'07-'08 Flyers Preview

'07-'08 Flyers Preview

We've been so wrapped up with our Phillies here in the Illadelph that even us hardcore Flyers fans almost forgot that the Orange and Black start their season tonight. We've asked hockey guru Martin Slamon, who keeps a pretty hilarious blog over at digidigidigi, to give a full run down on the upcoming Flyers season, which begins tonight in Calgary. Much more after the jump.

From the creators of last seasons' box office flop, "My Right Foot" starring Peter Forsberg in the title role, comes the much hyped blockbuster smash (or so we hope) "Back With A Vengeance."  The Philadelphia Flyers hope to erase the memory of their 40th anniversary season (22-48-12), the worst in franchise history, when they take on the Flames in Calgary tonight.  They'll  start "wiping the slate clean" with 8 players making their Flyers regular season debut, including free agent acquisitions Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell.

Flash back to the beginning of last season.  The Flyers, off to a horrible start after bowing out of the first round the previous year in an embarrassing loss to the Sabres, are faced with the firing of their head coach Ken Hitchcock (1-6-1 start), and the resignation of burnt out GM, Bobby Clarke.  Couple that with Forsberg's (their captain at the time) world-wide search for a magical right skate that would make him 100%, and you have a nightmare of a hockey season.  Phantoms coach John Stevens (2005 Calder Cup Champ), upgraded to the big club and with the help of new GM Paul Holmgren, began to see some progress towards the end of the year.  The team was really just a "soft core" version of their former self, made up of numerous call ups from the Phantoms.

Here's a break down of the Flyers roster, coupled with possible line combinations, as per Tim Panaccio  of the Philadelphia Inquirer:  The top line will consist of Mike Knuble and Simon Gagne on the wings of (love) new center Danny Briere.  You may know him from such commercials as "Hey, watch me hit that window pane to the left of the one I just hit."  He was one of the big three center free agents available in the offseason, with the Rangers acquiring the other two in Gomez (Devils) and Drury (Sabres).  Look for Briere to pick up where sir Peter left off, only without the whole play two games, sit out three games scenario.

The Flyers have what equates to two 2nd lines, with Mike Richards centering Joffrey Lupol and Denis Tolpeko... and Jeff Carter centering Scot Hartnel and Sami Kapanen.  I say this, because both Carter and Richards have been mediocre in their first two seasons, showing flashes of brilliance only in less frequent spurts than moments of futility.  Richards was rumored to have the best camp out of all Flyers forwards and was rewarded with an A on his sweater.  His willingness to scrap is admirable and he does a lot of the little things right on the ice, but the Flyers need a viable 2nd line center to provide scoring depth.  Carter is a complete mystery (so far) and a player who has all the right tools but hasn't implemented them.

Jim Dowd (former Devil) is paired on a bruising fourth line, with Jesse Boulerice and Ben Eager.  Dowd is a smart veteran center who brings some legitimacy to a line that would much rather beat your face in than play hockey.  Eager led the Fly-guys in penalty minutes last year, but he isn't big enough and has too much skill to be labeled a sure fire "heavy-weight."  Boulerice is also rather diminutive when compared to the top echelon of fighters in the league, but he's had an impressive camp and a number of eye opening (or gash opening) fights, including his two-time defeat of Devil's Cam Janssen.

On defense, Braydon Coburn, who came in a trade with Nashville for Peter Forsberg is paired with big n' slow Derrian Hatcher and starts his first full season as a pro.  Impressive youngster Lasse Kukkonen and Randy Jones worked well together in the pre-season.  Jason Smith, long time captain of the Edomonton Oilers, is now our 16th captain, after securing the job late last Saturday in a loss to the Rangers.  He dished out several punishing checks and fought twice in the game, carving a place in the hearts of true Flyers fans.  His partner, Timmonen is the puck carrying defenseman the flyers always wanted Joni Pitkanen to be.  The 7th alternate d-man is Nate Guenin, a suprise to make the club who looked strong in camp and edged out the hard hitting Denis Gauthier.  Look for the retirement of other creaky defenseman, Mike Rathje... one of the last physical leftovers from Clarke's grand vision of the new NHL.

