Every once-in-a-while we get some exclusive, first-hand information. Recently we sat down with David Strehle, Managing Director of NHLHotStove.com and contributor to TheHockeyGuys.net, bouncing some Philadelphia Flyers-based questions off of him. Below is the transcript of our conversation, a must read for any Flyers’ owners.
Thanks for giving us some of your time, David. As a credentialed correspondent covering the Philadelphia Flyers you certainly know a thing or two about the team, much more than we do by just watching them on television. The biggest topic surrounding the team is the wide-scale changes GM Paul Holmgren made this past offseason. What are your initial reactions to the new personnel and where do you see the team in April?
Well, one thing you cannot say about the Flyers is that they didn’t try to make what they thought were necessary changes in order to make the team a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
After the team fell just two wins short of their ultimate goal in June of 2010, many people were extremely surprised that Holmgren would go through such a wholesale transition with his forwards — especially trading away the team’s captain Mike Richards and leading goal scorer Jeff Carter. The two had been the face of the franchise for the past few seasons, and there was a lot of talk this summer that the club may not be able to replace the offense they lost when the two were shipped out.
But the return for the pair seems to have given the team much more depth up front, and made them bigger and stronger on the wings. That was a shortcoming that was fully exposed by the Boston Bruins last year in the Eastern Conference semis. The eventual Cup champs physically dominated the Flyers along the walls and in the corners throughout the entirety of the four-game sweep. With the addition of Jaromir Jagr (through free agency); Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek as the returns in the Richards and Carter trades, the team has been able to control the corners and keep teams pinned deep in their own zone for long stretches. Simmonds has also been invaluable early in the year on the top power play unit. With Jagr and Claude Giroux weaving their magic, Simmonds has used his big body to the utmost advantage in crashing the opposition’s net. The result in this season’s infancy has been a huge upgrade to a PP unit that faltered greatly last season.
Another new face that was acquired from Columbus in the Carter deal is center Sean Couturier. He was the eighth-overall pick in June’s draft, and even though he was impressive all summer in rookie camp and training camp, there was still the prevailing thought that he might need more time to develop physically back in Juniors. But the 18-year-old defied the odds and made the opening night roster. He is so good defensively that coach Peter Laviolette has used him on the Flyers penalty-killing unit, and even in the last minute of a one-goal game. Couturier has shown everyone that he feels he belongs on this roster for the entire season, playing with the maturity of a wily veteran.
If the early portion of the year is any indication, Philly should be contending for the Eastern Conference crown by spring as they seem to be better built for a long playoff run than they were last season.
Perhaps the biggest addition was Ilya Bryzgalov. The Russian expatriate recently signed off of Twitter to the chagrin of the local media and fans alike. If he finds a social media tool a distraction during the regular season, how do you feel he will react to excess pressure from fans and the aforementioned media?
The area between the pipes has been such a sore spot for the Orange-and-Black for such a long time, it was an absolute must that Holmgren upgrade his goaltending position this past off-season. Ed Snider even damanded as much after the postseason debacle with the rotating goalies, as the entire hockey world watched the team self-destruct.
Bryzgalov was the best netminder available this summer, and Holmgren’s aggressive approach in trading for his negotiating rights a couple of weeks prior to the commencement of free agency was proof-positive the Flyers were finally addressing the issue.
In the early going, Bryzgalov has been very strong. He was a big part of the first three wins to open the season, and did something in the game two that no Flyer goaltender did all of last season by posting a shutout in New Jersey. Bryzgalov gives the team a huge boost of confidence providing such a high level of consistency as their last line of defense.
One thing that stands out about Bryz is his mental toughness. Anyone who knows the Philly media understands that there will no doubt be pressure, but he doesn’t strike me as someone who would crumble under intense pressure. He appears to have that perfect personal makeup for a goalie. He speaks his mind and lets things roll right off of him. He doesn’t seem to let something like giving up a goal bother him. He just bears down and concentrates on not allowing another.
Staying with the goalie talk, Bryzgalov’s arrival meant a reduced role from sophomore Sergei Bobrovsky. Considering Bryzgalov started 65, 68 and 69 games over the past three seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes, Can you see Bob successful with only 10-15 starts? In addition, Is there any long term future in store for him with Bryzgalov signed for eight more seasons?
