Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Halfway Home: A Look at the Flyers' Newcomers

Last night, the Flyers beat the Canadiens 5-2 to improve to 33-12-5 on the season. It was an all-around team effort, highlighted by this incredible shift from the Carter-Giroux-Zherdev line.

After getting outplayed much of the first period, Montreal took three successive penalties, giving the Flyers two 5-on-3 power plays at the end of the period. Philadelphia made them pay, scoring twice: the first by Jeff Carter and the second by Kimmo Timonen. After that, the game was never really in doubt. Chris Pronger had 4 assists on the night. Mike Richards and Danny Briere each had two points. The Carter-Zherdev-Giroux line was awesome, with both Carter and Giroux scoring, and Zherdev playing the most physical game of his Flyers career. Dan Carcillo scored before eventually getting a 10-minute game misconduct late in the 3rd. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 29 shots. And the most impressive players to me were Darroll Powe, Blair Betts and Sean O'Donnell, all of whom were beasts on the penalty kill. Powe broke up several passes and played with his trademark intensity, Betts was a one-man shot-blocking machine, clearing the puck with ease, and O'Donnell simply didn't let any Montreal forward do anything against him. It really was a thing of beauty, with every Flyer having a hand in the victory, and that's been the case all season long.

Now with the all-star break upon us, the Flyers sit atop the entire NHL with 71 points. They have four players with at least 40 points, six with 30 points and 10 with 20 points. Eight Flyers have at least 10 goals, 6 have at least 20 assists, and 12 are in double figures in assists. They are the deepest team in hockey, and as it currently stands the best. So over the next few days, I'm going to do a breakdown of the players through the first 50 games of the 2010-11 season. Today, we start with the newcomers.

Nikolay Zherdev

When the Flyers signed Nikolay Zherdev, it certainly raised some eyebrows. Zherdev spent his first five seasons in the NHL as a complete enigma, first for the Columbus Blue Jackets and then a year for the Rangers. He was known as an incredibly talented offensive player, but a guy who maddeningly would disappear for long stretches of time. To make matters worse, he was never confused for Mike Richards or Pavel Datsyuk when it comes to playing responsibly in his own zone.

That led Zherdev to leave the NHL an unwanted man after the 2008-09 season with the Rangers, playing last year in the KHL. His signing was probably the most confusing of the entire offseason. And for the first half of the first half, Zherdev was exactly what he's always been: an enigma.

One night, he'd score an amazing goal.

The next night, he'd forget to mark his man in the defensive zone, take a bad penalty or completely disappear. One game he's scoring twice against his old team. The next night he's a healthy scratch for playing undisciplined and ineffective hockey.

But then something clicked. When Zherdev was sitting as a healthy scratch and watching James van Riemdsyk turn his season around, watching Dan Carcillo play hard, even if at times dumb, he started to get it. On this team, with all this talent, the only way he was going to play and get ice time was to work hard. And ever since, he's been doing just that.

It first started skating alongside Mike Richards. The influence of the captain was immediate, as Zherdev started to back-check hard and still score dazzling goals. And since JVR got hurt and Peter Laviolette put him on a line with Carter and Giroux, Zherdev has been awesome. He's playing hard in all three zones. He's still scoring goals and making plays. He's no longer trying to take on three guys all by himself. And last night, he even started to get into it physically, throwing several big checks and never backing down.

Even with the ups and downs early on, it's hard to find much to say negative about the Zherdev signing, especially of late. He has 15 goals and 4 assists on the season. He's been a plus player (plus-6), something he never was in Columbus. And since joining Carter and Giroux, he's been part of the best line for the Flyers the past two games. Finally, it looks like Nikolay Zherdev is getting it. Finally, it looks like he's putting his incredible skills to proper use. Being on a team with so many other talented players, a team that was two wins away from hoisting the Cup last year, a team with leadership — Pronger, Richards, Timonen, Betts, etc. — all over the place, has brought out the best in him. And if he reverts back to an enigma, he simply won't play. Not with James van Riemsdyk, Andreas Nodl and Dan Carcillo all chomping at the bit to earn ice time.

