An Ugly End to a Disappointing Flyers Season: Media Feuds, Surgeries, and Uncertain Futures

An Ugly End to a Disappointing Flyers Season: Media Feuds, Surgeries, and Uncertain Futures

First, a quick apology for the lack of Flyers coverage in the wake of the Boston sweep. I've been out of town for a wedding and some much-needed vacation time. I love Philly sports as much as the next guy, but there's great recuperative value even in taking a break from something that's supposed to be relaxing. We get immersed in the daily events surrounding a team, particularly in the playoffs, from the games themselves to the minutiae that emerge in postgame comments and off-day injury updates. The view from a distance is quite different, checking in on twitter/online only once or twice a day and even then, taking only the most cursory look to see what's in the news. All told, it was a pretty great week to be off the grid.

The reactions by fans following the Flyers' meltdown weren't surprising, and everyone has a right to be disappointed if not downright pissed. The financial support of the fans from their trips through the turnstiles to their eyes being counted in ratings analyses is what puts the players on the ice and money in the pockets of the stakeholders. More than just money though, we allow ourselves to be psychologically invested and spend a lot of our time in the hopes of appreciating the best of what our team has to offer. And, for yet another season, the team came up well short.

For most of us, this is the story of the Flyers in our lifetimes. They're almost always good, but never quite good enough. What's worse, they can often aptly be labeled an underachieving team, and that is certainly the case for the 2010-2011 season and playoffs. A team loaded with talent lacked cohesion down the stretch and fell apart in the second round. Along the way, the fanbase's worst fears about the goaltending situation were realized (again) and new issues emerged.

We'll be looking at some of the many questions facing the team over the course of this off-season in the coming weeks, but there has been no shortage of storylines emerging out of Flyers camp just a few days into it. As you might expect coming out of a season that crash-landed so far ahead of schedule, there aren't too many positive topics dominating the landscape at the moment, and there's little reason to assume that will change over the course of the summer. We take a look at those below.

The Mike Richards Story I Don't Care About, But Probably Should at Least Mention
Team captain Mike Richards is receiving a large amount of scrutiny over his ability to lead the team, which I guess is fair given that they didn't play to their level of talent. The same scrutiny should fall on other team veterans, as well as head coach Peter Laviolette, but mostly it should fall on any players who themselves weren't playing to their ability. Mixed and matched with numerous linemates throughout the season, Richie did make the players around him play better on an acute basis. It's nearly impossible to accurately or objectively quantify his strengths or shortcomings as a leader other than in that regard, except to say that as long as the team doesn't win the Stanley Cup, there's room for improvement. In looking at the remnants of a lost season, the captain will be held partly accountable by many fans. This may be a harsh assessment, but in a hockey mad city like Philadelphia, a city that's been starving for a Stanley Cup for over thirty-five years, anything less than a Stanley Cup is looked at as a failure.

The story making the rounds today isn't an on-ice discussion though, or even a locker room story. It's no secret that Richards hasn't had a great relationship with the local media in Philadelphia, although it usually doesn't seem to be as bad as often characterized either, but it took a turn for the worse on Tuesday. Richards took exception to CSN's Tim Panaccio labeling him as "moody and withdrawn" in an article Panaccio posted last night on the relationship between Laviolette and Richards, and via his twitter account, Richie accused the reporter of publishing statements that aren't true. It's not the first time Richards and a media member have had a scrape like this one, and we're not holding our breath that it's the last either. You don't have to be a reporter in the locker room every night to see that Richards often doesn't seem to appreciate the questions being asked, even after wins, but especially after losses. It's understandable—to a point. Some of the questions seem to be leading to a desired quote, others are repetitive in a game-by-game context, and some are somewhat confusing. I'm not blaming the media either, who must come up with a narrative after 82+ games a season that reads like more than a textual box score. Familiarity can also breed contempt, and despite the influx of quite a few new media outlets into the press box ranks lately, Richards has largely been fielding questions from the same faces for a few years now and apparently reading up on some of the articles they derive from the postgame quotes.

