Wayne Simmonds returns to where it all began in first All-Star appearance

Wayne Simmonds returns to where it all began in first All-Star appearance

It took the better part of nine seasons for Wayne Simmonds to become an NHL All-Star.

Once a very raw rookie with the Los Angeles Kings, he will make his way back to the city where it all began on Friday.

Unlike Jakub Voracek, who left Columbus as a Blue Jacket then returned for the All-Star Game as a Flyer, Simmonds doesn’t feel his career will be validated this weekend just because he’s been recognized as one of the game’s best stars.

Yet he does feel it took going cross-country for people to give him a second look.

“Yeah, I definitely think coming to the East Coast allowed people to see my game,” Simmonds said this week. “People kind of watch it more than they do on the West Coast.

“When you play at 10:30 every night, people don’t get to see what you bring out there. I guess you could say it’s validation.”

Simmonds, along with Brayden Schenn, came to the Flyers from the Kings a day before the 2011 NHL draft in exchange for Mike Richards.

Unlike so many players acquired in trades, Simmonds’ career has been one of shooting upward every season as a Flyer, regardless of who’s been coaching him.

This season, he is unquestionably the Flyers' MVP. He had the game-winning goal Wednesday night against the Rangers in New York. His 10 power-play goals are tied for second in the NHL.

He scored on Thursday against Toronto, giving him three straight games with a goal. His 21 goals also lead the Flyers.

“The day he was named our All-Star representative,” coach Dave Hakstol said, “I remember saying I can’t imagine a better player or person to represent the Philadelphia Flyers and what we’re all about.

“Wayne has earned it in every area — off the ice, on the ice. I’m sure he’ll be proud to head back to L.A. for the All-Star Game and he should be.”

Simmonds posted a career-high 32 goals last season and should eclipse his career-best 60 points this year, not to mention his goal output, as well.

Remember Scott Hartnell? Not as much as you used to, right? That’s because Simmonds is the guy who replaced Hartsy in the paint on the first-unit power play and plays a regular role on a top line.

“Obviously, way bigger role,” he said, looking back. “Went from a checking-line guy to an offensive guy and kind of coming back to being that full 200-foot player. It’s an evolution.”

Hakstol added to Simmonds’ role this season by using him on the penalty kill, something he had not done since his first year in L.A.

Simmonds logged 1:26 shorthanded minutes in the first period against Toronto and used the momentum of a big four-minute challenge by scoring a goal on his first shift off the kill at even strength (see story).

Hakstol added that role this season after speaking with assistant Ian Laperriere, who runs the penalty kill.

“I think we talked about a lot of different things with him,” Hakstol said. “It was Lappy who thought he had a lot of good attributes to be a penalty killer.

“I think he does. He skates well. He has a very good stick. He is very competitive. Probably the biggest thing, he wanted to be on the penalty kill. I think this year he has shown that he takes a lot of pride in it, and that’s a big part of killing penalties. You have to take pride in that role.”

It all goes to Simmonds’ comfort level here and that didn’t happen overnight. He hid his emotions well when he first arrived as a 23-year-old.

“I was pretty down after being traded,” Simmonds recalled. “Your first organization. The team that drafted you and cultivated you and most of your game. It sucks. You have friends there, roots you built in the community. Bonds that formed.”

People reached out to tell him what the Flyers were all about — how Ed Snider treated his players as family, not just employees, how everything here was top notch.

In many ways, the Flyers from the get-go have always operated as if they were an original six and not part of the league’s first expansion.

“To come to an organization like the Flyers, I knew they were a first-class organization,” Simmonds said. “A lot of guys [in L.A.] had come from Philly. [Gave me] a lot of good insight about Philly. Didn’t take me long to realize that Philly was awesome and a first-rate organization to go to.”

As sometimes happens with trades, Simmonds first heard of it through the Flyers when then-general manager Paul Holmgren called him.

“Homer called me and I was at my uncle’s cottage in PEI,” said Simmonds, referring to Prince Edward Island. “My [cell] reception there was shoddy. Talked to Homer a bit, got my information on the flight.”

Ron Hextall, the Kings' assistant GM, was next, followed by GM Dean Lombardi.

“Not much was said between me and Hexy and Dean or I,” Simmonds said. “Thank you for what you’ve done. I appreciated the chance I got in L.A. Just moving on."

