Inside the Flyers: Flyers don't lose step despite loss of star players

Harry Zolnierczyk, scoring against Montreal goalie Carey Price, is among the young players who have energized the Flyers and kept them rolling.
Harry Zolnierczyk, scoring against Montreal goalie Carey Price, is among the young players who have energized the Flyers and kept them rolling. (RYAN REMIORZ / Canadian Press)
Posted: December 18, 2011

Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov looked into the HBO cameras and his voiced crackled with little-boy excitement, sounding as if he had just made a grand discovery.

"I'm very into the universe, like how it was created," he said in his thick Russian accent during Wednesday's debut of 24/7. "Our galaxy is tiny . . . like a dot. . . . The solar system is so humongous big."

And, so, it turns out, is the heart of the hockey team that Bryzgalov represents, Saturday's blowout loss not withstanding.

Down went the Flyers captain and their best defensive player, Chris Pronger.

Up went the Flyers, using as many as seven rookies in some games and compiling a 12-5-1 record without their fiery leader.

Down went budding superstar Claude Giroux, their best all-around player and the NHL's leader in points.

Up went the Flyers' intensity, their teamwork, their win total. The Flyers won their first two games - in Washington and Montreal - without Giroux, the player Jaromir Jagr calls "little Mario Lemieux."

Despite playing two rookies on defense, despite all the injuries, despite some inconsistency by their goalie-turned-philosopher, the Flyers are among the NHL's elite.

After Friday's optional practice in Voorhees, coach Peter Laviolette was asked how frustrating it was to lose his top defensive player and his leading scorer.

"That would be one way to look at it," Laviolette said, calmly, deliberately. "I would rather look at it that those players aren't in here, but I'm really happy with the way guys have played [who are] here. I look at it more as what a resilient group. A hardworking group that has been able to overcome some obstacles and still be successful. For me, that's a real positive that we've been winning, as opposed to getting frustrated. I'd rather try to keep things positive here."

Added Laviolette: "Our guys have been positive all year. People that we added in here, the Harry Z's [Zolnierczyk], the Matt Reads, Jakub Voraceks. They have a smile on their face; they come to the rink every day, they work hard, and that's a real positive."

Before it was revealed that Pronger's season had ended because of a concussion, Bob Clarke, the team's senior vice president, said the Flyers had "the most skill we've had on the team in a lot of years. They're very well-coached, and they all get along and play as a team. They play for each other, which is the way you're supposed to, and the way you have to if you're going to win."

If the Flyers continue to do some very special things this season, that may be the motto of this group: They play for each other.

It is the goal of every coach, every general manager. Give general manager Paul Holmgren credit for putting together a roster of players who genuinely like each other, and give Laviolette props for brazenly giving several rookies valuable minutes - even before the injuries started piling up.

The rookies have energized the team, and put an extra step into the skates of old pros like Jagr, Kimmo Timonen, and Danny Briere.

Jagr, the 39-year-old workaholic, has looked 10 years younger, and he has become a leader on and off the ice.

"Jagr has been great," Clarke said. "Giroux needed someone special to play with, and he's helped him and the whole team."

Holmgren is looking like a genius for signing Jagr and Max Talbot in the offseason. Talbot entered Saturday with more goals (nine) than he scored all of last season (eight) with the Penguins, and he and Jagr have become locker-room leaders.

With Pronger sidelined for the rest of the season (and perhaps his career), the leadership qualities of Jagr and Talbot cannot be minimized.

Giroux is sidelined indefinitely with a concussion, so 19-year-old Sean Couturier has moved to the top line. On Saturday, when the team's seven-game winning streak was snapped by a 6-0 loss to Boston, Couturier became the latest Flyer to suffer a head injury as a shot by Timonen caromed off his helmet.

Before the injury, Couturier was centering a future Hall of Famer (Jagr) and a veteran (Scott Hartnell) who is playing the best hockey of his career.

In addition to the poised Couturier, Read - who some scouts believe is the league's fastest player - Zac Rinaldo, and Zolnierczyk are rookie forwards who have contributed mightily. Ditto rookie defensemen Marc-Andre Bourdon and Kevin Marshall.

The Flyers may soon get two other rookies - defenseman Erik Gustafsson (wrist) and center Brayden Schenn (concussion) - back from injuries. Both will help.

If Giroux is out for a considerable time and Schenn returns, the Flyers may have three centers who weren't with the team last season: Couturier (assuming his injury is minor), Talbot, and Schenn. Briere would be the exception.

Can the Flyers challenge for a Stanley Cup without Pronger?

Yes. They have four gifted veterans on the back end - Timonen, Andrej Meszaros, Matt Carle, and Braydon Coburn - making them deeper on the blue line than most teams, even without Pronger.

Can they challenge for the Cup without Pronger and Giroux?

That's highly doubtful. Losing Giroux would weaken them in too many areas, and the drop-off to his replacement is extremely steep.

In effect, the hard-luck Schenn, who has been derailed by three injuries, could be the player who eventually replaces Giroux if the latter can't return. Schenn was one of the NHL's most heralded rookies before the season.

But it's unfair to expect him to perform even close to Giroux at this stage of his career.

For the Flyers, the good news of their concussion woes is this: Unlike in recent years, they have talented rookies who are NHL-ready. That gives Holmgren the luxury of seeing if the kids can produce and keep the club among the league's elite. He can play them for a while before deciding whether to make a trade before the Feb. 27 deadline.

In the meantime, whenever the injuries have him down, the general manager can YouTube his free-spirited goalie and watch his hilarious views on the universe, tigers, and the fans of Philly.


Inside the Flyers: Stepping Up on the Blue Line

   When he was sidelined after being bothered by the loud sound and lights in Winnipeg on Nov. 19, Chris Pronger led Flyers defensemen - and the entire team - with an average ice time of 22 minutes, 28 seconds per game.

With Pronger out, the other defensemen have had to play more minutes and, thus far, they have thrived with increased playing time. Matt Care has surpassed Pronger's average-time-on-ice total.

   Pronger will miss the rest of the season, so the other D-men will continue to get more time, and coach Peter Laviolette will try not to overwork anyone. Here are the defensemen - including Erik Gustafsson and Andreas Lilja, who are rehabbing from injuries - and their average time on ice and plus/minus ratings entering Saturday:

PLAYER   TIME ON ICE   PLUS-MINUS   

 Chris Pronger   22:28   plus 1   

Matt Carle   22:34   plus 8   

Kimmo Timonen   22:12   plus 11   

Braydon Coburn   22:02   plus 3   

Andrej Meszaros   20:41   plus 11   

Erik Gustafsson   18:28   plus 6   

Marc-Andre Bourdon   13:33   plus 2   

Andreas Lilja   12:47   plus 4   

Matt Walker   11:37   minus 2   

Kevin Marshall   8:47   even   

- Sam Carchidi

 


Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com, or @BroadStBull at Twitter.

 

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