Positive Takeaways from a Lost Flyers Season

Positive Takeaways from a Lost Flyers Season

The Flyers have officially missed the playoffs for just the
second time in 18 years, which despite being a run that has likely left us a bit spoiled, it only adds to the disappointment when expectations are high to begin
with. Cheer up though, because it wasn’t all bad. There were several
developments as the season marched along that bode well for the future, so
before we jump into an offseason of finger pointing and blame games next week, let’s take
a look at those.

The Claude Giroux/Jakub
Voracek connection

It took Peter Laviolette 16 games to put Jake Voracek on the
top line with Claude Giroux, but the combination was worth the wait. Both
players got off to slow starts – Giroux with one goal and three assists,
Voracek one tally and seven helpers at even-strength. In the 29 games since
they’ve been paired together, G has gone for 5 and 13, while Jake has benefited
the most with 11 and 8.

With his All-Star linemate, Jake even managed to a set career high for goals with 20. Not too shabby in a shortened season.

And that’s with a revolving door at left wing. They've already tried Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Tye McGinn, Matt Read, and Simon Gagne. Imagine how
potent the line could be as a whole with a little consistency from a third party.

Obviously the captain isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and
Voracek signed a four-year extension last summer that keeps him in
Philly until 2016, so Flyers fans should be enjoying this paring for seasons to
come. It doesn’t get a lot more positive than that.

Special teams are
special

Philadelphia has the third-best power play in the NHL in
2013, with practically all of the key components expected to return. They also
feature the league’s sixth-ranked penalty kill, and although Ruslan Fedotenko
(free agent) and Max Talbot (broken leg) may not be available in the future,
the unit continues to get the job done so far.

Clubs with quality special teams at both ends generally find
themselves in the playoffs. As long as these numbers hover around where they
are at now, you have to like the Flyers’ chances to get right next season.

At least there’s
another option in goal

How do we know heading into this season with only Michael
Leighton and Brian Boucher behind Ilya Bryzgalov was a mistake? Both guys were
so bad, Lavvy was afraid to put either one of them on the ice. In fact, it only
took a combined five appearances to reach that conclusion about the backup
netminders.

That didn’t do Bryz any favors, who at one point started
22 games in a row. For the season he’s posted an 18-17-3 record with an
unflattering.898 save percentage and 2.84 goals against average.

Enter Steve Mason, a 24-year-old trade deadline addition.
After just five games himself, it’s much too early to tell whether he’ll ever regain
the form that led to his winning the NHL’s award for rookie of the year in
2009, but at least it’s another warm body to throw out there. So far Mason is
2-2 with a .931 SV% and 2.09 GAA, and his mere presence alone is giving
Bryzgalov detractors a little hope that amnesty is on the way.

A compliance buyout for Bryzgalov is far from assured at this
point, but like we said: at least they finally have another realistic option.

Simon Gagne still has
“it”

Once we got over the initial excitement for a true fan
favorite’s homecoming, we had to wonder what Simon Gagne would bring to the
table. The truth is at 33 Gagne is not the same player who posted 74 points
while wearing Orange & Black as recently as 08-09 – nor does he look as out
of place as he did with the Los Angeles Kings either.

Gagne’s numbers (four goals, five assists, -3 in 24 games)
aren’t going to light the world on fire, but he hasn’t exactly been useless since
rejoining the organization in a mid-season trade, either. He helps out on
special teams, and has further proved his versatility most recently by skating
on the Giroux line. As long as the impending free agent is willing to take a hometown discount, Gagne could potentially be a flexible, low-cost solution for a
franchise that is sure to be up against the salary cap once again.

Young defensemen are
stepping up

It’s kind of amazing to think amid the absences of Braydon
Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann, Andrej Meszaros, Kent Huskins, and Bruno Gervais due
to injuries, the defensive unit has actually seemed to stabilize somewhat in
recent weeks. It’s especially surprising given how chaotic they looked at times
when all those guys were healthy.