Marty Biron, long time Sabres back up and pal of Briere, gets his chance to prove he deserves the number one goaltender position on the Flyers.  Silent Bob Esche is gone and Nittymaki looks to rebound after his labrum injuries of last season.  Former Flyer Brian (Bobby) Boucher is back, but as a starting goalie for the Craig Berube led Philadelphia Phantoms.  As far as predictions go, I nor anyone else in their right mind knows what the Flyers will do this season.  Injuries, all the new faces, and the possible return of Peter the Great make the future pretty uncertain.  I will go out on a limb and say they make the playoffs as a lower seed (5-8) and are ousted in the 2nd round.  But don't take my word for it.

Tidbits: Injuries are once again the story this year, with four of them occuring on or around the controversial "Downie Killed McCammond" game.  Joffrey Lupul and Scottie Upshall (out 3-4 weeks) both sustained wrist injuries, but Lupul hopes to play tonight.  R.J. Umberger broke a pinky finger after a really strong preseason, but he hopes to join the club as soon as the Vancouver game.  Randy Jones had a hip flexor but is slated to start and Timmonen had a scary collision in practice with goalie Antero Nittymaki, but both are fine.  Speaking of Downie, the Flyers appear to have "buried" him and the story on the Phantoms after the announcement of the 20 game suspension.  What's worse is that the AHL commisioner suspended Downie for a month after reviewing the hit.  Downie could possibly make his AHL debut on Nov. 3, but still has to serve the NHL suspension before playing pro.

Sixers clicking just in time to face surging Raptors on Wednesday

Sixers clicking just in time to face surging Raptors on Wednesday

The Sixers are clicking just in time to face their toughest competition in over a month. The Raptors (28-13) come to Philadelphia as the Sixers have won six of their last eight games by holding one another accountable and taking each outing step-by-step.

“You feel like the group is coming together,” Brett Brown said. “You feel like all the work that we have put in is starting to pay dividends in relation to a solid foundation.”

The Raptors sit second in the Eastern Conference, just one and a half games behind the Cavaliers. The last time they met, the Raptors beat the Sixers 123-114 on Dec. 14 at the Wells Fargo Center.

A lot has changed since then, especially the rotations. Brown started Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together against the Raptors, an experiment that waned out after six games. The Sixers have found a formula to winning with an established starting lineup and a consistent second unit, with the added experience of Gerald Henderson and Nerlens Noel. They will be tested Wednesday as both Joel Embiid (illness) and T.J. McConnell (wrist) are questionable.

“When you look at this team, it’s a lot of talent but we didn’t play as a team,” Ilyasova said of the start of the season. “Now we come together. I think it’s all about the chemistry, we trust each other.”

The Sixers are looking to carry over the momentum of a 113-104 victory over the Bucks in Milwaukee on Monday. They got a test of All-Star caliber talent against Giannis Antetokounmpo, whom they held to two points in the second half. The Sixers will have their hands full with the backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry (22.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists) and DeMar DeRozan (28.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists).

One key to countering talent like that placing an importance on accountability. The players are not letting each other off the hook for mistakes on the court, regardless of who the opponent is.

“I could see it over the past couple weeks, guys coming out here and being more vocal on both ends of the court,” Noel said. “If one guy messes up, you’ve got to let him know so it won’t be a recurring thing. With that, guys are taking steps in the right direction, both leadership roles because everybody on this team can be a leader in their own way.”

The Raptors come in on a four-game winning streak. 

Sixers-Raptors 5 things: Challenge awaits with DeRozan, Lowry

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Sixers-Raptors 5 things: Challenge awaits with DeRozan, Lowry

Sixers vs. Raptors
7 p.m. - CSN/CSNPhilly.com/streaming live on the NBCSports App

The Sixers (13-26) go for their second straight win and sixth in eight games as the Toronto Raptors (28-13) visit the Wells Fargo Center for the third of four meetings between the teams this season.

Here's what to look for in the Wednesday night duel:

1. Rollin' in the New Year
What a difference a year makes.

After an abysmal 2016, the Sixers look like a whole different team in 2017, winning five of their last seven games. While that run includes a win over the hapless Nets, it also features wins over a few playoff contenders, including the Hornets and the latest win over the Bucks.

Part of the Sixers' roll has been, of course, because of Joel Embiid. The center's highlight-laden January has seen an increase in his production. In six games this month, he averages 22.5 points and 9.2 rebounds to go with 2.3 assists, 2.5 blocks and one steal per game. In his last two games, the aforementioned wins over the Hornets and Bucks, he has dominated by getting to the free throw line 32 times, making 25 of his attempts.

