Friday, January 28, 2011

Halfway Home: A Look at the Flyers' Veterans

With the all-star break upon us, I've been breaking down of the players through the first 50 games of the 2010-11 season over the past few days. Wednesday, I kicked things off with the newcomers. Yesterday, I checked in on the Flyers' "young guns." Today, in the final installment, I take a look at the veterans.

Mike Richards

It has been an interesting year for the face of the Flyers franchise. With players such as Claude Giroux, Danny Briere and Sergei Bobrovsky stealing most of the spotlight, and deservedly so, Richards has gone somewhat under the radar. Yet everyone should take notice of the captain's play, because he is quietly having one the best seasons of his career. And arguably, it's been his most impressive.

For starters, Richards is tied for the team lead in points with Claude Giroux and leads all Flyers with 30 assists. He has 14 power play points and 5 shorthanded points. His offensive production (17 goals) and defensive work are as good as ever. But that's not the most impressive thing about Mike Richards this year. Not in the least.

The area that Richards has excelled the most this season has been the influenced he's had on everyone he plays with. The captain has had a revolving door of linemates. At varying times this season, he's centered Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Andreas Nodl, James van Riemsdyk, Nikolay Zherdev, Dan Carcillo, Darroll Powe and even Eric Wellwood. At one point, his wingers were the 23-year-old Nodl and 21-year-old van Rimesdyk, neither of whom had played in a full season's worth of games in the NHL (though Riemer came close, dressing for 78 games last year). And he still leads the best team in hockey in points.

Most notably, he's been the guy Peter Laviolette has looked to to kick-start the struggling players — JVR, Zherdev, Carcillo — and the one he trusts alongside the inexperienced Nodl. And every time, those guys have responded by playing harder and better. Let's not forget that he still has been doing all the many things he's always done. Richards still plays relentless defense, still throws his weight around, still kills penalties, creates shorthanded chances, racks up goals and assists. And his versatility on the power play — he can play point or forward — has let Laviolette continue to tinker with an inexplicably ineffective power play unit.

He may not be getting the kind of attention that he has in the past. It's easy to get overshadowed when so many players around you are having career years. But take notice, because Richards is having a career year himself. When he first took over as captain, questions abounded about whether or not he was suited for the role. This season, he's been everything you could ask for out of a captain and more.

Danny Briere

Now this is the Danny Briere Flyers fans have been waiting for ever since he signed that lucrative free agent contract with Philadelphia. Finally healthy and playing the entire season at center, his natural position, Briere is in the midst of a career year, by far his best as a Flyer. The numbers are staggering: a team-leading 26 goals (good for 5th in the NHL), 45 points (trailing only Giroux and Richards on the team) and a plus-16 rating. Prior to this year, Briere had never been a plus-player for the Flyers (-25 overall in three seasons). He has five game-winning goals, second most in the NHL — tied with Jeff Carter. And he's been named an all-star, albeit it as a late addition.

This year, he's the one guy you want on the ice more than any other when the Flyers need a goal. He's simply been sniping it. And his line is the one line you want out there when you need offense. All season long, Briere has centered the best team's best line. He's playing with a renewed energy that was sparked in the postseason, and he's playing better than ever, even at age 33. There are no more grumblings about his contract, no more calls for him to be traded. The biggest key of all is that he's managed to stay healthy. And the move back to center certainly didn't hurt.

Jeff Carter

With one too many centers, Jeff Carter has been the man most asked to play out of position at wing this year, something that began last postseason. (Well, Carter and Giroux, who often interchange spots.) At the beginning of the year, Carter was still struggling to adjust to that role. His scoring was down a bit, and he just looked a little out of sorts. But man, when he did figure it out, he took off.

Carter is up to his usual goal-scoring tricks, trailing only Briere for the team lead with his 23 goals. He is also the only Flyer with 20 goals and 20 assists, making him the fourth guy on the team with at least 40 points; he has 44. Unsurprisingly, Carter also leads the team in shots by a wide margin, trailing only Alexander Ovechkin and Dustin Byfuglien in the entire league with his 213 shots on goal. And even though he spends a lot of time at wing, he's been the best faceoff man on the team, winning 55.6 percent of his draws.