I'm not going to get into who's right and who's wrong on this one. I'll just say I'll be glad when it blows over, because the answer to that question has nothing to do with what's consuming me at the moment, which is whether this team will be better next season than it was this season. Richards is one of the best two-way players in the league, and his teammates, coach, and GM say he's a good captain. He plays his ass off on a nightly basis, and he isn't the reason the Flyers are cleaning out their lockers right now. Richards is not on my list of concerns heading in to 2011-2012.

The Long Limp to the Surgery Suite
That is, unless you count the fact that Richards is among the sizable list of players who will have off-season surgery. The day after a team exits the playoffs on a parade float or in a figurative body bag, the list of the skating wounded is revealed, and so far, there are five Flyers set for surgery and another very possibly on his way to joining them. Richards, Kris Versteeg, Michael Leighton, Blair Betts, and Andrej Meszaros are all set for surgery, and Chris Pronger's list of injuries could land him back there as well.

Some fans called out Richards and Versteeg for their playoff performances, particularly the latter, who was brought over at the trade deadline to make a deep forward corps even deeper, while also adding some playoff experience after winning a Cup with the Blackhawks last season. But it's now been revealed that Richards was playing with a ligament injury in his wrist for the duration of the season and playoffs, and Versteeg needs surgery to repair what may be a sports hernia.

Paul Holmgren addressed the injuries with the media earlier today as follows: “Right now we have five guys that need surgery. Kris Versteeg needs a stomach muscle wall repaired, Michael Leighton’s hip, Mike Richards’s wrist, Blair Betts’s finger, and Andrej Meszaros’s wrist. The guys that need to be evaluated for surgery, Hartnell and Carter, will both be evaluated for hip issues, and we’ll probably know more on
Friday where we need to go with that. The last one is Chris Pronger. We’re still not sure where we’re at with him, what’s needed, what the root of the problem is.  It’s probably safe to say it’s a lower back, lower body issue.  He’s had some diminished leg strength and will see a couple of doctors today who will try to get to the bottom of it.  I’ll let you know as soon as I have an answer.”

Pronger
The Pronger injuries are the biggest story for me right now, far more so than Richie and Panotch's tete a tete. The defenseman's age and duration of contract were called into question when the Flyers signed him, but last season he quieted those concerns temporarily by playing a ton of minutes and being among the best d-men in the league. This season though, he missed a pair of games at the outset after off-season surgery, then a mid-season stretch, and finally a spate of injuries saw him miss the end of the season, most of the first round, and the final three games against the Bruins. The troubling part is that all the absences were due to something different. Getting blasted in the hand with a shot has nothing to do with age, so the games missed at the end of the season are not themselves alarming. But Pronger's inability to get back on the ice without suffering setbacks elsewhere in his body is. The concern now isn't the already once-repaired hand, but the back issues that still haven't fully come to light. It's yet unknown whether Pronger will need surgery, but after seeing him play just 50 games this season and then have difficulty coming back is concerning.

This is one of the two biggest stories to watch as the off-season begins. Pronger's contract is currently set to be on the books through 2017, at just under $5 million per season. But more than simply needing the player allocated that portion of the salary cap to be a performer over that time, the Flyers showed that despite adding depth on defense, they weren't deep enough to be without Pronger for an extended period. Their record with and without him isn't indicative of the impact he has on the flow of the game regardless of which way the action is heading on the ice.

It's premature to speak in dire terms about Pronger, but safe to brand it an area of concern.

What to Do About the Masked Men
Although we haven't done full a postmortem on what went wrong with the Flyers down the stretch and in the playoffs, it's safe to say goaltending will be on the list. Whether the focus is on how the individual guys themselves played or how they were managed, the goaltending simply wasn't good enough in the playoffs. I'm not breaking any news here, obviously. The question now though is, how will the situation be rectified? We'll get more into that at a future date, but today we're wondering which of the current goalies is likely to be back versus allowed to leave, one way or another. Sergei Bobrovsky, Michael Leighton, and Johan Backlund are under contract next season. While that doesn't guarantee they'll all be here, it sets them apart from Brian Boucher, who just played the final season of his current 2-year deal with the Flyers.

When asked about Boucher earlier today, Holmgren praised his season, acknowledged his playoff struggles, but was non-committal at best about the future. “I think Brian had a tremendous year for us," Homer said. "I thought Brian, like a lot of guys in the playoffs, struggled with things. We will see how that plays out. I have not had my meeting with Brian. I know he wants to continue playing, I know he likes it here, his family likes it here. But, we’ll see."

