Eagles Linebackers Young, Not Necessarily Bad

Eagles Linebackers Young, Not Necessarily Bad

Such an obvious,
yet important distinction. There is understandably going to be some
concern when the most tenured starter at linebacker is only entering his
third season, and a rookie is penciled in at the middle. Take two
minutes to look around the league, heck, just a glance at the NFC East,
and you will find this is not typical of how most teams operate.

But
since the Eagles are the franchise in this predicament, it's worth
stating that while they are an inexperienced bunch, and lack any clear
cut stars or even players who are on the brink of such recognition, that
doesn't mean it's a terrible group. In fact, it doesn't even mean they
will automatically be a weakness once the games begin.

One of
life's great cliches is people fear the unknown, and in this case it's
true. While most fans are still celebrating this summer's great free
agent haul, the most cynical are quick to point out this club has "no
linebackers."

No linebackers... imagine that. Juan Castillo's
defensive strategy is suddenly very clear: four linemen, seven defensive
backs. Because he's an offensive line coach!

The matter is
further complicated by the fact that linebacker has become something of a
perennial weakness for the Birds. First the outside positions fell into
disrepair as capable performers such as Carlos Emmons and Shawn Barber
departed, and over the last few seasons, the production in the middle
has started to slip along with Jeremiah Trotter's ability. Some of that
is injuries or time taking its toll, and some of that is the front
office "doesn't value" linebackers.

Yes, that hollow complaint is
accurate to a degree, particularly on the outside. Then again, outside
linebackers in 4-3 defenses are fairly interchangeable around the NFL,
with standout players being in exceptionally short supply.

Whether
the Eagles are right or wrong about the value of linebackers still
misses the point though. What nobody seems to be talking about, or
apparently believe, is the group they have here now has the potential to
develop into a unit of strength.

Is Casey Matthews going to take
his lumps as a rookie starter in the middle? Absolutely. Is he going to
fall flat on his face? That possibility exists, but I would bank on the
Matthews bloodlines producing an acceptable pro at least. Before we
know it, he could become so much more than that, perhaps that
all-important anchor in the heart of the defense.

Will Jamar
Chaney have to make some adjustments in his move to strongside? Of
course. Will he be a disaster out there? Doubtful. In his albeit limited
playing time last season, Chaney showed both the instinct and
athleticism to play at this level. There will be a learning curve, but
he shouldn't suddenly be inept because he slid over one spot.

And
is Moise Fokou the answer on the weakside? Who knows. Is he their only
option? Not at all. The Eagles also have Keenan Clayton, a fourth round
pick out of Oklahoma last season, who can compete for, and perhaps win
that job. Akeem Jordan was also retained, giving the unit a veteran
option if all else fails.

I'm well aware of my reputation as
something of a homer, and I admittedly and frequently take the team's
side on issues some people would deem indefensible. That said, I'm not
here to promise you it will all work out according to some grand plan,
and you should just take my word for it that they will be great.

But I also don't think the situation is quite as grim as it's being painted.

We've
already gotten a taste of what Chaney brings to the table, and it was
enough that the Eagles refused to rush Stewart Bradley back from injury
for the playoffs last season, much less sign him to a contract extension
two weeks ago. Matthews and Clayton were both fourth round picks, which
doesn't assure a starting caliber player, but these are guys other
teams coveted in the past two drafts. And Fokou and Jordan aren't studs,
but you can't have stars at every position, sadly.

My motto for
this group, if nothing else, would be simply give them a shot. They are
surrounded by Pro Bowl talent on the defensive line and secondary. They
are young, athletic, and full of promise. In fact, their only definitive
weakness at all is their collective inexperience, and that alone
doesn't make them bad.

As always, the proof will be there on
Sundays. Until then, I'm not going to fear the unknown. I'll be the guy
hoping for the best.

Flyers look to limit goals against, improve 5-on-5 play in second half

Flyers look to limit goals against, improve 5-on-5 play in second half

VOORHEES, N.J. — As bad as things have been for the Flyers – just three wins in their last 14 games – there was no massive shakeup during their mandatory, five-day “bye” week.
 
General manager Ron Hextall didn’t make a trade, nor did he make any roster moves involving a call-up from the Phantoms.
 
Coach Dave Hakstol took one day off, then got back to watching video and live games, almost in a scout mode.
 
When the players hit the ice Friday afternoon at Skate Zone, Hakstol’s lineup was pretty much the same.
 
The only change saw Matt Read re-enter the lineup on the top line with Claude Giroux and Michael Raffl after missing two games with a skate cut.
 
The lines and defensive pairs remained the same. Goalie Michael Neuvirth will start Saturday against New Jersey at Wells Fargo Center.
 
“For me, the biggest thing is our overall performance,” Hakstol said. “Coming out of a break, that may be a tough thing to do -- to put it all together. But I think the energy will be there both mentally and physically. That’s important. The overall performance.
 
“The results are important on a different level when you start looking at the playoff picture and the race. At the end of the day, two points are going to be important, as well.”
 
The Flyers begin anew with back-to-back games against New Jersey here on Saturday and then the Islanders on Sunday in Brooklyn.
 
They will play four Eastern Conference opponents between Saturday and next Thursday before they begin the three-day All-Stark break.
 
Three of these games are against Metro Division opponents while the fourth is against Toronto. The Maple Leafs happen to hold the second wild card that the Flyers previously had going into the bye week.
 
“Guys realize the situation we are in,” Brayden Schenn said. “We know the circumstances. The break came at a good time, mentally ... Guys know what we’re coming into there with the back-to-backs.
 
