3 Stars: Flyers go toe-to-toe with Western Conference-best Blues but fall again in shootout

3 Stars: Flyers go toe-to-toe with Western Conference-best Blues but fall again in shootout

A look at the Philadelphia Flyers’ 1-0 shootout loss to the Western Conference-leading St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night at Scottrade Center in St. Louis through the perspective of three players who had an impact on the game.

 

Much like this past Sunday’s contest with the visiting Boston Bruins, that was one heck of a hockey game despite the outcome. And much like this past Sunday, the Flyers deserved a better fate. But they have nothing to be ashamed of. A point is a point, especially at this time of year. The Flyers will take it.

 

3. Claude Giroux

On a night when defense and goaltending ruled the roost and no player really stood out on the offensive end beside Blues forward Jaden Schwartz, who had a game-high six shots and was buzzing around the puck all game long, it should come as no surprise that Giroux didn’t have his best game of the season.

Part of that is due to the smothering defense the Blues play. But Giroux had his chances to try and make something and was a bit too passive.

In the first period, two Blues defenders tripped over each other and allowed Giroux to carry the puck into the zone untouched with Michael Raffl alongside on the wing for a mini 2-on-0. Instead of going full speed, Giroux slowed down and telegraphed a pass to Raffl that Blues goalie Ryan Miller read and then Miller was able to slide across to stop Raffl. Giroux probably would make a move and shoot if he could have that one back.

In the second period, Giroux skated with the puck down the wing and led the Flyers on an odd-man rush. Instead of shooting, he tried a low-percentage centering pass that the Blues easily knocked away.

The opportunities weren’t plentiful but when they were there, the execution wasn’t.

He was also mauled in the faceoff circle as he won just five of 18 draws, good for 28% on the night. And that high-sticking penalty he took late in the third period could have been costly but his penalty killers picked him up.

It was just one of those nights for the captain. He’ll bounce back.

 

2. Ray Emery

Emery starting in net was a bit of a surprise from Flyers head coach Craig Berube but the Flyers’ backup goalie was superb and had every answer until the dreaded shootout.

He stopped all 28 shots he faced in regulation and overtime and only allowed shootout goals to Mr. America T.J Oshie and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

Emery faced quality chances all night from the Blues but stood tall each time to get a piece of puck at the very least. He did leave a few rebounds around the crease but his teammates were there to get those out of harm’s way.

It was another solid game from Emery, whose last three starts have now come against the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and these Blues. Those are three of the best teams in the stacked Western Conference and he’s performed admirably. In fact, he’s given up just five goals in those three games. You can’t ask for much more from your backup.

Tuesday’s game will actually go down in the record books as Emery’s second shutout of the season since he didn’t allow a goal in regulation or overtime.

The shootout is so cruel.

 

1. Ryan Miller

If you thought the goaltending performance by Boston’s Tuukka Rask this past Sunday was something, go back and look at what St. Louis’ newly-acquired netminder did on Tuesday night because he was even better.

Miller stopped all 31 shots he faced in regulation and overtime and then two more in the shootout to earn the victory.

He kept the Blues in the game with impressive save after impressive save as the Flyers poured on the pressure in the first five minutes of the contest including that save on Raffl on the 2-on-0.

His most remarkable save of the night came in the second period as the teams played 4-on-4. Flyers defenseman Mark Streit hit Raffl with a nice pass while on an odd-man rush and Miller stretched across to somehow get his pad on Raffl’s one-timer from the circle. It was right after that crazy save that you started to get a feeling he was going to be unbeatable on Tuesday night.

Miller then went on to save the game in overtime when he robbed Jake Voracek twice on the doorstep with the pad as Voracek found a seam in front of the net and had two great chances.

That could well have been the best game Miller has played since the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. He was sensational. There’s really no other way to put it.

 

Through the last 130 minutes of hockey they’ve played, the Flyers have taken every punch the two best teams in the NHL have thrown. Not only have they taken those punches, they’ve gotten right back up and thrown haymakers of their own and hung with the Bruins and Blues every step of the way. Despite the outcome, the Flyers once again proved they are to be taken seriously.

The Columbus Blue Jackets come to Wells Fargo Center for a big Metropolitan Division matchup on Thursday night. After Tuesday’s results, the Jackets are just four points behind the Flyers for third in the Metro. With the New York Rangers winning in Vancouver, they are now three points ahead of the Flyers for home ice in the opening round of the playoffs but the Flyers still have two really important games in hand.

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. – You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 34th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26 and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see paying players $200 million, $300 million, $400 million when the time comes?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35 and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017 “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him and the looming shadow of the ‘man’ in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nick Swisher has arrived as a New York Yankees guest spring training instructor and Alex Rodriguez is on deck.

Swisher worked with outfielders Monday during his first day, which came three days after announcing his retirement as a player.

"I never have to worry about an 0 for 4 again," Swisher said with a smile. "It's great to be back."

A-Rod is set to make his initial appearance Tuesday.

"He's going to work with our players," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "Dispense knowledge that he has about how to play the game when he talks to the young kids, some of the expectations about how to deal with it. All the things Alex did well."

Rodriguez and Swisher were also guest instructors with the Yankees instructional league team last fall (see full story).

Giants: Cueto to miss start of spring training to be with ailing father
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto remains in his native Dominican Republic helping his ailing father a week after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

The Giants plan to reach out to him to see how he is doing and whether he thinks he will pitch for his country in the World Baseball Classic.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy is not worried about Cueto's preparation. The right-hander has been throwing and working out regularly at the club's academy. Bochy says the World Baseball Classic is "starting to cause a slight concern."

Cueto signed a $130 million, six-year contract before last season. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and five complete games in 32 starts last year (see full story).

Red Sox: Moreland not worried about replacing Ortiz
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mitch Moreland knows he's likely the only new player in Boston's lineup since David Ortiz retired at the end of last season.

He's just not listening to those who say he needs to replace Big Papi's lofty production.

"I try not to hear it because there's no replacing that guy," said the 31-year-old first baseman, who signed a $5.5-million, 1-year deal with the Red Sox during the offseason.

"I think it's going to be more of a team effort," he said. "Obviously we picked up two big arms as well, and it's a very balanced club."

After playing his first 6+ seasons in the majors with the Texas Rangers, Moreland is with a new organization for the first time in his career. So far, he said, the move has been smooth (see full story).

Mariners: Paxton expected to have a big year
PEORIA, Arizona -- Forget the batter's box, pitching mound or anywhere else between the chalk lines of a baseball field.

According to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, the location of one of the biggest obstacles blocking a player from consistently excelling isn't on the diamond.

"A lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears," Servais said at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Servais believes starting pitcher James Paxton cleared that bar last season, and the Mariners are expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to be a major contributor in 2017 for a team that looks to end Major League Baseball's longest current postseason drought.

"He is one of the guys ready to take the next step and be a real anchor in our rotation," Servais said.

Paxton is preparing to improve on his 6-7 record and 3.79 earned run average of 2016. He enters spring training locked into a spot in the starting rotation. That puts him in a different position than in a year ago, when he was battling for a spot (see full story).