Positive Takeaways from a Lost Flyers Season

Positive Takeaways from a Lost Flyers Season

The Flyers have officially missed the playoffs for just the
second time in 18 years, which despite being a run that has likely left us a bit spoiled, it only adds to the disappointment when expectations are high to begin
with. Cheer up though, because it wasn’t all bad. There were several
developments as the season marched along that bode well for the future, so
before we jump into an offseason of finger pointing and blame games next week, let’s take
a look at those.

The Claude Giroux/Jakub
Voracek connection

It took Peter Laviolette 16 games to put Jake Voracek on the
top line with Claude Giroux, but the combination was worth the wait. Both
players got off to slow starts – Giroux with one goal and three assists,
Voracek one tally and seven helpers at even-strength. In the 29 games since
they’ve been paired together, G has gone for 5 and 13, while Jake has benefited
the most with 11 and 8.

With his All-Star linemate, Jake even managed to a set career high for goals with 20. Not too shabby in a shortened season.

And that’s with a revolving door at left wing. They've already tried Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Tye McGinn, Matt Read, and Simon Gagne. Imagine how
potent the line could be as a whole with a little consistency from a third party.

Obviously the captain isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and
Voracek signed a four-year extension last summer that keeps him in
Philly until 2016, so Flyers fans should be enjoying this paring for seasons to
come. It doesn’t get a lot more positive than that.

Special teams are
special

Philadelphia has the third-best power play in the NHL in
2013, with practically all of the key components expected to return. They also
feature the league’s sixth-ranked penalty kill, and although Ruslan Fedotenko
(free agent) and Max Talbot (broken leg) may not be available in the future,
the unit continues to get the job done so far.

Clubs with quality special teams at both ends generally find
themselves in the playoffs. As long as these numbers hover around where they
are at now, you have to like the Flyers’ chances to get right next season.

At least there’s
another option in goal

How do we know heading into this season with only Michael
Leighton and Brian Boucher behind Ilya Bryzgalov was a mistake? Both guys were
so bad, Lavvy was afraid to put either one of them on the ice. In fact, it only
took a combined five appearances to reach that conclusion about the backup
netminders.

That didn’t do Bryz any favors, who at one point started
22 games in a row. For the season he’s posted an 18-17-3 record with an
unflattering.898 save percentage and 2.84 goals against average.

Enter Steve Mason, a 24-year-old trade deadline addition.
After just five games himself, it’s much too early to tell whether he’ll ever regain
the form that led to his winning the NHL’s award for rookie of the year in
2009, but at least it’s another warm body to throw out there. So far Mason is
2-2 with a .931 SV% and 2.09 GAA, and his mere presence alone is giving
Bryzgalov detractors a little hope that amnesty is on the way.

A compliance buyout for Bryzgalov is far from assured at this
point, but like we said: at least they finally have another realistic option.

Simon Gagne still has
“it”

Once we got over the initial excitement for a true fan
favorite’s homecoming, we had to wonder what Simon Gagne would bring to the
table. The truth is at 33 Gagne is not the same player who posted 74 points
while wearing Orange & Black as recently as 08-09 – nor does he look as out
of place as he did with the Los Angeles Kings either.

Gagne’s numbers (four goals, five assists, -3 in 24 games)
aren’t going to light the world on fire, but he hasn’t exactly been useless since
rejoining the organization in a mid-season trade, either. He helps out on
special teams, and has further proved his versatility most recently by skating
on the Giroux line. As long as the impending free agent is willing to take a hometown discount, Gagne could potentially be a flexible, low-cost solution for a
franchise that is sure to be up against the salary cap once again.

Young defensemen are
stepping up

It’s kind of amazing to think amid the absences of Braydon
Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann, Andrej Meszaros, Kent Huskins, and Bruno Gervais due
to injuries, the defensive unit has actually seemed to stabilize somewhat in
recent weeks. It’s especially surprising given how chaotic they looked at times
when all those guys were healthy.

Luke Schenn deserves a ton of credit for that, as he’s
become an absolute workhorse since the blue line depth has taken these hits. He’s
regularly been skating for 25-plus minutes most nights, including almost 33
against Montreal last week, and the all-around performance is solid as well. The
fifth-overall pick of the ’08 draft leads all NHL players in the combined
category of hits and blocked shots with 260.

