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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Odubel Herrera flips Phillies into winners over Tigers before big trip to Wrigley Field

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Odubel Herrera flips Phillies into winners over Tigers before big trip to Wrigley Field

BOX SCORE

DETROIT — At least Odubel Herrera was honest about it.

“I didn’t expect to hit it that far,” he said with a big grin on his face late Wednesday afternoon.

A couple of hours earlier, Herrera helped key an 8-5 Phillies’ win over the Detroit Tigers with a towering three-run home run into the right-field seats against Anibal Sanchez (see Instant Replay).

Herrera unloaded on the hanging slider and finished with his bat high.

As the bat reached its apex, Herrera didn’t just let it go. He flipped it in the air as if to say, ‘Uh-huh, I crushed that one.’ In the annals of bat flips, it wasn’t quite Jose Bautista quality, but it wasn’t far off. The flip was so dramatic that Herrera admitted after the game that he would not have been surprised if a Tigers pitcher had retaliated and stuck a pitch in his ribs later in the game.

Retribution never came. And Herrera left Detroit with a smile on his face and yet another big day for the Phillies. He is leading the club with a .327 batting average and his .440 on-base percentage is second-best in baseball.

Herrera's big home run helped make a winner out of Aaron Nola and the Phillies on a day when they really needed a win. After all, they had lost four of their previous five and are headed into the den of baseball’s best team, the Chicago Cubs, on Friday.

“For me, it was a must-win,” said manager Pete Mackanin, whose club is 26-21. “We’d lost four of five and I felt like we needed to come out of here with a win.

“The guys battled the whole game. To me it looked like they played like they had to win this game, which was nice to see. It looked like they played knowing we had to win. They were grinding and coming up with hits. Call it what you want, it was just the feeling I got.

“I’m not going to say I’m anxious to see the Cubs; they’re a hell of a team. But I’m hopeful we can take two out of three.”

The Tigers are one of baseball’s best hitting teams.

The Phillies are one of the worst. They entered the day scoring just 3.2 runs per game.

But on this day, the Phillies out-hit the Tigers, 12-10, to salvage one game in the series.

Nola went six innings, allowed four runs, a walk and struck out six. He left with a 7-4 lead. Things got hairy in the seventh, but Hector Neris cleaned up things for David Hernandez, and Jeanmar Gomez registered his majors-leading 17th save.

In between, Peter Bourjos had a couple of big hits, including his first homer of the season. Andres Blanco started at second over Cesar Hernandez and had a couple of big hits, as well. Bourjos and Blanco even hooked up on a double steal with Blanco becoming the first Phillie to swipe home since Chase Utley in 2009. (An off-line throw to second by Tigers catcher James McCann helped.) 

“We have to try things,” Mackanin said. “We can’t bang it out with most teams so we have to try that kind of stuff, take chances.”

The Phillies actually banged it on this day.

Bourjos’ homer in the seventh provided some valuable cushion.

There are no cheap homers in spacious Comerica Park. Bourjos’ homer traveled 401 feet according to ESPN’s play by play.

Though Bourjos claimed he did not see Herrera’s bat flip in fifth inning, he was aware of it. For the record, Bourjos did not flip his bat on his homer. He put his head down and ran.

“I don’t have that kind of swag,” he said with a laugh.

Bat flips make some folks, particularly old-schoolers, uncomfortable. Bautista’s famous bat flip against Texas in the playoffs last season led to simmering tensions all winter and eventually a brawl between the two teams two weeks ago.

Mackanin actually seemed a little uncomfortable talking about Herrera’s flip.

“I did not see it,” Mackanin said. “A lot of players believe that they should be able to celebrate. But I didn’t see it. I wish you never brought it up.”

Herrera explained that he always flips his bat, even when he makes outs. This one had a little extra oomph, he said, because, "I didn’t expect to hit it that far.”

And how far did he hit it?

Well, ESPN’s play by play said it traveled 409 feet. MLB’s Statcast said it went 427.

Either way, that’s a long Uber ride.

Herrera was asked what was more impressive, the flip or the homer?

“Both,” he said with a laugh.

Herrera has become a more demonstrative player in his second year in the league. He’s letting his emotions show. On Monday night, frustration over a poor at-bat got the best of him. He did not run out a ball back to the pitcher and was benched.

On Wednesday, his emotion was more triumphant, hence the bat flip. But sometimes that can make an opponent angry. There were no repercussions Wednesday and probably won’t be because the Tigers and Phillies don’t see each other again this season. But down the road?

“I’m not worried,” Mackanin said.

“It was nothing personal,” Herrera said. “It was natural.”

Maikel Franco says ankle injury is mild, vows to play Friday

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Maikel Franco says ankle injury is mild, vows to play Friday

DETROIT — The Phillies have an off day Thursday.
 
It will come in handy for Maikel Franco.
 
The third baseman suffered what was termed a sprained right ankle while sliding into second base in the top of the seventh inning Wednesday. He hobbled off the field before the start of the bottom of the inning.
 
After the game, both Franco and manager Pete Mackanin stressed that the sprain was mild.
 
Franco received treatment after coming out of the game and he will again on the off day. Mackanin said he would exercise caution in determining Franco’s availability for Friday afternoon, but did not rule out playing Franco.
 
Franco was adamant. He’s playing.
 
“It’s a little bit sore, but it’s fine,” he said. “It already feels better. I’ll be ready for Friday. With the day off, I know I’ll be OK.”
 
If Franco can’t play, Mackanin would insert super-sub Andres Blanco into the lineup. He had two hits, including an RBI double, and scored two runs in Wednesday’s win over the Tigers (see Instant Replay).
 
Franco had a pair of singles and is 7 for 15 in his last four games.

Frank Reich: Sam Bradford won't be handed Eagles' starting job

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Frank Reich: Sam Bradford won't be handed Eagles' starting job

After the Eagles drafted quarterback Carson Wentz, head coach Doug Pederson declared that Sam Bradford was still the No. 1 quarterback.

Pederson reiterated it when a scowling Bradford chose to skip some voluntary workouts and did so again after Bradford returned to the team.

But Pederson's assistants haven't been so clear.

On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz discussed the topic when asked how he brought along QB Matt Stafford — the first overall pick in 2009 — while serving as head coach of the Detroit Lions. 

"Don't judge him on somebody else, and then also don't predetermine the results of the race," Schwartz said. "Just let him go play. Don't put pressure on him."

At the moment, it certainly seems like the results of the race are predetermined. It's Bradford, Chase Daniel and Wentz ... right? 

On Wednesday, offensive coordinator Frank Reich was on 94-WIP and was asked by Angelo Cataldi about the "impression" that Bradford is the No. 1 QB and there isn't an open competition. 

“No, I would actually say that’s probably not the right impression. I'll tell you why,” Reich said. “I’ve been around this business a long time as a player and as a coach, and one of the things I’ve really come to appreciate is it’s not a contradiction to say that you’ve got to have order. Because if you don’t order it’s chaos. 

"So if you’re the head coach you, gotta come in and you’ve gotta establish order. There has to be organization, there has to be order, but the other thing that, as coaches, that you’ve got to establish is a culture of competition. I mean this is one of the most competitive industries in the world — and so, to say that there’s not competition, that’s just the furthest thing from the truth.

“So I don’t see the problem with creating order and competition at the same time, personally. Every one of us as a coach and a player, you’re working harder to get better, but in that process you have to establish order, and things have a way of working themselves out.”

So there has to be a order — hence Pederson's QB depth chart — but there also has to be competition.

In other words, there is a depth chart, but it's written in pencil. And a big eraser is nearby.

Let the saga continue.

Training camp is still two months away.