Despite the odds, Briere hopes to remain a Flyer

092913_briere_usa.jpg

Despite the odds, Briere hopes to remain a Flyer

VOORHEES, N.J. -- While the Flyers cleaned out their lockers, packed up their equipment and met with the team’s coaching staff, a small but dedicated group of fans waited in the parking lot outside Skate Zone.

Most of them were wearing or holding Danny Briere’s No. 48 sweater, hoping to shake the hand or get the autograph of the longtime fan favorite who has likely played his last game with the Flyers.

Briere, 35, is a probable victim of the NHL’s new CBA. Two years remain on his contract, and with a cap hit of $6.5 million for each, he is arguably too expensive to keep around.

The league’s salary cap goes down to $64.3 million next year, from $70.4 million this season. Right now, the Flyers have exactly $0 free under the cap; something’s got to give.

Briere, though he knows there’s a very big chance to the contrary, doesn’t want the casualty to be him.

“I hope not,” he said, at Sunday’s team break-up day. “At this point, it’s out of my control. We’ll see what happens, but I certainly hope I’ll still be here.”

Briere had a rough season in 2013. He scored just six goals (16 points) in 36 games and was a minus-13, missing the beginning of the season because of a fractured wrist and sustaining a concussion in practice earlier this spring.

Because of his impressive playoff performance last spring (eight goals and 13 points in 11 games), it’s easy to forget that Briere struggled in 2011-12, too. He went a stretch of 23 games without a goal, and was visibly frustrated as he fought to get back on track.

But that doesn’t mean the veteran forward is without value. The Flyers would lose a lot by buying out his contract or even trading him to a willing partner.

“A leader, a class act in the community, great teammate and a guy that can score goals,” Scott Hartnell said. “He’s obviously been one of our most consistent guys the past six years. Who knows what is going to happen?”

As of Sunday, Briere said he had not been approached by general manager Paul Holmgren about the possibility of waiving his no-movement clause. While so much focus has been on whether the Flyers might use one of their two amnesties on him, it’s entirely possible they could attempt to trade him to a team with cap space and a need for leadership. There are more than a few of those.

Briere didn’t say he’d refuse to be traded; he just made it very clear he’d prefer to stay in Philadelphia.

“I’ve said it all along: My family’s here, my kids are here,” Briere said. “This is my first choice, this is where I want to be. But I understand it’s a business, so we’ll see happens with that. My first goal is to be here.”

A class act and friend to the media, Briere has been candid all season long about his struggles on the ice and the possibility of this being his final season in an orange and black jersey.

He’s clearly disappointed by the way things currently stand, but having been in the NHL for 15 seasons, he recognizes the reality that the new CBA and shrinking salary cap create. That goes for the frequent questioning by reporters, too, about what it all means for his future. Briere has answered those all season long with patience and class.

“I understand it,” he said. “It’s part of the business. It’s not fun, it’s not easy. But I see it as the trade rumors. I’ve been through them before in my career. I try to approach it the same way. But I also understand it’s part of the game. With the new CBA, that’s the thing that came out with the buyouts. Unfortunately, I could be one of the guys that pays the price for it.

“I’ve also said before that there’s also so many good things that have happened over the course of my career with the CBA, because of the CBA, that it wouldn’t be right to complain about it.”

And so, he hasn’t. Despite his struggles, Briere, who serves as an alternate captain, has continued to be the consummate teammate.

Team captain Claude Giroux, of course, lived with Briere and his sons in Haddonfield, N.J., early on in his career with the Flyers. After he left, Sean Couturier moved in. Briere's loss would be a large one, especially to the Flyers' younger players, but Giroux understands the big decisions that management must make.

“That’s the tough part of hockey,” Giroux said. “You get close with some of the guys on the team, and the next year they’re gone. Obviously, it’s the business part of it, but you just need to understand it.”

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

They can’t win away from the Wells Fargo Center. They’ve seen a nine-point cushion in the wild-card standings vanish and when they resume play on Saturday, they’ll be out of the playoff picture.

The Flyers are who we thought they were. A fringe playoff team lacking in too many areas to be considered a serious contender, despite the overachievement of last season.

When the Flyers entered their bye week, they sat one point ahead of Carolina for the final wild-card spot and two points ahead of Florida and Ottawa. They are 3-8-3 in 14 games since their 10-game winning streak was snapped, and were blown out in back-to-back games in Boston and Washington by a combined score of 11-3.

Yet, they’re still on the brink of the postseason — for now. Perhaps it’s time for a trade from the front office to send a shockwave through the locker room? Not so fast.

“If we can make our team better, we will,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said last week at Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, New Jersey. “But we’re staying on course.

“I don’t care if we win every game the rest of the year or lose every game, we’re staying on course. We set out on a course two and a half years ago — we’re not deviating from what we planned. I’m not going to make a trade to send a message.”

It’s easy to get carried away in win streaks and unexpected playoff appearances, especially in Philadelphia, where the four major sports teams are rebuilding. It’s even easier to scream for a team to go for it when it shows a glimpse into its full potential.

That is what makes sports fun. It’s what makes for good sports debate programs and entertaining talking heads. But it’s not how organizations should run their operations.

It’s certainly not how Hextall runs his regime with the Flyers. Hextall has a clear vision, and time and time again has shown no signs of expediting his plan for immediate help. He has made it a purpose to build through the draft. We have to remember that, and realize that the Flyers’ front office is playing the long game here, not the short game.

“Right now, we’re gonna stick with what we’ve got here and move forward,” Hextall said Sunday in Washington. “But on a day-to-day basis, I always look at how we can make our club better, and if there’s something that we think makes our club better, we’ll do it.