“You were kinda scoreboard watching. We know where we’re at. We’re in a dogfight battle with teams for those wild card spots. There’s a lot of hockey left. It’s no secret. Everyone pays attention where we’re at.”
 
Hakstol said after his one-day off, he went right back to work in evaluating where this team is. That the team remains intact without any kind of moves seems to send a message to the players.
 
That message is: it’s on you at this point. Don’t count on getting help from the outside. It has to come from within the current roster.
 
“Anything we’ve talked about is us as a group doing things we do well,” Hakstol said. “We’ve had a rough couple weeks where we haven’t been able to do the things we need to and want to consistently.
 
“I’m very confident in this group and this team. For us, what the players said is true. It was a real good time to have a mental and physical break. Now it’s time to get back to work.”
 
What has to improve right from the get-go is the Flyers' 5-on-5 play. Forget for a moment they have scored 75 goals and are 13th in the NHL averaging 2.76 goals a game.
 
The critical factor is 5-on-5 goals against. The Flyers have allowed 98 goals in that situation – only Colorado [100 GA] has allowed more. Their 3.13 goals against is 28th worst in the league.
 
Unless those number improve significantly, they won’t be in the playoffs.
 
“We have to stay within our system,” said defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. “We give up too many odd-man rushes. Especially in those final games before the break. That’s a big thing.
 
“When we’re giving up that many, it’s not going to be in our favor. It’s not fair to judge our goalies in those games because we didn’t give them too much help out there.”
 
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who plays on a checking line, said the 5-on-5 goals against is a telling stat.
 
“You have it right there,” he said. “You don’t have to say much more than that. You cannot be a consistently, good team in the league if you are that low in goals against. It’s something we have to all work together at, as players.”
 
Hakstol said the Flyers enjoyed success 5-on-5 when they were winning because their team play was “consistent” game-to-game.
 
That hasn’t been the case during this 3-8-3 stretch.
 
“Our 5-on-5 game hasn’t necessarily regressed, but the consistency of it has,” Hakstol said. “That’s when you see the holes defensively. That’s when you see some of the problems you run into.
 
“We’ve got to get back to it. Back to a full 60-minutes of good 5-on-5 play. That’s up to each and every one of us, taking that responsibility and making the push to do that.”

In different spot after bye week, Flyers ready for playoff push with 'new perspective'

In different spot after bye week, Flyers ready for playoff push with 'new perspective'

VOORHEES, N.J. — When we last left the Flyers on Sunday evening, they were picking up pieces of themselves all over the ice at the Verizon Center after a 5-0 beatdown by the Washington Capitals.

They have had to stew over that defeat all through their five-day NHL mandated bye week, which ended Friday afternoon when they reported to Skate Zone for a rare 4 p.m. practice.

They’ll host the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night.

“You go into the break thinking about [hockey], but the whole point of it is to refresh mentally,” said Wayne Simmonds, who got engaged. “I didn’t drive myself crazy over it. This a little stretch here before the final playoff drive.”

When Claude Giroux became engaged in late November, the Flyers won eight straight as part of their 10-game streak.

“So to replicate that, we need everyone in here to get engaged,” Simmonds said. “We've got a lot of work to do. We know that. We got off to a good start compared to the past and then we faltered.

“We know we've got to be better. We all have to be accountable to each other. We’re not starting from scratch, but we need a new perspective here. Come out of the gate and do it the right way, again.”

A lot has happened since the loss in Washington. The Flyers remain fifth in the Metropolitan Division, but the layoff has seen them plummet to ninth overall in the Eastern Conference.

None of that, however, is as important as this: the Flyers no longer hold the second wild card. Toronto has it now with the same number of points as the Flyers — 50.

Difference is, the Maple Leafs also have two games in hand on Dave Hakstol’s club. Worse, the Carolina Hurricanes are snapping at the Flyers' skates with 49 points and they have three games in hand.

All of this is entirely the Flyers' fault as they’ve gone 3-8-3 since their 10-game win streak ended.

Yet they remain in striking distance of the wild card, although they are 11 points out of third, which is an automatic playoff spot.

They are fortunate they’re not farther behind in the wild-card standings.

“For sure, over those days there ... our division did lose a little bit,” Brayden Schenn said. “It’s going to happen. But at the end of the day, if we don’t win hockey games, it’s not going to matter what the other team will do.”

After Saturday’s game against the Devils, the Flyers head to Brooklyn for a Sunday night encounter with the Islanders. Sit five days, then play a back-to-back. Ah, the joys of the NHL schedule this season.

“We know we lost all that ground we gained with the 10-game winning streak,” said Jakub Voracek, who shaved off the beard he’s had for a year and a half during the break. “We are right there in a playoff spot. Now we keep pushing.

“We have 36 games left. We go game by game. I don’t remember how many points out we were last year with the playoffs, but we’re in a better position now.”

Last year after 46 games, the Flyers had 48 points, but were seven points out of a wild-card playoff spot. They have two more points now but are in better wild-card shape.

They know they have to get themselves going quickly but the harsh reality is, they seldom play well coming out of a four or five-day break.

Most of the players went away during the break and didn’t think about hockey. They said they wanted to come back refreshed with a new attitude and clean slate. It starts Saturday.

“We have to stop overthinking things,” Voracek said. “When we were winning, we just kept going. When you are losing, you begin to overthink things.

“You’re a half step slower thinking whether you should go or not. That’s our problem. We have to refocus. Everyone is excited to be back. Get back to work. Push this team to the playoffs.”