Welcome, Eagles Fans, to the Flyers Cup Run

Welcome, Eagles Fans, to the Flyers Cup Run

Good morning, and a hearty, open-armed welcome to those of you who are strictly Eagles fans. I kinda feel like the priest at mass on Easter Sunday, welcoming the parishioners who've been away all season and are now in need of some salvation from heartbreak and hang over. Not to confuse things, I've been there with you for every snap, right to the end. But if you're a regular around these parts, it's no secret I've been keeping pace with the Flyers just as closely. 

For those who don't follow hockey religiously, the season can be a bit long, but with the Birds bowing out early, you're just in time to catch up with a Flyers team that is on the rise heading into the second half. Can they win it all? I have no idea—they've been too inconsistent so far to say anything with any certainty about them. But if they even get close, it'll be based on the run they just started, and it's a great time to take a look at this team if you haven't been watching the first half of the season. 

With games on only Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday before next week, the Flyers' schedule seems lighter than it has been in a while. That may be great for the players and their families, but I really could have used a puck drop yesterday afternoon rather than having to watch the NFL proceed without us, which it will now do for the next month

The one bright side is that the timing couldn't be better to get in touch with the city's on-ice activities. Here's a look at the Flyers' season to come, including some encouraging signals we can take from our cross-state rivals. 

A quick peak at the standings will show you a Flyers team that has underachieved embarrassingly. They were supposed to have improved from last season, not be one point ahead of the Islanders and last place in the division. Yes, there was a terrible stretch, and it was fairly recent at that—so recent that it could resurface at any second. We won't lose sight of that. At some points this season, we've wondered whether '09-'10 would end up being worse than '06-'07, because at least the expectations on that team weren't nearly as high. This team was picked by many to win the Cup. This team was built to win now, perhaps even with a lien on its future holdings. 

But right now, the Flyers have won seven of their last nine games. They're suddenly one of the hottest teams in hockey, beating the cupcakes as well as a contender. It took longer than we'd hoped, but the team has the appearances of having finally picked up on new head coach Peter Laviolette's offensive systems. Not to completely overblow a relatively short winning streak, but they've been scoring at will lately, and it's been really fun to watch. 

I've never been in favor of changing the game to attract new fans, having more penalties result in more goals scored on the powerplay, or flashing red pucks, but I can honestly say that this brand of hockey suits casual fans and diehards alike—and it's the exact opposite of the limp and lifeless offensive efforts they'd been giving until this point. 

So if you're just tuning in, your timing couldn't be better. 

One of the more interesting pieces of hockey prose I've read this season comes from the desk of the Delco Times' Anthony San Filippo. It's a bit dated today, having been posted last Wednesday, but ASF does some great analysis on the Flyers' remaining schedule, which isn't all that bad, all things considered. For those who understandably think the team's recent surge is due primarily to the low level of their opponents, well... get ready for more of the same. The considerable majority of the remaining schedule will be played against teams that are currently below .500 (a stat that is a little convoluted given how the NHL awards points for some losses). San Filippo does warn that the travel involved in the schedule is considerable, but overall he paints a picture indicating that has the Flyers clearly making the playoffs. 

I'll add to that by recalling something that was going on in Pittsburgh this time last year. On January 11, 2009, the Penguins were 20-19-4. This season, exactly one year later, the Flyers are 22-19-3. I'm pretty sure I don't need to remind you what happened for the Pens last spring. I'm still scrubbing the image from my eyes with Comet cleanser. Things actually got worse for the Penguins before they got better, including the fact that their coach was fired. 

On January 13, 2009, I wrote this, just before the Flyers and Pens faced off. Pittsburgh was playing terrible, system-failure hockey, but—just like the current Flyers team—it was impossible to believe they were anywhere near as bad as their record indicated. Their roster was too talented, and so is that of the Flyers. 

Just as it was hard to believe that this roster could possibly play as badly as it did for over a month, it should be equally easy to think the same group can turn it around and play the way we always expected them to. There's depth at forward just as there was last season, with an even better amount of pressure coming from the third and fourth lines—which have been the heart of this team (particularly the fourth). The goaltending is actually a strength in most games. And the defense now features a top pairing that can play with the best in the league, as well as do its part in breaking out the offensive rush, which is even more important in Lavvy's systems. If Kimmo and Coburn can turn their fortunes around in the second pairing, the D will be downright scary. 

Every team's season has its peaks and valleys, some obviously more pronounced than others. But peaking at the right time is huge, as evidenced by the Penguins' amazing run last spring. Hopefully the Flyers are just getting started on their run. The first half of 2010 needs a successful team to help us forget the Birds, and at least hold us over until the Phillies come north. But I think the Flyers may even be capable of more than that. 

This is Philadelphia. We're used to turning the page after one season ends without a parade, hoping the next won't end the same. 

Photos courtesy of the talented Will Elliott

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.