Thirty games, numerous story lines, and loads of drama. Just another season in Flyer land.
Seems like this is an appropriate time to take stock of the Flyers' tumultuous first 30 games of the 2011-2012 season (here's my season preview), seeing as how HBO's 24/7 just premiered, I attended Tuesday night's game against the punchless Capitals in DC... oh, and Chris Pronger's career is probably over. The Flyers have already ruled him out for the regular season and playoffs (that's pretty drastic), but the real concern here is more obvious -- Chris's ability to lead a life after hockey. Severe post-concussion syndrome has now claimed its third Flyers captain (Lindros and Primeau the others) and could very well lead to retirement for the 37-year old future Hall of Famer. I'm just saying that it's time to consider the possibility, regardless of how much Paul Holmgren raves about Pronger's fitness level. It's just a shame that his fitness level means diddly poo when it comes to the state of his brain. The ugly truth is that Pronger's body is breaking down. Shit, it has broken down.
The word journalists are using is "bombshell," and there's no doubt the Flyers were completely blindsided by the devastating news regarding Pronger's condition. THOSE DOCTORS WHO EXAMINED PRONGER ARE FROM PITTSBURGH! IT'S A CONSPIRACY! Alas, it's not; now the time has come to accept and deal with our new reality.
Hey, nothing like a little adversity, right?
With the quarter mark behind us, the story lines that continue to unfold are compelling and enthralling. The Pronger saga, Claude Giroux's ascendance, Jaromir Jagr's encore, Ilya Bryzgalov's budding status as a cult hero and hopefully soon the subject of a reality television show. Pick one.
Speaking of story lines, this is a big -- HUMANGUS BEEG -- season for the NHL. The merging of Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, and NBC, one of the four American broadcasting monoliths, has paved the way for hockey to definitively reenter the mainstream sports consciousness. You can be sure Ed Snider is a pivotal figure in this entire movement. He was not going to let ESPN get the rights to NHL coverage and then treat the league like shit once again. NBC, on the other hand, has committed to building its new sports network with hockey as a centerpiece (to go along with Sunday Night Football). Oh, that reminds me. Versus, a channel the casual viewer has cast aside as some bastard child station unworthy of attention (not unlike the sport it features), is now becoming NBC Sports Network, or the answer to ESPN's 24-hour sports news juggernaut. One favorable sign is that the channel is finally gaining legitimacy in the eyes of sports fans, thanks to the incredible NFL Turning Point series, which is infinitely better than any NFL program on ESPN. Maybe you can't feel the tectonic plates shifting quite yet, but ten years from now I think the sports broadcasting landscape of this country will be vastly different -- probably on a level that people currently dismiss as unfathomable. NBC has the resources to poach top talent and compete with ESPN on a grand scale. In other words, ESPN's days as an unchallenged monopoly in its industry are nearly over. And you know who'll win in the end? All of us.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. This is a Flyers team that is really easy to like. Love, actually. It's precisely what Philadelphia needs right now to combat the stink at the Linc. You look at the Eagles, and everything about them just pisses you (me) off. How they play, how they act, how they represent the city. Watching them play is more aggravating than enjoyable, more exasperating than fulfilling. It has made the fans ANGRY. But when you watch these Flyers... I mean, are you not entertained? If you don't enjoy watching, say, Claude Giroux work his wizardry on the ice, then there's something wrong with you. Or maybe you just don't appreciate the beauty of sports. I really believe that.
A few observations...
1) Depth. The Flyers have it.
2) Claude Giroux has not only established himself as one of the league's star players, but he's on his way to a Hall of Fame career and entrenching himself as one of the best Flyers of all time. That is not hyperbole. The guy is Sidney Crosby-esque in both skill level and competitiveness. After Giroux's playing days are over, his number will hang from the rafters along with those of Clarke, Parent, Barber, and Ashbee (and soon Howe), and he will have led the Flyers to at least one Stanley Cup championship. A transcendent talent who oozes greatness, Giroux also encapsulates everything Philadelphians hold dear about their professional athletes. He's undeniably perfect for this city. Forget Giroux's natural ability, which is generational -- it's about how he plays the game. With passion and intensity (as you'll read later, this makes him and Peter Laviolette a match made in heaven). With heart and tenacity. With superior will and resolve. But the best part? This is only the beginning. Unfortunately, the concussion Giroux suffered this past Saturday is a real bummer and, especially compounded by the Pronger situation, further emphasized the epidemic that is plaguing the NHL. The game's most recognizable star, Crosby, and its leading goal-scorer, Milan Michalek, are also both out with concussions. The NHL has to figure out a way to deal with this, before it gets (even more) out of control. Sigh. Get well soon, G.
3) The rebirth of Scott Hartnell... after being put on Giroux's wing. As Peter Laviolette theorized, if you put anyone with G, there will be chemistry. The thing about Hartnell is I never realized what a presence he is in the locker room. After a rough few years both on and off the ice, the guy is finally getting some breaks. From the dog house and even the trade block to first line minutes, 15 goals, 12 assists, a team-best +19, and a possible All-Star Game selection. Not too shabby for #HartnellDown.
