Flyers' midseason grades: Defense needs work

Giroux
Giroux
Posted: March 05, 2013

Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, the Flyers will become the NHL's first team to hit the midway mark of this lockout-shortened season. With that, it's time to hand out something that continually got me in trouble growing up: a report card.

OFFENSE: B+

After collecting just seven points in his first 13 games, Flyers captain Claude Giroux is close to breaking into the NHL's Top 10 scoring list thanks to newly returned forward Scott Hartnell and linemate Jake Voracek. Giroux has 15 points in his last 10 games and looks like the Hart Trophy contender most pegged him to be. Voracek (eighth in NHL with 22 points) has 15 points in his last nine games. Wayne Simmonds has been the Flyers' most complete, consistent player throughout the season - replacing Matt Read, who is out for another month with torn rib-cage muscles. Brayden Schenn has quietly been excellent with 19 points. The Flyers are averaging 2.87 goals per game.

DEFENSE: C

The Flyers' biggest weakness through the first half has been the same one we targeted back on Jan. 20, the day after the lockout ended. This defense corps is not nearly as solid as it was last season, and its lack of mobility may be the team's biggest downfall. Though Peter Laviolette won't admit it, Kimmo Timonen has lost a step. Timonen and Coburn are both in the top 10 in the NHL in minor penalties. Nick Grossmann, who leads the league in blocked shots (66), has been a beast, but can't help much with his footspeed and ability to get the puck up ice. Luke Schenn has been a steady, second-pair player. Erik Gustafsson and Bruno Gervais have erased some of the mobility problems, but haven't been able to totally turn the tide. With Andrej Meszaros expected to return from a shoulder injury soon, the defense will be much improved, assuming he can stay in the lineup. The Flyers are allowing 2.91 goals per game.

GOALTENDING: A

There has not been one game so far this season that the Flyers were out of due to shoddy goal-tending. Wayne Simmonds, Scott Hartnell and Jake Voracek all called Ilya Bryzgalov the Flyers' MVP through the first half of the season. Bryzgalov, 32, is tied for the league lead with 11 wins. He has been a workhorse in net, playing more minutes (1,196:04) this season than any other player. Despite his recent stick-throwing tantrums and "Mr. Universe" moniker, Bryzgalov seems to have earned back his teammates' trust with his toned-down personality. Plus, newly minted backup Brian Boucher will provide a calming, noncompetitive influence for Bryzgalov in the dressing room.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B

After a rough start, the Flyers' penalty kill has rallied to eighth in the NHL. They're on a 61-for-66 run (92.4 percent) in their last 16 games. The power play has been less impressive (20.8 percent) but is still among the top third of the league.

COACHING: B

Laviolette has instituted a near-complete change in defensive system, as we noted on Feb. 18, and players finally seem to be getting comfortable with his setup. There have been questions about the Flyers' inefficient starts to games (3-8-1 when opponent scores first) and whether his message is still getting through to players, but he also has had to play the hand he has been dealt with scheduling and injuries. The Flyers have had the toughest schedule in the NHL to start the season, having traveled more than 50 percent of their air miles in the first 18 games of a 48-game slate.

OVERALL: B-

In many respects, these Flyers appear to be rounding the corner. They just dug themselves out of an 0-3 hole to reach .500. They still have yet to string together a three-game winning streak. The good news is that they've hung around in the eighth, ninth and 10th seeds and the playoff picture is far from complete. The bad news is there's no room for error. Based on our preseason predictions, the Flyers have underachieved - but maybe the leaguewide expectations were set just a tad too high for this team, anyway.

ZOLNIERCZYK SUSPENDED

orward Harry Zolnierczyk was suspended for four games for charging Ottawa defenseman Mike Lundin on Saturday.

Lundin appeared to momentarily lose consciousness on the vicious hit, and Ottawa coach Paul MacLean confirmed after the game that Lundin suffered a concussion.

"Instead of delivering a hard, legal check, he launches prior to the check, making significant contact to Lundin's head," NHL vice president Brendan Shanahan said in a video explanation. "Players still have the responsibility to keep their head up and expect to be checked, but what no player should expect is that his opponent will launch upward, off the ice and into his head."

See Shanahan's video explanation at www.philly.com/FrequentFlyers.

Zolnierczyk, 25, was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct on the hit. This marks the first supplementary discipline in his 43-game career. He is the second Flyer to be suspended this season, following Brayden Schenn's one-game ban on Jan. 23.

Zolnierczyk will be eligible to return March 13 in New Jersey. He will sacrifice $12,973 in salary, which goes to the NHL's Player Emergency Assistance Fund. In the meantime, healthy scratch Mike Knuble is expected to take his place in the lineup.

STAT WATCH

72.7 percent: Revenue the NHL is projected to earn from last year's total of $3.3 billion, according to the New York Post. So, despite a damaging, 119-day lockout, the league is expected to earn 72.7 percent of revenue ($2.4 billion) in just 58.5 percent of games played. The league earned $3.3 billion with a 1,230-game regular season; it's playing only 720 this year.

200: Career victories for Ilya Bryzgalov (200-141-43), ranking him 14th among active goalies and tied for 71st all-time. His 11 wins this season are tied for the league lead.

92.4 percent: The Flyers' penalty killing efficiency (61-for-66) in their last 16 games.

75 percent: Wayne Simmonds' track record for netting the game-winning goal over the last four games. Simmonds has scored the game-winner in two straight and three of the last four.

30-plus: Hits for the Flyers in four out of their last five games, including 34 on Saturday afternoon. Luke Schenn (fourth in NHL with 86 total) led the Flyers with six hits, Zac Rinaldo (sixth with 83) followed with four of his own.

15: Points for Jake Voracek over his last eight games, tallying six goals and nine assists. He was not named an NHL Player of the Month for February, despite posting more points (21) than Steven Stamkos (20). He finished behind only Sidney Crosby (24) for the month.

14: Shot attempts for Claude Giroux on Saturday against Ottawa. Nine hit the net, four were blocked and one missed.

22: Shots in the second period alone on Saturday, tying a season-high. The Flyers also did it on Feb. 11 in Toronto.

QUOTABLE

"The No. 1 job of a general manager is not to win championships . . . It's to keep their job. They'll take huge risks, because the downside is, if they don't take the risk, they lose their job. It cost me tens of millions of dollars to learn that lesson."

- Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last weekend. You can't say Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren hasn't taken risks.

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