But it hasn’t just been Schenner of late. Call-ups from
Adirondack are looking competent as well. Oliver Lauridsen has no lack of confidence
and a bit of a nasty streak at that. Erik Gustafsson seems far more comfortable
in his latest stint with the big club. And while it’s only been three games,
Brandon Manning has shown some jump in his step already.

The sample size isn’t large enough for the Flyers’ young
D-men to call it a problem solved and move on. However, these kids – all 24 or younger – are giving observers
hope that some of the answers to the problems on the back end are already here,
and that this is not the complete disaster it appeared to be at the beginning of the
season.

Sean Couturier is
still here

One of the most popular refrains leading up to the trade
deadline was, “The Flyers better not trade Couturier!” The concern was the
20-year-old forward would be shipped off in a panic move for some rental
or middle-of-the-road player.

That Cooter is still here is a small victory of its own.
Reports had several teams asking for the eighth overall pick from the 2011
draft, but Paul Holmgren refused to release his death grip on this particular budding
superstar, even despite a horrific sophomore slump.

What’s more, Couturier has rewarded the organization’s faith recently
by turning his season around. Since March 30 – just prior to the deadline – his offensive
output has increased with eight points in 12 games, and he’s a +2 over that
span despite being a -10 for the year.

If nothing else this season, we should all be
grateful Couturier made it through the year and will remain in Orange & Black.

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Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies’ roster

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies’ roster

TAMPA -- When Phillies camp opened earlier this month, Brock Stassi was considering mentioning his ability to play the outfield to manager Pete Mackanin.

Though he’s played mostly first base during his six seasons in the Phillies' system, Stassi has been used occasionally in left field. He’s also played the position in winter ball in Latin America. Even going back to high school, Stassi played center field.

As it turned out, Stassi didn’t need to have that conversation with Mackanin. The manager actually approached the player early in camp and told him he planned to get him some time in the outfield as well as at first base.

Mackanin and the Phillies' front office value versatility and they want to have it on their bench. Stassi has come to his second big-league camp as a serious candidate to win a job on the bench. His left-handed bat -- which he showed off with a solo homer in Friday’s 9-4 Grapefruit League loss to the Yankees -- would be attractive to the Phils. So would his versatility.

And if the ability to play first base and outfield isn’t enough versatility, Stassi can actually offer something else.

He can pitch.

In fact, the Cleveland Indians drafted him as a pitcher after his junior year at the University of Nevada in 2010.

Stassi returned to school for his senior year in 2011 and was a two-way player. The Phillies selected him in the 33rd round of the draft that year as a hitter, even though on draft day there was some confusion.

“Initially, I was announced as a left-handed pitcher then they changed it to outfielder,” Stassi said. “Then I got to Williamsport (the Phillies’ New York-Penn League team) and had a first baseman’s mitt in my bag, and I was like, ‘All right, let’s go. You’re going to be playing first.’”

Stassi’s minor-league managers in the Phillies' system have always been aware of his pitching background. He has made nine pitching appearances during his time in pro ball, including four with Triple A Lehigh Valley last year. All were in relief in long extra-innings games.

“I got a win and a loss,” Stassi said.

He recalled the loss with a big laugh.

“I shook off Logan,” he said, referring to catcher Logan Moore, another candidate pushing for a spot on the Phillies’ bench. “I shook to the fastball against a lefty. It wasn’t the right move and Logan won’t let me forget that. The guy hit a triple. Then I got hit with a comeback one-hopper right on the butt. It was like a 14-inning game.”

Stassi throws a fastball, curveball and changeup.

“My fastball is like 84,” he said with a laugh.

Many position players in a big-league clubhouse were pitchers at some point in the baseball journey. Roman Quinn, who broke into pro ball as a shortstop and is now a centerfielder, was used as a closer in high school and hit 94 mph on the radar gun.

“I believe it,” Stassi said. “That guy’s got a cannon. I had to catch him when he was playing shortstop. He’d come charging in on a close play and he’d let one loose and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And even from the outfield he’s got a cannon.”

Stassi’s arm doesn’t bounce back the way it used to when he pitched in college.

“Every time I have to pitch now I’m hanging for like two weeks,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t grab the baseball and gut out an inning if Mackanin ever needed it.

“Hey, if that’s what it takes,” he said.

