Thursday, January 27, 2011

Halfway Home: A Look at the Flyers' Young Guns

With the all-star break upon us, I'm going to do a breakdown of the players through the first 50 games of the 2010-11 season over the next few days. Yesterday, I kicked things off with the newcomers. Today, I take a look at the Flyers' young guns. Check back tomorrow for a look at the veterans.

For the purposes of this exercise, I'm defining a "young gun" as any player with less than five years of experience in the NHL. Yes, I'm fully aware that that means the 27-year-old Ville Leino, in just his third NHL season, is included while younger guys like Braydon Coburn and Mike Richards fall under the veteran category. That's just the way it goes. So without further ado …

Claude Giroux

It didn't take very long for Philadelphia Flyers fan to notice that Claude Giroux was going to be a star. You could see he was on the precipice last year, and now, in his third true season in the NHL (he played in 2 games in 2007-08), the 23-year-old Giroux has entered the field of young NHL stars, literally. Before Danny Briere was added to the All-Star squad, Giroux was the lone Flyer to make the team.

It's easy to see why. Through 50 games, Giroux is tied with Mike Richards for the team lead in points with 47. He's second behind Richards with 28 assists and third on the team in goals with 19. And he's scored three shorthanded goals, combining with Mike Richards for six in all as the most dangerous penalty-killing duo in hockey. Arguably, he's been the best player on the NHL's best and deepest team.

Giroux has developed into a fantastic two-way player. He's physical, aggressive, smart. And his offensive prowess is off the charts. He can snipe a shot, dig around the net, make passes that no one else even sees, and he can grind along the boards, knock people off the puck and explode through the neutral zone. Honestly, it's hard to find any weakness in his game. He even has the versatility to play wing or center, alternating roles of late with Jeff Carter. He's played wing alongside Richards, centered several different lines, and now is playing mostly center with Jeff Carter and Nikolay Zherdev skating alongside him. That line has been out of this world the past couple of games.

We all knew Claude was going to be something special, and now he is. He's easily this city's most favorite Flyer right now, and why wouldn't he be? Claude is awesome.

Ville Leino

Once again, I would like to thank the Detroit Red Wings for giving away Ville Leino to the Flyers. For whatever reason last year, Leino couldn't consistently crack Philadelphia's lineup after coming over from Detroit. This despite playing brilliantly when called upon. But then Leino got his chance in the playoffs and completely took off. He combined with Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell to form Philadelphia's best line in the run to the Stanley Cup Final, and it's simply been more of the same in his first full season in Philadelphia.

Leino is tied for second with Sidney Crosby for plus/minus among all forwards, sitting at plus-20 on the season. His 25 assists are good for third on the team, and his 36 points put him just four away from becoming the fourth Flyer with 40 points on the year. But more importantly is that his chemistry with Briere and Hartnell has carried over into this season. That line has been by far the Flyers best and most consistent all year. They've combined for a staggering 115 points as a line in 50 games — 54 goals and 61 assists. And Leino is as big a reason as any that both Briere and Hartnell are having their best seasons as Flyers. His playmaking ability is truly invaluable on a team with so many goal-scorers. Thanks again, Detroit.

James van Riemsdyk

Last season, James van Riemsdyk didn't have the kind of rookie year expected form a No. 2 overall pick — especially when the No. 1 pick in your draft is Patrick Kane. And JVR got off to quite the slow start this year as well. So slow, in fact, that he went goal-less through the first 17 games of the season. Not good. Even worse, he found himself as a healthy scratch on a few occasions. But ever since his last healthy scratch, JVR has been a man a mission, looking much more like a veteran than a 21-year-old.

Since that dreadful start, van Riemsdyk has had one of the hotter sticks on the team. He went from nonfactor offensively to scoring 12 goals and adding 11 assists, good for 23 points, and he's a plus-14 on the year. As has been the case with several Flyers this year, van Riemsdyk got his confidence back playing alongside Mike Richards. Richards, JVR and Andreas Nodl started to develop some chemistry, and once Riemer's confidence was back, he moved to a line with Giroux and Carter. That line didn't miss a beat either, as van Riemsdyk continued to score and use his size, strength and speed to create chances.

Unfortunately, van Riemsdyk suffered a lower-body injury in a loss to the Devils last week and missed the past two games. But he'll have no trouble getting back in the lineup with the way he was playing. Hopefully he keeps it up and develops into the player the Flyers thought he could become. After a slow start, he looks to be on his way.

Andreas Nodl

If you had to pick the most pleasantly surprising skater on this team, it would unquestionably be the 23-year-old Andreas Nodl. Nodl came into this season having played a total of 48 NHL game over two seasons. Last year, he skated just 10 times for the Flyers. Hardly anyone thought he would even spend much time with the big club this year — he was expected to be the best player on the Phantoms.

Instead, Nodl has forced himself into the lineup with his surprisingly effective play. I'll give you one guess on whose line he's spent the majority of his time. Yeah, Mike Richards.

