Philadelphia Flyers

Flyers-Maple Leafs: 5 things you need to know

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Flyers-Maple Leafs: 5 things you need to know

Flyers vs. Maple Leafs
7 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet

The Flyers (21-22-7) will try for a season-best fourth consecutive victory when they take on the nose-diving Toronto Maple Leafs (22-24-4) at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday.

Here’s what you need to know before puck drop:

1. Change it up?
Is there a change coming to the Flyers’ blue line? Nicklas Grossmann, who has missed the team’s last nine games with a shoulder injury, has been skating all week and appears to be ready to return.

“Just taking it a day at a time,” he said after practice on Friday. “Every day it’s getting better. That’s the way we want to. We haven’t made any decisions for [Saturday].”

Here’s the issue: The Flyers are rolling and have received much better play from their defensive corps as of late. Hockey players are creatures of habit. Will head coach Craig Berube run the risk of throwing off his team’s chemistry? And if so, who comes out?

Mark Streit has been one of the highest-scoring defensemen in the entire NHL since early December. He’s safe. Michael Del Zotto is riding a career-high five-game point streak. He’s not going anywhere. Nick Schultz picked up his first goal as Flyer on Thursday and is arguably the club’s most reliable D-man. He’s earned his spot as a regular.

That leaves Carlo Colaiacovo, Luke Schenn and Andrew MacDonald. All three players have served as healthy scratches at some point this season. If Grossmann dresses against the Leafs, it would be safe to assume Colaiacovo would be the odd man out. Then again, Berube has made stranger decisions this season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if any of the three were benched in favor of Grossmann on Saturday.

2. Terrible in Toronto
To say it’s a difficult time for Leafs nation would be a severe understatement. Toronto is in a complete freefall with no end in sight. 

The Leafs have posted a 1-10-1 record in January, a stretch in which they’ve been outscored, 40-16. They’re one game away from matching their worst losing streak since 1996. They’ve looked listless at best under interim coach Peter Horachek, who took over behind the bench after Randy Carlyle was fired on Jan. 6. Their players have been called uncoachable. Their fans are throwing jerseys on the ice in outrage. Essentially, the Leafs have become the laughing stock of the NHL since the calendar switched over to the year 2015.

It all starts up front. Toronto has just seven goals during its 0-7-1 slide. Even worse, the Leafs have converted on just two of their last 26 power-play attempts in that stretch. Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and company simply aren’t getting it done.

3. Injuries
Defenseman Braydon Coburn (foot) and center Scott Laughton (upper-body) remain sidelined for the Flyers. 

Forward Michael Raffl is listed as questionable. He’s missed the last two games because of an illness. If he’s unable to play, Petr Straka, who picked up his first NHL point on Thursday, will continue to skate in his place with Ryan White and Wayne Simmonds.

For the Leafs, captain Dion Phaneuf (hand) is out. 

4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Chris VandeVelde entered 2014-15 with just one career NHL goal to his name. In 40 games this season, the 27-year-old already has seven markers — all at even-strength. He’s picked up four of them in his last five games while skating with Vinny Lecavalier and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on the Flyers’ fourth line. The trio has supplied a ton of energy on the forecheck and has been sound in the defensive zone, as well. Look for them to continue buzzing.

Maple Leafs: There aren’t many Toronto players worth watching, but JVR is having a tremendous season. He enters Saturday leading the Maple Leafs in goals (21) and is second on the team in points (43). The 25-year-old is finally using his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame to his advantage, both along the boards and in front of the net. His defensive game is still raw, hence his minus-16 rating, but he’s always been a more-offensive minded forward anyway. He’s paid to score goals. Toronto needs as many as they can get right now.

5. This and that
• Seven of the last eight meetings between the Flyers and Maple Leafs have been decided by multiple goals. The Flyers have won the last two by a combined score of 11-6.

• Kessel and JVR have combined for 41 of Toronto’s 141 goals this season.

• The Flyers have scored at least three goals and one power-play marker in five straight tilts.

• Jonathan Bernier, who allowed possibly the worst goal of the season Thursday, is 2-3-0 with a 4.78 goals-against average and .865 save percentage in five career starts against the Flyers.

• Claude Giroux has eight goals and 15 assists in 21 career games against the Maple Leafs.

