rangers have passed them for first place in the Atlantic Division, and with a win last night, those pesky Pittsburgh Penguins have tied them with 46 points. Philadelphia still maintains fourth place for the moment as a result of playing one fewer game than the Pens, but that could become a moot point when they face off against each another tomorrow night at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

Along with a drop in the general level of team defense, the top-ranked Flyers’ offense has been almost non-existent in the last five outings. Philly has been collectively outscored, 18-9, during that stretch.

Bryzgalov Blows His Cool

The case of Ilya Bryzgalov’s first-year in Philadelphia has been a rather odd one, marred by wild streaks of inconsistency. After starting out the year with three straight wins – which included a shutout, something the Flyers failed to get from any netminders all of last season — the Russian goaltender dropped his next five decisions (0-4-1).

An unfettered Stamkos backhands the puck past Bryzgalov to give Tampa a 2-1 lead in the second period last night. (Photo credit: Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)

Bryzgalov then went on an 11-1-1 stretch and appeared to be coming out of the woods, but has proceeded to go 0-3-1 in his last four.

Last night’s performance against the Lightning may have been his worst outside of the ridiculous 9-8 horror show against the Winnipeg Jets in late-October. While the team exhibited several breakdowns in defensive zone coverages, Bryzgalov seemed out of position on many of the goals. He appeared to misplay angles, and Tampa shooters were able to hit their marks. This was particularly evident on Vincent Lecavalier’s snipe in the last minute of regulation in the third period, when the Bolts’ captain flipped a quick shot from the right circle that Bryzgalov appeared to be cheating too far the the near post. Lecavalier’s shot sailed over Bryzgalov’s stick side and hit the far corner.

The 31-year-old native of Togliatti, Russia has gone on record earlier in the year as saying he plays much better when “he’s more involved in the game”, or in other words, when he faces more shots on goal. Having yielded just 16 to the Lightning, Bryzgalov appeared to almost be hindered by rust, unprepared to aggressively take on the opposition’s shooter.

I’m very comfortable,” Bryzgalov said of facing more shots after a 25-save December 8 home win over the Penguins. “Because during the game, you’re moving and facing the shots…your body is in action and your blood is pumping. Your body, you just know, you want the shots, you want to battle. Instead of when you’re just frozen. You can feel you’re toes and you’re like ‘oh my God.’ It’s a big difference. Sometimes you see the goalie, like, it’s tough to play for the goalies who don’t face lots of shots. It’s really tough. I know the difference (having played in Phoenix).”

After last night’s game at St. Pete Times Forum , Bryzgalov was noticeably irked, especially when asked what he thought of his play. His sarcastic “OUTSTANDING…”, then dropping an “F-bomb” on live cable television said more than enough about where his head is right now.

He’s frustrated, and it may be that he cannot get comfortable with seeing a paltry number of shots each night. Some goalies are like that, handling a 40-shot night much better than somewhere in the mid-teens. Martin Brodeur thrived in a situation where he saw few shots each night when he had the likes of Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, and Ken Daneyko patrolling the New Jersey Devils blueline. The number of shutouts he recorded where he was called on to make less than 20 saves were numerous.

Another aspect that may be distracting the franchise goaltender is all of the camera time on HBO’s “24/7″ documentary lead-up to the Winter Classic on January 2. Bryzgalov has been called the “star” of the show so far, contemplating subjects as far-reaching as tigers and the meaning of life, all caught on camera for all to see. Maybe it will be a blessing when all of the hoopla surrounding the Classic ends early next week, and the team can just go back to concentrating on hockey, and Bryzgalov to doing what he does best, which is stopping the puck.

When all seems lost, the best course of action is to just go back to basics, and that point may be here for Bryzgalov.

JVR Playing Through Pain

Along with Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk was supposed to take his game to the next level and help offset some of the offense lost with the departures of scoring leaders Richards and Jeff Carter. With his play down the stretch last season and through the playoffs, the hope did not seem too far-fetched.

While JvR has shown signs of that player from time-to-time this year, he has struggled mightily as of late. With just one goal in his last six contests and three points in the last 11 (1 G, 2A), the second-overall pick in the 2007 draft has nine goals and 19 points in 30 games — a pace for 23 goals and 48 points, which would still be career highs.

But after missing four games at the beginning of the month with an abdominal injury, there could be reason to be concerned about the 22-year-old winger.

