Philadelphia Flyers

Figuring out the Flyers: Defense Part II

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Figuring out the Flyers: Defense Part II

Note: This is the second piece of a two-part series. For Part I, click here.

As we discussed in Part I, if general manager Paul Holmgren does nothing else this summer, he simply must make improvements to the Flyers' blue line. They struggled in 2013, a shortened season during which 13 different players spent time on D for the Flyers.

Here’s a look at our second installment of players under contract, plus pending restricted free agents expected to be re-signed:

Oliver Lauridsen
Age: 24 
Games played: 15
Stats: two goals, one assist
Plus/minus: even
Average ice time: 15:08
Cap hit: restricted free agent this summer
 
His agent said it best: if only he had the meanness of Chris Pronger. He certainly has the size and reach, though he needs to pack more muscle onto that 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame -- 20 pounds would be ideal.
 
Lauridsen handled himself well under trying conditions over the final five weeks of the season when pressed into a starting role because of the team's continual injuries.
 
He scored a couple of goals, had some hilarious quotes about one of them, which was scored off of Bruins D-man Zdeno Chara, and gave the Flyers 15 minutes a night with 36 hits and 24 blocks in 15 games.
 
He’s only going to get better. He could be the team’s seventh man next season, yet the Flyers usually don’t like sitting younger players. He would likely benefit from expanded play with the Phantoms.
 
Like Erik Gustafsson, Lauridsen is an RFA this summer.
 
Brandon Manning
Age: 22
Games played: six
Stats: no goals, two assists
Plus/minus: plus-4
Average ice time: 14:48
Cap hit: restricted free agent this summer
 
Incomplete. Manning played six games in the final month of season because of injuries. He remains a call-up from the Phantoms. Also an RFA this summer.
 
Andrej Meszaros
Age: 27
Games played: 11
Stats: no goals, two assists
Plus/minus: minus-9
Average ice time: 18:27
Cap hit: $4 million (final year)
 
Meszaros was a physical wreck for the Flyers. His long-term durability is the No. 1 concern among all returning defensemen. Worse, he seems convinced he’s under a dark cloud. It can be dangerous if a player goes on the ice thinking he might get hurt.
 
The young Slovak defenseman has had one injury after another since being traded to the Flyers in July 2010. In the summer of 2011, Meszaros had right wrist surgery. In 2011-12, he missed the final 19 games recovering from surgery to remove disk fragments in his back.
 
Last August, while working out in Slovakia, Meszaros suffered a freak right Achilles tendon tear. He returned after the lockout and quickly suffered an AC joint injury to his left shoulder on Jan. 24.
 
That injury saw Meszaros miss the next 21 games though he did not have surgery.
 
Meszaros returned to the Flyers' lineup on March 9 at Boston and played seven games with two assists before being injured again. That’s three times he has injured his left shoulder, going back to 2009 when he was in Tampa.
 
How can the organization not be alarmed at his health? The Flyers say he will be fine, but that is looking at things through rose-colored glasses at this point.
 
Given his cap hit and injury history, it makes him very hard to trade.
 
Yet keeping Meszaros around and healthy is just as dicey at this point, too.
 
Luke Schenn
Age: 23
Games played: 47
Stats: three goals, eight assists
Plus/minus: plus-3
Average ice time: 21:51
Cap hit: $3.6 million for next three years
 
Schenn is not Pronger.
 
What he is, though, is a young, healthy (can’t say that about most of the Flyers' D-men), big blueliner who is going to get his hits and blocked shots but will forever remain a one-on-one liability in tight spaces.
 
Schenn had a very poor start, giving rise to fan outcry about the trade of James van Riemsdyk for him at the conclusion of last summer’s NHL draft in Pittsburgh.
 
These are the kind of deals that take several years to play out. For instance, remember the Flyers traded Ruslan Fedotenko et al., including picks to Tampa Bay the night before the 2002 draft in Toronto to get the Bolts’ top pick (Joni Pitkanen)?
 
Everyone said Flyers GM Bob Clarke had fleeced Jay Feaster.
 
