Out with the (Beloved) Old, In with the New (Unknown)

Flyers defensive stalwart is currently battling blood clots in his right leg and lungs.

This Flyers defensive stalwart is currently battling blood clots in both his right leg and lungs.

Throughout his miraculous 24-year professional hockey career (eight overseas), the diminutive Kimmo Timonen has battled countless ailments, sprains, fractures, contusions, and lacerations, just to name a few; but he has always come out on top.  Nothing has ever stopped the 5’10” 194-pound warrior from giving his all to complete the task at hand.  That is, until the news hit the presses on Tuesday afternoon that Philadelphia’s longtime beloved Finn may, in fact, be human after all.

After years of forcing his undersized frame through superhuman tests of endurance, strength, and determination, the 39-year old’s body can no longer match the youth of his spirit.  And in a surprising turn of events, it appears as if #44’s playing days may have come abruptly to an end.

It wasn’t a bone-jarring blow that did him in; nor a sacrificial torso donation made in an attempt to slow, divert, or altogether stop a vulcanized piece of rubber destined for the twine behind his goalie; no, this appears to have been nothing more than a spontaneously occurring episode of the human body gone amok.

Who would have thought that a professional athlete, in peak physical condition, would be subject to such an arbitrary, and yet dangerous, affliction such as multiple blood clots?  But that is the situation that both the Flyers and their linchpin defenseman find themselves in going forward.

Most importantly, are these multiple blood clots life-threatening? career-threatening?  Season-ending? Too many questions, little or no answers.

But despite Timonen’s salubrity, or lack thereof, the 14-15 NHL season will go on and that brings us to the question of what now to do with the Flyers already thin D-corps?

Welcome Back to the Metropolitan Division, Mr. Michael Del Zotto

Still just 24, the Flyers hope MDZ can recapture his former glory.

Still just 24, the Flyers hope MDZ can recapture his former glory.

 

I have long been one of the local Philadelphians who believe that the 24-year old, former Rangers defender Michael Del Zotto would be the perfect reclamation project for town often glorified for its comeback stories.  And with one of the clubs top-4 blueliners facing career-threatening health concerns, it didn’t take long for General Manager Ron Hextall to bring in the enigmatic young player on a 1-year, $1.3 million deal.

Del Zotto, or “MDZ” as he is commonly referred, burst onto the the NHL scene as a 20-year old rookie during the 08-09 season, as he posted 9 goals and 28 assists and was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team.  Just two seasons later he became an even more integral part of the Rangers dynamic defense crew as he managed 10 goals and 31 assists.

Stacking up statistics of that magnitude before the age of 23 would fast track most young defenders to stardom but a series of setbacks and miscues sent MDZ from blossoming star (mentioned alongside names like P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson) into John Tortorella’s doghouse, Alaign Vigneault’s bottom pairing, and finally, after being dealt to Nashville, a regular on Barry Trotz’s list of healthy scratches.

It was a precipitous and unceremonious fall for the former first round pick, but if there’s one team in the NHL that can utilize Del Zotto and revitalize his career it’s probably these Philadelphia Flyers.

How the Blue Line Looks to Shape Out Now

Though the Flyers lose a ton of experience and leadership without Timonen in the locker-room, his time on the long-term injury reserve may actually be somewhat of a blessing in disguise.  I would never wish injury on any player (especially something as serious as this), but it was clear towards the end of the 2013-14 season that Kimmo had lost more than a few steps.  He was an absolute liability against the smaller, quicker forwards in the Rangers series; and it cost the team dearly. I was an advocate for letting him walk during free agency.

Now I’m not implying that a player (MDZ) with a career +/- of “-9” is the answer to all the Flyers defensive ills but Del Zotto brings a skill set that the Flyers blueline has sorely missed over the past several years.  Far too often this team has found itself pinned deep in their own zone because of a lack of mobility on the part of the defenders, but that should be no issue with Del Zotto.  He is essentially a fourth forward on the ice (which can be a double-edged sword).

Without Timonen’s lack of mobility the Flyers will now have Streit, Coburn, MacDonald, and Del Zotto, all mobile defenders who are capable of creating forward momentum with crisp and accurate outlet passes.  That will leave Nicklas Grossmann, Luke Schenn, and Nick Schultz as the steady, stay-at-home types.

One major issue that Head Coach Craig Berube will face without Timonen going forward is how the powerplay functions.  It’s probably a safe assumption that Mark Streit (10 goals 34 assists) will assume the role as #1 PP QB, while the likes of MacDonald and Del Zotto will battle to run the second PP unit.