Luke Schenn deserves a ton of credit for that, as he’s
become an absolute workhorse since the blue line depth has taken these hits. He’s
regularly been skating for 25-plus minutes most nights, including almost 33
against Montreal last week, and the all-around performance is solid as well. The
fifth-overall pick of the ’08 draft leads all NHL players in the combined
category of hits and blocked shots with 260.

But it hasn’t just been Schenner of late. Call-ups from
Adirondack are looking competent as well. Oliver Lauridsen has no lack of confidence
and a bit of a nasty streak at that. Erik Gustafsson seems far more comfortable
in his latest stint with the big club. And while it’s only been three games,
Brandon Manning has shown some jump in his step already.

The sample size isn’t large enough for the Flyers’ young
D-men to call it a problem solved and move on. However, these kids – all 24 or younger – are giving observers
hope that some of the answers to the problems on the back end are already here,
and that this is not the complete disaster it appeared to be at the beginning of the
season.

Sean Couturier is
still here

One of the most popular refrains leading up to the trade
deadline was, “The Flyers better not trade Couturier!” The concern was the
20-year-old forward would be shipped off in a panic move for some rental
or middle-of-the-road player.

That Cooter is still here is a small victory of its own.
Reports had several teams asking for the eighth overall pick from the 2011
draft, but Paul Holmgren refused to release his death grip on this particular budding
superstar, even despite a horrific sophomore slump.

What’s more, Couturier has rewarded the organization’s faith recently
by turning his season around. Since March 30 – just prior to the deadline – his offensive
output has increased with eight points in 12 games, and he’s a +2 over that
span despite being a -10 for the year.

If nothing else this season, we should all be
grateful Couturier made it through the year and will remain in Orange & Black.

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Ben Simmons working out with LeBron James

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Ben Simmons working out with LeBron James

Ben Simmons' fellow NBA rookies may not think too highly of him, but when the best basketball player on the planet is giving him pointers, he must be doing something right.

On Tuesday, a photo of Simmons and LeBron James dribbling side by side started making the rounds on Instagram. That's right. The Sixers' number-one overall draft pick and franchise savior is apparently training with the four-time league MVP and reigning world champion.

#Klutch @klutchsports

A photo posted by Ben Simmons (@bensimmons) on

Those workouts continued on Wednesday, when 12-time All-Star Dwayne Wade posted a photo of himself, Simmons and James, as well as Richard Jefferson and Jordan McRae. That's some good company for a first-year player to keep.

Good day of work!

A photo posted by dwyanewade (@dwyanewade) on

What does all of this mean for Simmons and the Sixers? Hard to say, but it can't be a bad thing that the rookie point-forward is spending time with a pair of future first-ballot Hall of Famers. Surely he must be learning something.

That's good news for the Sixers, who hope that Simmons can even come close to living up to the lofty comparisons some have drawn to James already.

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph starts for 1st time against Gio Gonzalez

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Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph starts for 1st time against Gio Gonzalez

Tommy Joseph is back in the starting lineup … as he's expected to be for most of the final month of the season. Joseph bats fourth behind third baseman Maikel Franco.

Joseph did not start Tuesday night in the Phillies' 3-2 loss to the Washington Nationals. The 25-year-old is hitting .251 with 17 home runs and 34 RBIs.

The slugger has a significantly higher average against left-handed pitching than righties, despite clubbing 12 of his 17 homers against right-handed pitchers.

Joseph has yet to faced Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez.

In other lineup notes, Tyler Goeddel gets the start in left field and will hit eighth, while A.J. Ellis gets his second start as a Phillie. He'll catch Adam Morgan.

Here is the full lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, RF
6. Freddy Galvis, SS
7. A.J. Ellis, C
8. Tyler Goeddel, LF
9. Adam Morgan, P

For more on tonight's game, read Steven Tydings' game notes.

Villanova season preview: It's Zach Bednarczyk team now

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Villanova Athletic Media Relations

Villanova season preview: It's Zach Bednarczyk team now

VILLANOVA, Pa. — When star quarterback John Robertson suffered a season-ending injury early in Villanova’s 2015 campaign, Zach Bednarczyk was thrown into a difficult spot.