4) Yup, Jagr's still got it. There's no question playing with Giroux has made him feel young again and only enhanced his unbridled enthusiasm for the game. "Sometimes you think your brain knows everything, but you should follow your heart first." Deep, Jaromir. Deep.
5) Matt Read > Ville Leino. Wow, you can see why the Flyers' brain trust was so excited about Matt Read. Not only is the 25-year old rookie a wonderful story, he's also a really good hockey player. Leino could dipsy-do and make highlight reel plays, but his deliberate and stubborn style also made him a liability. He seemingly refused to work on his weaknesses, and for a middling player, displayed an off-putting diva personality. Ville was a star in Finland and sure has remained one in his own mind. By the end of last season, I honestly didn't care whether or not he remained a Flyer. I had grown weary of Leino's disinterested defensive play and propensity for getting knocked off his skates, ultimately leading me to conclude he was nothing more than a glorified complementary piece. I still can't figure out why Buffalo lavished him with a six-year, $27 million contract. It's like new owner Terry Pegula saw Leino score the winning goal in overtime of Game 6 and immediately told Sabres GM Darcy Regier, "I MUST HAVE HIM!"
Read, on the other hand, does it all. He's a superb defensive forward with a quick stick who can play any style or in any situation, possesses blazing speed and underrated offensive ability, and his hockey sense is off the charts. Most importantly, you can tell that Read wants it when he's out on the ice. There's an unmistakable urgency and hunger to his game that is endearing, and he'll be a valuable part of the Flyers for a long time. Matt Read is just the latest example of why the Flyers' scouting staff is one of the league's best -- and easily tops among the four pro teams in Philadelphia.
6) Sean Couturier is a special talent who will eventually become one of the league's preeminent shut-down centers and a regular contender for the Selke Trophy, while also scoring 60+ points per season. Under no circumstances should he have slid to eighth in the draft. But I don't care, I'm just happy it worked out this way. Remember, Couturier was at one point the consensus first overall pick because of how dominant he was as a 16- and 17-year old. It was a bout of mononucleosis that interrupted his final season in juniors and what was perceived as stagnated on-ice production that made him slip. This was a fucking steal. Speaking of steals, the trade that eventually would land Couturier in Philadelphia falls into that category, as well. Just getting Couturier with the eighth pick and knowing we have a Jordan Staal clone on our hands would have been enough, but the reinvigorated Jakub Voracek is playing like a man possessed right now.
Aside: Those poor, poor Columbus Blue Jackets. Their GM, Scott Howson, got punked by Paul Holmgren. Hard. Straight up: I do not like Jeff Carter as a hockey player, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy to get rid of him. I've long been of the opinion that he's overrated and isn't an alpha male kind of player capable of leading a team. The typical retort from Carter's supporters is that he's a former 40-goal scorer and excellent defensive center with size, speed, and a wicket shot. That's all well and good, and none of it is wrong. However, he doesn't have the mental chops to put it all together and dominate (what pisses me off most is that we've seen glimpses of this in the past). To be honest, I don't think Carter wants it, and that's manifested when he disappears in big moments, such as the playoffs. The fact that I'll never have to watch him skate down the wing and nearly box himself into the corner -- because he can't stick-handle for shit -- before firing a low percentage shot that is easily stopped or goes high and wide brings me unfettered joy. Carter lacks heart, grit, desire, and the necessary mindset that drives one to be an elite player. Everything about him is boring and he plays an infuriatingly soft game. When push comes to shove, Jeff Carter is a paper tiger who wilts when his team needs him most and will be remembered as a player who always left you wanting more.
7) After two unsteady and trying months, Ilya Bryzgalov has found his groove in December. It seems like the defense finally understands what he wants and how to play in front of him. While sitting in the stands during Tuesday night's game against the Capitals, I couldn't help but notice how diligently the Flyers boxed out the Caps and allowed Bryz a clean look at the shooter. He could see everything -- and when a goalie can see the puck, he's going to save it more often than not. That was a problem earlier in the season when Bryz was struggling, but it seems like he and the defense are now on the same page.
8) Kimmo Timonen should be a Norris Trophy candidate. He is a pleasure to watch on a nightly basis and thinks the game better than any defenseman I've ever seen. I don't care if he doesn't score a goal all season... because he's on pace for 60 assists. Now that Pronger's season (career?) is over, I think Timonen should wear the "C" -- though the Flyers will likely roll a collection of alternate captains instead. Nevertheless, I can't think of anyone more deserving nor qualified than Kimmo to lead this team in Pronger's absence. It's an honor that should be bestowed upon him again as he winds down a stellar career.
9) Jakub Voracek might be the player who has impressed me the most thus far. He's been in beast mode for a while now. It looks like Voracek really did take to heart his former coach's criticism over the summer regarding his (supposedly) subpar conditioning. It also stands to reason that playing on the same team as Jaromir Jagr, his boyhood idol and fellow Kladno native, has helped him harness his talents and discover his game. Voracek's strong on the puck, protects it with his body just like Jagr, and is able to hold on long enough to find a teammate for a scoring chance. His energy and compete level have been consistently high, and his skating ability has really stood out to me. After the first 30 games of the season, it's clear that Voracek is an ideal fit for Laviolette's system.
