Flyers at the Halfway Point: Awards, Surprises, Concerns

Flyers at the Halfway Point: Awards, Surprises, Concerns

The 2011
portion of the Flyers' 2011-2012 season was to be the great unknown
when the team took the ice in October. No one knew exactly how the
surprising reshaping of the team would work out, as it's never so simple
as putting good players together and letting them play (ask the
Eagles).

Overall though, it's hard not to be anything but pleasantly
surprised with their fast progress and overall state at the season's
midway point. The fact that we can even be disappointed at their recent
slumps — which pale in comparison to what we've seen from previous
iterations — shows how good we actually believe they can be. There's
obviously still plenty of room for improvement, particularly in goal and
in their own end. But, after this off-season, if you were told the day
before the new campaign started that the Flyers would be four points out
of the conference lead, you'd have been OK with that, right?

So how did they get here? What do they need to do stay at near the
top, or get over the hump? A look at the mid-season award winners and
trendsetters below.

MVP: The birthday boy, Hearst,
Ontario's own Claude Giroux. Were it not for a concussion sidelining him
a handful of games, he might be leading the league in scoring as he has
at several points this season. Forget the Bobby Clarke Trophy… G is a
near-unanimous early favorite for the Hart, gaining nods from Puck Daddy,
ESPN, and NHL.com, among others. With the previous faces of the
franchise traded away last summer, Giroux may have already ascended to a
place that eluded them—true superstardom. The immediate belief
surrounding the trades of Richards and Carter was that they were a
combination of a culture change and a salary shedding for the signing of
a goalie. The biggest impact so far? The Flyers became Claude Giroux's
team.

Early Ashbee: The loss of Chris Pronger for the season and
possibly beyond still looms large, but where would this team be without
Kimmo Timonen? A stalwart in all situations, Kimmo continues to be a
steadying presence on a blue line that often hasn't played to its
on-paper depth.

Calder Kids: Matt Read was TSN's Bob McKenzie's pick for the
NHL's Calder Trophy (top rookie), a pick that turned some heads. Read's
been through a few NHL camps and never stuck. Why would this season be
different? Would Read even be the top rookie on a team that included 8th
overall pick Sean Couturier and top prospect Brayden Schenn? Well, Mac
was on to something, because Read is tied for the goals lead and fourth
in overall scoring among freshmen to date. Still, Cooter has shown that
he could be at least as valuable to the team, while not having quite the
same Calder allure. Playing in a bottom-six (mostly fourth line) role
and killing penalties every night, while still notching seven goals,
Couturier is right there with Read in a toss-up for most impact from a
rookie so far. It'll be exciting to see whose game rises fastest in the
second half, including Schenn.

Comeback Player of the Half Year: I think you could have
called this one for Jaromir Jagr before the season even began. First,
not many other Flyers would even qualify. But Jags has had a remarkable
first half, the perfect complement to Giroux in his season of
ascendency. Injuries have slowed him down, a situation that is certainly
a concern in the second half, but Jagr has so far proven to be one of
the best off-season acquisitions any NHL team made.

D2D (Disappointment to Date): Hard to look past Ilya
Bryzgalov on this one. Usually a huge contract to a goalie doesn't start
looking bad until a few seasons in, but Bryz has been one of the few
bleak spots in an otherwise positive season for the Flyers. Before I say
another word about him though, the defense in front of him is a close
second — very close. I can't remember ever seeing a team let up so many
goals on deflections, second efforts, ricochets, and all other kinds of
"bad bounces." Off the top of your head, how many goals would you say
have been credited against Bryzgalov that he simply had no chance on due
to something related to the traffic in front of him or a failure to
clear out the slot and crease area? Subtract that from his total and I'm
sure his mind-bogglingly poor stats are far closer to acceptable.