Remember the case of Mikael Renberg, the third member of the “Legion of Doom Line”, along with Eric Lindros and John LeClair. Renberg burst onto the scene in 1993-94, scoring 38 goals and 82 points as a 21-year-old rookie, then followed that up with a 26-goal, 57-point sophomore year in just 47 games during a lockout-shortened 1994-95 campaign.

He endured an abdominal injury in his third season, and was never the same player again. No longer did Renberg cut to the net with reckless abandon, and he ended up being dealt after a couple more mediocre years.

This is not to say that van Riemsdyk will end up the same way, but more to point out that the Flyers would be wise to handle JvR with ultra-cautious care. Players with the combination of size and speed that he possesses do not come along every year, and it would be a shame to see van Riemsdyk follow the same course that Renberg tread.

(More after the page break)

Schenn Also Struggling

One of the biggest acquisitions in a summer of change for Paul Holmgren’s squad was snagging highly-regarded forward prospect Brayden Schenn, along with Wayne Simmonds, from the Los Angeles Kings in the Mike Richards trade.

After beginning the season in the AHL due in part to a shoulder injury suffered in preseason, as well as a clause in his contract where his salary was better able to fit into Philadelphia’s constrained cap situation, Schenn tore it up in Adirondack to the tune of 12 points (6 G, 6 A) in just seven games before being recalled to the big club in late-October.

His time in Philly ever since has been tenuous, at best. Schenn played in only four games before breaking his foot after blocking a shot in Montreal on October 26, causing him to miss the next 11 games. He was assigned to the Phantoms on November 22 for a rehab stint, then returned to the Flyers at the start of December. He saw action in just two more games before suffering a mild concussion, playing in his last game on December 3, and missing the next nine contests before returning last night.

Schenn has failed to produce a single point thus far, and has been on the minus side of the ledger in five of the seven games in which he has been healthy enough to appear. His -8 rating is second only to fellow rookie Harry Zolnierczyk’s -9.

The fifth overall selection in the 2009 entry draft has to not only attempt to create some offense soon, but also must try to do something he may not have any control over, and that is to remain healthy.

It would seem Schenn will not get any kind of positive momentum going with the constant movement in and out of the lineup, especially with nagging injuries tempering his effectiveness. His confidence has more then likely taken a hit since the good feeling of the summer and early stages of training camp as a result.

Let’s hope as the calendar turns to 2012 next week, it brings a healthier and more productive year for the 20-year-old that holds the key to how the Richards deal will ultimately be judged. While the now does not hold nearly as much as the future does where Schenn is concerned, his fragility may raise some concerns in the Flyers’ camp.

Where’s Danny?

Well, he did show up on the scoresheet with a game-high seven shots on goal, but Danny Briere was held without a point once again last night. It was the fourth time in his last five games the 34-year-old went without recording a point, and has registered just five in his last nine outings (3 G, 2 A).

Like the rest of his teammates, Briere has been banged up from time-to-time, missing three combined games with an upper body injury and a bruised hand. As the club’s highest-paid player at $6.5 million annually, the Flyers obviously need more from the Gatineau, Quebec-native than what they have been receiving.

After playing to mixed reviews in his first three campaigns following his signing as a free agent in 2007, things seemed to come together for Briere after being moved from the wing back to center. Playing between Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino, the line became the club’s most consistent offensive producers.

It was during Philadelphia’s improbable run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, in which he set a team record with 30 points (12 G, 18 A), that Briere really seemed to come into his own with the Flyers. He had been that player before in Buffalo, but it took him until that moment in time in Philly to justify the giant contract, which still has three seasons remaining after this year.

Last year’s totals of 34 goals and 68 points were a continuation of the output he put forth in the 2010 postseason, even if he did take the occasional bad stick infraction at the worst possible time of a game.

He has improved that part of his game of late, but once again has fallen on hard times offensively this year. With 10 goals and 15 assists in 32 games, Briere is on pace for 24 goals and 61 points — which would be his lowest totals since the inconsistent regular season of 2009-10.

Consistency has been lacking this season. Briere has eight different multiple point games, but has failed to string together any more than three consecutive contests with at least one point, which has occurred just once so far (early-December). He has failed to put up a point in 17 of the 32 contests in which he has played.

