The Flyers need a culture change -- but it's not the one you're thinking of

The Flyers need a culture change -- but it's not the one you're thinking of

The Flyers have a culture problem.

But it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of. It isn’t the “Broad Street Bully” culture that has the cap-strapped Flyers at 4-9-1 and sinking in an awful Metropolitan Division. It also isn’t their seemingly endless management nepotism, though that doesn’t help.

It’s the big money culture that has to go.

The Flyers’ problem stems from their inability to adapt to the cyclical nature of the salary cap era. Before the hard cap was introduced in 2005-06, the Flyers were known as a heavy spending team that bought their way through downturns, threw money at issues and “went for it” every year by trading young talent for veterans.

The league changed but the Flyers didn’t.

Living year-to-year pressed hard against the cap, the Flyers still shun development in favor of spending. And it’s that archaic premise has them in quite a jam both financially and on the ice, sitting as one of the league’s worst teams with one of its highest payrolls.

This money-slinging culture problem is especially apparent on the Flyers’ blue line, which is slow, old and outrageously expensive for ranking 16th in goals-against per game. In fact, the Flyers (without Chris Pronger’s $4.941 million) easily lead the league in defense spending at over $28 million.

But where did the Flyers go wrong? It’s in their team-building strategy.

The same ‘buy competitiveness’ philosophy that helped the Flyers through the late 90’s and early 00’s, is what compelled general manager Paul Holmgren to trade the 27th overall pick in 2008 for defender Steve Eminger.

Instead of trying to find the next Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers re-signed the 38-year-old to a one-year contract for $6 million. Instead of replacing unrestricted free-agent Matt Carle with inexpensive production from within, the Flyers signed 35-year old Mark Streit at $21-million for four years.

Yet it isn’t just impulse buying that has the Flyers in a bind -- it’s their long-time disinterest in creating inexpensive options. There is no PK Subban, Ryan Ellis, Jonas Brodin or Jacob Trouba waiting to step in or step up into a major role. The team’s brightest defensive star is 24-year-old Luke Schenn, who has been relegated to the press box for the last two games as a healthy scratch.

Currently, the Flyers are the only team in the NHL to not have a drafted player on their defensive roster. They have just one homegrown player (signed first entry-level contract and played first NHL game with the same club) -- college free agent Erik Gustafsson, who is sharing popcorn with Schenn.

In comparison, the Chicago Blackhawks have three homegrown defensemen. Both the Boston Bruins and LA Kings have four. All three have won the Stanley Cup in recent years and all three spend less on defense than the Flyers.

Although you can point at the Flyers’ broken and inept AHL pipeline for their inability to transform below-average talents into inexpensive and serviceable NHL players, acquiring, drafting and developing high caliber defensemen has not been a priority for this club. They simply don’t feed the pipeline with quality talent.

Since 2004, the Flyers made 70 draft selections. Only 23 were defensemen and only two, over that 10 year span, were picked with the team’s first pick -- Luca Sbisa, 2008 and Sam Morin, 2013. Including those two, the Flyers only selected a defensemen in the third round or higher 10 times.

Of the 23 defensemen picked, only five have played with the Flyers -- Oskars Bartulis, Kevin Marshall, Marc-Andre Bourdon, Oliver Lauridsen and Luca Sbisa. Led by Bartulis’ 66 games, this group has combined for a total of 175 games played in a Flyers jersey.

Out of 10 years of drafting and 23 picks, the Flyers received a little over two full seasons worth of return. Only Bourdon and Lauridsen are still with the organization, now playing with the Adirondack Phantoms.

When analyzing the Flyers’ many issues, it’s not Jay Rosehill, Zac Rinaldo or the bully culture that caused this mess -- it’s another out-of-date mentality. It’s the small-picture, big money, run-and-gun spending philosophy that has doomed these Flyers.

Phillies prospect J.P. Crawford learning to fight through failure

Phillies prospect J.P. Crawford learning to fight through failure

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Plastered on a wall outside the press box in Coca-Cola Park is a sign — "Pigs to the Bigs" — surrounded by dozens of stars.