Still, Bryz simply hasn't been an elite goaltender, and that's what
the Flyers are paying for. He's lacked confidence as seen in post-game
scrums (although you can decide how much weight you want to put into
that, as well as 24/7 comments) as well as on the ice, where he seems
beaten on some second efforts before they're even past him. The good
news is, if he can turn it around at all, the Flyers become very
dangerous. With Bryz's stats currently worse than they've ever been, the
Flyers are still well within striking distance of first place in their
division, a slot that currently holds the conference lead as well. He
doesn't need to be perfect (which some assumed he would after the Flyers
appeared to give up so much scoring as well as forward line defense),
he just needs to be better.

Best Moment
This is gonna be subjective, I hope you don't mind. Sitting in the first row of the 200 level in right field chanting for Bernie Parent, who was in goal for the Flyers at the time. I've been a Flyers fan my whole life, but never seen the franchise's greatest legends play. Well, before the Alumni Game, that is. Call it meaningless if you want (and me a sap), but it had as much meaning to me as any other game I've seen. Along with that, we saw Eric Lindros' Philadelphia history conclude with a previously unwritten happy ending. He was the Flyers for a formative part of my hockey fan life, and it felt right to see him back where he belonged.

One other moment I'll throw in — seeing the Flyers dance to that Knock Knock song after a big win on 24/7. Did you not just f*cking love those guys right then? One thing I'll always appreciate about hockey is the pure joy these guys share in being teammates. After a goal, the smiles are so wide, so sincere. The best part of 24/7 to me was being in the locker room when no one else is in there. Pretty stark contrast to Postgame Live when the inquisitions begin.

Worst Moment
Hearing Chris Pronger's scream of pain after
taking a stick to the eye is second only to hearing the news that his
season was over, with speculation that his career might be as well. A
storm of concussions is sweeping through the NHL, and we're not sure
what the sport will look like after more destruction mounts. Pronger
clearly still has plenty of years left in his body, but perhaps not his
head, and that's a very sad thing. It's also a reminder that age and
circumstance may have nothing to do with a career-ending concussion. A
visor might have stopped this from happening. But what of Giroux's?
Couturier's? There's not much you can mandate in terms of penalties or
equipment that would change the fact that we are simply learning more
about head trauma than we previously did. It's a great thing for health,
but the sport will never be the same.

Surprise Positives
Scott Hartnell is tied with
the league's MVP for most goals on the team, and is once again skating
with the team's top line, albeit with two completely different
linemates. Peter Laviolette called him the top power forward in the game
in reference to whether he should be an All-Star. More than a pest,
Hartnell doesn't see nothing wrong with a little Muck & Grind, and
he's truly been a bright spot for the Flyers on and off the ice. He's
emerged as a leader on a team that will need guidance through whatever
rough patches remain on the schedule — and there will likely be some.

Youth Movement: Eleven rookies have played for the Flyers so
far this season, with a handful playing nearly every night. The current
season has been pretty fun for the most part, but the future with this
club is pretty bright as well.

Concerns Going Forward:
The Flyers' defense probably
tops the list, even above Bryzgalov. First, I think Bryz recovers and
puts together a great stretch of performances before this season is said
and done. If he doesn't, the Flyers have a backup many believed would
be a capable starter. Only problem there is, if Bryz doesn't step up,
Lavy may resort to his natural tendency of riding the hot hand not
matter who's getting paid what. He may already be doing that, with Bob
starting the the Pens game, the Winter Classic, the win over Carolina,
and tonight's game against the Islanders, per Frank Seravalli.

But as we said before, the defense has absolutely let its goalies
down too often. There's too much traffic in front, and too many lost
assignments leaving opposing forward ready for second effort gimme's.
It's not just on the actual D-men either, the forwards need to tighten
up as well.

Kimmo must stay healthy. We can rattle off some fine
defensive names in Meszaros, Coburn, and Carle, but with Pronger gone,
the defensive depth lives and dies with Timonen. Not that we'd be
comfortable with any of the above hitting the press box either…

Ditto Jagr. How much of a problem is that groin going to be
the rest of the way? The G Unit hasn't quite been the same the past few
games (very small sample), and Jagr has seemed to be laboring.