Andrej Meszaros

Right from the get-go, I was excited about the Meszaros signing acquisition. Even though he struggled in Tampa Bay, Meszaros was/is a talented, still young defensman (he's only 25). He had some spectacular years in Ottawa, and coming to a Philadelphia defense corps that already boasted four outstanding defensemen took a lot of pressure off him. All he's done this season is rejuvenate his career, playing the best hockey of his life.

Right now, Meszaros leads the entire NHL in plus/minus, skating at a plus-28. He has 18 points (3 goals, 15 assists). And thanks in large part to his incredible play, the Flyers didn't miss a beat on the blue at the beginning of the season without Chris Pronger, and kept on rolling when Pronger went down with a broken foot. The 6'2, 218-pounder has brought another physical presence to the back end, trailing only Darroll Powe for the team lead in hits with his 103. He has a heavy shot, which has started to find the back of the net recently. And his size and speed have allowed him to play in every situation, thriving even strength, on the power play and on the penalty kill. I couldn't be more happy or impressed with Meszaros. His signing is looking like a brilliant move.

Sean O'Donnell

It's hard to talk about Andrej Meszaros without talking about Sean O'Donnell too. Last postseason, especially during the Stanley Cup Final, it was evident that the biggest area of need for the Flyers was on the blue line. While they did boast two impressive top pairs — Timonen-Coburn and Pronger-Carle — they relied entirely too heavily on those four guys. Pronger and Timonen regularly logged nearly 30 minutes a game, and by the time they had to take on a deep and talented Chicago attack, they were worn down. So what did Paul Holmgren do? He brought in Meszaros and Sean O'Donnell.

Those two, paired together most of the season, have given the Flyers the single deepest defense corps I can ever remember. Plenty of Meszaros' success can be attributed to skating alongside the veteran O'Donnell, who won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim with Chris Pronger. O'Donnell will never be confused with Nicklas Lidstrom or Brian Leetch or even Kimmo Timonen or Chris Pronger. But he is a really, really good NHL defenseman. That's why he's been in the league for 18 years.

O'Donnell's not an offensive defenseman. Not in the least. He's your classic stay-at-home guy. And an incredibly effective one at that. He's not fast. He's not flashy. He's just good. He uses his massive body to its fullest advantage, positions himself superbly and rarely makes a mistake. Watching him move Canadien after Canadien off the puck last night, blocking shot after shot and making smart play after smart play, I was amazed. He only has 1 goal and 10 assists, but his contributions are much greater. He and Meszaros are capable of shutting down a top line. That gives the Flyers three defense pairings that can do that. No one else in the league can say that. Sean O'Donnell and Andrej Meszaros have been godsends. They really have been.

Jody Shelley

I have to admit, I didn't really understand why the Flyers went out and inked Jody Shelley to a three-year, $3.3 million contract. That seemed like a lot of money and a lot of years for an older goon. What I didn't realize then was just how much Shelley brings to the table.

Jody Shelley is a fourth-line guy. Always has been, always will be. On a team as deep and talented as the Flyers, he doesn't get much time. But the time he does get is always deserved. Shelley is much more than a fighter, believe or not. Don't get me wrong, he'll throw down with anyone, and he's not going to put up a ton of points. But he's also a very intelligent, very responsible player. He takes plenty of penalties, evident by his team-leading 108 penalty minutes. But there aren't many of them that are dumb or unnecessary. He protects his teammates. He throws devastating hits. And he works hard in his own zone. For a guy who doesn't do much offensively, he's been a mainstay, even with the Flyers carrying NHL-caliber extra men all season.

