On fighting, defense, and more

Hartnell (drop ‘em) down

Over the previous four seasons, Scott Hartnell had a combined 26 fights. This season, he has one. That is it. One. While that is admirable, it is important that he maintain his edge. The way he drops the gloves to energize the team or to protect his teammate(s) is integral to the success of the Flyers.

His newfound scoring touch and chemistry on the top line is great but there needs to be more to his game right now. The team is struggling to churn out consecutive wins and someone needs to breathe more life into the Flyers. Who better than Scottie Hartnell?

Living by Lavy’s rules

It’s likely no coincidence that Hartnell has only dropped the gloves one time this season. Head coach, Peter Laviolette, is not the biggest fan of fighting and it shows. Since taking over the coaching position, the fighting totals dropped in Philly. In 2009, the Flyers had 77 fights. Last season, they had 47. This season, the team is on pace for 58 fights.

This may seem irrelevant but it requires context. Two of the three teams ahead of the Flyers in the fighting category are the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. These are two teams considered to be among the best in the NHL, as well as two teams the Flyers simply cannot seem to defeat.

Fighting has a limited place in hockey these days but it still serves a purpose when used effectively. The question is: Is Laviolette using fighting to the team’s advantage?

Stirred, not shaken

The start of 2012 has not lived up to the start of the 2011-12 season. It has been a rough ride for the Flyers, filled with injuries, slumps, and now a three-game losing streak. Still, a team’s fortunes can change in an instant and there is no reason to shake things up drastically at the moment.

Stirring the pot might help, though.

Laviolette does not need to holler at his players and Paul Holmgren does not need to call anyone out in public. Actions speak louder than words.

Claude Giroux is struggling, with only one goal since the Winter Classic and is a -4 in his last three games. The top line is ineffective at the moment. So, make them accountable. Decrease Giroux’s ice time. Sit him out for an important shift or on the power play.

Make a statement to him and everyone else on the team will notice. The message should get across loud and clear and the results should soon become evident. If not, then it might become time to consider making a trade to tweak the roster.

The Marshall Plan

When the Flyers traded Kevin Marshall for Matt Ford, the benefits were apparent.

Ford, an AHL lifer, provides the Adirondack Phantoms with the scoring touch the team desperately needs. As Tim McManus pointed out, the trade also clears up a logjam at defense, which allows other prospects more playing time to develop.

While the long-term winner of the trade will not be decided for years, the short-term downside is now revealing itself.

Erik Gustafsson and Marc-Andre Bourdon did enough to earn a regular spot on the NHL roster while filling in for injured players but Marshall was always right behind them, peering over their shoulders and earning ten games in the NHL for himself. Marshall’s presence served as a way to push the two rookie defenders to play their best on a daily basis.

Now that Marshall is out of the picture, these prospects are not on as short a leash. Andreas Lilja is no better a replacement and both Matt Walker and Oskars Bartulis are stuck in the minors and subject to recall waivers. Shy of a trade deadline move, Bourdon and Gustafsson have increased job security for the remainder of the season. Now it is up to them to show off how mature they are and how hard they can push themselves to continue moving up the ranks.

Chicken sandwich, Carle!

Matt Carle is second among Flyer defenders in scoring and leads the bunch in ice time, powerplay goals, and blocked shots. Yet, for all the good he does, he also gets a lot of grief for his giveaway misgivings. He leads the entire team with 35 giveaways — John Carlson leads all defenders with 62 — and does little to compensate for that in the takeaway (13) or +/- (-1) categories.

When Carle is paired with Timonen or Chris Pronger, it is not difficult to make up for these shortcomings but Pronger is out and there is only so much Timonen to go around.

Carle has proven that he is a good defender and that playing with Pronger did not inflate his value as much as some previously suggested. Still, it helps to have such a reliable and capable defender alongside Carle, especially when he’s playing 23+ minutes each game. That is something to keep in mind at the trade deadline or during the offseason.

Questioning Kimmo

After Sunday’s loss to the New York Rangers, Kimmo Timonen stated that the difference between the two teams was the goalie.

A player’s candor can be interpreted many ways. In Timonen’s case, it is respectable. He is honest and plainly states issues. He does not get overly emotional, exaggerate a story, or say anything intentionally derogatory.

While he neglected to mention the poor play of the defense, he was right to point out the difference between Ilya Bryzgalov and Henrik Lundqvist.

Lundqvist is a world-class goalie who can carry a team on his back. Bryzgalov is wildly inconsistent and is known more for his comedic personality than his backstopping abilities in Philadelphia.

So, it’s likely that many fans gasped and waited with bated breath to see how the seemingly temperamental Bryzgalov would respond. Could Timonen’s statement damage his already fragile ego? Could it shatter what little confidence he had? Is this a symptom of a locker room problem?

Bryzgalov responded in kind Tuesday night by blanking the hot New York Islanders through regulation and the overtime frame. The Flyers lost the game in the shootout but Bryzgalov still technically got a shutout for the game.

It is still too early to determine how — or even if — Timonen’s statement will factor into Bryzgalov’s play but so far, so good.

Problem areas: Goaltending, defense, offense…

The struggles of the goaltending and defense are well documented and do not require regurgitation here. The offensive struggles, on the other hand, are worth mentioning.

Since the beginning of 2012, the Flyers have scored 3.06 goals per game. It is a respectable number but a marked decrease of the season average 3.24 goals per game — which, of course, is a lower number now due to those 2012 scores. Why?

There are a number of factors. First of all, James van Riemsdyk, Danny Briere, Jaromir Jagr, et al. have suffered injuries. As Bill Meltzer pointed out, this is also the time of season rookies hit the “rookie wall.” Claude Giroux has been forcing the play ever since he was on the cusp of hitting his 200 point milestone in the NHL. The Flyers have been a better road team but have been playing more games at home recently.

Additionally, there are some questions worth considering. Has Ilya Bryzgalov been an issue to his teammates? Is Scott Hartnell distracted by the recent wave of publicity and notoriety? Are players impacted by swirling trade rumors? Anything is possible.

Things are never as bad as they seem

The Flyers did not start off 2012 on the right foot but it is not the end of the world. Sure, the Flyers lost to some division rivals recently and the team hasn’t won over the last three games but it is only the beginning of February. The Flyers are still second in the division, fourth in the conference, and seventh in the entire league. But wait, there’s more!

Although it may not seem this way right now, things are headed in the right direction. Players are getting healthy and coming back to contribute to the team. The powerplay is on fire and is up to fourth best in the league. Bryzgalov, while still inconsistent, has given up a total of four goals in five of his last nine games played. The Flyers can also take on over $4 million in cap hit(s) at the trade deadline to improve the team too.

Best of all, there are no shootouts in the playoffs. Whew.

If you look solely at wins and losses, the Flyers’ prospects seem bleak but that is only part of the picture. Albeit subtle, a lot of things are starting to go right for the Flyers and it is just a matter of time before everything clicks and the win totals start piling up again.