Can JVR turn it up? The
second half of this season is huge for James van Riemsdyk, who has not
emerged as a star in line with the trajectory set in last year's
playoffs. A possible hip injury may be one reason, but not one most fans
will be willing to accept, and maybe not Lavy and Homer either.

Last year's lessons. The Flyers were the top team in the
league through January 2011. Then the world exploded. Nothing that's
happened so far this season necessarily has an impact on what happens
next. Hopefully the guys who are still here remember that and can impart
it to the guy who weren't.

Your Turn.
There's a lot we've left out here, hoping
you'll help fill in the blanks. What were your pleasant surprises?
Disappointments? What has you most excited for the second half, and what
are you worried about?

Union-Sporting Kansas City 5 things: Looking for back-to-back wins

Union-Sporting Kansas City 5 things: Looking for back-to-back wins

Union vs. Sporting Kansas City
7 p.m. on TCN, Pregame Live at 6:30

The Union kept afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race last weekend by completing the season sweep of the Columbus Crew. Now, they have an opportunity to do something they’ve only done once this season — win back-to-back games. The Union (10-9-7) face Sporting Kansas City (11-11-5) Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup.

1. Rookie power
In a surprising move, Union manager Jim Curtin tapped Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers to accompany Keegan Rosenberry as starters on the road against the Crew. 

And the 2016 MLS SuperDraft trio, starting for the first time together, didn’t disappoint. 

“If you were to tell me before the game started that we’d get goals from Herbers and Rosenberry, I would probably tell you you were a little crazy,” Curtin said. “But we’re happy for them. I think it’s a big step in a tough atmosphere.”

Herbers opened the scoring for the Union by powering home a deflection off his own original shot. The goal was followed by a Rosenberry game-winning goal from a Tranquillo Barnetta pass into the box. 

“For Keegan, for Josh, for Herbers to step up the way they did in what I would call a big boy game, I think it shows them growing as players,” Curtin said. “It’s a real game out there where a team is fighting and is desperate to make a playoff push, we had to be alert for 90 minutes.”

The three had such an impact on last Saturday’s match that Curtin is likely to go to the kids again against SKC. Herbers made the start in place of Ilsinho, who is currently fighting off a foot injury.

“We’re a club that trusts young players and believes in playing young players,” Curtin said. “They rewarded us.” 

2. Bedoya’s impact
Although he won’t make the scoresheet, in three games, Alejandro Bedoya has impressed Curtin with his poise in the midfield and big-game calmness with the ball. 

“To think he’s in his preseason now is a scary thing,” said Curtin, who has played Bedoya 90 minutes in his last two games. “Three great performances and it’s only going to get better. I can’t say enough positives about him.”

What Curtin likes the most is Bedoya’s ability to keep possession and relax the game, something that helps a club overflowing with young players. 

“He has been a great influence on us keeping possession,” Curtin said. “It’s the simple balls that don’t show up in the stat sheet, where he catches it and just plays it to our outside back. That gives us time to catch our breath — it’s so valuable.”

SKC has noticed it, too. 

“They added a very good player, someone with a lot of experience and commitment to the game, especially in the midfield” SKC coach Peter Vermes said. “He poses a problem for any team they play against. For us, we have to be compact, we have to be smart and we have to take our chances really well.”

3. Tired SKC
The Union are catching Sporting Kansas City at the right time. Vermes’ club is winded after just one home match in its last seven. 

“We’ve had a lot of travel these last couple weeks, so going into this Philly game we want to conserve as much energy as possible,” SKC’s Benny Feilhaber said. “They are a really good team this year, so we’ll have our hands full. But we’re confident we can go in and get something out of it.” 

And the club has a right to be tired. In 11 days from Saturday’s match, SKC will have played in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, home at Children’s Mercy Park, then away at BC Place against the Vancouver Whitecaps, before traveling cross-country to face the Union.

“Every game is very important, so we have to be able to give everything we’ve got, even though we’re running on fumes a little bit here,” Vermes said. “We’re going to have to dig down deep and muster up something with Philadelphia being as good as they are.” 

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: It doesn’t appear that Ilsinho will return in time for Saturday’s match, leaving Herbers as a starter on the right side of the midfield. He has two goals and four assists in five starts this season.

SKC: Although Dom Dwyer has four goals in his last five matches, Feilhaber has the ability to get everyone involved. The veteran midfielder has a goal and three assists in his last four matches.

5. This and that
• The Union are 4-5-4 against SKC all-time and an even 2-2-2 at home. 

• Despite being in playoff position, the Union have yet to win back-to-back games more than once this season. The only time they’ve claimed consecutive wins was on March 12 and March 20. And that started with a win over the Crew. 

• Each scoring a goal against the Crew, Rosenberry and Herbers were the first two rookies to score in a match since Colorado Rapids’ Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers did it in 2013. 

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Hellickson, Phils have chance to play spoilers

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Hellickson, Phils have chance to play spoilers

Phillies (59-69) at Mets (65-63)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

Both the Mets and Phillies go into the second game of the series with their best (healthy) starter on the mound. Noah Syndergaard, known by many as "Thor," takes the hill while trying to keep the Mets' playoff hopes alive, while Jeremy Hellickson makes the 26th start of his rebound season. 

Here are five things to know before Saturday night's matchup.

1. Playing spoilers
If the Mets want to make the playoffs in 2016 and reprise 2015's run to the World Series, they're gonna have to go through the Phillies. 

Not in the playoffs of course. But in the regular season.

After losing Friday night, the Phillies are six games back of the Mets and 10 games back of a playoff spot. They're not going to the postseason, barring a miracle.

But the Mets still have every intent to compete for a wild-card spot despite injuries all over the place (see point No. 2). They have the second-easiest schedule the rest of the way (Nationals have the easiest) and that is in large part thanks to games remaining against the Braves … and the Phillies.

Including Saturday night's game, the Mets and Phillies have nine games left against each other this season. That's more than enough to affect the Mets' postseason chances. The Mets are just 6-4 against the Phillies so far this year and will need to be much better in the final nine games to make a legitimate run.

But the Phillies can also spoil other teams' postseason chances. They have six games left against the Marlins and four games vs. the Pirates. This doesn't even mention the seven games with the Nationals, who are fighting for homefield advantage in the first round of the playoffs while holding a comfy lead in the NL East. 

2. Laying down the hammer
Matt Harvey is out for the year. Steven Matz is having shoulder issues and is on the disabled list. Jonathon Niese, newly reaquired, was injured four batters into his Tuesday start. Zack Wheeler seems far away from returning from Tommy John surgery. And to top all of it, Jacob deGrom's next start will be skipped to work on mechanical issues.

So that leaves Friday's starter, Bartolo Colon, and Syndergaard as the Mets' only experienced starters still on turn in the rotation at the moment. Certainly not how the Mets drew it up.

While this shows the perils of building around pitching, there is still the one shining ray of hope: Syndergaard. The righty flamethrower had his bumps in the road, his non-ace like starts, but for the most part, he's been just as advertised. 

Here's a telling stat: Syndergaard has made 24 starts and only in three has he given up more than three runs. As electric as he was as a 22-year-old rookie last year (3.24 ERA with 166 strikeouts in 24 starts), he's been even more so this year. He's given up more hits in almost the same number of innings, but he's limited home runs and struck out more batters. 

Overall, he has an 11-7 record and a 2.61 ERA. His 5.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio is one of the best marks in baseball and so is his 0.5 home runs per nine innings this year. With a hit-or-miss offense and a struggling middle relief corps, Syndergaard continues to carry the Mets to some modicum of playoff contention.

3. Hellickson re-established
It's been said and written plenty of times, but Hellickson was a clear reclamation project when the Phillies acquired him in the offseason. 

He hadn't pitched to an ERA below 4.52 since 2012, his second full season in baseball. His velocity had fallen after a shoulder injury and the righty based mostly on command was beginning to give up way too many hits. The Tampa Bay Rays, the team that drafted him, dealt him and after one year, the Diamondbacks gave up on him, too.

