Contrary to popular belief, blame for Flyers' playoff exit shouldn't all fall on Claude Giroux

Contrary to popular belief, blame for Flyers' playoff exit shouldn't all fall on Claude Giroux

When you’re the captain of a Philadelphia Flyers team that just suffered a frustrating first-round exit at the hands of a hated rival, glaring eyes of disappointment are going to be focused on you in the following days.

So it should come as no surprise that is the exact situation Claude Giroux finds himself in at this very moment after the Flyers quietly bowed out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 2-1 Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers this past Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Even though Giroux didn’t have anywhere near the best series of his life, placing all the blame for the Flyers’ ouster on the Hart Trophy finalist isn’t very fair.

First off, let’s give the Rangers some credit. They played smothering defense and blocked a boatload of shots. The defensive pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh drew Giroux most of the series and played incredibly well against him.

Also, it’s hard to score when your team can barely get the puck out of its own zone and allows the Rangers to have as much puck possession as they did, but that’s another story for another day.

But, yes, Giroux struggled at times in the series and was too passive when he had certain opportunities to shoot. That said, he still led the team with six points in seven games. G, Jake Voracek and rookie Jason Akeson were the only ones really creating legitimate scoring opportunities.

Outside of those three, the series was a total team offensive failure for the Flyers.

Excluding empty-net goals, Philadelphia scored just 14 goals in seven games. For those of you not well-equipped in the field of mathematics, that’s an average of just two goals per game. That’s just not going to work, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs against a defense like the Rangers have.

To make matters worse, four of those 14 goals came from defensemen whose main objective is to, you know, play defense. Their main objective isn’t to score.

Among the Flyers’ 20-goal scorers in the regular season, Scott Hartnell and Brayden Schenn didn’t score in the series. Vinny Lecavalier and Matt Read each tallied just once. Take away Wayne Simmonds’ hat trick in Game 6 and all he had was an empty-netter.

As you may have noticed, Giroux’s offensive backup just didn’t show up in the series. Outside of Voracek and Akeson, a rookie who played just two career regular season games before bursting onto the scene in this series, Giroux rarely had any help.

And when that happened, the Rangers were able hone in even more on Giroux and take away what little space he already had.

So while the pressure and blame comes with the territory of being the Flyers’ captain, all of it shouldn’t fall on Giroux. There is plenty of blame to go around for the Flyers’ offensive struggles against the Rangers.

Steve Mason deserved a much better fate.

If it’s any consolation, this Penguins-Rangers matchup we’re subjected to is a matchup of the NHL’s two most overrated teams that are playing to be eaten alive by the Canadiens or Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.

Roman Lyubimov getting comfortable, impressing with hard, heavy style

Roman Lyubimov getting comfortable, impressing with hard, heavy style

Ron Hextall said when Flyers training camp began there were spots to be won and spots to be taken from others.

Even though it’s still early in camp, it seems fairly clear Russian forward Roman Lyubimov is going to steal someone’s job among the bottom-six forwards.

He’s been the right wing on Boyd Gordon’s line in camp with Chris VandeVelde on the left side. 

That fourth line worked again Tuesday night as the Flyers opened their home preseason schedule with a 4-0 win over the Islanders at the Wells Fargo Center.

The 6-2, 207-pound Lyubimov plays a heavy game. He is tenacious in one-on-one battles and, perhaps more importantly, jumps on loose pucks after faceoffs as demonstrated during the 2-0 loss in New Jersey on Monday.

Flyers coach Dave Hakstol took notice.

“It’s a nice trait for a player to have automatically and it’s an important trait,” Hakstol said.

“His competitiveness and his battle level on 50-50 pucks, things like that, hasn’t changed from Day 1.”

After spending six years in the KHL, it appears Lyubimov has found a home here. He’s already making a nice adjustment to the smaller rink, too.

“Last couple of years, playing for the Red Army team, there were some pretty physical games,” he said, via translator Slava Kouznetsov. “I think it was pretty close to NHL games. I just have to adapt to the smaller ice.”

He logged 3:55 ice time on the penalty kill against the Devils — second only to rookie defensive prospect Ivan Provorov — and Hakstol has his sights set on using him in that capacity if he makes the final cut.

While playing for the Russian Army, Lyubimov was used in a shutdown role and on the PK with little power-play time.

“I was more defense-oriented,” he said. “If you don’t let the [opponent] score on you, it’s easier to win games. Here, I’ll see what the coaches want me to do. I watched a lot of NHL games. One of my criteria was to be good at the penalty kill.”