10) Max Talbot. I can see why he was so beloved in Pittsburgh (aside from his two goals in Game 7 against the Red Wings). There's no denying his impact on the ice and in the locker room. I've long since stopped resisting the urge to embrace Talbot as a Flyer. ONE OF US! ONE OF US!
11) Holy shit, Harry Zolnierczyk is fast, and Zac Rinaldo has perfected the art of the body check. I thoroughly enjoy watching both of them -- Harry Z zipping all over the place like he has jet packs attached to his skates, and Rinaldo scouring the ice in search of his next "trolley tracks" victim.
12) This is a very good hockey TEAM that I believe is capable of great things, with a coach who knows what it takes to accomplish the ultimate goal. The players appear to genuinely like each other, want to fight for one another, and are growing together as the season carries on. Quite a contrast to what we were hearing about last season. A team's chemistry is more important than its collective skill level, and the camaraderie will inevitably pay dividends down the road.
As for HBO's 24/7...
Things we already knew that have only been confirmed (and other musings):
1) 24/7 is must-see television, regardless of your opinion about hockey. I didn't want the episode to end and can't wait for next week. The production quality is in a class all by itself. Just like the sport it's covering, 24/7 grabs hold of the viewer and doesn't let go.
2) Ilya Bryzgalov is even more ridiculous than we thought. A hilarious goofball of the highest order and apparently a philosophizer extraordinaire, he does nothing to debunk the stereotype of goalies as being, well, quirky and different. Bryz simply stole the show Wednesday night, along with countryman (and rifleman) Artem Anisimov of the Rangers, and has become an overnight sensation all over the Internet.
3) "We are not a conservative team. We are a 'let's fucking giddy-up and go' team." Fucking right, Lavy. Could there have been a more perfect opening line? Everything he said was on point and refreshing to hear. Peter Laviolette is the man. More importantly, he's the right man for this job, but we've known that for a while now. His passion and intensity couldn't be a better fit for this city. We appreciate players and coaches who wear their emotions on their sleeves and want to win as badly as we do. Contrary to popular belief, we aren't ungrateful cretins who will turn on our team if expectations aren't met. We just demand that the players play the game the right way, give it their all, and leave everything out on the ice/field/court. These Flyers embody that kind of commitment and heart (while the Eagles embody the exact opposite). We can handle losing in this city (we have for a long time), but we can't handle indifference and listless effort. It's really that simple.
4) I might not agree with all of Paul Holmgren's moves, but, damn, do I respect him. That said, I agree with most of what he does, especially as a talent evaluator because that's where he's particularly keen. Besides, you can't get everything right, and the bottom line is that Homer gets it right a lot more than he gets it wrong. I've been a supporter of the offseason overhaul since it started, mainly because I was fervently in favor of making this Claude Giroux's team. I also liked the pieces the Flyers were able to acquire in return for Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. The Carter trade, as I mentioned previously, has turned out to be a stroke of genius. We'll know more about the Richards trade whenever Brayden Schenn can remain healthy for more than five games at a time.
The best quote from Homer: "Sometimes you need to take risks in our business." Ask any successful business man, and he'll tell you the same thing. You gotta have a set of balls, and you gotta trust your convictions enough to use them. Fortune favors the bold, or something like that.
5) Claude Giroux and the word "fuck" go together like lamb and tuna fish. Though if you've ever seen a close-up of him after a particularly nice goal ("FUCK YEAH!"), you already knew that. How do you not love this guy? Even fans of other teams who despise the Flyers absolutely adore G. He is the most exciting player in the league, and there's nobody I'd rather have.
6) I wish Ryan Callahan was a Flyer (Dear HBO: More Grandma, please). He personifies what a hockey player and captain should be.
7) Wayne Simmonds is black.
8) The Flyers anointing Mac Miller's "Knock Knock" as their official victory anthem. Ugh. There's a lot of irony here, all of it annoying. Do I like the fact that the team blasts the new hit song of a Pittsburgh native after every win? Of course not (I'm a fan of Miller's music in general, though, but not this particular song). As if our cross-state brethren didn't already own us enough through sports' success. Fine, fuck it, if "Knock Knock" fosters team unity and all that other lovey dovey Ubuntu, I'll begrudgingly accept the tradition. But I am NOT happy about it! Then again, you know what I am happy about? Winning.
9) Speaking of things I'm not happy about... being deprived of all-access footage (see: a Lavy intermission tirade or two) from the 3-0 comebacks against the Ducks and Sabres. What a gyp.
10) And, finally, for a conspiracy theory that I'm 99.9% sure is not a theory: Knowing that 24/7 would be a primary league attraction and a significant moment for the Flyers as a franchise on a national stage, Ed Snider couldn't allow the status quo from last season to remain and for HBO to get its hands -- er, cameras -- on what had obviously turned into a fractured, toxic locker room. The desire to avoid the embarrassment that comes with exposing a team rife with dysfunction and ill-will and instead cultivate a more positive, harmonious public image definitely played a part in what happened during the offseason.