Commentary: Jack McInerney is gone but fellow Union original Amobi Okugo shouldn't have to follow

Commentary: Jack McInerney is gone but fellow Union original Amobi Okugo shouldn't have to follow

You might have heard that the Union traded Jack McInerney last week and you might have read Steve Moore’s analysis of the surprising deal on this site.

While I’m not here to argue with Steve’s point that the trade shouldn’t cause Union fans to panic (SERIOUSLY, DON'T PANIC!!!), and while I agree there are a couple of valid reasons why the deal was a made, I would like to take a different position here.

That position is that, in the wake of this trade, the Union should do everything they can to lock up Amobi Okugo – who, like McInerney, was an original member of the franchise’s first draft class – to a long-term deal.

But let’s backtrack for a minute first.

McInerney, for all of his faults and streaky play, was a young forward that had been with the Union since the first day of the franchise’s first season. He scored his first professional goal against the mighty Galaxy in Los Angeles when he was 17. He started in the playoffs the following season. He earned a permanent place in the starting lineup in 2012. And he became the “next big thing” in American soccer in 2013 before he even turned 21, riding a goal-scoring surge to the MLS All-Star Game and his first U.S. national team call-up.

Basically, as the Philadelphia Union grew up, so did McInerney. And while nostalgia and loyalty is not a reason to keep a player, the Union have – fairly or unfairly – developed somewhat of a reputation as a club that jettisons players that are fan favorites who have been here from the beginning. (Part of the reason former manager Peter Nowak was fired was partly due to how he handled the trades that sent away franchise originals Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Califf and Danny Mwanga.)

But McInerney is gone. The Union didn’t think he was a natural fit in their 4-3-3 system, they didn’t like how he stopped scoring following his U.S. national team call-up, they didn’t like his rising pricetag, and they didn’t think they’d be able to re-sign him to a new contract at an appropriate price. (You can read more of John Hackworth’s rationale behind the trade here).

But just a quick look at the latest MLS salary info, which was released yesterday, will tell you that the Union are willing to open up their wallets. Designated Player Maurice Edu, for instance, is making $650,000 this season – more than any other Union player ever. Yes, Edu is a World Cup veteran who has brought some much-needed stability to the Union midfield. But if the Union are willing to pay that much for him, they should be just as willing to give hefty raises to players that are being groomed to perhaps one day follow Edu to the U.S. national team.

Players like Amobi Okugo.

The only holdover who’s played for the franchise continuously since the start of its inaugural season, Okugo is an extremely talented player with a good head on his shoulders and a very likeable personality (if you’re not following him on Twitter, you should be). At 23, he’s already emerged as one of the league’s most promising young center backs, he has extensive experience in the U.S. youth national team system, and he has the unique skill set to star as both a defender (where he’s played with the Union) and as a holding midfielder (where he’s played most of his career). (You can read my brilliantly crafted profile of him from last year here.)

Yes, Okugo has said he hopes to one day play in Europe. Many Americans feel this way because the salaries are higher and the stage is grander. But MLS salaries are on the rise and many of the best U.S. players are opting to cash in and play here (some, like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, are returning from Europe; others, like Omar Gonzalez, are passing up the chance to play in other leagues to stay in MLS). As Okugo has eloquently stated, there’s also the idea that players like him want to eventually go overseas because they grew up watching the Premier League and not MLS, a league that was still in its infancy back then. But that, too, could be changing.

Basically, it all comes down to this: if the Union want Okugo to stay in Philly, they can certainly try to keep him here. They can make him a Designated Player. They can have him replace the aging Brian Carroll as the team’s captain (and, perhaps, holding midfielder). They can scoff at any trade offers from around the league that doesn’t include big-time returns. They can build the team around him. And if he develops into a true MLS star, they can then listen to offers from Europe.

It doesn’t happen often – especially in soccer – but there’s something romantic about a player spending his entire career with one team. It’s even more romantic when a rookie and an expansion team grow up together.

It won’t happen for McInerney in Philly. But it can still happen for Okugo. And it probably should.

Flyers-Oilers 5 things: Winning streak meets Connor McDavid

Flyers-Oilers 5 things: Winning streak meets Connor McDavid

Flyers (15-10-3) vs. Oilers (14-10-4)
7 p.m. on CSN and CSNPhilly.com, Pregame Live at 6:30

The hottest team in the NHL will meet the hottest young star on Thursday night when the Flyers host the Edmonton Oilers at the Wells Fargo Center.

Here are five things you need to know for the matchup:

1. McDavid and Co.
The Flyers are going for their seventh consecutive victory, which would tie their longest winning streak since Dec. 2-15, 2011, when they also won seven in a row.

In order to do so, they’ll have to slow down transcendent talent Connor McDavid and the prolific but streaky Oilers.

McDavid, a generational player, has thus far lived up to all the hype surrounding him as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. In just his second NHL season — and first with a healthy start after an injured-shortened rookie year (45 games) — the 19-year-old leads all of hockey in points with 36, while no other player has yet to eclipse 30.

His 25 assists also rank atop the NHL, while his 11 goals are among the top 22 and his plus-8 rating is tied for ninth best between all centers.

