Risk Factors: Philadelphia Flyers edition
From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.
1. The defense. Duh. A concern even prior to losing Kimmo Timonen (blood clots), the blueline is Philly’s biggest issue heading into this season -- something head coach Craig Berube confirmed following a 6-3 exhibition loss to the Rangers.
“They’ve got to turn it up -- they’ve got to play better,” Berube said of his blueline, per CSN. “It’s not just on them. It’s a team thing.
“We have to play better defense.”
The Flyers’ D has its problems. First and foremost is mobility, or lack thereof: Mark Streit (37 in December) and Nicklas Grossmann (30 in January) aren’t winning any speed-skating competitions while Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn are more physical defenders than agile ones.
There are also continuity and chemistry issues. Of the projected top six -- Streit, Grossmann, Coburn, Schenn, Andrew MacDonald and Michael Del Zotto -- only Coburn has been with the team for more than two seasons as the Flyers have constantly tinkered with their defensive mix. Schenn found a comfortable partner in MacDonald last year when the Isles blueliner came over at the deadline, but now Schenn’s paired with Del Zotto (who was signed in August as a stopgap replacement for Timonen), meaning MacDonald now skates with Coburn on what the club is calling its “top” pairing. That leaves Streit and Grossman as the other unit.
And if the blueline is hit by injury? Yikes. Reserve depth consists of journeyman Nick Schultz and whoever they can call up from AHL Lehigh Valley. Philadelphia was remarkably fortunate with regards to health last season -- Streit, Coburn, Schenn, Timonen and Grossman combined to miss just 12 games -- so it’s scary to think what the blueline might look like if one (or more) of the top six get hurt.
Finally, there’s Philly’s lack of an elite, top-line, heavy-minute shutdown guy. It’s something even GM Ron Hextall admits is missing.
“I’ve said it time and time again. We maybe don’t have that top guy, that No. 1 guy, but probably 20 teams in the league say the same thing,” he said, per NJ.com. “We’re going to go with the guys we’ve got.”
2. Steve Mason has expectations. Mason entered last season as a reclamation project in progress, looking to beat out Ray Emery for the No. 1 gig while playing on a relatively modest ($1.5 million) contract. Now, things are dramatically different; the 26-year-old is Philly’s clear-cut starter, one of the NHL’s 20 highest-paid goalies and counted on to maintain the form that saw him go 33-18-7 with a .917 save percentage and 2.50 GAA last season.
That requires consistency, though, and consistency has never really been Mason’s strong suit.
After one banner campaign in Columbus, he struggled to match that level in the three seasons following and battled with the mental side of things -- “I think a lot of things here just got into his head,” former Jacket and current Flyer R.J. Umberger said at the time. Mason also struggled right around the time the ink dried on his three-year, $12.3 million extension with the Flyers, finishing January with a 5-5-1 record and .889 save percentage.
It’s also worth noting that, in Columbus, Mason had three years to try and rediscover his game. Tough to imagine Philly -- a notorious goalie graveyard -- giving him similar leeway.
3. The Vinny distraction. Roughly one year after giving Vincent Lecavalier a five-year, $22.5 million deal, the Flyers openly shopped him around the league. Ottawa, Nashville and Edmonton were just a few of the rumored landing spots for a guy that arrived with great fanfare, but is now a problem the team doesn’t really know how to solve.
The issue, in a nutshell: Lecavalier is 34 and slowed a bit, but still an offense-first guy that needs a quality role to be productive. That, however, doesn’t mesh with Berube, who wants sound two-way play and defensive responsibility from his big-minute centers -- hence Vinny’s demotion to the fourth line last year and the on-again, off-again shift to left wing.
The Flyers need to find somewhere for Lecavalier to play. At first, they hoped it’d be in another city and now -- well, at least to start the season -- it’ll be back at center, where he’s the No. 3 behind Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux.
But how long will that last?
It’s no secret Berube has issues with Lecavalier, something made crystal clear during the summer when Berube was asked how Lecavalier should deal with all the trade rumors:
“Get over it,” [Berube said].
Berube’s response to apparently being stuck for another season with an aging four-time All-Star whose defensive liabilities outweighed the 20 goals he scored in 69 games as a new Flyer in 2013-14?
“He just needs to change his game a little bit,” Berube said during a recent interview. “We talked about that after the season and he’s willing to do that.”
The change is reflected in Lecavalier’s projected wingers this season: Michael Raffl and R.J. Umberger, energy guys that aren’t exactly known for their offensive prowess. There’s no guarantee the trio will click and if they don’t...well, what then?
The bottom line is this: Lecavalier signed in Philly to be the No. 2 center in Peter Laviolette’s uptempo system, then got blindsided three games into his Flyers career when Lavvy was dumped and Berube took the reins. Now he’s playing in a role that doesn’t really fit his skill set, for a head coach that doesn’t really know what to do with him. It’s a distraction already. And it could easily get bigger.