All Fedotenko ever did was score two of the most dramatic Game 7 goals in Stanley Cup history to give the Bolts the Cup over Calgary in 2004. Point? These deals require time to evaluate.
 
Schenn picked up his game in the second half of the season and finished as the Flyers’ leader in hits (187) and blocked shots (102).
 
He’s best protected when playing with a mobile partner who can cover up for him. That was Timonen for much of the season, and then Lauridsen. Schenn won’t ever make up for his lack of speed, but his positional play should improve as he gets older.
 
Depending upon what happens this summer, Schenn’s partner could change again, but you can definitely ascertain there is a development curve with him.
 
Kimmo Timonen
Age: 38
Games played: 45
Stats: five goals, 24 assists
Plus/minus: plus-3
Average ice time: 21:45
Cap hit: $6 million (final year)
 
Much like Meszaros, the Flyers’ reigning blue-line veteran (he has 14 NHL seasons under his belt) represents a considerable health risk next season.
 
That really takes away from the $6 million contract extension Timonen signed in February, as well, because for the most part, he has been banged up at the end of every season he’s been a Flyer.
 
Sometimes, it’s bad. Before being shut down, he played 29 games with a bothersome right foot that turned out to a compression fracture likely suffered on Feb. 16 in Montreal.
 
No one doubts this former Iron Man’s integrity or desire never to be removed from a lineup, but the Flyers need to find a way to cut Timonen’s minutes and keep him healthy. His ice time was higher this year (21:46) than last (21:14).
 
Though he is noticeably a step or two slower, Timonen still won his fourth Barry Ashbee Trophy and finished tied for sixth in points among NHL defensemen.
 
Timonen has incurred seven injuries since 2008-09: a concussion, a chip fracture to his ankle, a broken toe, injuries to both feet that did not require surgery, a hip flexor and herniated disk surgery.
 
The Flyers need to identify a younger No. 1 to take his spot after next season. That has to happen this summer. They tried last summer and failed.

In the background, Mike Vecchione out to break more ceilings with Flyers

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Zack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers

In the background, Mike Vecchione out to break more ceilings with Flyers

VOORHEES, N.J. — Mike Vecchione leaned up against a stick rack in the hallway outside the rookie locker room at Flyers Skate Zone.

No one but an occasional prospect passing through was in sight.

Unlike with some other rookies at training camp, there was no hoard of recorders and cameras surrounding him.

This is just how Vecchione likes it — little anticipation, all behind the scenes.

"I kind of like not having to be in the spotlight," Vecchione said last Saturday. "I just get to go out there, play my game and just keep my head down and work hard."

Nearly a month after the forward signed with the Flyers at the end of March as an attractive college free agent, the organization improbably landed the No. 2 overall pick in the June entry draft, meaning a bona-fide center was coming. Then, another month later, the Flyers expectedly inked rising winger prospect Oskar Lindblom to his entry-level deal.

Within thirty-two days, the Vecchione signing, his NHL debut, the buzz — much of it had fizzled. Suddenly, a 2017 Hobey Baker Award (top college player) finalist was in the background.

Sort of like his status at training camp, a scene overflowing with youth and hope for the future. Blue-line prospects are everywhere. Patrick, who just turned 19 years old, is being watched like a hawk. And Lindbolm, 21, is hard to miss with his long blonde hair while playing alongside Claude Giroux for parts of camp.

Still young and blooming at 24, Vecchione is now up against Patrick, Lindblom and others for just a spot on the Flyers' roster. No guarantees, but that's a feeling he knows well.

"Obviously when they draft Nolan, it's going to be a little tougher, but it's nothing I haven't seen before," Vecchione said. "They're going to take whoever is the best fit for the team. Right now, I'm on the wing, so it's a little different perspective. But, yeah, that doesn't change my mindset, what I'm going to do. I'm going to go out there, work as hard as I can, show them that I can be a good piece to this team. 

"I knew coming in it wasn't going to be easy, they didn't guarantee me anything and I knew I had to work for it, so, like I said, nothing new for me. I'm just looking forward to the challenge."