“The worst thing you can do is overreact when things aren’t going right and that’s not gonna happen. But if we can find a way to make ourselves better, we will.”

Let’s take a step back and make some sense of the Flyers’ current state. They are seventh in the Eastern Conference with 50 points as of Tuesday morning. They are 8-12-3 on the road, with nine straight defeats away from South Philadelphia. They are a top-10 scoring team, with 127 goals, but have allowed a league-high 144 goals against.

Steve Mason’s confidence is completely shook. Michal Neuvirth hasn’t been much better, if at all. Claude Giroux hasn’t scored a goal in 11 games and has just one marker in his last 17 games. (To be fair, he does have seven assists in his last eight games.)

Shayne Gostisbehere has been a healthy scratch twice this season, with his latest coming last Saturday in Boston. He’s struggled with his gap defense, among other areas, and is enduring growing pains in his second NHL season — as expected.

While the Flyers’ defense has scored 102 points, second most in the NHL, it struggles with gaps, turnovers and has too many breakdowns. Ivan Provorov, 20, has been the lone bright spot among the group of eight defensemen.

Head coach Dave Hakstol has juggled his lines and defensive pairs in attempts to find something that works. Some of the moves have worked, others have not. Questioning some of Hakstol’s lineup decisions is fair, but there’s no question his systems work.

There is only so much Hakstol can do with what he has to work with. Part of the blame can be placed on Hextall because this team, as currently constructed, is not there yet. It is, however, unfair to put every decision Hakstol makes under a microscope.

“Hak has tried a lot of things,” Hextall said. “In the end, it’s a group and we win together, we lose together. We have to react as a group better when something doesn’t go our way. That’s bottom line. … Line changes, different D combinations, flipping Mase, Neuvy. Everything that’s there, Hak has tried. In the end it comes down to our whole group just being better and not reacting the way we do when something negative happens.”

One of the reasons Hextall opted to hire Hakstol, who came directly from college with no prior NHL coaching experience, is development. Growth takes time, and there is rhyme or reason behind each Hakstol benching, whether we see it or not.

The Flyers’ play the last few weeks has been dumbfounding because a lot of the same mistakes that plagued the team in the beginning of the season — lax team defensive coverage, bad decisions with the puck, letting opponents enter the zone too easily, among others — are reappearing and that’s a fair criticism on the current coaching staff.

But, when we put things in perspective, there are positives. Provorov has proven he’s the real deal before he turned 20 last Friday. Travis Konecny is here, and while he’s been the victim of a Hakstol benching, he’s shown glimpses of what’s to come. Jakub Voracek (41 points) has bounced back, Wayne Simmonds is an All-Star and added penalty kill to his résumé. Brayden Schenn leads the NHL in power-play goals with 11, though his 5-on-5 scoring could improve. And there’s a lot of upside on the farm system, with the potential of seeing an influx of kids joining the Flyers as early as next season. 

“The window is actually starting to open, the way I see it,” Hextall said last week. “The kids we have on our team. The kids we have coming. There’s things happening here that are good. We’re going to get better here. We’re not going to get worse.”

And Hextall is right — the window is just opening and will only open wider. Patience remains key here, and don’t trust the process with the Flyers. Just enjoy the course.

Best of NHL: Penguins halt Capitals 9-game streak with wild 8-7 OT win

Best of NHL: Penguins halt Capitals 9-game streak with wild 8-7 OT win

PITTSBURGH -- Conor Sheary scored 34 seconds into overtime and the Pittsburgh Penguins ended the Washington Capitals' nine-game winning streak with a wild 8-7 victory Monday night that included nine second-period goals.

Sheary had two goals and an assist for the Penguins, who snapped a three-game losing streak. Evgeni Malkin picked up his 11th career hat trick during a frenetic second period, and Sidney Crosby collected his NHL-leading 27th goal to go with two assists. Bryan Rust and Nick Bonino also scored for Pittsburgh, and Matt Murray got the win despite allowing seven goals on 28 shots.

The Penguins trailed 3-0 before scoring six goals in less than 11 minutes in the second period, more goals than the Capitals had allowed in a game all season. Pittsburgh led 6-5 after 40 minutes.

Lars Eller scored twice for Washington, and T.J. Oshie, Brett Connolly, Nicklas Backstrom, Justin Williams and Andre Burakovsky also found the net. Philipp Grubauer made eight saves after coming on in relief of Braden Holtby, who was pulled during Pittsburgh's second-period deluge (see full recap).

Eichel scores twice to give Sabres' 4-1 win over Stars
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Jack Eichel scored two goals and the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Dallas Stars 4-1 on Monday.

Tyler Ennis scored 19 seconds into the first period. Ennis returned after missing 30 games with a groin injury that required surgery.

Jake McCabe also had a goal and Robin Lehner made 31 saves after missing the past three games with an illness.

The Sabres snapped a two-game losing streak and beat the Stars for the first time in four matchups.

Radek Faksa scored for the Stars in the opener of a three-game road trip. Kari Lehtonen stopped 25 shots. Dallas has lost two in a row and six of eight (see full recap).

Bishop anchors Lightning to 2-1 win over Kings
LOS ANGELES -- Brian Boyle scored the go-ahead goal late in the second period, and the Tampa Bay Lightning opened a six-game road trip with a 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Monday.

Ben Bishop made an early mistake that led to Kyle Clifford's goal for the Kings, but bounced back to make 31 saves in his second start back from a three-week absence with a lower-body injury.

Tyler Johnson scored in the first period for the Lightning, who won for just the second time in seven games.

Peter Budaj stopped 27 shots for the Kings.

Both teams played without stars due to illness. Kings captain Anze Kopitar missed his first game since Nov. 20, and All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman missed his first game of the season for Tampa Bay (see full recap).