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.

Vince Velasquez is subject of serious trade talks between Phillies, Rangers

Vince Velasquez is subject of serious trade talks between Phillies, Rangers

ATLANTA — Seven months after he was acquired from the Houston Astros and anointed a key piece in the Phillies’ rebuild, pitcher Vince Velasquez could be on the move again.

The Phillies and Texas Rangers are “pretty deep” in trade discussions involving Velasquez, a major league source told CSNPhilly.com on Friday night (see story).

The Rangers’ interest in Velasquez was reported by Jon Morosi of MLB Network earlier in the week and essentially confirmed when three Rangers scouts, including Scott Littlefield, one of that club’s top talent evaluators, showed up at Turner Field for Velasquez’s start against the Atlanta Braves on Friday night.

Velasquez delivered a solid but unspectacular performance in a 2-1 loss to the Braves, but he still has the qualities that attracted the Phillies to him last winter. He’s just 24 years old and has a power arm that has produced a 3.32 ERA in 18 starts. He has the upside to pitch at or near the top of a rotation if his development goes in the right direction and he stays healthy. That is a legitimate concern because he had Tommy John surgery as a young minor leaguer and spent time on the disabled list earlier this season with a biceps strain.

The question now is: where will Velasquez continue his development? Philadelphia? Texas? Somewhere else?

Clearly, the Phillies’ big wintertime acquisition is in play as Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline approaches.

Manager Pete Mackanin said he knows nothing of the front office’s trade plans, but he offered his opinion on trading a young pitcher like Velasquez.

“Our whole goal was to get young pitchers because they’re the most expensive commodity and if you can develop young pitchers like him and have four or five of those guys, then you’re ahead of the game,” Mackanin said. “But at the same time, at least as far as I’m concerned, I’ll listen to any offers. If you get three guys that are really good looking prospects because pitching is such a commodity, I’m sure you have to consider it.”

With the Rangers' scouts looking on, Velasquez pitched six innings and gave up seven hits and two runs. He walked two and struck out five. His fastball reached 96 mph, proving that his stuff is good. Mackanin, however, said he thought Velasquez relied too much on his off-speed stuff instead of his power fastball.

“It was unusual to me the way he pitched,” Mackanin said. “It was almost like a finesse pitcher instead of a power pitcher. I’m not arguing with it because he did a good job, but he made me a little nervous here and there. I like the 16 strikeouts.”

That, of course, was a reference to Velasquez’s 16-strikeout complete game win over the Padres on April 14. Could anyone have imagined that he'd be the subject of trade talks 3½ months later?

Velasquez said he was aware of the trade buzz surrounding him and unbothered by it. He’s been down this road before. He said he would not be disappointed if he were traded because he understands baseball is a business.

“At first when I got traded from the Astros it was kind of tough for me, but you have to move on and make the best of what you've got,” Velasquez said. “If things happen, just let it happen. If I go to another team, then I've got to make the best of what I've got there. There's a lot of things that are in the future. I don't know what to expect is what I'm saying. Again, all I can do is live in the present and live another day tomorrow. If something happens, something happens. I've got to make the best of what you've got today.

“It's just one of those things I can't control. I had to fight, had to battle for a spot here in Philadelphia and I'm very thankful for the opportunity and everything. Again, I've still got to keep working hard and make the best of what I've got.”

Any team looking to acquire Velasquez would have to pay a steep price. In addition to having talent and upside, he won’t be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2018 season and free agency until after the 2021 season.

The Phillies have a good knowledge of Texas’ deep farm system having scouted it extensively — and plucked from it — in making the deal for Cole Hamels a year ago. Are the Phillies about to fuel their rebuild with more talent from the Texas system? Stay tuned.

Velasquez isn’t the only Phillies starter who could move. Several teams remain interested in Jeremy Hellickson (see story), who is scheduled to pitch against Atlanta on Saturday night. The Rangers, in fact, have some interest in Hellickson as a fallback option if they don’t get a pitcher elsewhere. Velasquez is not the only pitcher the Rangers have on their radar, but from a Phillies’ perspective, he is certainly the most interesting.

Best of MLB: Rougned Odor homers twice for Rangers in 8-3 win over Royals

Best of MLB: Rougned Odor homers twice for Rangers in 8-3 win over Royals

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Rougned Odor homered twice, A.J. Griffin pitched into the sixth inning and the Texas Rangers beat the Kansas City Royals 8-3 on Friday night.

Jurickson Profar also went deep for the Rangers, and scored three runs.