Each has upon it the name of a player who has made the leap from the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs to the parent Phillies since Lehigh Valley began operations in 2008 — everyone from outfielder Chris Snelling (April 30, 2008) to pitcher Nick Pivetta (April 29, 2017), the latter of whom has since returned to the IronPigs.

It is a study in the star-crossed, of guys who bounced up and down (Pete Orr, July 8, 2011), guys who flamed out (Domonic Brown, July 28, 2010), guys whose fate is yet to be determined (Maikel Franco, Sept. 3, 2014).

The point being that the path to major-league stardom seldom follows a straight line.

That has been demonstrated once again by the Phillies' top prospect, shortstop J.P. Crawford, who spent weeks in bounce-back mode earlier this season.

And now finds himself there again.

His 0-for-4 night in Thursday's 8-4 loss to Indianapolis left him hitless in his last 16 at-bats, his slash line for the season at .175/.291/.221.

Recall that Crawford, the 16th overall pick in the 2013 draft, had exactly four hits in 48 at-bats over his first 14 games of the season, an average of .083.

Never before had the 22-year-old experienced anything like it, and he took a methodical approach to remedying the problem. He did some video work. He tinkered with his stance. He consulted with hitting coach Sal Rende and roving minor-league hitting instructor Andy Tracy. And slowly but surely, he began coming around.

The thinking at that point was that his slump might serve as a valuable lesson, a blessing in disguise.

As Crawford put it hours before Thursday's first pitch, "I'd rather struggle here than if I ever make it to the big leagues, God willing. I'd much rather have it [happen] down here than up there."

Though it will happen there, too. Baseball, everyone always says, is a game of failure. It's just a matter of how each player deals with it, works through it, minimizes it.

Lehigh Valley manager Dusty Wathan has said repeatedly that he was impressed by Crawford's approach to his scuffling start, that he thought the youngster treated it as "a growing opportunity" that can only help him down the line.

It was all Wathan could have hoped for, for Crawford or anybody else.

"I think it's a good thing to be able to have some experience to look back on, later on," he said. "Now, when they're going through it they probably don't think of it that way, but those of us who have been around baseball and been in situations like that personally, too, know that it's going to get better."

Wathan, seated at his office desk in a T-shirt and shorts before Thursday's game, has been around the block. He previously managed Crawford at Double A Reading, and believes those 14 games in April represent a blip.

"We know that J.P.'s a great player," Wathan said. "I think [such struggles] can actually end up being a good thing for these guys."

If Crawford, a native Californian, had few previous failures to draw upon — "He hasn't really had any," Wathan said — he at least had a ready roster of big-time athletes in his family with whom he could commiserate. His dad, Larry, was a CFL defensive back from 1981-89. His cousin, Carl, was a major-league outfielder for 15 years, ending last season. His older sister, Eliza, played softball at Cal State-Fullerton.

Certainly it appears they have kept him grounded, because he is singularly unimpressed by his draft status or ranking with various scouting services.

"I [couldn't] care less about that," he said. "All that doesn't really matter. Once you get on the field, everyone's the same. Everyone's the same player."

Though he was somewhat less than that early on. He was admittedly frustrated, but far from defeated.

"You've got to stay on the positive [side] on everything," he said. "You can't get too down on yourself, or else you're just going to do worse."

Had it been a major-league situation instead of a player-development situation, it is entirely possible that Wathan would have held him out of the lineup a day or two, just to let him clear his head.

"Or maybe not, because he contributes every night, somehow," the manager said.

And as Crawford said, "You're not going to get better sitting. You've got to go out there and play."

He admitted earlier this month that while he had once been reluctant about video study, he found great benefit in it when he was looking for answers in late April.

He decided to raise his hands while at the plate, and the hits began to come. He batted at a .253 clip over 24 games, including a six-game hitting streak, bringing his average to a season-best .196 on May 20.

