Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Everything Changes While Remaining The Same

June 23, 2011, 3:21 PM:  Jeff Carter is traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

44 minutes later:  Mike Richards is traded to the Los Angeles Kings.

40 minutes later:  The Flyers sign Ilya Bryzgalov to a a 9-year, $51M contract.

In the span of less than two hours on June 23, 2011, the Flyers managed to blow up their core while simultaneously creating a new one.  In the span of two hours on June 23, 2011, the Philadelphia Flyers as we knew them no longer existed and out of the ashes, a team arose with new faces.

Out were Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.

In were Jakub Voracek, a 2011 1st round draft pick (Sean Couturier), a 2011 3rd round pick (Nick Cousins), Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, a 2012 2nd round draft pick (flipped to Dallas at the trade deadline for Nick Grossmann), and Ilya Bryzgalov.

Everything about that day is a blur now.  Having not been old enough to remember the Lindros trade, this was by far the most shocking blow-up of a team I had ever seen.  In a nutshell, it lowered the age of the team's forwards while simultaneously doing little to address the problems of an aging defense.  While no one could have foresaw the immense tragedy of Chris Pronger's injury, it absolutely should have been on the Front Office's mind that two 38-year old defensemen might have injury problems, as with age, comes an increased susceptibility to injuries.

The big problem the Flyers have right now* is by the time the Flyers forwards are old and talented enough to make a real run at the Cup, the core of the defense will be too injured (Pronger) or too retired (Timonen) to compete, thus depleting the depth of the defense outside of Ilya Bryzgalov, who can only be asked to do so much.  While Bryzgalov is one of the better goaltenders in the NHL even in spite of his off-year this year as can happen with any goalie, he as a mortal human being can only do so much.  If the defense is entirely dependent on the goalie, than the team is pretty much screwed.  You can get by in the NHL with a solid defense and mediocre goaltending. Just look at Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins.  In 2009-2010, a goalie almost everyone agrees is not that good, won the Stanley Cup with a .912 regular season save percentage and a .910 save percentage.  In 2008-2009, a goalie whom just about everyone overrates, the aforementioned Fleury, won the Stanley Cup with a .912 regular season save percentage and a .908 save percentage.

*Some will point out that the real problem with the Flyers is Peter Laviolette's system.  Broad Street Hockey's Geoff Detweiler takes a wonderfully detailed look at Lavi's system and concludes that in order to criticize the system, it is necessary to pinpoint the problem.  If you want a good Flyers coaching analysis with plenty of supplementary links elsewhere, this is where you want to go.

In other words, these goalies with rings, are not very good.  But the defenses they play behind are.

Re-building the defense for the Flyers will be critical.  The first positive step they can take is signing Ryan Suter, or retaining the same skill level and re-signing Matt Carle for what will probably be cheaper.  It's not like they are all that different from each other.

This season for the Flyers was in every sense of the word a transition year.  Out with the old, in with the new.  Jaromir Jagr's contributions were invaluable both on the ice and off the ice, even if he does not return next season as currently appears to be the case.  The future is bright with the emergence of Claude Giroux as a superstar, and the continually rising talents of the likes of Couturier, JVR, Voracek, Simmonds, and Schenn.  But as mentioned above, the key to the Flyers' future, should they not blow up this set of forwards any time soon, will be the defense.  If the Flyers defense can perform at a high level*, this is a team that will be contending for the Stanley Cup in due time.  Something else Paul Holmgren will need to do: learn how to do math.  In the next few years, Voracek, Giroux, Couturier, Simmonds, and others will all be due new contracts and pay raises.  As a team what is already up against the cap as it is, finding a way to maneuver about re-signing and replacing these players is a prospect that scares the poop out of me.  Every off-season I am too easily reminded why I am not a fan of Paul Holmgren, and I half-expect these upcoming years to be no different.

*As backwards as it may seem, trading Andrej Meszaros would be a great way to start.  His goal total and production is inflated because he is frequently sheltered in the offensive zone.  He is not as good as his contract or goal total makes him out to be.  In fact, saying "he is not good, period" is probably a factually accurate statement.  You can find better 5th defensemen for cheaper.

Last year, the Flyers finished the season with 106 points and lost in the 2nd round in 4 games.  This year, the Flyers finished the season with 103 points and lost in the 2nd round in 5 games.  The more things change.......

The Philadelphia Flyers are the only team in the NHL to advance to the second round of the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.  While some may look at this as somewhat of a disappointment, you have to take these eliminations with the knowledge that every other team in the NHL at one point or another finished worse than the 2nd round in the last three seasons.  With all of the changes that have been had over the past three seasons, to have this same kind of consistency is nothing short of remarkable.

We will have an interesting off-season for sure to see where the Flyers go from here.  Surprises will be had, trades will happen, free agents will sign, free agents will leave, it will all be exciting, but one thing that will be for certain is the 2012-2013 season will arrive* and the Philadelphia Flyers will be back.

*There is no way the NHL will lockout after the growth it has seen since the last lockout, where interest in the sport pretty much hit rock bottom.

Will next year be the year?  It is impossible to say right now.  But the Flyers ended last year as a contender for the Stanley Cup, got surprising production from rookies and made a legitimate push this year, and will with little doubt once again be in that very same conversation to qualify for the Stanley Cup.  Matt Read will either stay the same or improve.  Jakub Voracek will most likely improve.  Sean Couturier will most likely improve.  Brayden Schenn will most likely improve.  Wayne Simmonds will most likely improve.  Claude Giroux is only 24.  JVR will most likely improve.  Braydon Coburn will continue to be a steady rock on defense.  Max Talbot will not have a 16.5% shooting percentage again, but his defensive ability will still be there.  Everything changed on June 23, 2011, but nearly one year later, everything is still the exact same.

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