“He’s one of the best players in the world,” Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said Wednesday. “It’s tough not to be excited when playing against a guy who plays like this. He competes every second he is on the ice.”

And he has help.

Linemates Leon Draisaitl (11 goals, 11 assists) and Milan Lucic (eight goals, 12 assists) can do damage, as can Jordan Eberle (eight goals, 13 assists).

2. Defense wins games
The Flyers are playing better and cleaner in front of their goaltender — who has been great (see below) — and the results are showing.

The orange and black have gone five straight games of allowing two or fewer goals.

Why were they so up and down before this run? Well, they had surrendered two or fewer goals in just five of their previous 23 games.

“That’s unbelievable for us,” Wayne Simmonds said after Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Panthers. “At the beginning of the year, to say we’d have five straight without giving up more than two would be a stretch.
 
“We’ve locked it down defensively and Mase has played unbelievable. We’ve been pretty good as five-man units.”

3. Mase the man
A confident Steve Mason is a dangerous Steve Mason.

Right now, Mason has the net and is gaining steam by the game.

Over his past five outings, the 28-year-old is 5-0-0 with a 1.74 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.

Just as impressive, since Nov. 12, Mason is 8-3-1 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

“I've said it numerous times, I want to be playing lots of hockey,” Mason said Tuesday. “This is a position that I'm used to being in and where I'm most comfortable. So just have to keep continuing to put my work in and whenever [head coach Dave Hakstol] calls my name, be ready."

4. Keep an eye on ...
Flyers: You always have to watch Simmonds, but especially now with the winger coming off back-to-back two-goal games. Simmonds leads the NHL with eight power-play goals and is second in man-advantage points (13) to only teammate Claude Giroux (14).

Oilers: With all the attention zeroed in on McDavid, we’ll go with the 21-year-old Draisaitl, who has seven goals in his last nine games and 14 points in his past 12. The No. 3 overall pick in 2014 is an intelligent playmaker capable of hurting you.

5. This and that
• Mason is 8-4-0 with just a 3.49 goals-against average and .872 save percentage in 13 career games against Edmonton.

• Oilers goalie Jonas Gustavsson will make his fourth start of the season. He’s 1-1-1 on the year with 84 saves on 91 shots faced, but is 0-4-1 lifetime against the Flyers with a 3.57 goals-against average and .865 save percentage.

• The Flyers are fourth in the NHL in goals per game (3.11), while Edmonton is seventh (2.93).

• The Oilers have lost 10 of their last 15 games (5-7-3).

Flyers skate update: Wayne Simmonds, power play key to beating Oilers

Flyers skate update: Wayne Simmonds, power play key to beating Oilers

Todd McLellan saw a lot of Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov as a junior player in the Western Hockey League whenever the Brandon Wheat Kings would turn up in Edmonton.

“I watched him play in junior and had a chance to see that Brandon team play in Edmonton twice last year,” said the Edmonton Oilers coach.

“Obviously, a smooth, confident [player] with great vision. He has patience with the puck. Those are his offensive assets. 

“But he also positions himself well, defensively. He accepts that responsibility. For a young d-man, he is ahead of a lot of others because he can play on both sides of the puck.”

Provorov rattled Jaromir Jagr Tuesday when Florida was here (see story). Tonight he gets his first NHL taste of Connor McDavid.

McLellan said the Oilers' biggest challenge against the Flyers will be stopping the NHL’s second-ranked power play. Edmonton has the 11th best penalty kill.

His concern is Wayne Simmonds (8 power play goals) and Claude Giroux (14 power play points). 

“That power play is deadly and it really hasn’t changed — it’s just clicking,” McLellan said. “It has a couple trigger points. Obviously, Simmonds has the most goals in the league  and Giroux has the most points. But there’s other pieces to that power play, which are exceptional. 

“Our penalty kill has been taking it on the chin and I had to ask our guys today, 'Is it the penalty kill or the penalties?' In my opinion, it’s as much the penalties as the penalty kill. We have to stay out of the box.  

“This is a confident Flyers team. They feel very good in the offensive zone and make things happen. Their goaltender [Steve Mason] has been making saves for them that keeps them confident going the other way. It’s a team on the rise.”

The Streak
The Flyers are looking to make it seven straight wins tonight against the Oilers. The last time they won seven in arrow was Dec. 2-15 in 2011. They did not have a morning skate.

On Mason
Tuesday’s win against Florida was Steve Mason’s 88th as a Flyer, moving him past Pelle Lindbergh into sixth in franchise history. Mason needs six wins to move into third place in franchise history. 

Debut
Defenseman Dillon Simpson will make his Oilers debut tonight in Philadelphia. He is the son of former Oiler Craig Simpson. 

The oddity? Last year, Keegan Lowe made his Oilers' debut here in Philadelphia. He is the son of Kevin Lowe, longtime coach and front office executive for the Oilers. 

Colors
The Oilers wear three colors during their morning skate. Their defensemen dress in orange; their third and fourth lines dress in white and their top six skaters dress in blue. Now that’s an NHL hierarchy.