On the Flyers' other goalies, Holmgren had this to say: “Johan [Backlund] had a hip issue last year that he struggled with even at the start of this year. He really didn’t start playing a lot until the end of the season and started playing good at the end of the year. I think it’s a big summer for Johan to see where he fits in. He needs to come to training camp and basically try to win a job. And Michael Leighton, his situation is probably not all that different than Johan. He played in one game this year in L.A. and we won 7 to 4. At that point, we made a decision that he needed to go down and work on his game, which he did. When he came back to the team, he played a little bit of the one game, the overtime loss, I thought he played good. Then he got his chance to start and he didn’t play good. He is sort of in the same boat as Johan. I think Michael’s got to, with the hip surgery he needs, he’s got to be around here all summer, working with our medical staff and our training staff to get that strength and to get ready for training camp. I think he’s probably going to want a job in training camp too."

We'll see indeed, on all of the above. It should be a very interesting off-season in Philadelphia, as is usually the case. The issues this team has may not be easily remedied though, as they are equal parts a conference-leading group of talent and a club that made early exit in the playoffs.

Thanks for your patience while I was out of town and to the other Levelers for filling in for me while the team was still alive (if only on life support), and thanks to all of you for your participation in the site over the course of the season, whether reading or adding to the discussion in the comments.

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews is probably the only Eagles wide receiver you feel remotely good about right now.

Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff are draft picks who haven’t accomplished much yet. Rueben Randle and Chris Givens are veteran offseason pickups who’ve shown little this preseason (see story). Dorial Green-Beckham is a former second-round pick whose first team gave up on him after just one year.

It’s not a group that inspires a whole lot of confidence right now. 

Potential? Sure. But opening day is 16 days away, there’s only one preseason game left for the starters to play, Sam Bradford has two guys to throw to — Matthews and Zach Ertz — and potential is a scary word at this point.

Matthews isn’t a superstar at this point. He’s a solid pro who seems to be getting better. His 1,862 yards are 10th most in NFL history after two seasons. 

But compared to the Eagles’ other receivers, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He's got credibility and because of that the 24-year-old Matthews has become a spokesman for the entire group. And this past week, two games into the preseason, he found himself in the position of having to defend this entire beleaguered bunch of wide receivers the Eagles have put together.

“The funniest thing is last year [the receivers] played extremely well in the preseason, got into the season, didn’t play well, and everybody’s like, 'Preseason doesn’t matter,'" Matthews said.

"Then the first preseason game we don’t play well, everybody’s like, 'The preseason matters, you guys suck!' Hold on … I thought it didn’t matter. You know what I’m saying?”

What he's saying is it's too early to write this group off. Maybe Huff and Agholor and Randle and Givens — or whichever among them makes the team — will turn it on once the regular season begins.

But going into the Colts game Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium, the numbers are not pretty.

Huff and Randle both have three catches for 13 yards. Agholor has two catches for 30 yards. Givens is 0 for 0.

Matthews hasn’t played yet in the preseason because of a knee injury, and the next four receivers have a combined 56 receiving yards in two preseason games.

Paul Turner, an undrafted rookie, leads the group with nine catches for 78 yards. 

Improvement? Matthews sees it.

“I take this approach,” Matthews said this week. “Every rep counts. And so if every rep counts, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to do better the next rep, and I felt like guys took steps forward for the next rep. And that’s the main thing you always want to see, that improvement.

“I understand it’s the NFL, I understand obviously people are going to say you get paid a lot of money to do one thing, but I’ll tell you what, I know the guys in that room, they want to do well. None of those guys went into that game wanting to mess up or not put their best foot forward.”

Probably no recent draft pick has infuriated Eagles fans as much as Agholor. Well, other than maybe Marcus Smith and Danny Watkins. And Lane Johnson maybe.

But it’s tough for some to be patient with Agholor when Jeremy Maclin had 773 yards as a rookie, DeSean Jackson had 912 and Matthews had 872.

Heck, even Reggie Brown (571 yards) and undrafted Hank Baskett (464) were factors as rookie wideouts.