While Bryzgalov played that number of games the past three years in Phoenix, I don’t think the plan is for him to get that kind of workload here. I think Laviolette would like to get Bryz between 55-65 games so that he has enough work to be sharp, but so he’s not burned out by the time the playoffs roll around. In addition to his Coyotes being severely overmatched, the amount of games played could well have been a contributing factor for his subpar performance in the first round last year against Detroit.
Bobrovsky may have experienced that exact type of situation last year. After playing 32 and 35 games in his last two years in the KHL, Bob started off like a house of fire in his rookie season in the NHL. He took over the team’s starting goalie job in training camp and quickly became one of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy. But as the season progressed, it appeared as though he was wearing down. Brian Boucher had to come in in relief situations several times down the stretch, including the last game of the regular season. Bob started the first game of the playoffs and yielded just one goal in a loss, but then was yanked after giving up three early Buffalo goals in Game 2. He was put into storage as Michael Leighton was brought back into the mix after spending the year in the AHL. Bobrovsky was re-inserted and played well in the final two losses to Boston. But the need for a true #1 was painfully evident.
By the way, this is the first time in NHL history that a team will go with two Russian netminders.
Bob’s numbers were actually better than Bryzgalov’s in exhibition games. Bob played in three contests, posting a 2-0 record, with an 0.40 GAA, a .984 save percentage, and a shutout (his first ever in the NHL, even if it was preseason). I believe he will be sharp when called upon, whether it be in the 10-15 game range or 15-25. And it’s always good to have someone who could handle the starting duties for stretches be available just in case the worst-possible scenario occurs and Bryzgalov is injured.
As for Bob’s long-term future with the Flyers, there are a lot of things that will factor into that eventual outcome. As many of the readers already know, there was a period of time where Bobrovsky was being actively shopped by Holmgren, and it still may happen that Bob is moved because of salary cap constraints. This is year one of Bryzgalov’s nine-year deal, and Bob is in year two of a three-year contract paying him $1.75 million annually. It would seem improbable that the Flyers will keep both halves of “The Orange Curtain” for anytime past the 2012-13 season. Bobrovsky can be regarded as “the goalie of the future”, but what about when that “future” is a minimum of nine years away? For now, at least, the team will just see how things go with the current arrangement before making any decisions.
Probably the most unheralded addition was Benjmidi State’s Matt Read. TSN’s hockey insider Bob McKenzie predicted Read would win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the team’s top rookie. In the games you’ve seen, do you find this assessment accurate?
This was one of the quieter Flyer free agent signings. Holmgren inked Read, who was being pursued by several NHL teams, in March. This has become an annual occurrence in Philadelphia, as Holmgren rarely has any high-end draft picks with which to re-stock the organization’s pipeline. He has made it a habit of signing college players in the spring, and Read looks to be the best of the bunch.
While McKenzie’s prediction for the Calder may be a bit on the bolder side, Read will most definitely be a valuable asset for the Flyers this year. While not possessing the biggest frame (5′ 10″, 185), he is blessed with speed, excellent hands, and a hockey sense that is beyond his age. And his versatility is also a big plus. Defensively conscious to a fault, Laviolette has employed Read on the club’s penalty-killing unit, as well as playing the right point on the power play. Through the first four games, he has a goal and an assist, and sports a +1 rating.
Read is presently skating on the wing of the team’s third line, but where he settles in for the long haul will be determined by a couple of Flyers. One is where the team wants Brayden Schenn to play once he is recalled from the Adirondack Phantoms, as well as what Scott Hartnell’s changing role will be with the team. The last will be whether or not the Flyers want to keep Couturier for the full season or not. Read could eventually find himself on the wing on the fourth line, at which point McKenzie’s prediction would be hard pressed to come to fruition.
Another hot topic has to be the breakout campaign of Claude Giroux. While Jaromir Jagr dubbed him ‘mini Mario’ he has to have some sort of ceiling. Where do you realistically see him capping off, points-wise?
It has been an amazing thing to watch Giroux develop over the last few seasons. He has really taken every aspect of his game to the next level, and some of the moves he makes with the puck are almost beyond comprehension (see his goal on Tim Thomas and the Bruins on opening night). His on-ice vision and passing abilities are at an elite level, but what may make Giroux an even better player is his competitiveness, leadership, and defensive play.
