The Flyers fan's guide to the Olympic hockey tournament

The Flyers fan's guide to the Olympic hockey tournament

Remember four years ago back in Vancouver when that player who plays on the other side of Pennsylvania and whose name shall not be mentioned drove the stake through America’s hockey heart with an overtime goal to give the Olympic gold medal to our neighbors from the Great White North?

While some people out there may not like it, guess what?

The NHL has officially shut down for almost three weeks.

It’s time for revenge.

Grab your cases of Budweiser, throw on your jorts and have Hulk Hogan’s theme song (Don’t act like you don’t know the words) on cue because the 2014 Winter Olympics are officially underway in Sochi and its main attraction, the men’s hockey tournament, begins Wednesday morning.

And the U.S. is gunning for the gold.

The only thing is there are no current Flyers on Team USA. Former Flyer James van Riemsdyk, who has 24 goals in 58 games played this season, is on the squad and former head coach Peter Laviolette, who was unceremoniously dumped three games into this season, is an assistant coach under current Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.

There are no Flyers – even the best of all the Flyers, Claude Giroux, but you already know that story – on the Canadian roster, either.

There are five current Flyers on Olympic rosters. Those players are Andrej Meszaros Michael Raffl, Mark Streit, Kimmo Timonen and Jake Voracek.

But before we get into that, let’s get a little refresher on how international hockey is different than NHL hockey.

The biggest difference is the size of the rink. An NHL rink is 200 feet by 85 feet. An Olympic rink is 200 feet by 100 feet, which, as you may imagine, favors the speedier and more skilled players, and puts the onus even more on the opposing defensemen.

If tied after regulation, preliminary round games feature a five-minute overtime followed by a shootout. Knockout round games feature a 10-minute overtime followed by a shootout and the medal games feature a 20-minute overtime followed by a shootout.

Olympic shootouts are much different than NHL shootouts. After the third player goes for a team in the shootout, any player can go again as many times as he is selected to do so. So for example, if the U.S is still tied after the third round of a shootout, Bylsma can send Patrick Kane out over and over and over again if he chooses to even if Kane was one of the first three shooters.

The only other main differences are that fighting receives an automatic ejection and the goaltender can play the puck anywhere he wants to behind the net.

The countries playing in the tournament are separated into three groups of four teams. Group A includes the United States, host Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia. Group B features defending champion Canada, Finland, Norway and Austria. Group C has Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia.

Got all that? That was a rhetorical question. Of course you do.

Now, back to the five Flyer Olympians, in alphabetical order.

Andrej Meszaros (Slovakia)

Having played just 35 games this season for the Flyers and  a healthy scratch for the other 24 contests, Meszaros hasn’t had the type of role he would have liked with Orange and Black this season.

The good news for him is he’ll get the chance to be a featured defenseman for his homeland in this tournament because preliminary reports have him on Slovakia’s second defensive pairing with a non-NHL player.  Meszaros, who had two assists in the Flyers’ win over the Flames this past Saturday, and the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara are the only NHL defenseman on Slovakia’s roster.

The big ice will help Meszaros showcase his offensive skill but it could be a double-edged sword for him with all the explosive offensive talent he will defend against on every shift.

Michael Raffl (Austria)

This is new territory for the Austrians (Well, let’s put another shrimp on the barbie then!) because they didn’t qualify for the 2010 games.

They’ll have a mountain to climb but Raffl will help them compete with the big boys.

The 25-year-old has impressed in his first season with the Flyers, totaling seven goals and 11 assists in 46 games played. They may not seem like large totals but they are a testament to him considering he started the year in the AHL and has jumped all across different line combos since he got to the big club.

He’s a smart player that plays both ends of the ice, including the penalty kill. He and the Islanders’ Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner will have to carry the load big time if Austria is to pull off any upsets.

Mark Streit (Switzerland)

Streit, who signed with the Flyers this past offseason and has eight goals and 25 assists this season, almost finds himself in the same situation as Meszaros, just with better defensive help around him.

The 36-year-old will be able to display his offensive prowess that we’ve seen as of late in Philadelphia on the big ice in Sochi. But Streit has help around him in NHLers like Nashville’s Roman Josi, and Vancouver’s Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz. That should allow him to take more chances and play a game he’s more comfortable with. Plus, he has Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller, who is having an awesome season, in net behind him so that should help, too.

This will be Streit’s third Olympic games. He helped lead the Swiss to an upset over Canada in 2006 and helped them put a scare into the Canadians in 2010 before ultimately losing in a shootout.

Kimmo Timonen (Finland)

At 38 years old and after missing recent games with a foot injury, if there was one Flyer you wouldn’t mind seeing skip the Olympics, it would probably be Timonen.

But, alas, Timonen is over in Sochi representing his Scandinavian homeland for the fifth consecutive Winter Olympics.

Though the big ice could be a challenge, the good news is that the Flyers’ No.1 defenseman won’t have to work as hard as he does here because of the defensive depth he has around him on defense.

He also has crazy good goaltending behind him in Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen, San Jose’s Antti Neimi and Boston’s Tukka Rask, a legit Vezina Trophy candidate.

The Finns have been hurt in recent weeks with injuries to their forward corps, but with a steady guy like Timonen helping to anchor that defense and the stellar goaltending they should get, they could be a dark horse.

Jake Voracek (Czech Republic)

The 24-year-old winger will be participating in his first Olympic Games and he’s one of the younger players on a Czech Squad that is chock-full of experienced NHL talent.

Expect him to fill the same type of facilitator role he fills here in Philadelphia by dishing and setting up Czech snipers like Boston’s David Krejci, Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky and New Jersey’s Jaromir Jagr (still love you, Jaromir).

Voracek has broken out as a heck of an offensive player over the last season and half here in Philadelphia as he finally got the chance to play with a skilled player like Giroux. Don’t be surprised if he puts up big numbers, especially in the assist column, in Sochi.

So what’s my prediction?

Pain!

Ok, not really. I just always really wanted to say that in a public forum. And it makes no sense since Olympic hockey is more of skilled game than a physical game.

I give the Russians a slight edge because of how stacked they are up front and in net and the fact that the pressure is on them. Let’s be honest, they may never be allowed back into Russia if they don’t win a gold medal on home soil so they kinda have to win.

I put the Canadians, Swedes and Americans just behind them with the Czechs and the Finns lurking.

It all gets underway Wednesday afternoon when the Czechs clash with the Swedes.

The United States’ push for gold begins Thursday morning at 7:30 am when it meets Slovakia.

Set your alarm clocks and take your sick and vacation days from work accordingly.

Go ‘Merica.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.