Which leads into the next point…

Struggling to Score Goals, the Flyers Are Becoming a One-Line Team

In addition to those slumping players referred to above, there are others that have played well without seeing the desired results:

  • Jakub Voracek – After scoring goals in two of his first three games with the Flyers, it appeared the 22-year-old winger was just what the doctor ordered for a club that might have some difficulties putting the biscuit in the basket. But even though the seventh-overall pick in the 2007 entry draft has been creative with the puck and set up glorious scoring chances, he has managed to score just three more times himself over the last 32 contests. His 21 points rank Voracek sixth in team scoring, but more is expected of him, especially in the goal-scoring department.
  • Matt Read – The preseason Calder Trophy prediction of TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Read has been excellent during his rookie campaign. His 11 goals tie him with Jaromir Jagr for third on the team, and he has scored at very opportune times, with the Flyers in need of a goal. But the 25-year-old former captain at Bemidji State has seen a drop off in production, as well. Read hasn’t scored a goal in the last nine games, totalling just three assists during that span. The good news is he is still getting numerous quality scoring chances, as was the case when he was robbed on a couple of great opportunities last night by Mathieu Garon.

Another rookie that has been out of the lineup, and the recent five-game skid has coincided with his absence, is Sean Couturier. The 19-year-old centerman started off the year at a much better scoring clip than expected. He is not only one of the more responsible players in his own end, Couturier had also been very creative in the offensive end of the rink. Even though he went through a 15-game drought with having failed to pick up a point and recorded just one assist in the last 17 contests before being struck in the head with a Kimmo Timonen slap shot, he had been promoted to the top line when Giroux suffered his concussion.

Couturier’s loss has been one of the biggest in a long line of injuries sustained by key Philadelphia skaters, and the 1-3-1 mark since he left the lineup may not be much of a coincidence.

With so many players failing to contribute, Philadelphia has become a one-line team, allowing opponents to key even more than usual on the line of Hartnell, Giroux, and Jagr.

Take all of the above factors and mesh them together, and it adds up to a bad stretch. Every team is subject to these skids, going through rough patches during a long regular season. As long as many of the issues resolve, Philadelphia should be just fine. Imagine how everyone would have felt knowing in advance the Flyers would be 21-10-4 after a summer overhaul. You would have to say people would have been elated.

And finally, some good news…

Giroux’s Was An Epic Return From Concussion

There are numerous ’return games’ referred to throughout the NHL, and most of them revolve around two players from the Western side of Pennsylvania.

The mere mention of a player having a great game when coming back from an injury conjures up all kinds of images of Mario Lemieux doing something once thought to be impossible. Most of Super Mario’s exploits are amazing, but his performances after returning from long layoffs — back injury, Hodgkins Disease, even retirement – are the stuff of legend.

This season, Lemieux’s Penguins’ protege, Sidney Crosby, pulled off something similar. After missing over 10 months with a concussion, ‘Sid the Kid’ made a triumphant return to the Pittsburgh lineup against the New York Islanders on November 21st. Scoring two goals and adding two assists, Crosby carried the Pens on his back to a 5-0 victory over the Isles.

The heroics of Crosby’s comeback in late-November have since been overshadowed by his recurrence of concussion-like symptoms that have again placed him on the shelf, and his future is in doubt.

A team from the other side of the ‘Keystone State’ had a strikingly similar occurence last Wednesday night in Dallas. That’s when the Flyers decided to bring their leading scorer, Giroux, back after sitting out the previous four games with a concussion suffered in a freak accident when clipped by Simmonds’ knee during a 5-2 win at the Wells Fargo Center on December 10.

Though not injured as seriously as either Crosby or Lemieux and not out of the lineup for nearly as long, the diminutive Giroux still gave fans in Philadelphia quite a thrill in his first game back.

The rest of the field used Giroux’s absence to tie him for the NHL’s scoring lead — Toronto’s Phil Kessel, Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin, and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin had all tied Giroux for the top spot with 39 points as of the time of his return.

After watching Michael Ryder give the Stars a 1-0 lead in the game’s first minute, the rest of the night belonged to Giroux and the Flyers. The 23-year-old wizard scored the next goal, then proceeded to assist on three others as Philadelphia skated to a 4-1 victory.

The game further cemented Giroux’s status as one of the game’s rising young superstars, as well as pointing out the fact that he is just as important an offensive cog to the Flyers attack as any other player is to their respective team in the League today.

On a night where Giroux turned Dallas into ‘Big G’ for just a few short hours, his four-point night in a comeback game will be a part of Flyers’ lore for years to come.

If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter – @David_Strehle