Odor hit a solo homer in the first that put AL West-leading Texas up 3-0 against Edinson Volquez (8-9). That 443-foot drive into the second deck of seats in right field came a night after Odor's 465-footer that is the longest in his career. He had another solo shot in the seventh, his 21st of the season barely clearing the 8-foot wall in right.

Eric Hosmer homered for the defending World Series champion Royals, who dropped to 10 games behind Cleveland in the AL Central.

Griffin (4-1) had his longest outing in seven starts in just over a month since coming off the disabled list because of right shoulder stiffness. The right-hander struck out one and walked two while throwing 66 of 98 pitches for strikes in 5 2-3 innings (see full recap)

Chatwood, Gonzalez lead Rockies over Mets for 4th win in row
NEW YORK -- Tyler Chatwood kept winning on the road, Carlos Gonzalez homered and drove in four runs and the Colorado Rockies defeated the New York Mets 6-1 Friday night for their fourth straight victory.

Mark Reynolds also homered for the surging Rockies, who are 11-4 since the All-Star break and have moved within four games of Miami for the second NL wild-card spot.

Chatwood (10-6) improved to 6-0 with a 1.30 ERA away from Coors Field this season. The 26-year-old is 4-6 with a 5.69 ERA at home.

Gonzalez matched a season-high hitting streak of 11 games with an RBI double in the first. He hit a 448-foot, three-run drive in the ninth for his 21st homer.

Steven Matz (8-7) gave up two runs and 10 hits in six innings (see full recap)

Lester recovers from rut of bad starts, Cubs rout Mariners
CHICAGO -- Jon Lester recovered from a rut of bad starts, pitching six shutout innings that led the Chicago Cubs over the Seattle Mariners 12-1 Friday for their third straight win.

Jason Heyward and David Ross homered as the NL Central leaders improved to 9-5 since the All-Star break following a 1-9 slump. Seattle lost in its first trip to Wrigley Field since 2007.

Lester (11-4) had lasted just 16 innings over his previous four starts, going 1-1 with a 10.13 ERA. That skid came after he had gone 9-3 with a 2.03 ERA in his first 16 starts.

Lester gave up four hits, struck out seven and walked two. He was already done when there was a 74-minute rain delay in the seventh.

Mike Montgomery, traded last week from Seattle to the Cubs, pitched the final two innings. He gave up a single to Shawn O'Malley in the ninth for the Mariners' run.

Hisashi Iwakuma (11-7) had won his last five starts, but gave up five runs and eight hits in three innings (see full recap).

Source: Phillies, Rangers in 'pretty deep' trade talks about Vince Velasquez

Source: Phillies, Rangers in 'pretty deep' trade talks about Vince Velasquez

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies lost, 2-1, to the Atlanta Braves on Friday night.

The big news from this game, however, was that Vince Velasquez might have made his last start with the Phillies. A major league source told CSNPhilly.com that the Phillies and Texas Rangers are “pretty deep” in trade discussions involving Velasquez. The Rangers, the source said, also have some interest in Jeremy Hellickson, who pitches for the Phillies on Saturday night, but he appears to be a secondary target (see story).

It would take top talent to get Velasquez, a 24-year-old right-hander with a power arm. The Phillies acquired him over the winter from Houston as the centerpiece in the deal that sent Ken Giles to the Astros.

The Rangers had several scouts at the game, including Scott Littlefield, one of their top talent evaluators.

The Rangers’ interest in Velasquez was reported earlier in the week by Jon Morosi of MLB Network.

Apparently there’s more than just interest (see story). Stay tuned as Monday’s trade deadline approaches.

Starting pitching report
Velasquez scattered seven hits and two runs over six innings. He walked two and struck out five. Velasquez battled some command issues and needed 91 pitches to complete the six innings.

He is 8-3 with a 3.32 ERA in 18 starts. He has a 2.75 ERA in six starts since a brief stint on the disabled list with a right biceps strain.

Braves right-hander Tyrell Jenkins gave up just one unearned run over six innings.

Bullpen report
Both bullpens pitched scoreless ball.

At the plate
Phillies leadoff man Cesar Hernandez reached base in his first three at-bats and scored the Phillies’ only run on an error in the third inning. 

The Braves scored two runs in the third inning on three singles, a sacrifice bunt and a walk against Velasquez. Gordon Beckham and Nick Markakis drove in the runs with base hits.

Up next
Hellickson (7-7, 3.65) makes perhaps his final start with the Phillies on Saturday night. He will face Braves right-hander Julio Teheran (3-8, 2.71).