And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a youngster such as Union College hero/offensive dynamo Shayne Gostisbehere, slick Swede Robert Hagg, or steady two-way Phantom defender Mark Alt challenge for a spot out of training camp.

Although it’s never ideal to suffer potential career-ending injuries, it can be important to look at the bright side of these negative episodes.  After all, it was the New York Yankees removal of star first baseman Wally Pipp in 1925 due to a headache that led to the implementation of the mythical Lou Gehrig.  And the rest is history.  Of course no one should have any misconceptions about Michael Del Zotto overtaking Kimmo Timonen on the list of Flyers greats; but sometimes new blood is a necessity.

 

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Orange and Black Get Back on Winning Track

Sean Couturier puts the winning goal past Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec.

Sean Couturier puts the winning goal past Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec.

When most hockey players are just hitting the ice for their respective morning skates, the Flyers and Jets were playing a meaningful, morning matinee.  Coming off two straight losses, in which the bad habits that plagued this seasons’ start returned, Philadelphia desperately needed to pick up some points against an inconsistent Winnipeg squad.  And they did just that, in somewhat dominating fashion.  After controlling the first period (13-2 shot advantage), the Jets pushed back in the third and the tilt came down to the wire; fortunately, Steve Mason was one save better than Ondrej Pavelec, and the game ended 2-1.

Here are some highlights:

  • Sean Couturier may have had his best game of the season.  He was key in killing off six Winnipeg power-plays, while also potting a short-handed, game-winning tally (and coming oh so close on another). The kid is a talent.
  • Steve Mason handled 25 of 26 shots to continue his spectacular campaign.
  • Scott Hartnell finally got a lucky bounce as the puck found his stick immediately as he exited the bench and he potted it in wide-open net to open the scoring.
  • Zac Rinaldo’s speed is becoming a nice asset on the Penalty Kill, as he’s able to pressure the opposing squad and make it back to the defensive zone easily.  His development had to contribute to Holmgren’s decision to move fan favorite Max Talbot in favor of Steve Downie.
  • Andrej Meszaros replaced Erik Gustafsson in the linueup but wasn’t any more effective.  Both have their faults but I personally believe Gus brings far more upside and has shown more in his limited appearances this season.
  • One of the biggest issues holding the Philadelphia Flyers back from contention is their apparent inability to be selfish.  There have been far too many examples this season of a player having an opportunity to shoot, and instead passing up the chance in an attempt to setup a teammate.  Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek have especially been guilty of this selflessness.  Both have elite play-making skills, but sometimes what’s best for the team is to just throw the puck on net.
  • It’s good that the Flyers got these two points as over the next few weeks they take on the likes of Nashville (Saturday), Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Montreal, and Washington (twice).

Tune in Saturday night at 8 p.m. to see the Flyers (11-12-2) take on the the Predators (13-11-2) in Nashville.  However, the Preds come in to the game without the services of Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne, Kevin Klein, Filip Forsberg, and Patric Hornqvist- all out.  Unfortunately, this team, still desperate for points, can’t underestimate their short-handed competition.

 

NHL Off-Season Part II: Winners

The Stars added serious depth down the middle.

The Stars added serious depth down the middle with the additions of Horcoff (left) and Seguin (right).

During the NHL off-season it’s often easier to pick out the teams that didn’t accomplish their goals, as opposed to those who completed their summer shopping lists.  Usually you can’t tell who the “winners” are until the product is visible on the ice.  But, since I already picked a few clubs that I thought fell short, here are those who landed on the opposite end of the spectrum.

The Winners:

The Flyers-  Additions: Vincent Lecavalier, Mark Streit, Ray Emery

Okay, I know, there’s an obvious bias here.  However, I don’t think picking the Flyers as winners falls entirely in the “homer” category.  After all, this franchise made its usual splash this off-season.  But it wasn’t just the stereotypical binge-spending we’ve become accustomed to in Philadelphia; no, these were savvy additions.  GM Paul Holmgren surely wanted to erase the sour taste left by last summers failures and subsequent debacle of a season.  First, the blueline desperately needed some tweaking.  So the club brought in former Islanders Captain, and power play specialist, Mark Streit.  Now, he won’t necessarily improve the Flyers defensive zone coverage, but he will replace that puck-moving element they lost with Matt Carle’s departure.  The 4-year term is questionable for a 35-year old defender, but, atleast in the short-term, it’s a good move.