Most recently, he's been especially hot. Playing alongside Claude Giroux and Nikolay Zherdev (and before van Riemsdyk was hurt, with Giroux and JVR), Carter's line has been the most dominant of late. He and Giroux are working incredibly well together and seamlessly alternating back and forth with each other between center and wing. And the chemistry they've developed, no matter who the third guy has been, has blossomed into something special of late. Witness (4:25 in):

Carter is simply continuing to do what Jeff Carter does. He's shooting the puck, scoring goals and playing sound defensive hockey. At times, he's even used his strength a little more, knocking Sidney Crosby off the puck in one game and throwing more checks than he has in the past. Nothing to complain about with Jeff Carter, the man who's had the hottest stick on the team the past couple of weeks.

Scott Hartnell

Over the years, I've pretty hard on Scott Hartnell, particularly the last two years. While he brought plenty of offensive talent and aggressiveness to the team, he always seemed to take it away with mind-numbingly stupid penalties. Lazy penalties. Bad turnovers. Inexcusable cross-ice pass attempts. His penchant for losing his footing. And oh yeah, his numbers started to decline as his bone-headed plays mounted. By the latter stages of last year, I was ready to be done with him, happy to see Scott Hartnell move on.

Then, when the Flyers desperately needed him after injuries to Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter in the playoffs, Scott Hartnell took his game to a whole new level. Skating with newly acquired Ville Leino and Danny Briere, Hartnell was a new man. He had an awesome playoff. He stopped taking stupid penalties. He stayed out of the box. Yet he never lost his edge or aggressiveness. It looked like he had turned a page. Still, I waited with baited breadth to see how he'd perform this season. Were the playoffs the start of a new and improved Scott Hartnell, or was it simply an anomaly?

As it's turned out, Scott Hartnell is a changed man. He is playing exactly the way he did last postseason. Through 50 games, he has 17 goals and 17 assists. He's a plus-16. And he's taking far fewer stupid, lazy penalties. Yes, his 103 penalty minutes are second on the team, but they're made up more of hustle plays, defending his teammates and getting unlucky than they are of unnecessarily throwing a late hit or lazily putting his stick in the midsection of an opponent. Hartnell has been disciplined, intelligent, and quite frankly good. It's the best season he's had a Flyer, even if he doesn't top his line of 30 goals and 60 points from 2008-09. Just like his linemate Briere, there were fan movements to trade away Hartnell. Now those are all gone, and even with his haircut, he's once again back to being a fan favorite. Hartnell and Briere should buy Ville Leino something very nice, because Ville has been a sort of miracle worker in helping turn Hartnell's and Briere's careers in Philadelphia around.

Kimmo Timonen

I have spent a lot of time praising Kimmo Timonen on this site, particularly this year. And it finally occurred to me the other day: Kimmo Timonen is my favorite player on the Flyers, or at worst, tied as my favorite with Claude Giroux. Without a doubt, he takes Kim Johnsson's spot on my 5 favorite Flyers list, and he may even challenge for the No. 1 spot before it's all said and done. I love watching Kimmo Timonen play. Absolutely love it.

Chris Pronger is widely regarded as the best defenseman on the Flyers, and that may be true. Pronger is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, and he brought a toughness and stability the Flyers didn't have on the blue line before his arrival. But watching the Flyers on a daily basis, Timonen is every bit as important, and right now, every bit as good. He leads the Flyers in ice time. He has more points, 25, than any other defenseman on the team. He has 10 more blocked shots than anyone else on the squad. And he is a very impressive plus-14 while routinely going against the opposition's top line and killing penalties. Oh, and he's a tremendous quarterback on the point as well.