Flyers GM Ron Hextall: 'We have a tough roster to crack right now, which is good'

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Flyers GM Ron Hextall: 'We have a tough roster to crack right now, which is good'

With 27 players still competing to make the Flyers' 23-man opening day roster, the competition over the final few spots is heating up.

"We have a tough roster to crack right now, which is good for us," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Saturday after practice.

The Flyers already trimmed 18 players from their roster on Thursday, but the most difficult decisions lie ahead. The tightest battle appears to be developing at defenseman, where Brandon Manning and rookies Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg are all vying for two spots. Travis Sanheim is still in the mix, but will likely start the season at Lehigh Valley.

So far, there is no clear winner in sight.

"We're going to monitor the situation as we go along here," Hextall said. "We'll see what we have with injuries and what not, and we'll make decisions at the appropriate time.

"They've all played well. They're all here for a reason still. We could've sent one of them down if they didn't deserve to be here, but at this point, they all deserve to be here."

Both Morin and Hagg have impressed this training camp and preseason. Manning has experience, but is also working his way back from offseason back surgery -- though Hextall does not sound concerned.

"There's nothing that tells me or certain information that I have from our staff that he's not ready to go, so as far I'm concerned, he's 100 percent ready to go," Hextall said of Manning.

Some cuts will be easier than others. Barring an injury to goaltenders Brian Elliott or Michal Neuvirth, Alex Lyon's demotion is inevitable.

Between Lyon and one of the blueliners, the roster will eventually get down to 25. That means two forwards will eventually wind up out of the equation, and the three players on the fringe fighting over that one spot are running out of time.

"We have four (preseason games) left," Hextall said. "Our big guys have to play, so we're getting ready for the season now. There's still players in the mix, but you get down as quick as you can and go from there."

Hextall acknowledged spots are "hard to come by" for prospects such Mike Vecchione, who has only appeared in one preseason game thus far. However, the Flyers are not viewing a demotion as a disappointment for any of their young talent.

"We'll see what Vechs, what he does, and if he has to start out down below, or a couple other guys have to start out down below, that's the way it is," Hextall said.

In addition to the 18 cuts the Flyers made, two players will wind up on injured reserve to begin the season. Winger Colin McDonald and center Cole Bardreau are finished for the remainder of camp and preseason.

Bardreau is out for three-to-four weeks with an upper-body injury. McDonald is down for an undisclosed number of weeks with a lower-body injury.

Barring any additional major injuries, the Flyers intend to carry a full 23-man roster in the regular season, which is set to open October 4 at the San Jose Sharks.

"You plan certain things in injuries and performance," Hextall said. "You have to adjust on the fly.

"Right now, I'd say we plan 23, but see who gets injured -- if a guy is injured, how long is he gonna be -- all that kind of stuff. We'll adjust as we go along here, but right now, I'd say we plan on 23."

Rating 5 changes the NHL made to its rulebook

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Rating 5 changes the NHL made to its rulebook

If you have witnessed preseason hockey this past week, you are well aware that the NHL is buckling down on its rulebook and even revising it. An excess of penalties and power plays have occurred as a result of these changes. Are they good for the game? I examine each of the five new rules or changes to the existing rulebook. 

Rule 78.7 (b) — A coach's challenge on an offside play — If the result of the challenge is that the play was “onside,” the goal shall count and the team that issued the challenge shall be assessed a minor penalty for delaying the game.

In 2015, the NHL granted each coach a challenge they could utilize in the event of overturning an incorrect call on the ice. If the challenge failed and the original call stood, then the challenging coach would forfeit the team’s timeout. Starting this season, a failed challenge on an onsides call in which there’s a goal will result in a two-minute minor penalty.   

By doing so, the NHL instituted a method to help maintain the game’s integrity in the event of a missed call by a linesman, as many coaches hold onto their challenge at a critical juncture — typically during the third period. Now with a two-minute penalty, it’s a way of reversing course without actually taking away the challenge. It's as if the league is saying we want you to have a challenge, but not really. The league is now discouraging teams from using it. As we’ve seen over the past few years, offsides calls can be measured in millimeters — that’s how arbitrary it’s become. But to penalize an entire team for a coaching staff’s misjudgment is excessive, and as we’ll see this season, it will sway the outcomes of a few games. Forfeiting a timeout for losing a challenge is acceptable, but killing a two-minute power play? Absurd, and for that I give it …

Two thumbs down   

Rule 61.1 — Slashing — Any forceful or powerful chop with the stick on an opponent’s body, the opponent’s stick, or on or near the opponent’s hands that, in the judgment of the referee is not an attempt to play the puck, shall be penalized as slashing.