One issue for the Sixers winning ways is Embiid's workload. The team plays four sets of back-to-backs in its next 10 games, meaning Embiid will likely sit at least four times in the next few weeks. 

Beyond Embiid, the Sixers' bench has been rolling thanks to some continuity. Nerlens Noel, who missed the win in Milwaukee with a sprained ankle, has nine points and 5.8 rebounds a game during the run. Dario Saric has averaged 11.1 points and has made 12 threes in the last five games.

The Raptors are the Sixers' biggest test since at least the Celtics game on Jan. 6, if not since the last Sixers-Raptors clash in mid-December. The Raptors have won both meetings this season by a combined 36 points. Toronto also comes in just as hot as the Sixers, having won four straight -- although Wednesday will be the second part of a back-to-back.

2. An All-Star worthy backcourt
The reason why the Raptors are such tough matchup for the Sixers begins with their vaunted backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, both of whom will likely make their third All-Star appearance in February.

DeRozan has cooled off a bit since his torrid league-leading scoring start, but the two-guard is putting up one of the best offensive seasons in Raptors history. With 36 points (not to mention 11 rebounds and six assists) on Tuesday night, DeRozan became the second player in Raptors history with 20 30-point games in one season. 

The high-volume shooter makes over 21 field goal attempts a game, almost all of which are inside the three-point arc. He averages 28.1 points, tied for fifth-best in the NBA, by burying a steady stream of mid-range jumpers and by getting to the free-throw line, where he shoots 84.5 percent.

Lowry, who didn't play on Tuesday in order to rest, is the yin to DeRozan's yang. The former Villanova point guard has been electric this year from three, shooting a career-best 44.4 percent. He also takes a lot of shots (14.7 per game) but also dishes the ball out well, averaging 7.2 assists. Some of the Raptors' best units have been Lowry with Toronto's bench players as the veteran point guard facilitates the offense and shows off the defense that made him a key part of Team USA's gold medal in 2016.

Lowry not playing on Tuesday likely had to do with the large load that he shoulders for the Raptors. He averages a career-high 37.2 minutes per game and has played at least 40 minutes 12 times this year, including four times this month. The Raptors hope to compete for the No. 1 overall seed (they're 1.5 games behind the Cavaliers), so Lowry may not get the chance to rest that often in the second half of the year.

3. Getting defensive
The challenge for the Sixers' defense goes well beyond DeRozan and Lowry. The Raptors' full offense is not fun for any team to oppose. In fact, according to advanced statistics, Toronto -- not the high-flying Golden State Warriors -- are No. 1 in offensive efficiency.

As one could guess with a team led by DeRozan, its No. 1 ranking isn't because of three-point shooting. Like their leading scorer, the Raptors are one of the best teams in the league of getting to the free-throw line. That could be bad news for Embiid if he plays because he's been averaging north of four fouls a game in his last 10.

While the Raptors are solid at getting to the free-throw line and inside the arc, they do have some deficiencies. A big one is rebounding. They have a relatively high offensive rebounding rate, but they're near the bottom in the league in allowing opponents to pick up offensive rebounds. 

If the Sixers to make tonight's game competitive, they'll need a collective team effort on the glass against a front-line devoid of two potential starters, Jared Sullinger and Patrick Patterson.

Beyond their big two, the Raptors have a few other scoring options. Cory Joseph scored 33 in place of Lowry last night in Brooklyn while Terrence Ross averages over 10 points a game off the bench. Small forward DeMarre Carroll is finally healthy and bring a solid three-point shot along with his trademark defense.

4. Injuries
T.J. McConnell (right wrist) and Embiid (flu) are questionable for the game (see story). Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out for the Sixers.

Sullinger (foot), Patterson (knee) and Delon Wright (shoulder) are out for the Raptors.

5. This and that
• The Raptors have won 14 straight against the Sixers. Their last loss to Philly came on Jan. 18, 2013, exactly four years ago. 

• With McConnell questionable, Chasson Randle may see more of an opportunity (see full story) while nearing the end of his 10-day contract signed on Jan. 10. Randle impressed in 16 minutes off the bench vs. the Bucks, scoring 10 points while draining two threes. He also committed five fouls in the process.

• The matchup with the Raptors begins a four-game stretch against teams that made the playoffs last season, culminating in a game against the Clippers next Tuesday. Luckily for the Sixers, only one of the games (Atlanta on Saturday) is on the road and the Clippers are missing two of their top players with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin out.