The Philadelphia Flyers begin their 2014 Stanley Cup Playoff run this Thursday in Game 1 hosted by the New York Rangers. There has been quite a bit of news the past few days regarding the Flyers, so let’s get to it:
- Did the Flyers overpay to keep defenseman Andrew MacDonald? He was signed Tuesday to a six-year $30-million contract. MacDonald has been lauded by some to be a stabilizing force on the Flyers’ back end while decried by others as soft and a mere turnstile for opponents who gain the offensive zone and set up shop. It is my opinion that he is overpaid, as most defensemen are and he may have been signed too early by the Flyers before giving him a better look. The Flyers lost cap space to sign defenseman Matt Carle two summers ago when they signed Nicklas Grossmann to a new deal. The remaining cap space could not fit Carle’s asking price within it, so Carle left for Tampa Bay. As one looks around the league and sees better defensemen at similar or even lower salaries, it becomes an easily second-guessed move, especially if it means Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers’ second-best defenseman behind Braydon Coburn this year, is forced to retire to Finland or play somewhere else in the NHL.
- Could the hype surrounding Shayne Gostisbehere have been any sillier on Monday? All it takes in the Delaware Valley is for one person to read too much into a quote or situation — whether intentionally or not — for a fervor to break out. Gostisbehere signed his Entry Level Contract (ELC) on Tuesday, thankfully putting silly rumors that he would not sign (so as to become a free agent instead) to rest.
And now for the questions that actually pertain to the playoffs:
- Is Steve Mason 100% healthy? The starting goaltender took a high hit from Pittsburgh Penguin Jayson Megna this past Saturday and stayed out of the Flyers lineup on Sunday in their season finale against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Flyers hope he is fine to start the playoffs because he has been good enough to win games most nights and has robbed opponents on a number of occasions. He did practice today but his day-to-day status with an upper body injury has not been lifted as of this writing. Flyers fans are all-too-familiar with injured Flyers players going into the playoffs: Tim Kerr, Eric Lindros, Eric Desjardins, and Mark Howe to name a few. Mason’s health is vital to the Flyers making it past the Rangers.
- Can the Flyers render the Rangers ineffective through the neutral zone? The Rangers come at their opponents with speed. The Flyers cannot give them too much room in the neutral zone or allow easy entries. They will need to force offsides and dump-ins to their advantage. Any sort of turnstile play from the D (allowing a carry-in to the defensive zone) and the Rangers are going to get more chances. More chances, more shots. More shots, more goals. I have long been a proponent of cutting down the things that funnel down to become goals. To summarize, to limit goals, a team needs to limit shots. To limit shots, a team needs to limit chances. To limit chances, a team needs to prevent its opponent from gaining control of the puck in their zone in the first place. To prevent that, a team needs to better read transitions, get pucks deep when they are looking to change lines themselves, make sure their defensive clears actually clear the defensive zone, mitigate their turnovers in all zones (in order of most to least egregious, defensive zone, then neutral zone, then offensive zone), and refrain from taking a lot of penalties.
- Can the Flyers use their size to their advantage and physically wear the Rangers down over the series? The Flyers have some big bodies at forward and defense. If utilized properly and without running around aimlessly causing a defense that resembles the Keystone Kops’ finest moments, the Flyers’ defense can tire the Rangers over time. Conversely, finishing checks in the offensive zone and quickly getting to the corners for the puck can wear down the Rangers’ D. Over a seven-game series, this is one of the small advantages a team can build through consistent use.
- A side-effect of the last question’s topic: Will use of the physical game wear themselves down too much that they are fodder for their next opponent (Columbus or Pittsburgh)? The Flyers really cannot worry about that as looking past their current opponent is a foolish pastime. They need to focus on the task at hand, one game at a time, one opponent at a time. Overlooking a team can spell disaster and a quick exit from the playoffs.
- Another question that ties in with the physical play: Can the Flyers effectively create havoc in front of Rangers goalie Hank Lundqvist? The saying goes, “You can’t stop what you can’t see.” Lundqvist often stops even tough screened shots because he is an exceptional goalie with great reads. So, the bodies of Flyers like Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds must get to the low slot and run interference for their teammates.
- How will the two clubs’ special teams affect the series? The Rangers’ power play ranked 15th in the regular season at 18.2% while their penalty kill ranked 3rd at 85.3%. The Flyers’ power play ranked 8th at 19.7% and their penalty kill ranked 7th at 84.8% efficiency. It has been said the Flyers relied too heavily on their power play this season and even more so on Captain Claude Giroux. To succeed in this first round, they will need more than their captain’s line to pot goals and more than their first PP unit to get solid scoring chances and goals. They also need to be aware of the Rangers’ PK as they ranked 3rd in short-handed goals with 10 while the Flyers finished tied for 10th with 8 SHG. The Flyers power play too often gave up short-handers, 11 to be exact, which was 28th (or 3rd-worst) in the NHL. The Rangers gave up 7 SHG’s themselves, ranking 17th (or 14th-worst).
- Can Jason Akeson hang with the big club for the playoff run? Steve Downie is apparently hurt and someone with hockey skills is needed to fill out the Couturier/Read line. Tye McGinn showed promise during his first call-up in the autumn, but has been ineffective and nigh invisible during his second stint with the Flyers. At this point, I would give Akeson a go before McGinn. Akeson may not be anything regarded by many as anything more than an AHLer but he sees the ice well enough to make good offensive zone passes and has a good shot himself. Unless Downie is 100%, I would give Akeson a go. I know the reasons why it’s a longshot and probably won’t be longterm as the knocks on Akeson are that he’s too easily knocked off the puck, too often beaten to pucks, and would be exposed defensively against the Rangers but he beats out McGinn in my book at this time due to the latter’s invisibility of late.
- Going hand in hand with the prior question: Will Steve Downie be shut down? Is he too beat up/worn down? When Downie returned from the injury suffered in his first game back as a Flyer, he clicked with Sean Couturier and Matt Read. Can he recapture that magic with them and help Couturier’s line be a supportive second or third line that can defend well and also score or is he effectively finished for the season?
There are other questions to pose going into next season, but it’s still “this season,” so I’ll keep those thoughts and questions for later. Hopefully, much later!
Happy hockey and “Let’s go, Flyers!”