Admittedly, I knew very little about Kimmo Timonen before he came to Philadelphia. Now I understand why. He doesn't do things to stand out or call attention to himself. He simply does everything right, all the time — all the little things, all the big things, everything. He's the type of player you have to really watch on a regular basis to truly appreciate. Thankfully, as a Flyers fan, I get to do that. This year, he's been tremendous, just as he always is. Philadelphia is privileged to watch him ply his trade here. And even at 35 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Matt Carle

Last season, Matt Carle had the luxury of being paired with Chris Pronger. Pronger's influence rubbed off on Carle, who had a breakout-type season. This year, with Pronger spending considerable time as an unhealthy scratch, it wouldn't have been surprising to see Carle slip a little bit. It would have been a little disappointing, but completely understandable. Thankfully, that hasn't happened.

Carle has had an even bigger breakout season to date. His 24 points through 50 games have him on pace to eclipse his career high of 42 points all the way back in 2006-07 with the Sharks. He's fourth on the team with 23 assists, most among Flyers defensemen. And his plus-22 rating trails only Meszaros, the NHL leader in plus/minus. Carle is tied for fourth in the league in that category, by the way.

No matter if he's paired with Pronger, Andrej Meszaros or even at times Sean O'Donnell, Carle has taken another step forward. He is one of the strong suits on the league's strongest defense corps. A lot of that can be attributed to the influence Chris Pronger has had on him. But the bulk of the credit has to go to Carle, a guy who many saw as a disappointment following his second season in the league. Now Carle is developing into one of the better skilled defensemen on this team or any other.

Chris Pronger

Pronger started the season on the shelf, and with so much depth on the blue line, he was worked back in slowly. Then, just as he was beginning to get into things, especially blasting rockets from the point on the power play, Pronger got hurt again. That has resulted in Pronger missing 15 games thus far, though thankfully he's back and healthy again.

When he's been in the lineup, Pronger has been his usual dominant self. He has 21 points in 35 games, and his four goals are tops among Flyers defensemen. He's still tied for second with Claude Giroux in power play points, his 13 trailing only the captain's 14. He's still worked up to a plus-10. And even with missing 15 games, he's still third on the team with 87 blocks, trailing only Timonen and Carle. The best part is, with three true top-quality pairings, Pronger's ice time has dropped, meaning he'll be fresh down the stretch and come playoff time.

He certainly hasn't played in the number of games he'd like, but when he's out there, he's still one of the best in the business. And his timing and conditioning are starting to come back. That's evident by his four assists against Montreal Tuesday night.

Braydon Coburn

After an outstanding 2007-08 campaign playing next to Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn was expected to be the next young defensemen to take off. But when Coburn was moved away from Timonen to spread the wealth on the blue line, he began to struggle. The arrival of Chris Pronger last year allowed Coburn to reunite with Timonen, but something still wasn't quite right with him. He looked like a player who had regressed and may not be able to get it back, at least not in Philadelphia. The Flyers underachieved the entire regular season, and Coburn was part of the problem. He finished with just 19 points and was a minus-6.

Then Coburn quietly had a very good playoff run, just like most of the Flyers, and really regained his confidence with a full season under his belt next to Timonen. This year, he's carried that strong play over the way Briere and Hartnell have. While he only has 10 points, somewhat surprising and disappointing for a player with so much speed and offensive skill, a guy who's never afraid to join the rush, he's rebounded nicely from a rocky 2009-10. Paired again with Timonen, he's facing the opposition's best more times than not, and he's doing a damn good job. He's a plus-14 on the year, and the last match-up they had with Washington, he and Timonen put on a clinic through two periods on how to shut down Alexander Ovechkin.

The more he plays with Timonen, the more his game resembles the way Kimmo plays. And that's a good thing. Coburn has done what so many Flyers have done this season — brought his game to a new level. It's nice to see him rebound from last year, because everyone can see the talent he has.