Remember, he was killing penalties up until this season. But with the signing of free agents Max Talbot and Read, as well as the play of Couturier, Giroux can concentrate more on the offensive side of things. And that’s really where he has so much more skill and creativity than most players.
Last year Giroux scored 25 goals and added 51 assists for 76 points — all three being career highs. As to where he ends up consistently point-wise is really up to Giroux himself. You hear players being discussed where the term “the sky is the limit” is mentioned. For Giroux, it truly is the case. His commitment to backchecking and adding a physicality to his game make him a potential Steve Yzerman-type player. I would not be surprised to see him top the 30-goal and 90-point marks, quite possibly even this year, but also each season. He definitely has a chance to hit the century mark, especially playing with Jagr and James van Riemsdyk on his flanks.
Speaking of Jagr, he seems to be fitting in with his new team — an unlikely tandem. How is he in the room? Moreover, is he the second-best forward to Giroux?
Throughout the exhibition season and into the regular season, Jagr has been excellent – on the ice as well as off. He has been the perfect teammate, and is a great role model for the younger players. His training regimen is the best of any player, many times turning the lights on at the practice facility in Voorhees, NJ for a late-night skate. This not only shows the younger guys the kind of work it takes to be in peak fitness at all times, but it keeps Jagr in the best-possible shape, too, specially thanks to those Group Workout Classes Houston and to the fat burners he takes, by the way, these are the best to buy in the uk right now.
It’s hard to believe for those of us who saw him come into the League that he will turn 40 years old in February, but time stands still for no man. But Jagr’s size (6′ 3″, 240 pounds), fitness level, balance, skill set, and knowledge of the game keep him in a very elite group. His instant chemistry with Giroux has been one of the brightest spots in a very good beginning to the year for the Flyers. And it would be very fair to say Jagr is the second-best forward to Giroux on the Philly roster.
The third member of the troika, JVR, is currently enjoying a new role with a new contract. Has that helped his confidence this season following a strong postseason?
What we saw in the playoffs from JVR last year against Buffalo and Boston is exactly what the organization wants from van Riemsdyk. There is no doubt that the vote of confidence that Flyers management showed in providing him with a new contract has translated into a more-confident van Riemsdyk, on and off the ice. Though he sat for some of the preseason with a minor injury, JVR has stepped back into his role as the budding power forward on a line with Giroux and Jagr. The trio has been dominant in many of their early-season shifts, pinning teams in their own end of the ice for long periods of time with a strong forecheck and cycling game. JVR has posted a goal and three points in the first four games of the year, and has 11 shots on goal. At 22 years old, the second-overall pick in the 2007 draft looks like he’s ready to become a force for the Flyers.
Chris Pronger has been one of the biggest question marks coming into the season. He continues to play in all situations and captain one of the strongest team’s in the Eastern Conference. Can he sustain a full season of playing at an elite level? Furthermore, if he goes down, does the team have enough depth to replace him?
Definitely one of the most pressing issues for the team coming into this season was just how Pronger’s back had healed from surgery back in May. Maybe more than any other one player, the overall success of the Flyers season rests with the health of their top D-man.
It was a bit disconcerting that he saw action in just one preseason contest after missing so much of training camp, but then surprising when Pronger led the team in ice time in three of the first four games. Laviolette has gone with just six defensemen in each game this year, so the captain must have let it be known that he is feeling as healthy as can be. He is playing in every imaginable situation, and so far, it’s working. Pronger leads the team in assists with four, and is tied with Giroux for the team lead in points (5).
Laviolette can’t be thinking that playing Pronger this much for the entire season will lead to any type of post-season success. Look for the team to either start playing Matt Walker or Oskars Bartulis as the seventh defenseman soon. As far as depth goes, other than Walker and Bartulis, Erik Gustafsson would seem to be the only other possible NHL call up. Kevin Marshall and Marc-Andre Bourdon did not have good camps this summer.
If Pronger would fall victim to the injury bug, the team has plenty of practice in covering for him after last year, as he missed 32 games with four injuries that required surgeries during the season. The one saving grace for the blueline was the versatility of Andrej Meszaros, who filled in on just about every defensive pairing at some point during the campaign.