The only hard question Hakstol has to answer is Lyubimov’s adjustment to the smaller rink.

“I think he is still working through that but he is game for it,” Hakstol said. “He doesn’t look for open ice in terms of shying away from traffic areas. He is battling in those high traffic areas.”

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare made the adjustment quickly, coming over from France. Michael Raffl played a couple games with the Phantoms after coming over from Austria.

It’s possible the Flyers could start Lyubimov with the Phantoms and then call him up.

“He plays a small-ice type of game,” Hextall said of Lyubimov. “He goes hard to the net, he’s good on the wall, does all those little things. Space I don’t think will affect him as much as other guys.”

He had a prime scoring chance in Tuesday’s game against the Islanders, chasing down a puck behind the net and getting a wraparound that was blocked at the post by defenseman Kyle Burroughs.

Lyubimov finished with 12:07 of ice time and two shots.

His best shot to make the cut is to take away VandeVelde's spot on the fourth line (see story). Once Bellemare returns from the World Cup of Hockey, someone has to go. Another factor here is whether the club carries 23 players instead of 22.

Lyubimov said what impressed him about the Flyers was how players are treated here, on and especially off the ice.

That was always something former Flyers loved about their late owner Ed Snider. He treated them as family, not employees.

“There is a difference,” Lyubimov said. “Everything here is comfortable and done for the players. Here I live five minutes from the rink. In Moscow, it’s 45 minutes. Everything works for me here.”

So much so, Lyubimov is bringing his wife, Katrina, and their 1-year-old daughter Alexa, over this fall to live here even though he has just a one-year deal worth $925,000.

“I want to stay here more than a year,” he said. “I will do whatever I have to do. This is the place I wanted to come.”

Noel, Brown have had open dialogue about Sixers' big man situation

Noel, Brown have had open dialogue about Sixers' big man situation

GALLOWAY, N.J. -- Nerlens Noel’s recent comments on the logjam of big men on the Sixers' roster did not come as news to head coach Brett Brown. While Noel had not been this publicly outspoken on the issue, he and Brown have been having open discussions about it. 

“I have been talking to Nerlens a lot and I have a fondness for him,” Brown said Tuesday on the first day of training camp. “I don’t begrudge Nerlens Noel at all for what he said. I don’t have any problems with it.”

The Sixers' crowded frontcourt this season is a continuation of last season’s conundrum in which Brown was tasked with playing Noel and Jahlil Okafor, two natural centers, together. The depth has increased with the return of Joel Embiid and additions of Dario Saric and Ben Simmons. 

So when Noel doubled down on Monday by saying, "I don't see a way it can work,” Brown recognized where the center's opinions were coming from as he enters his fourth season in the NBA. 

“I feel if we do anything well, we communicate with our players freely,” Brown said. “It is one hundred percent transparent – hard conversations ahead, easy conversations ahead. I have spoken with Nerlens about this a lot. 

“My messaging and my mood and attitude and things that come out of my mouth haven’t changed once. I feel very confident that I’m giving him the advice that he should hear from me and it still allows me to do my job. 

“We have talked about it freely, like I have talked about it with Jahlil and Joel. Those situations are part of pro sports. They’re ever-present with me and us right now.”

Noel has been a rare mainstay among a revolving door of players over the past three years. He is in a unique situation with Brown in that the two have experienced a long list of the team’s ups and downs together. Noel feels comfortable talking honestly with Brown about his viewpoints. 

“I’ve known Brett probably longer than most guys here and we’ve built a different type of relationship,” Noel said. “It’s been very front and forward and we talk and we keep it real. That’s what he’s been doing with me and that’s why I’m able to continue to talk to him about myself and him just telling me what position I’ll be in – he’ll try to put me in – to succeed.”

With Brown having an understanding of Noel, his focus is on what Noel can bring to the team this season. He believes Noel has an edge over Embiid and Okafor for minutes early on because Noel the only one of the trio starting camp without restrictions from previous injuries. 

There is a tough competition for playing time among the bigs, and camp is about proving oneself through basketball, not through personal opinions. Brown was impressed on the first day of camp by the manner in which Noel approached the morning practice amid the comments.

“He has handled it with me and in the training session today like a pro,” Brown said. “He came to mean it. He didn’t back down at all. There was no moping or sulking or him being stubborn. He played. That’s what he has to do. I think that’s a real reflection of anybody of how you handle adversity. Today he handled it like a true pro and a true competitor.”