Now it's back to the drawing board. It is, after all, a game of failure. It's just a matter of dealing with it, working through it, minimizing it.

He has become well-acquainted with the concept.

Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson, Rasul Douglas front-runners to face NFL's top receivers

Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson, Rasul Douglas front-runners to face NFL's top receivers

Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Terrelle Pryor, Larry Fitzgerald. 

That's the murderers' row of receivers the Eagles will face during the 2017 season, cornerback deficiency and all. 

This week, we got our first look at who the Eagles are tasking with the unenviable challenge of trying to stop — or at the very least slow down — some of the best wide receivers in the NFL. 

At their first OTA practice of the spring, Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson were the team's starters in the base package, while rookie Rasul Douglas was on the field as the third corner in the nickel package. 

"The way Coach Cory Undlin works and the way Coach (Jim) Schwartz works, this depth chart right now is not important," Mills said. 

"It's about going out there and proving to those guys each and every day that you deserve whatever spot they have you in or moving up the depth chart." 

While it's true the depth chart at the first practice in the spring might not mean much, and while it's also important to remember that veteran Ron Brooks is recovering from a quad tendon tear, if Mills, Robinson and Douglas perform well enough, they won't ever give up their jobs. 

Of course, that's a big if. 

Mills was a seventh-round pick last year, who had a decent season but also went through his ups and downs. Robinson is a 29-year-old former first-round pick but has never lived up to that draft status. And Douglas is a rookie third-round pick. 

"I really don't have any expectations, just to be the best player I can be," Robinson said. "If I'm the best player that I can be, then I'll be a starter."

It might seem like a stretch to think these three will be able to stop the marquee receivers they'll face this year. But it's not like the Eagles have much of a choice. Their two starting corners from a year ago are gone — Nolan Carroll signed with the Cowboys as a free agent and Leodis McKelvin was released and is still without a team. And it's not like either played well in 2016. 

The Eagles drafted Sidney Jones in the second round, but he's not close to returning from his Achilles tear and Brooks isn't yet ready to fully practice. The Eagles also have undrafted second-year corner C.J. Smith and former CFL all-star Aaron Grymes. 

But Mills, Robinson and Douglas are the best they have right now. 

On Tuesday, Mills and Robinson played outside in the team's base package, switching sides sporadically, but in the nickel package, Mills moved inside to slot corner while Douglas took over outside. So, basically, Mills is playing two positions, something Brooks did throughout training camp last season. 

Mills played both outside and slot corner last season, but not like he is now when it seems like he won't be leaving the field. With Mills' staying on the field to play in the slot, Malcolm Jenkins is able to stay back and be the defense's field general at safety instead of sliding down like he's done at times over the last two years. 

"I feel like it's going to be helpful," Mills said. "Not just for me, just for guys like Malcolm, a smart guy who can really play that back end and call out every single thing, whether it's run, pass or route concepts. With not really having him do the busy work and nickel and just have him be the smart, savvy vet on that back end, I think that kind of calms everybody down."

Douglas is the biggest of the bunch at 6-foot-2, 209 pounds. Mills thinks having that type of size can help the team, especially as bigger receivers become more prevalent in the league. 

"You need a big, tall, aggressive guy," Mills said. "[Douglas has] been showing flashes here and there." 

Robinson didn't know much about Mills or Douglas before joining the Eagles on a one-year deal this offseason, but the veteran of the trio has been impressed so far by his younger counterparts.  

Robinson has also been impressed by the level of competition he faced during the first day of spring practices. 

"That's definitely going to benefit me," Robinson said. "Torrey (Smith), with his speed, you get that type of speed every day in practice, it's definitely going to get you ready for the game. And then Alshon (Jeffery), with his big body and his great hands, his catching radius is definitely going to get me ready for games this season against the big guys."

The big and fast guys will be coming plenty during the 2017 season. Mills, Robinson and Douglas — for now — look like the guys who will try to stop them.