Nodl has played in 41 games this year, and he has 9 goals and 9 assists. He's a plus-13 — he's never been a plus player in his career before. And he's accepted the challenge of being a shutdown defensive player on a line with Richards. The guy has even seen occasional time on the power play and PK, something no one could have seen coming.

There's no guarantees that Nodl will be in the lineup the rest of the season, but he's done nothing to warrant a demotion as of yet. Without question, Andreas Nodl has been the biggest surprise outside of Sergei Bobrovsky on this team.

Darroll Powe

Darroll Powe has the unfortunate distinction of being one of only three Flyers to be on the wrong side of the plus/minus statistic this season, and the only Flyer to be a minus player (he's a minus-1 right now) while having played in all 50 games. And guess what? That doesn't reflect how valuable he is to this team at all. Because Darroll Powe is one of those players that every championship team needs — the hard-working grinder who can and will do just about anything required of him to get a victory.

Powe is actually one of my favorite players on this team full of likable players. He won't wow anyone offensively —  he has just 3 goals and 8 assists — but his hard work does allow him to move up from the fourth line quite often. His hustle is unmatched, giving it his all every single shift, and his aggressiveness is never questioned. Darroll Powe was tailor-made to play in Peter Laviolette's aggressive forechecking system. He leads the Flyers with 122 hits, creates rushes with his speed and plays outstanding defensive hockey. His hard work has earned him double-shifts in several games, and it's not uncommon for him to move up to the Richards or Giroux line.

But where Darroll Powe makes his living is as a fourth-line checker and incredible penalty killer. The Powe-Blair Betts-Jody Shelley line is exactly the type of fourth line every hockey hopes to have. All three players are tough, smart and defensive-minded. They grind out hard shifts, and can even put some sustained pressure in the offensive zone by forechecking hard and cycling the puck. And no one forechecks better than Darroll Powe. Then you take Betts and Powe and you have one of the most impressive penalty kill duos out there. Richards and Giroux can create shorthanded offense in an instant. Powe and Betts simply shut down the opposing PK, using lively sticks, blocking passing lanes, laying out for shots and winning battles to clear the puck. Darroll Powe is an unsung hero for all the work he does winning those battles, throwing thunderous hits and killing off penalties. He's easily one of my favorite Flyers, and it's easy to see that he's one of Laviolette's favorites too.

Dan Carcillo

When the Flyers traded for Dan Carcillo during the 2008-09 season, it was an unpopular move. Fan favorite Scottie Upshall was shipped out of town. But it didn't take long for Flyers fans to fall in love with Carcillo. He's aggressive, he fights, he agitates, he talks, yet he has some decent offensive game too. Overnight, he became a fan favorite. The same cannot necessarily be said for winning over Peter Laviolette.

With so much depth and talent, Carcillo has suited up in just 28 games this season. The play of Nodl, Zherdev and JVR is certainly the main culprit, but so is Carcillo's often wild antics. More times than not, it's a good thing for the Flyers. That's evident by the team's record with and without Carcillo in the lineup: The Flyers are 22-4-2 with Carcillo and just 11-8-3 without him.

For the most part, Carcillo has been a good soldier this season. He's upset with being a healthy scratch so often, but for the most part he's played smart, disciplined hockey. He has just four points on the year, but he did score in his last game. He's also a minus-6. Basically, it's been an up-and-down, frustrating season for him, and things probably won't get any easier.

When van Riemsdyk get healthy, he'll likely be left watching yet again. That's because for every good thing Carcillo does, he can do a something bad. Take the last game against Montreal. He scored a goal and helped seal the victory. He also took a bad retaliation penalty to negate a would-be Flyers power play, and then got hit with a 10-minute game misconduct. When he's at his best, he's taking the opposition out of its game by being a great agitator, can add a little offense here and there, and will protect his teammates and drop the gloves. At his worst, he becomes a wild man gunning for someone, anyone, takes stupid penalties and let's his temper get the best of him. He'll be fighting all season to get in the lineup. While the team's record with him suggests he should play more, I have a feeling we won't see a ton of Carcillo barring any injuries.

Oskars Bartulis

Prior to the the start of the season, Oskars Bartulis was expected to be battling for the seventh defenseman spot with Matt Walker. By opening night, he found himself in the lineup with Chris Pronger recovering from offseason surgery and Matt Walker suffering an injury in the preseason. The second-year defenseman held down the fort admirably, but it's hard to judge where he's at right now.

Last season, he showed promise, and he did play well early this year. Still, he has only seen action in 12 games, where he didn't register a single point, and he sits as a minus-4 on the year. And by the time Matt Walker got healthy, Walker replaced him in the lineup for a few games while Pronger healed his in-season injury. The jury is still out on Bartulis, but we probably won't see him much if at all the rest of this season. The Flyers are just too deep and talented on the blue line for him to get any significant action.

Update: The Flyers just waived Matt Walker, so looks like Bartulis is the guy should the 7th defenseman be needed.

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