He's been a great fit with Blair Betts and Darroll Powe, working hard as the defensive-minded checking line. Hell, Shelley is even a plus player, sitting at plus-4, and he does have four points (2 goals, 2 assists). Then you take into account that his teammates love him, and that he is a real leader. His voice carries weight in the locker room. And he's been nothing short of a strong addition to this club.

Sergei Bobrovsky

The talk of the town this offseason revolved around this mysterious 22-year-old Russian goaltender the Flyers had found. He was creating quite a buzz with his impressive play, and wouldn't you know it, he was named the starter on opening night. Could it be true? Could the Flyers really have unearthed the young, talented goaltender they've been searching for my entire life? No one really knew. Then we saw Bob play.

The rookie netminder started out the season on fire, playing as good a goal as anyone in the league. Then, as is wont to happen, he hit a bit of a slump and found himself on the bench. Brian Boucher played tremendous, and we all waited to see how the young Russian would respond. All he's done since is win his past six starts and continue to impress. Yes, he gave up a weak goal last night, but he's been far better than anyone could have ever hoped.

Bobrovsky has 21 wins in 31 games started (32 played), most among all rookie goaltenders. In fact, only six goalies in the entire NHL have more, and none of them have played in less games than Bob. HIs .920 save percentage is the best among all rookie goaltenders and puts him just outside the top 10 in the NHL. And his 2.42 goals against average is right there as well.

Sergei still has some work to do on his stick handling and at times he seems to make himself too small too quickly for such a tall guy, but that's nit-picking at this point. His athleticism is unparalleled. His flexibility is astonishing. And he's lightning quick from post to post. The best part of all is that he never seems to get phased and he's been lauded for his incredible work ethic. Hopefully Bob can continue to develop and establish himself as a true No. 1 NHL goaltender. He looks to be on his way, that's for sure. I think it's safe to say no one saw that coming. He's certainly been the biggest and most refreshing surprise so far.

Matt Walker

It's hard to make any definitive statements about Matt Walker, the man the Flyers got in return for Simon Gagne in the wildly unpopular trade with Tampa Bay. He got hurt in the preseason and has played in just four games for the Flyers. With Pronger, Timonen, Coburn, Carle, O'Donnell and Meszaros —  not to mention Oskars Bartulis — don't expect to see much of him the rest of the way. His acquisition was much more about shedding Gagne's salary to open up room in order to bolster the defense corps, which is exactly what Holmgren did.

Let's not forget Eric Wellwood either, who was called up from the Phantoms and played three very impressive games for the Flyers.

Wellwood had a goal and an assist in his three games, and more impressively, he looked like he belonged in the NHL. He threw checks, played hard defensively and showed plenty on the offensive end. However, he won't be back with the big club this season barring any extenuating circumstances. Not with the way these guys are rolling already with an odd man out — right now JVR with his injury. Still, he was impressive when called upon, and it's reassuring to know he's capable if need be.

Judging solely on the players that made their Flyers debut this season, you have to give Paul Holmgren a passing grade, in fact, he passes with flying colors. Guess that's why he got that three-year extension.


  1. Rev
    Have you ever thought about shortening the amount of content on the homepage. I love the site but can only visit at work because my home computer always goes real slow when I open it.

    Great read.


  2. Thanks for the compliment and the suggestion. It slows slow at my house too, but thought it was just my computer. I'm gonna shorten it right now so hopefully it loads better. Thanks again.

  3. Wellwood didn't score in the NHL and Andrej Meszaros wasn't "signed".

  4. Yeah, you're right. My bad on those. Thanks for the head's up.

  5. I hated to try and tell you to switch it up because I love the site and all the pictures and video links but just thought maybe fewer posts per page would help, and it definitely did...worked like a charm at home last night. You're a man of the people Rev


  6. @mj

    I appreciate the feedback. I am certainly a man of the people, even though I hate the majority of people. Glad I could help out and I take solace in the fact that maybe my shitty computer isn't as shitty as I thought. Though it's definitely still shitty.