Figuring out the Phillies’ bench at this point of camp is a little like solving a Rubik’s Cube. There are many possible combinations. Infielder Andres Blanco is a sure thing and outfielder Aaron Altherr seems like a good bet. So does outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Andrew Knapp, Ryan Hanigan, Bryan Holaday and Moore are the candidates for backup catcher. Knapp can also play first base. And it’s not out of the question that the Phils would carry three catchers.

They could fill the perceived final spot on the bench with an infielder such as Pedro Florimon or another outfielder such as Daniel Nava, Andrew Pullin or Cameron Perkins. Or it could be Stassi, whose versatility is a plus.

“There’s a lot I like about Stassi,” Mackanin said.

Stassi comes from a baseball family. His brother, Max, is a catcher with the Houston Astros. They played for their dad, Jim, at Yuba City High School near Sacramento, California. Jim was a catcher who reached Triple A during his playing days in the Giants system.

“My dad always talked about the value of versatility in high school,” Brock said. “He preached it to the whole team. You might have two second basemen and they’re pretty equal, but you want both bats in the lineup so you might have to play outfield. It’s good to be able to do it. Don’t take it as a knock that you’re not at your normal position -- you’re in the lineup.”

In addition to wearing several different gloves, Stassi can swing the bat. He was Eastern League MVP in 2015 when he hit .300 with 15 homers, 90 RBIs and a .863 OPS for Double A Reading. He hit .267 with 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a .806 OPS at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season.

Stassi has been described as “a grinder” by members of the Phillies’ player-development staff, and that’s a compliment. More than one thousand players were selected ahead of him in the 2011 draft. His signing bonus was just $1,000. He’s never appeared on one of those Top 10 prospect lists and never been on a 40-man roster, never mind appeared in a big-league game. But he’s continually moved up the ladder and now, at age 27, is under serious consideration to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench.

And maybe -- if needed in a pinch -- in the bullpen, too.

“Oh, man, it would be a dream come true,” Stassi said. “Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of playing in the big leagues. Just the path that I’ve taken -- I've had to earn everything, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It would be really awesome to make this team.”

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

TAMPA -- The Phillies’ bats were slow getting started in the Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon. The Phils did not have a baserunner through the first six innings in a 9-4 loss to the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field.

“First game, I’m just happy we got at-bats because the pitching is always ahead of the hitting this early,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said afterward.

Outfielder Cameron Perkins had the Phillies’ first hit, a single up the middle in the seventh inning. He added a solo homer in the ninth inning.

Perkins, 26, was the Phillies’ sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft out of Purdue University. He graduated from Southport High School in Indianapolis, the same school that produced Phillies great and Hall of Famer Chuck Klein.

A right-hander hitter who eschews batting gloves, Perkins hit .292 with eight homers and 47 RBIs at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season. He is not on the 40-man roster but was invited to camp for a look-see. He is considered a longshot to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench, but will certainly improve his chances if he keeps swinging it like he did Friday.

“I don’t think about it,” Perkins said of his bid to make the club. “All I can do is what I did today -- get my opportunity and make the most of it.”

Brock Stassi, another candidate for a job on the Phillies’ bench, also homered.

On the pitching side
Right-hander Alec Asher, who projects to open in the Triple A rotation, started for the Phils. He pitched two innings, allowed a home run to Didi Gregorius and struck out two.

Asher made big strides with his sinker last season. He’s added a cutter now.

Right-hander Nick Pivetta debuted with two scoreless innings. He gave up a hit, walked one and struck out three. The Phillies acquired Pivetta from Washington from Jonathan Papelbon in July 2015. He projects to open in the Triple A rotation, but first will pitch for Team Canada in the WBC in March.

“It’s a lifelong dream for me, right up there with whenever it is that I get my first start with the Phillies,” Pivetta said.

The bullpen
Mackanin has said he’d like to have two left-handed relievers in his bullpen. The Phillies have just one -- Joely Rodriguez -- on their 40-man roster, although it’s possible that Adam Morgan could be shifted from starter to reliever later in camp.

The Phils have brought two veteran lefties -- Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos -- into camp on minor-league deals to compete for a job. Burnett made his debut Friday and gave up a triple, a sacrifice fly and a home run in his inning of work.

Luis Garcia was tagged for four hits and three runs in his spring debut.

Up next
The Phillies host the Yankees in Clearwater on Saturday afternoon. Morgan will start for the Phils against right-hander Adam Warren.