Flyers fans can call out Sidney Crosby for emphasizing this rule, which is not a rule change but simply the enforcement of an existing rule. Crosby violated this in the worst way when he performed a machete slice over the hands of Senators defenseman Mark Methot late in the season. The result was a broken finger, nearly severed from the tip and the loss of one of Ottawa’s top defensemen for weeks. Watch the video and you can hear Methot scream in pain as Crosby took his whack.

In the preseason, we have seen more slashing than department store prices during Black Friday. It’s out of control, not the slashing itself, but the slashing calls. As the rule states, it’s a "forceful or powerful chop," which usually requires a two-handed grip. However, the referees have resorted to blowing the whistle for a one-handed love tap. As Shayne Gostisbehere said Wednesday, “When they blow the whistle and everyone’s like, ‘What just happened?’ That’s not a penalty.”  

I suspect come October when the regular season begins, the officials will ease up on their slashing calls, but it definitely creates a gray area, much like the interference call. Over the course of the season, some refs will whistle everything, while others will let stuff go. If it protects the league from injury, especially serious injury in cases like Methot and even Johnny Gaudreau, it can be beneficial, but I see some inconsistency from game-to-game and for that I give it ...

One thumb up ... my good, non-slashed thumb

Rule 76.4 — Faceoff positioning and procedure — The players taking part shall take their position so that they will stand squarely facing their opponent’s end of the rink and clear of the ice markings (where applicable).

Like the slashing penalty previously discussed, this is another enforcement of an existing rule. In other words, the league wants to cut down on cheating during faceoffs. You know when players began cheating on faceoffs? Since the inception of the faceoff. In fact, I can recall producing a three-minute story when I was working at a Nashville TV station on how players gain advantages and bend the rules on faceoffs. Three minutes. On cheating! 

Now, those L-shaped lines are no longer suggestions or recommendations, but strict guidelines of where the players should stand prior to a faceoff. If a team is caught twice during the same faceoff (and it doesn’t have to be the same player), the result is a two-minute minor penalty. The Islanders' Josh Ho-Sang was a guilty offender twice during Wednesday’s game in Allentown and the Flyers benefited with a power play in each instance. The league’s explanation states they want to protect players from banging heads, and more importantly, protect the linesman dropping the puck. 

Like the slashing penalty, I’m curious to see which linesmen strictly enforce this rule and which ones will be a little laxer. This is another one of those penalties (like the challenge call) that you certainly don’t want to impact the outcome of a game. The league has good intentions for enforcing Rule 76.4, but will they have consistent enforcement? And for that I give it …

One thumb up

Rule 87.1 — No timeout shall be granted to the defensive team following an icing.

Once again, here’s another example of a moment when a coach would intervene during a critical point of a hockey game (usually late during the third period). An attacking team is applying pressure in the offensive zone of a close game and the defensive team, obviously gassed, flips the puck out of the zone for an icing. That coach proceeds to call a timeout to allow his team to catch its breath and grab some water before the ensuing faceoff.

My take on the new rule: Love it! This rule should have been implemented years ago. You can penalize a team for icing without actually calling a penalty. Allowing a timeout does exactly the opposite and circumvents any drawbacks of icing. By forcing a tired group of guys to line up and take a faceoff right away is precisely the way it should be handled, and for that, I give this new rule …

Two big thumbs up

Eliminating Rule 80.4 — Numerical advantage on faceoffs — When a team on the power play high sticks the puck, the ensuing faceoff will be conducted at one of the two faceoff spots in their defending zone.

This is the abridged version of the rule that was roughly half a page long. Playing the puck with a high stick is instinctual and when the game is played at warp speed, a player’s natural inclination is to raise their stick in an attempt to knock the puck out of the air. When a player is guilty of a high stick, the whistle is blown and a faceoff occurs. Now that this rule has been eliminated entirely from the rulebook, the ensuing faceoff will take place in the zone in which the infraction was committed.

No team should be given a territorial advantage as a result of a high stick. I’m surprised it’s taken this long to acknowledge the absurdity of Rule 80.4, and for finally acknowledging this, I give the elimination of this rule …

Two thumbs up