During the six years here as a Flyer, Simmonds said he’s never had a chance to chat with Lombardi and thank him for giving him his first NHL job.

That may or may not happen this weekend in L.A. Simmonds is hoping it does.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to sit down and have an actual conversation,” he said. “He did a lot for me. Obviously, gave me an opportunity. To make the team as a first-year pro. I was 20. I definitely have an appreciation toward him.”

Simmonds became engaged during the recent bye week. His fiancé, Crystal, will accompany him this weekend.

“Obviously, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “I started dating her my last year I was in L.A. She got out there one or two times. This is a chance for her to enjoy it.”

And as much as Simmonds would like to reacquaint himself with the town a bit, he can’t.

“No plans,” he said. “I got my schedule from the All-Star committee and it’s pretty much that.”

Flyers in uncharted territory with lack of penalties

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Flyers in uncharted territory with lack of penalties

To the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s, today’s brand of hockey is simply unrecognizable, and perhaps to some, even unacceptable.

When the Flyers take the ice Thursday against the Blue Jackets, the clock will be ticking on one of the most un-Bully-esque streaks in franchise history. 

The Flyers have somehow managed to play their last 215 minutes and 14 seconds without having to kill off a single penalty — a stretch of hockey that extends to the second period of a game against the Devils on Feb. 13 when Sean Couturier was whistled for tripping. 

Not only is the box an uninhabited area for the Flyers recently, but it’s also uncharted territory. They’re just the second team in NHL history to exhibit that kind of discipline since the league began keeping penalty records in 1977-78.

If this somehow continues, the guys at Comcast-Spectacor’s premium seating division could be looking at a prime opportunity to add a luxury suite at ice level. Fast food restaurant chain Jack in the Box would be the perfect sponsor.

The Flyers' penalty kill has also improved slightly by virtue of not having to kill penalties, from 30th in the league to now ranked 28th, still holding steady at 75 percent, but more importantly, their commitment to steer clear of the sin bin now has them ranked seventh in the NHL in the number of times they’ve been shorthanded.

The reasons behind their whistle-free work ethic can be attributed to a number of areas. 

For one, the Flyers have made the necessary adjustments to the league’s new slashing penalty, where a stick anywhere near the hands has resulted in a two-minute minor. Secondly, the entire team, and especially rookie Nolan Patrick, who went through a tough stretch earlier this month, has been very mindful of not committing high-sticking, hooking and other lazy infractions when chasing down the puck carrier.  

“I don’t think we’ve dominated puck possession over the last couple of games,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “But when we haven’t had it, we’ve worked hard to get it back the right way. At this time of year, it’s moving your feet, trying to get above plays and trying to check the right way.”

Secondly, as the season enters the drive towards the playoffs, NHL referees have shown a tendency to allow players to decide the outcome and not enforce the game as tightly as they did over the first three months of the season. In the first 30 games, the Flyers were forced to kill off an average of 3.4 power play opportunities per game. Over their last 30 contests, the number has been reduced significantly to 2.33.

More importantly, Dave Hakstol’s team is better equipped this season to play more effectively 5-on-5 and in all even strength situations, which was a point of emphasis after missing the playoffs a year ago. The Flyers' goal differential this season is plus-11 at even strength, whereas last season it was a minus-19.

“I think we’re doing a pretty good job 5-on-5,” defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. “I think you have to realize that most of the game is going to be played 5-on-5 and at even strength, and you have to generate in those situations throughout the rest of the year and into the playoffs.”

Even if the Flyers can’t maintain this unimaginable penalty-free pace, they clearly have more success and their penalty kill is much more efficient when they’re forced to kill off just a handful of penalties, as the chart below illustrates.

PK Attempts   Record     Kill %
2 or fewer        18-8-1        87.5%

3-4                      9-9-5         68.0%

5 or more          4-2-4         75.0%

In the 27 games where the Flyers have killed two or fewer power play opportunities, the success rate is nearly 88 percent, and they’re winning 67 percent of their games. They’ve been able to extend their energy throughout the 60-plus minutes while rolling four lines more consistently.

“If you have to kill three or more minor penalties, you’re at a little bit of risk, but you can get the job done,” Hakstol said. “When you get in the five, six range now you’re draining the bench, you’re draining energy, and you’re taking guys out of rhythm who aren’t killing penalties. There’s a lot of things that domino off of that.”