Blair Betts

Betts is basically the perfect fourth-line center. Even while spending a large portion of his ice time a man down, he's a plus-3. He wins crucial faceoffs, blocks an inordinate amount of shots for a fourth-line forward and is simply fearless. Defensively, there are few better on this team. And every now and then, he'll contribute on the scoresheet: he has 3 goals and 6 assists.

Blair Betts is the type of guy you love to have on your team. I've marveled at watching him kill penalties the past two seasons for the Flyers, first alongside warrior Ian Laperriere, then and now with Darroll Powe. He's a master at it. Every team needs a Blair Betts, a guy unafraid and more than willing to do the dirty work. He doesn't ask for praise and he rarely gets praise. He just goes out and busts his ass to give the scoring lines a nice break without the team seeing a drop-off. If you don't appreciate all the things Blair Betts and players of his ilk do for your hockey team, you don't really know much about hockey.

Brian Boucher

The biggest question mark for the Flyers heading into the season was the same thing that's always the biggest question mark for the Flyers heading into every season: the goaltending. Luckily for the Flyers, veteran Brian Boucher and rookie Sergei Bobrovsky have locked down the position all season long.

Bob won the starting job out of training camp and played brilliantly to start the season. Boosh, backup turned starter turned injured turned hero turned injured again turned backup turned hero again turned injured again last year, found himself as the backup once again, but a backup who had to be ready for the call at any moment. You never know what you're going to get out of a rookie in net, especially one who came in speaking very little English.

Well, Boucher has found his way into 20 games this season, starting 18 to Bobrovsky's 31. When Bob started to struggle, Boosh got hot. When Boucher cooled, Bob's stepped it up. The two have combined to be better than anyone could have expected. For his part, Boucher is 11-6-2 this season. He is tied with Bobrovsky with a .920 save percentage, near the top 10 in the NHL, and his 2.41 goals against average is right there as well. He's been the perfect mentor for Bobrovsky, an unselfish guy who has been everything from rookie phenom and playoff stalwart to longtime backup and occasional starter. The wisdom he can impart on Bobrovsky is invaluable. And he still has plenty of value between the pipes, evident in his play. He's been particularly impressive in shootouts, and he's having one of the better years of his career. He may let up an occasional soft goal here and there, but you couldn't ask for much more out of Brian Boucher this year.

Michael Leighton

Remember him? The guy who saved the Flyers season not once, but twice. The guy who went from the waiver wire to the Stanley Cup Final. The guy who played the best hockey of his life when the Flyers desperately needed it. I mean, without Leighton's unexpected play last year, the Flyers could have easily fallen back from the pack and blown up the entire team. Who knows where the franchise would be right now without him?

But man, what a difference a year makes. Leighton had a very pedestrian Final against Chicago, let up the weakest Cup-winning goal of all time and things have continued to spiral downward. Yes, he did sign a nice contract to remain property of the Flyers, but an injury opened the door for Bobrovsky to take his roster spot. Since, the play of Boucher and Bob have slammed Leighton's door shut. He has only played in one game for the Flyers, and he didn't look good. Yes, he won the game, but he also gave up four goals. He's been a Phantom ever since.

As we saw last year, anything can happen. Leighton is just one injury away from being back on he big club, but that's what it's going to take to get another shot. He's been an unknown career backup for a reason. Philadelphia will never forget what he did for this organization. He should never have to buy another beer in this town again. And maybe he'll be back. But this is Bob's time, and Boucher is there to help him out. Leighton is really the one Flyer who hasn't been able to build off last year's surprising playoff run. It's a shame, but it's hard to sympathize with him given just how awesome this team has been this season without him. I wish him the best. But I'd be lying if I said I hope he gets another shot in Philadelphia.

Honestly, it's difficult to find many negatives when evaluating each individual Flyer. So many players are having outstanding seasons, career years, and the team is having such tremendous success that it's difficult to find anyone not playing well. That's why they have the most points in NHL — everyone is doing their part to help this team succeed.

It's been a fun first 50 games building off last season's improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. Let's hope it continues all the way to hoisting the most treasured trophy in professional sports.

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