In fact, knowing beforehand the No. 2 pick would fall in the Flyers' lap wouldn't have changed much for Vecchione and his decision to sign here.

"No, I just had a good comfort level with the Flyers," he said. "It just felt like the best fit. When they got the No. 2 overall pick, it didn't change the way I felt about the organization, how I fit in here and how I could be a good asset to the team. Looking back in hindsight, I probably would have done the same thing. Right now, I'm still happy with it.

"Everything is about competition, competing out there, and that's what I've been trying to do my whole life. It's how I got here, so it fits me pretty well."

Looking at the counterparts in his current competition, Vecchione's résumé should remind many that he comes with a not-so-shabby track record himself. He is the all-time leading scorer in Union College history with 176 points and also ranks first in all-time assists with 105. After 63 points (29 goals, 34 assists) in 38 games his senior year — a single-season program record for scoring — Vecchione stood as the active career leader in the country.

"Nolan, what's he, 19? Oskar, 20, maybe 21? It's a lot of pressure put on the younger guys. For me, I'm 24," he said. "Yeah, I've [accomplished] all those things, but it's nice not to have all that — the media all over me, all the pressure on being the No. 2 overall pick or all the good things that you have to say about Oskar. They're two tremendous players, but you can't harp on them, put all that pressure on them, just let them go out there and play.

"But for me, I've done a lot of great things, I've been able to accomplish a lot. Yeah, I feel like I have a good pedigree, too."

Those achievements aren't as shiny when up against big names in an NHL training camp, but Vecchione, a 5-foot-10, 203-pounder, can look at them for motivation. It's a product of his work.

"It always seems to be that way," Vecchione said. "I think that work ethic, tenacity, all those things that I've had to overcome to get here has helped me a tremendous amount with maturity and mental toughness. Everything I've learned throughout my time playing hockey is you're going to have to work for everything you get and nothing is going to be given to you — hard work is going to get you a long way."

Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol sees it.

"He's a worker," Hakstol said last Saturday. "I think that's the one thing you're looking for out of everybody, obviously. There's an awful lot more to it than that as you progress through camp, but he's worked hard."

Vecchione, a restricted free agent inked to a two-year extension on Day 1 of free agency this summer, doesn't mind where he plays. He'll start the season with AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley if that's the case. He'll play winger instead of center if that's what the Flyers want.

Quite frankly, though, he doesn't care one iota about projections.

"I feel like I can put the puck in the net, make plays out there," Vecchione said. "In college, I started as a third, fourth-line guy, played center and I worked my way up.

"I feel like I have a good shot at being a top-six forward with Lehigh and maybe a bottom-six with Philly. It's all about how you perform up there and maybe you can work your way up. I've been taught to never put a ceiling on anything. The sky's the limit and I've broken a lot of ceilings that people put on me before."

Michael Raffl, Matt Read healthy and in shape looking for rebound seasons

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USA Today Images

Michael Raffl, Matt Read healthy and in shape looking for rebound seasons

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Their 20-goal seasons seem like an eternity ago, and now Matt Read and Michael Raffl are spending this year’s training camp trying to prove themselves all over again.

“A little bit, yeah,” Read said of feeling the need to prove himself. “I try and tell myself every day to be the hardest working guy out there, and move your feet as much as you can, win puck battles and the other things will come as we go. Just try and be in a lot better shape than I was, not that I was in bad shape, but just try and play a full game and every shift at a high pace. Just keep working hard and hopefully, things can turn around, opportunities will come, and you just got to bear down on them.

“You got to have something inside you that drives you through the summer,” Raffl said. “You gotta have a goal in mind. I want to come to camp and be the fittest guy in here. That’s all I can do in terms of how I prepare, especially with last season and all the injuries. I don’t want another year like that.”

From the day Read arrived in 2011, he seized his opportunities by utilizing his speed and relying on his “hardest working guy” attitude. His 24 goals led all rookies and he finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting behind Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog, Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and New Jersey’s Adam Henrique as the league’s top rookie. Read was considered one of the Flyers' most productive even-strength forwards. You may be surprised to know, but during that stretch (2011-14), only Claude Giroux’s 49 and Jake Voracek’s 47 even strength goals topped Read’s three-year total of 46. 

