Meltzer’s Musings: Brayden Schenn, Fytin, Barber, Quick Hits

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IS SCHENN HEADED FOR A BREAKOUT SEASON?

Flyers forward Brayden Schenn celebrates his 23rd birthday today. With a new two-season bridge deal contract in hand, Schenn is about to enter his fourth season in the NHL. It is not an exaggeration to say that the 2014-15 season will be a critical one in his development.

Schenn has made progress over the course of his three NHL seasons to date.

It hasn’t been a fast process from year to year, and he still has yet to show the sort of consistency the team hopes to see him develop. He’s headed in the right direction, but has not reached the destination nearly as soon as some folks hoped when the Flyers acquired him as a crucial piece of their long-term succession plan for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.

One of the biggest conundrums that teams in all sports face is knowing when to be patient through a young player’s learning curve. Progress isn’t always rapid from year to year, and there are sometimes seeming backward steps along the way.

Charting improvement isn’t always a straight upward arrow from a player’s first training camp to the point where he reaches his maximum potential. On the other hand, many players never reach the full potential that was initially envisioned for them. It’s tough to know when a player is still in his early 20s whether what you see now is the most you’re likely to get in years to come.

As a player whose primary value comes from his point production, this has been Brayden Schenn’s NHL-level statistical evolution to date: 2011-12: 54 GP, 12 G, 6 A, 18 PTS, -7 34 PIM, 4 PPG, 1 PPA, 14:07 TOI, 46.1 FO%, 136 hits

2012-13: 47 GP, 8 G, 18 A, 26 PTS, -8, 24 PIM, 2 PPG, 8 PPA, 15:31 TOI, 45.5 FO%, 109 hits

2013-14: 82 GP, 20 G, 21 A, 41 PTS, E, 54 PIM, 4 PPG, 5 PPA, 15:44 TOI, 43.2 FO%, 200 hits

At age 22, Schenn has just completed his first 20-goal season in the league. There have been stretches of games where he has looked like a burgeoning heart-and-soul player who wins key puck battles and produces points while also playing a bit of a mean streak in his game.

On the other hand, Schenn is still very inconsistent. He’s prone to lengthy droughts in his offensive production and other parts of his game are still works in progress.

Schenn has become a more physical player from his rookie year to his third year but could still win battles on a more frequent basis. He is an average skater. He is an average playmaker who creates the occasional scoring chance for himself or for linemates but is not not exceptionally hard on the puck or creative in finding space. He still gets impatient with the puck on his stick and puts it in low-percentage areas.

On the defensive side of the puck, Schenn was a below-average NHL player during his rookie year of 2011-12. He has modestly improved over his career to date and is now average for a player in a second-line role. There is still further improvement needed to get Schenn to the point where he is an asset in other areas even when he’s in an offensive slump.

Faceoffs are another trouble spot for Schenn. If he is to become a full-time center, he needs to get significantly better in the circle. His faceoff percentages have actually gone backwards over his first three seasons (46.1 percent as a rookie, 45.5 percent in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, 43.2 percent this year).

It would have nice to see Schenn finish out the 2013-14 season with an offensive surge down the stretch and the playoffs. Instead, he stumbled to the finish line from a production standpoint.

Schenn went pointless in 11 of the 12 final games — the exception was a two-goal outburst against the lowly Buffalo Sabres — and had no goals and three assists to show for the Flyers’ seven-game loss to the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

He did play an important role in setting up a pair of goals in the Rangers series. Schenn made a nice low, deflectable shot that Jakub Voracek tipped upstairs on Henrik Lundqvist for the game winning tally in Game Four. In Game Six, Schenn forced a Dan Girardi turnover and then cut over the middle in a sequence that ended with a Wayne Simmonds goal.

Here’s the thing, though: Those two plays encompassed pretty much all of Schenn’s offensive highlights for the series. He threw a lot of bodychecks but did not seem to generate much in the way of sustained forechecking pressure or control of the puck in a cycling game deep in New York territory.

Many observers, including myself, felt that Schenn was ineffective overall in the New York series. However, Flyers club president Paul Holmgren said in May that he felt Schenn had elevated his game in the New York series even if the results weren’t there.

According to Holmgren, the player has played the best hockey of his career in the team’s 2012 playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins (which is tough to dispute) and the seven-game loss to New York.

“When I met with him [after the Rangers series], I told him he’s played 11 playoffs games two years ago, seven this year, and those might have been pretty close to his best games,” said Holmgren. “Playoff games are where you need your players to play good. I think he played a harder game in the playoffs. Is it easy to get up for the Penguins and Rangers? Yeah, it probably helps.”

Holmgren continued, “”I would say Brayden can score goals. I think once he figured out to play a hard game all the time, he took another leap where he needs to go with his career. …I want him, like a lot of fans, to get better right away. But with any young player sometimes it takes a little bit longer than we’re all prepared to wait. He’s a good, young player.”

In the big picture, new general manager Ron Hextall, Holmgren and head coach Craig Berube feel that Schenn has more to give than he has contributed in the early stages of his NHL career.

“He had a good year last year,” said Hextall. “He’s a good, young player. Could he be more consistent? You could probably say that about every player on our team. But I think that’s a fair assessment.”

Added Berube, “We talked, and he understands he has to be more consistent. I think, as a team, we have to be more consistent. I think in general our team has to understand that to be a championship caliber team and a top echelon team in the NHL, consistency is huge.”

One of the big question marks going forward with Schenn is whether he will play center or left wing. With the trade of Scott Hartnell to the Columbus Blue Jackets this summer, there is a left wing job to be won alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek on the top line. Players such as Schenn, Michael Raffl and R.J. