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?

Sixers take lasting lessons from talk with Will Smith at team dinner

Sixers take lasting lessons from talk with Will Smith at team dinner

GALLOWAY, N.J. — The sprawling city skyline could have been the highlight of the Sixers' team dinner at One Liberty Place on Monday night. Instead, it was a surprise celebrity appearance that left them in awe.

Will Smith, who is part of the Sixers’ ownership, caught the players off guard when he visited with the team to offer advice and answer questions.

“Man, that’s one of my idols,” Nerlens Noel said following the first training camp session at Stockton University. “Everything he said I really took in and all the guys did too.”

Rather than entertaining the group with his acting or musical skills, Smith imparted important lessons that are applicable in sports. The 48-year-old has had decades of success across multiple platforms, and he offered pieces of wisdom that can resonate in any situation. 

“If you have bad people around you, that’s how people see you and that’s how you are,” Joel Embiid said. “He said to have good people around. That’s the main thing I got from that.”

The Sixers had differing memorable moments the morning after Smith’s visit, which demonstrated how many topics he addressed with the team. 

“He’s a good guy,” Ben Simmons said. “I definitely learned a lot from hearing him talk … You’ve got to look at things from a positive and negative with every situation.”

Jahlil Okafor was especially caught up in Smith’s appearance. Smith is Okafor’s favorite actor, most notably for his role in I Am Legend, and impressed Okafor with his character. 

“We already know about his accolades and how smart he is and obviously he’s an entertaining person,” Okafor said. “But it just seemed like he really wanted to be there to help us out. I just took away that he was a great person.”

Okafor also added, “It just helps [to hear from him] because the road to success is pretty much the same. It’s about being focused, it’s about knowing that you’re going to be knocked down, you’re going to fail. That was one of the messages that Will Smith shared, was expect failure but the main thing is to get back up.”

Noel previously had seen Smith courtside at Sixers games, and this was his first opportunity to hear directly from him. Noel listened to everything Smith had to say, from how to deal with the media to ranking his best and worst movies. 

“Never get caught up in too much of the negativity,” Noel recounted. 

While people view professional athletes as celebrities, the Sixers were on the opposite side Monday evening. 

“It’s hard to get starstruck nowadays,” Noel said. “But when you see Will Smith, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Tonight's lineup: With only RHPs left, could Ryan Howard start every game?

Tonight's lineup: With only RHPs left, could Ryan Howard start every game?

If healthy, Ryan Howard is expected to start all three games in the Phillies' final series of the season Sept. 2-4 at home against the Mets.

He might also start the entire Braves series.

The Phillies' final six games are all against right-handed starting pitchers: Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz and Josh Collmenter in Atlanta; Robert Gsellman, Bartolo Colon and Noah Syndergaard with the Mets. That could mean six starts for Howard before his time with the Phillies expires.

Howard's batting average has been below .200 for practically the entire season, but he's been much better since the All-Star break, hitting .259/.325/.598 with 11 homers, five doubles and 25 RBIs in 123 plate appearances (see game notes). He went 0 for 6 in his last two starts but homered in each of his two previous starts to reach 23 for the third year in a row.

Here's the Phillies' full lineup Tuesday against Teheran:

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

Matt Kemp is out of the Braves' lineup.

1. Ender Inciarte, CF
2. Adonis Garcia, 3B
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Nick Markakis, RF
5. Tyler Flowers, C
6. Jace Peterson, 2B
7. Dansby Swanson, SS
8. Mallex Smith, LF
9. Julio Teheran, P

Find great deals on Philadelphia Phillies tickets with TicketIQ. Buy cheap Phillies tickets with no hidden fees for all games on their 2016 schedule.