Agholor’s 283 yards last season rank tied for 27th out of 32 wide receivers drafted in the first round over the past 10 years.

But he has a big-time supporter in Matthews.

“I felt like the jump he made from the first game to the second game [was significant]," Matthews said "Even the stuff you don’t see. Blocking? [Darren] Sproles caught a short pass and Nelson turned his route around … he ran a great route, got open, turned around, blocked and probably sprung Sproles for another 10, 15 yards.

“He had another bubble situation where he had to block for Josh and he did. Definitely better than the first game, and that’s what you want to see. That’s the biggest thing. And it gets lost in the shuffle.”

That Sproles play, a 21-yard gain, was called back because of a penalty on rookie guard Isaac Seumalo.

But Matthews is passionate when he talks about how Agholor’s lack of production as a rookie doesn’t mean anything moving forward.

“I don’t know if y’all know this, but I love Jordy Nelson (Packers Pro Bowl receiver),” Matthews said. “I love him. One of my favorite receivers. Jordy Nelson didn’t have 1,000 yards till Year 4.

“Let’s put it in perspective. Guys get better. And I feel like that’s what I want to see from my group. Are guys getting better?

“There’s two things that I really look for from my group — attitude and effort. And do Nelson and Chris and Josh and those guys bring great attitude and effort?

“Yes. That’s what I want to see, and I feel that’s what we’ve shown.”

Soul's Clint Dolezel shares Coach of the Year award with Rattlers' Kevin Guy

Soul's Clint Dolezel shares Coach of the Year award with Rattlers' Kevin Guy

For the third time in five seasons, the Soul and Arizona Rattlers will compete in the ArenaBowl. Prior to Friday night's 7 p.m. matchup, the leaders of both squads, Soul coach Clint Dolezel and Rattlers coach Kevin Guy, were each named Marcum Moss Coach of the Year.

Dolezel and Guy will share the award but not the ArenaBowl trophy, which the Soul haven't won since their lone triumph in 2008 over the San Jose Sabercats. Dolezel, who has been at the helm since August 2012, led the Soul to the ArenaBowl in 2012 and 2013 but lost to the Rattlers on both occasions.

This season, Dolezel, who spent over a decade as a quarterback in the AFL, coached the Soul to a 13-3 regular-season record. The team advanced to the ArenaBowl with a dramatic win in the American Conference championship game over the Jacksonville Sharks.

Dolezel also earned the Coach of the Year award last season for guiding the Soul to a 15-3 overall mark and a conference championship game appearance.

“Without a question, Clint is one of the best offensive minds in AFL history,” Soul owner Ron Jaworski said in a press release. “His success is attributed to a great deal of preparation and hard work. To make a playoff appearance every year as a head coach shows his dedication and willingness to win.”

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard batting cleanup, Cameron Rupp catching

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard batting cleanup, Cameron Rupp catching

Following a day off, the Phillies continue their roadtrip with the start of a three-game set with the New York Mets.

Ryan Howard will bat in the heart of the Phillies order with Cameron Rupp at catcher following the trade of Carlos Ruiz to the Dodgers. Meanwhile, the rest of the lineup remains mostly the same as it was prior to a brief two-game series with American League rules.

With Ruiz's trade, Howard is the last remaining member of the Phillies' 2008 World Series team. He'll try to throw back to that time against the ageless Bartolo Colon. 

Howard has good power numbers against Colon. He has just six hits in 28 at-bats, but has drawn three walks and has three home runs against the 43-year-old starter. There are only 18 pitchers he has faced more often than Colon.

At catcher, Rupp had already inherited the starting job from Ruiz, but he is now the backstop with more experience in Philadelphia. The Phillies called up prospect Jorge Alfaro for now, but he will likely remain on the bench and be sent down when A.J. Ellis reports this weekend. 

Rupp has five hits in 14 at-bats against Colon. He has faced only the Braves' Julio Teheran more times than Colon in his four-year career. The five hits are tied for his most against any one pitcher (Teheran).

Here's the full lineup that will oppose Colon and the Mets. 

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Aaron Altherr, LF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Cameron Rupp, C
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Freddy Galvis, SS
8. Peter Bourjos, RF
9. Adam Morgan, P