How could an inexperienced redshirt freshman be expected to replace the reigning Walter Payton Award winner? Could the Wildcats still accomplish all of their lofty preseason goals?

In the end, Bednarczyk probably handled it as well as could be expected, performing admirably in some spots (like when he spearheaded a late comeback against rival Delaware just after Robertson got hurt) and poorly in others (like when Penn upset Villanova for the first time in a century the very next week).

But now, after getting almost a full year of experience under his belt, Villanova head coach Andy Talley is expecting Bednarczyk to become a better, smarter player — and, most of all, someone who can lead the Wildcats into the FCS playoffs in Talley’s final season.

“I think the thing that he did last year was that he was a little bit of a gun-slinger,” Talley said. “He threw the ball around a little bit. Now he’s more judicious with where he throws the football, his outlet receivers. He’s not trying to gun the ball in all of the time and make a play.”

While Talley would certainly like his QB to cut down on some mistakes — he threw seven interceptions last season — he does appreciate that Bednarczyk possesses some of the same playmaking skills that made Robertson such a star at ’Nova, including the ability to gain yards on the ground.

In his first season last year, Bednarczyk led the Wildcats in rushing with 515 yards and five touchdowns while throwing for 1,396 yards and 10 touchdowns en route to nabbing CAA co-Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

This season, which begins for Villanova Saturday at Pittsburgh, Talley hopes he can match those running totals while becoming a 2,000-yard passer with fewer interceptions.

“Last year he was rookie of the year in the CAA but he really could have been an all-league player if he didn’t throw the ball in some bad spots,” Talley said. “I think he learned the hard way by having the ball go against him. In the last game of the year, we had a chance to tie for the championship and go to the playoffs if we had beaten JMU. And he threw two picks that went back for touchdowns. So he’s sort of learned his craft the hard way.”

That season-ending loss to James Madison still stings for the Wildcats, who finished with a 6-5 overall record and missed out on qualifying for the FCS playoffs for just the third time in eight years.

That’s something they hope to reverse in 2016 under the growing leadership of Bednarczyk, who agrees with his coach that he needs to become a smarter player.

“Last year I definitely took too many risks,” the sophomore QB said. “This year, although I still want to throw the ball around because that’s my strong suit, I definitely don’t want to force anything. I’ll try to cut back on my turnovers. If it looks like it’s too tight of a window to squeeze it this year, I’ll just tuck it and run.”

Bednarczyk will certainly need to be poised in the pocket with Talley admitting that the Wildcats aren’t as deep at receiver as they’ve been in years past. 

At the same time, he may not have to put too many points on the board, considering how good Villanova’s defense can be. Although the unit graduated star linebacker Don Cherry, who’s been in preseason camp with the Eagles, they still boast a veteran unit that includes linebacker Austin Calitro and defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon.

Kpassagnon, a 6-foot-7, 290-pound NFL prospect, is an especially intriguing player for the Wildcats.

“I think all the pro teams have been through to see him,” Talley said. “He can run. He’s tough. He diagnoses well. He’s in our business school, so he’s smart as can be. And he carries that over to the field.”

Kpassagnon, who was named to the CAA preseason all-conference team, is excited for his senior season but admitted that helping the Wildcats rise to the top of a loaded league won’t be easy. Villanova, which opens league play Sept. 17 vs. Towson, was picked fourth behind Richmond, William & Mary and James Madison.

“There’s no dropoff in competition throughout the CAA,” Kpassagnon said. “In some other leagues, there are a couple of teams that you know will obviously win the conference. But with ours, you never know.”

Of course, Villanova has aspirations beyond just winning the league. As always, the Wildcats — who check in at No. 23 in the STATS preseason Top 25 — will look to make a deep run in the FCS playoffs and, perhaps, try to send Talley out with his second national title.

“The goal is definitely a national championship,” Kpassagnon said. “We all believe we can do it. It’s something we have in the back of our heads.”