All of which conserves energy and creates good habits as the Flyers inch closer towards the postseason.

It's time to give Dave Hakstol credit

It's time to give Dave Hakstol credit

It wasn't long ago when some fans filled the Wells Fargo Center with chants to fire Dave Hakstol.

Back on Nov. 28, the displeasure was bubbling amid a confounding 10-game losing streak. The Flyers were wrapping up a 3-1 defeat to the Sharks as the skid apathetically hit nine.

That's when the boo birds came out in full flock.

The scene, so ugly, forced Ron Hextall into the Flyers' dressing room postgame to deliver what felt like a state of the union address in front of cameras and recorders. Over the next handful of days, on multiple occasions, the general manager had to defend his head coach's job security, and at times vehemently.

Oh, how things have changed.

Since Dec. 4, when the free fall was halted, the Flyers have gone 23-8-3 with 49 points, third most in the NHL behind only the Bruins and Golden Knights. Hakstol's bunch has climbed into playoff position, sitting in third place of the Metropolitan Division and only three games behind the first-place Capitals. 

When the losing streak was at its worst, the Flyers were in dead last of the eight-team Metro. At the time, things looked troubling.

But give credit where credit is due. 

Hakstol deserves plenty of it this season, especially for his constant maneuvering of personnel, which has proved wise time and time again.

First, it was shifting Claude Giroux from center to left wing during training camp. That was not an easy decision when asking a player as decorated as Giroux, on the verge of turning 30, to make a position change. The result has been a career resurgence for the Flyers' captain. After 58 points (14 goals, 44 assists) and a minus-15 rating in 82 games last season, Giroux has 70 points (20 goals, 50 assists), tied for the NHL's second most, and a plus-15 mark through 60 games this season.

Not only has the move behooved Giroux, but it has also allowed for Sean Couturier's anticipated breakout. With Hakstol entrusting the 25-year-old to be his first-line center, the do-it-all Couturier is blossoming into the team's most valuable player, already shattering his career highs in goals (29), assists (31) and points (60).

This was all before the curtain even opened for the 2017-18 season.

To date, Hakstol's adjustments have only continued throughout the season — and they've worked. 

Despite topflight production early from his first line of Giroux, Couturier and Jakub Voracek, the Flyers struggled, so the third-year coach broke up the trio in order for more balance within the forwards group.

The split created room for Travis Konecny to eventually make his way onto the top unit — and so far, so good would be an understatement. The 20-year-old has discovered his first-round potential with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in as many games since Dec. 28, a stretch in which the Flyers are 16-6-2.

To squeeze out even more ability, Hakstol has plugged in Konecny on the first 3-on-3 overtime grouping. In their last six games decided in OT, the Flyers are 6-0.

Meanwhile, Voracek hasn't missed a beat since joining the second line as he leads the league in assists with 55, the defensive pairing of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere has paid dividends, while the team is currently riding a historic stretch of discipline

And, most recently, the important choice of filling Wayne Simmonds' first-unit power-play role saw immediate results. Hakstol on Tuesday used No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick, who wasted little time rewarding his coach with a man-advantage goal on the team's first chance.

"Hak, first of all, is a very good coach," Hextall reaffirmed on Nov. 29. "He's as hard a working person as I've ever seen in the game.

"We're a young team, we have a lot of young kids coming and we're going to get better. We're going to play better than we're currently playing."

Hextall may be the most prudent general manager in the game.

He sure wasn't about to overreact 26 games into a season — and you can see why that's not his nature. What Hextall adamantly believed is what has transpired — the Flyers are improving under Hakstol.

There's no denying that. 

They were 8-11-7 and scoring 2.69 goals per game with a minus-9 differential (79-70) when the losing streak was at 10. They've been one of hockey's best teams since then with 3.24 goals per game and a plus-20 differential (110-90).

Look at the broader picture: Through 60 games last season, the Flyers were 28-25-7 with 63 points and a minus-29 goal differential (179-150). This season, at the same juncture, the Flyers are 31-19-10 with 72 points and a plus-11 goal differential (180-169).

With two new goalies and no Simmonds (upper-body injury) for two to three weeks, Hakstol has bigger decisions ahead, ones he'll have to get right with a postseason berth in the balance.

But he's already done a lot right — and it's time he gets a little credit for it.