Next, the Flyers replaced the rapidly declining Danny Briere with longtime Lightning stalwart, Vinny Lecavalier.  Lecavalier will bring much-needed size (6’4”) and scoring ability (383 goals) to the second line.  And a 1-2 punch of Giroux-Lecavalier at the center position could become the envy of the league.  Finally, the most important upgrade was the addition of Flyer retread Ray Emery to alleviate the “loss” of Bryz in net.  Emery was stellar (17-1-0, .922sv%, 1.94GAA) for the Blackhawks last season.  And he and Steve Mason, in my mind, are a significant upgrade over the streaky production that Bryz brought to the crease.

Some may be underestimating the Flyers after last seasons debacle, but this club has clearly improved.

Dallas Stars-  Additions: Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, Shawn Horcoff, Sergei Gonchar, Valeri Nichuskin (draft), Dan Ellis

If the Stanley Cup was awarded for off-season performance, the Dallas Stars would be the clear favorites.  This is a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since a surprise run to the Conference Finals in 07-08, but they’ve made serious strides during recent months.  The first stellar move was the hiring of former Red Wings director of amateur scouting, Jim Nill, as General Manager.  Nill immediately put his fingerprints on the franchise by acquiring Russian defender Sergei Gonchar and drafting Russian sensation Valeri Nichuskin.  Gonchar is often credited with helping to develop Evgeni Malkin’s North American game while in Pittsburgh and Nichuskin has that type of elite ability.  Nill then pulled off the stunner of the off-season by acquiring enigmatic forward Tyler Seguin (and Rich Peverly) from the Boston Bruins.  Although controversy swirls around Seguin’s partying ways, he has as much talent as anyone.  He, Peverley, and Horcoff (acquired from Edmonton) could form a solid trio at center for the Stars.  Besides the off-season acquisitions, Dallas also has talented holdovers Jamie Benn (age 24) and netminder Kari Lehtonen (29).  You can never tell how certain additions will mesh on the ice, but on paper, the Dallas Stars have the look of a darkhorse contender.

Detroit Red Wings–  Additions:  Daniel Alfredsson, Stephen Weiss

Although the Red Wings lost some key players in Valteri Filppula (Tampa Bay), Damien Brunner (UFA), Danny Clearly (UFA), and Ian White (UFA), they probably gained more skill with the additions of Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss.  Alfredsson, the longtime Senators captain, surprised everyone when he opted to sign in Detroit instead of Ottawa.  Eventhough he’s 40 years of age, he should fit in seamlessly with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.  And Stephen Weiss, 30, will be the perfect second-line center in a deep forward group.  Although Weiss struggled a season ago (4pts in 17 games), he had scored atleast 42 points in his last six full NHL seasons, including two 60pt seasons.  With an interesting mix of youth and experience, the Red Wings should be dangerous competitors in their first season in the Eastern Conference.

Nashville Predators-  Additions:  Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom, Matt Hendricks, Seth Jones (draft)

seth jonesNormally legitimate contenders, the Predators suffered through one of their worst seasons in franchise history in 2012-13.  They lost a top-pairing defenseman in Ryan Suter to Minnesota and their offense was absolutely abysmal.  But, despite steering clear of headline names, Nashville was one of the most active teams this summer.  They brought in veteran center Matt Cullen and former Blackhawk speedster Viktor Stalberg to add a little offense.  Stalberg, one of the fastest skaters in the league, should add a dynamic element that this team sorely lacked a season ago.  But, probably the most important addition to the Preds franchise in years, was 4th overall pick Seth Jones.  Projected by most experts as the top prospect in this years draft, Jones,18, is expected to fill the massive void left by Suter.  He and captain Shea Weber could form a truly stellar top-pairing on the blueline.  GM David Poile also added forwards Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks to bring a little grit to the Preds forward group.  As long as All-Star netminder Pekka Rinne has a bounce-back campaign, Nashville should rebound in a big way in 2013.

The 2013-14 will be a huge campaign for these four franchises, amongst others.  The true winners of the off-season won’t become clear until the actual contests begin.  Some teams that look like surefire Cup contenders in August aren’t even in the playoff picture come April.  Some new additions will propel their respective squads to untold heights, others will drag their organizations down to cap hell.  It’s a crap-shoot that will only reveal the results with time.  But, as of right now, the Flyers, Red Wings, Stars, and Predators look like they’ve won the off-season odyssey, if only by a nose.

Up next in the Off-Season Series: Breakout Candidates.