Read was rewarded with a four-year, $14.5-million contract and he hasn’t been the same since suffering a high ankle sprain just a month into that new deal. Once the injury became publicized, every time Read went through a scoring drought questions regarding the ankle would resurface, and yet, he never missed any significant time playing through pain.    

Two years after Read burst onto the scene, Raffl followed suit earning a roster spot with the Flyers straight out of camp as another undrafted rookie. Raffl’s transition to the NHL was not nearly as impactful as Read’s, as he scored 9 goals to go along with 22 points in his rookie season. However, Raffl found his niche during his sophomore season, scoring a career-high 21 goals playing on a line with Giroux and Voracek. The big-bodied Raffl quickly understood that to keep up with highly-skilled players, the best thing to do was crash the net and good things would happen. Like Read, Raffl also benefitted financially by inking a three-year, $7-million dollar extension.

However, last season was Raffl’s worst in orange and black. He never felt right battling through an upper-body injury during the first month of the season, and then missing the final six weeks after suffering an MCL sprain.

“I was banged up all the way through,” Raffl said. ”I had a long summer and a lot of time to work on some stuff. I feel fantastic out there right now.”

Both guys felt better when their cellphones went silent back in June as Vegas was composing their expansion roster. And even though Read and Raffl were left exposed, the Golden Knights selected Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Raffl clearly had no ambitions of continuing his career in Nevada.

"I like it here, I like where I’m at. I love Philadelphia,” Raffl said. “This is where I’ve signed for three years. I want to be here.” 

Read, on the other hand, had a more realistic and philosophical approach to the situation.

“It’s completely out of your hands,” Read said. “If it happened, it happened. If it doesn’t, you just come back to camp here and get ready for the season. If it’s out of your control, why worry about it, why fret about it? You just prepare yourself and it doesn’t matter if you’re there or you come back here. You just have to show up and be able to have a good season again. It’s out of your hands and I didn’t worry about it too much.”

Now Read and Raffl are back in the same dressing room and for the first week of camp even on the same line along with Scott Laughton. Together that trio proved to be a hard-checking line against Islanders superstar John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee in the preseason opener.

“Laughts brings a lot of speed to the middle and Raffy is obviously someone on the forecheck who separates a guy from the puck and when he has the puck he usually does the right thing with it,” Read said. “It’s easy to play with those guys and we had fun. We had a lot of ice time. It’s a good way to start the preseason."

They may be together now, but one of those final roster spots could essentially come down to Read or Raffl.

Roster cuts
The Flyers reduced their roster by 18 players Thursday morning. Connor Bunnaman (Kitchener - OHL), Pascal Laberge (Victoriaville - QMJHL), Ivan Kosorenkov (Victoriaville - QMJHL), German Rubtsov (Chicoutimi - QMJHL) and Carter Hart (Everett - WHL) have been returned to their junior teams.

Rubtsov, the Flyers' 2016 first-round pick, was returned to his junior team, rather than sent to the AHL for which he was eligible.

Forwards Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Radel Fazleev, Tyrell Goulbourne, Danick Martel, Carsen Twarynski, Mikhail Vorobyev, defensemen James de Haas, Mark Friedman, Maxim Lamarche, Philippe Myers, Reece Wilcox, goaltenders Leland Irving and John Muse have been assigned to the Flyers AHL affiliate, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The Flyers training camp roster now stands at 36.

“Obviously, today there’s separation in terms of where we go from here in camp,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “We still have a good number of players in camp. Today is the day when the competition starts to rise in terms of some of the tougher decisions that are coming down the road here.”

Dave Hakstol will be forced to dress nine players who suited up in the split-squad games against the Islanders, including Taylor Leier, who continues to make a strong push to make the opening night roster.

“Taylor Leier will be back in the lineup tonight,” Hakstol said. “He’s coming off a really good performance last night. Those are the kind of performances and that’s the type of impact you want to see out of the young players who are working to make our hockey team.”