Phil Sheridan: Flyers and Holmgren have already added difference makers

Posted: February 17, 2012

With the trade deadline and all that it represents creeping up on him, general manager Paul Holmgren offered a brief evaluation of the Flyers.

"I like our team," Holmgren said. "I still do."

Holmgren was announcing a trade - draft picks for Dallas defenseman Nicklas Grossman - that will not satisfy fans hungering for Luke Schenn or Rick Nash. He wasn't ruling out a bigger, more exciting deal, but he seemed to be tamping down expectations at the same time.

It would be nice if the GM could pull a difference-making defenseman out of his sleeve, but Holmgren deserves a little bit of slack. After all, the man did remake the entire personality and style of his team with some fearless wheeling and dealing over the summer.

Those decisions, with one important exception, look very good right now. The additions - Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Max Talbot, Jaromir Jagr - are having better years than the subtractions. Mike Richards has 14 goals and 14 assists, and a plus-1 rating, for the Kings. Jeff Carter has 12 goals, nine assists, and a minus-9 in Columbus. Ville Leino, who signed as a free agent with Buffalo, brought his four goals and 11 assists back to the Wells Fargo Center Thursday night.

It isn't totally fair to judge those guys based on a half season with unfamiliar teammates. Maybe they will bounce back and become franchise-type players. But Holmgren went for the big do-over here and his moves really do look good so far.

The one important exception, of course, is goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. He has had a peculiar first season here, to put it gently. He has been open, perhaps too open, about his mental adjustment to playing for this franchise in this city. And he has been up and down, literally and in terms of results, on the ice.

Coming off a bout with the flu, Bryzgalov got off to the worst possible start. He gave up two goals in the first 10 minutes against the Sabres. Even though he had no chance on the first, the red warning lights in your head immediately began flashing.

But Bryzgalov was solid the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Simmonds led the Flyers on a seven-goal binge and an easy, feel-good win. Not bad, considering that Simmonds got hit in the mouth with a puck during warm-ups. He had to wear an unfamiliar shield, but he still posted up in the rough area in front of the net and created two goals off rebounds.

"He played really strong," coach Peter Laviolette said. "Coming right from the [trainer's] table, having his mouth numb and teeth knocked around. He was ready from the start."

The Flyers were without Jagr, who has the flu, and defenseman Andrej Meszaros. They lost Danny Briere and Tom Sestito to in-game injuries. And they wound up overcoming a 2-0 deficit and coasting to an easy win, embarrassing both Buffalo goalies on the way - including the great Ryan Miller.

So there is a lot to like about the team Holmgren put together. It's just that we haven't seen much of that team all season.

"I know we've struggled here of late," Holmgren said before the game. "We're trying to figure it out."

It isn't much of a mystery. Chris Pronger was lost early to one concussion. James van Riemsdyk, who was just reaching his potential, has been out a month with another. Briere and Claude Giroux missed time with concussions.

And it's not just the games missed. In his first game back, Giroux had a four-point game in Dallas. But then, as he worked through the aftermath of the injury, he scored one goal over his next 16 games. Briere went through a similar slump after returning from his head injury.

Not only does each player have to get back up to speed after an injury, but his absence and return means adjustments for the players on his line or defensive pairing.

To their credit, the Flyers haven't made excuses of this. They've just kept on, with as many as a half-dozen rookies playing significant minutes every night. They are in the middle of the playoff pack as the home stretch looms.

Could they use a difference-maker at the trade deadline? Of course. Especially if their nemeses, the New York Rangers, add to their already powerful roster.

But the biggest factor in this team's making a deep playoff run could well be Bryzgalov. When he is on his game, you see why the Flyers made him the centerpiece of their off-season makeover. If he can get a little momentum going, build a little confidence with his teammates, that could make a huge difference. And hey, there aren't any shoot-outs in the playoffs.

Injuries have given the Flyers an easy out this year. Maybe the thing to like best about them is that they haven't taken it.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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