Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Flyers Need a Haircut

When the Flyers traded for Chris Pronger in the offseason, the message was clear: This team is going for broke and expects to compete for the Stanley Cup. Defense was a major issue for the 2008-09 Flyers, and Pronger was brought in to sure up that weakness and help shut down the Penguins.

For a while, things worked according to plan. The Flyers got off to a quick start and played some great hockey … then the wheels came off. Actually, they flew off. After last night's embarrassing 6-1 loss in Pittsburgh, the Flyers have dropped 8 of their last 10 games and 11 of their last 14. They sit in 10th place in the conference. Not exactly what the team had in mind.

So what exactly is the problem and what can the Flyers do about it? They've already fired their coach and replaced him with a Stanley Cup winner. For starters, this team has been hit by some pretty key injuries. Simon Gagne is a dynamic scorer and extremely underrated defensive forward. His absence is a big reason why the Flyers have struggled to score goals both even strength and on the power play, and not having him on the penalty kill puts more pressure on other guys to do so. Losing Darroll Powe has taken away probably the team's most aggressive forechecker, and while he's not the most skilled player in the world, Powe's hustle, determination and speed were big assets to this team. And again, he's another penalty killer that's not around. And the biggest injury of all, which would have been hard to believe heading into the season, is the one to Blair Betts. Betts wasn't even signed on a guaranteed contract this offseason. He came in on a tryout basis and played so well in the preseason that the Flyers had no choice but to keep him. And boy did he help them out. Betts is the Flyers' best penalty killer, best faceoff man, and when he was healthy, the trio of Betts, Laperriere and Dan Carcillo was the best, most consistent line for Philadelphia. With him in the lineup, the Flyers are 10-3 this season, 5-13-1 without him. It never helps when your starting goaltender goes down either.

Those long-term injuries have certainly hurt, and seeing as all three skaters are major penalty killers, it makes sense that the once dominant Flyers' PK has slipped toward the bottom of the league. But injuries can't explain everything here. After all, the defense has been pretty much unscathed from the injury bug, and this team still boasts players like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux and Danny Briere upfront. There's still plenty of talent out there. So what's the problem?

It comes down to desire and hard work and determination. This team just doesn't have it. On a nightly basis, the best players on the ice seem to be Daniel Carcillo, Ian Laperriere, Claude Giroux and Chris Pronger. Yes, Jeff Carter has played pretty well of late, but not up to his capabilities, and both he and Mike Richards aren't scoring goals. Those are the two guys who are supposed to be leading the way, the two guys who are supposed to inspire their teammates. They're both failing. Richards doesn't seem to be playing with the same fire, same intensity as he has in the past. Perhaps he feels the weight of wearing that captain's C. As much as I love Richards, maybe he knew it in his heart of hearts last offseason that he wasn't ready to be a captain in the NHL, which is why he was so hesitant to claim the role. He proved he wasn't worthy of the C at the end of last season, when the Flyers faltered the last two months of the year and Richie routinely shook losses off as just one game. And he's showing once again that he may not be the man to lead, because he's just not out there leading, by example or otherwise, right now.

Carter's not scoring goals, and he's a goal-scorer. Briere has played well at times, disappeared at others. James van Riemsdyk has been everything we could have hoped, but you can't ask a rookie to show this team the ropes. Ditto Mika Pyorala, who has played solid hockey but is an NHL rookie and not exactly a guy the team is counting on. Arron Asham does what he can, but he is what he is. And the call-ups from the minors simply have no business being here.

Then there's Scott Hartnell. Two seasons ago, Hartnell was a big reason the Flyers were able to go from their worst season ever to the Eastern Conference Finals. Since then, he's done more harm than good. Last year, he committed more stupid, unnecessary penalties than anyone else on a heavily penalized team, and it often cost the Flyers. He did manage to score 30 goals and put up 30 assists playing alongside Jeff Carter, so you can say it wasn't so bad. With Scott Hartnell, that's what you get — the good and the bad.

But so far this season, there has been more bad and not enough good. The long-haired one leads the NHL in stick penalties — a stat that Versus shared with us during last night's loss — which is the equivalent of saying Scott Hartnell takes more lazy penalties than anyone else in the league. He's a -4, and more disturbing, he's not doing what he's done the past few seasons: hang around the net, get some garbage goals and help screen the goaltender. That's been his biggest problem. Scott Hartnell has not been willing to do the dirty work this season. He's been lazy, stupid and costing his team games. With the loss of Mike Knuble to Washington, it's hurt even more. Hartnell was supposed to be the guy to take over Knuble's role of the immovable force in front of the net, at least to extent. Instead, he's doing less of that than ever before. In my eyes, he's been the biggest problem with this team besides the injuries.

My solution? Send him packing. The Flyers need a shakeup. Yes, they're only two points out of 8th, and it would be shocking for them to not make the playoffs. This team simply has too much talent and will only get better as players get healthier. And the longer they play under Peter Laviolette, the more familiar they'll get with his system, what he wants, and the better off they'll be. But sneaking into the playoffs as a low seed is not good enough. This is a team expected to be near the top of the standings, competing right there with Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Washington. The Flyers are nowhere near that point at the moment. Right now this team needs a shakeup. They've already axed the coach. Time to make an example of a player. Scott Hartnell should be that guy.

Now, I know it's no simple task to up and trade a guy in the salary cap era, especially one who makes a decent chunk of change like Hartnell. But I think the Flyers should try. And if they can't, Laviollette should send a message to his team by making Hartnell a healthy scratch. If the Carolina Hurricanes can sit Rod Brind'Amour, their captain, as a healthy scratch, I think the Flyers can make Hartnell watch for a game or two. Something needs to be done. A message has to be sent. There's no better player to make an example of than Hartnell, because his dumb, lazy penalty act is getting old.

Though if this is true, I'd thoroughly support him beating the living shit out Jeff Carter. Only seems fair.

BallHype: hype it up!

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