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.

Flyers' outdoor game vs. Pens different because of football stadium

Flyers' outdoor game vs. Pens different because of football stadium

VOORHEES, N.J. -- He grew up as a youngster in Judique, Nova Scotia, as a Toronto Blue Jays fan even though the Boston Red Sox were closer geographically.

“My brother was the Red Sox fan,” Andrew MacDonald said.

While hockey was his passion, MacDonald loved to watch baseball. Joe Carter’s walk-off home run in the 1993 World Series clinched it for Mac, then a 7-year-old.

“Didn’t see it for a while though because we only had two TV channels,” MacDonald laughed.

“Yeah, I was Blue Jays fan from Canada.”

On Saturday, the Flyers visit Heinz Field for an outdoor game against their most bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2017 Stadium Series.

MacDonald was a starter for the Islanders during the 2014 Stadium Series game held at the new Yankee Stadium against the Rangers. He likes outdoor games in baseball stadiums even though that is not where this game will take place.

“When I had been to New York, I had gone to a few Yankee games at Yankee Stadium,” MacDonald said. “Obviously, I got to take in the experience of being a fan there. It’s a pretty great stadium. To be on the field, although it’s a different sport and setting, it was pretty special.”

Michal Neuvirth was the backup goalie for Washington in the 2011 Winter Classic held at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

“It’s just as big as if you played inside for two points,” Neuvirth said. “I just backed up that game there but it was awesome. The big crowd and we won the game with Washington. A good feeling afterward.”

MacDonald said his experience at Yankee Stadium was similar.

“It was great,” he said of the Bronx affair. “Not everyone gets to play in one of those games, so it was special. Just being in that outdoor environment and the capacity of the crowd.  Really like a center stage, special experience.”

In both previous Winter Classics involving the Flyers, they were held in baseball stadiums -- Fenway Park in 2010 and Citizens Bank Park two years later. Incidentally, Claude Giroux is the only Flyer to have played in both of the franchise's two Winter Classics.

This “Stadium Series” game will offer a different “look” for players and fans because it occurs in the Steelers’ football stadium.

“Obviously, the setup of the ice surface will be right in the middle of the field as a rectangular field as opposed to baseball where it’s kinda on a different angle,” MacDonald said.

“It’s good. We’ll get a good skate in. A family skate. Yeah, I hope [weather cooperates]. It might not be the best ice, but hopefully, it goes according to plan and go off without a hitch.”

Hot temperatures Friday followed by heavy rain on Saturday could make things difficult.

“Tough to say as to what to expect,” said Neuvirth, who will start in goal. “For me, I am going to prepare myself for 8 o’clock and play my game.”

The most unusual thing players say that affects them during outdoor games is not having fans on the glass. They’re far away in the stands.

Yet in a baseball stadium, some of those fans are a lot closer to the ice than the setup in a football stadium.

“Yeah, it was kinda unique and took a while to get used to,” MacDonald said. “There’s no fans on the glass. You are kinda isolated by yourself there on the middle of the field.

“It’s not until the TV timeout where you can look around and take it all in. It’s almost has a practice type mentality when you are first on the ice and then you get acclimated.

“Obviously, once the puck drops you are ready to go and know what to do. It’s definitely a unique experience once you get going.”

When he play at Fenway Park as a freshman at Union College, Shayne Gostisbehere said his only regret was not taking time out to just stop and absorb what was happening around him.

He was so focused on the game against Harvard that day in 2012, he forget to cherish the moment.

MacDonald said that is something NHL players sometimes forget to do, as well. Take it all in because it night never occur again.

“Everyone is a little different,” he said. “You do have to play it as if it’s like every other game. There is a little adjustment period there with the fans so far away.

“That being said, you have an opportunity to embrace the moment. At the same time, you have to focus on what we’re trying to accomplish out there. Try to get the win like any other time.”

Loose pucks
• Flyers forward Jakub Voracek left the ice early with a slight limp. He was not available after practice but general manager Ron Hextall confirmed Voracek is fine and will play Saturday. The Flyers' leading scorer was hit with a deflected puck earlier this week in practice in his groin area but played without incident during Wednesday's game against Washington. 