But in five months with the Phillies, Hellickson has re-established himself as the pitcher he was before. His hits per nine innings have improved back to their 2012 numbers and he has lowered his walk rate while keeping his strikeouts at a career high rate. 

So for the first time in four years, Hellickson is an above-average MLB pitcher. Besides pushing back his last start, he's been consistently pitching every fifth game, one of the few constants for the Phillies' rotation. He's thrown 150 innings, his most since 2013 and he has a month left.

And he's now won four straight decisions. The Phils have won his last six starts and he's given up three or fewer runs in each one. While he is putting himself in line for a big payday in the offseason, the Phillies are certainly happy with the production they've gotten from the 29-year-old righty.

4. Battle of the bullpens
Based on ERA, the Phillies and Mets have had two of the five worst bullpens in baseball since the All-Star break. Yet it's been for very different reasons.

For the Phillies, it's simple: The rotation has been in disarray. Even the guys who've been healthy have simply failed to get far into games. Hellickson is the only starter to complete at least seven innings since the break and even he hasn't done it more than the one time. 

If the starters weren't giving length but were giving the bullpen leads on a consistent basis, Pete Mackanin could go to his top relievers like Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez, who have been pretty steady despite a recent hiccup by Gomez against the Cardinals. But they haven't been given many leads and that has meant mop-up relievers. 

So with the long reliever getting more of the innings, it's easy to see why the Phils' pen has the fifth-worst ERA (4.52) of any MLB bullpen since the break. 

But what's been the Mets' problem to cause a 4.74 ERA, second worst in the second half? It's a little more complicated. First, they've had some of the same issues as the Phillies. Starters either getting hurt (Niese) or struggling and having to exit early leads to same results as the Phillies. 

Yet it's also the back-end relievers struggling. Although he's had a good August, Jeurys Familia has blown three saves since the break after none before the break. Jerry Blevins has been slightly worse since the break. And Hansel Robles, a key cog in middle relief, has a 6.41 ERA in the second half. 

The mop-up relievers have done a lot of the damage, but the Mets' back end isn't as steady as it needs to be. 

5. This and that
• Syndergaard beat the Phillies in April at Citziens Bank Park. He held the Phils to just one run over seven innings and struck out eight batters. He gave up just five hits and two walks.

• Hellickson has made three starts against the Mets this year and is 1-1. He got a win at Citi Field on April 10 by allowing just two runs in 5⅔ innings. He got a no-decision after allowing 10 hits and four runs in 4⅓ 10 days later. Hellickson was beat up in his first start after the break, losing to the Mets in a six-inning start on July 15. He gave up four runs on seven hits and two home runs in that game.

• Ryan Howard is 2 for 7 against Syndergaard with a home run and two walks in nine plate appearances. Odubel Herrera is 1 for 9 with an RBI single. 

• Curtis Granderson has faced Hellickson more than any other Mets batter thanks to their time with the Yankees and Rays, respectively. In 29 plate appearances, he is 5 for 25 with a home run, two walks, seven strikeouts and two hit-by-pitches.

• Yoenis Cespedes is 5 for 12 against Hellickson with two home runs and a walk. 

Report: Eagles to work out Darius Reynolds, Jake Mentz on Monday

Report: Eagles to work out Darius Reynolds, Jake Mentz on Monday

Fresh off a 56-42 win in Arena Bowl XXIX, the Soul could be losing two key players.

To the Eagles.

According to ESPN's Adam Caplan, the Eagles are scheduled to work out wide receiver Darius Reynolds and defensive lineman Jake Mentz, two key contributors from the Soul, on Monday.

During the 2016 regular season, Reynolds had 112 catches for 1,447 yards and 38 touchdowns, while Metz led the team with eight sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

The Eagles have 84 on their roster heading into Saturday night's game, but must be down to 75 players by 4 p.m. on Aug. 30 and then down to 53 by 4 p.m. on Sept. 3.