• Flyers left for Pittsburgh this afternoon.

Flyers' disallowed early goal costly for team struggling to score

Flyers' disallowed early goal costly for team struggling to score

It was just pouring out of Flyers swing forward Dale Weise after Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals.

A disallowed goal because of him.

A strong game in every respect from his teammates.

A realization that things never seem to change for Dave Hakstol’s club.

“We come out with a great start,” Weise said. “Get on the forecheck. The building is lively. We score what we think is a first goal which we haven’t done a lot this year.

“I’m not going to say it’s a game-changer. Whatever it was, it didn’t end the game. But that’s a pretty big part of the game.” 

Weise ended up grabbing Caps goalie Braden Holtby. He said he did so for support or he would have knocked him over since he was trying to position his stick.

Funny things is, Holtby apparently never felt the contact. When the Caps challenged Jakub Voracek’s goal on the first shift of the game, it was overturned.

“Yeah, I obviously didn’t see the interference part I just kind of followed the puck and next thing I know it was kind of out of the play so a little fortunate, a great call by our video coaches,” Holtby said.

Weise wasn’t sure what he did amounted to much because it happened before Voracek’s shot and not during the act of shooting that would have prevented Holtby from getting position.

“To be really honest with you I don’t think I really touched him that hard,” Weise said.

Goals are so hard to come by these days for the Flyers. To score one a half-minute into play in a huge rivalry game, with them so desperate for points, and then to lose the goal and the momentum early, it becomes a significant event in the overall outcome.

The Caps made the most of their chances. Just like Calgary did last week.

“Winning and losing is so thin in this league and when you’re playing a team like that who just has loads of offensive talent, you give them one, two opportunities and they score on it,” Weise said.

“For a team like us that doesn’t score very often, that’s tough. We are playing behind the eight ball every night. It’s frustrating. I’m not going to lie and say it’s not in our head when we get down because you can see the way we play.

“We’re gripping the sticks. I really liked our effort though. I thought we played hard the whole night. Full marks to our team but it’s just kind of the same story every night.”

It’s trite but the term “snake bit” has been used a lot lately in talking about the Flyers since their 10-game win streak ended.

“That’s a good way to put it,” Weise said. “Look at that one there. Touch the goalie, goal disallowed. [Ivan Provorov] hits the cross bar. We had a couple other chances in tight. Snake bitten, I don’t even know if there’s a word for how I feel right now.”

It doesn’t get any easier this weekend with the Flyers' playing in their first outdoor game in five seasons.

Another even more bitter rival: the Penguins at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on Saturday night. Taking two from the Pens will require a supreme effort and maybe a little luck for a change. The Flyers have been real short on luck all season.

The Flyers' dressing room after games, of late, has the feel of a morgue sometimes. Over the last 10 games, the Flyers have seven losses (including overtime). In six of those losses, they have scored one goal or no goals.

“We got a pretty positive group in here,” Weise said. “We try our best to come in every day and be positive. It’s a tough situation right now. Every day we’re fighting for our playoff life so that’s in the back of everyone’s mind.

“It makes it more frustrating when you’re playing, so well. I thought we played a pretty good game tonight. That goal disallowed we come right back. They make it two nothing on the power play.

“We kept going. We played well. We had a lot of chances. Good start to the second period again. We came out strong but we just can’t seem to finish.”

Veteran defenseman Mark Streit said they're playing well, but losing doesn’t make up ground in the standings. The Flyers remain three points out of the wild card going into the weekend.

Of their remaining 22 games, 19 are against the Eastern Conference, so mathematically, they have a chance to recoup points.

“We keep telling that we’ve been playing pretty well but lose a lot of hockey games,” Streit said. “We just got to find a way ...

“We have to find a way to turn it around, to get the bounces, just to get a little bit lucky out there, and to get the ugly goal. It’s tough. It’s frustrating. But it’s also the bloody truth.”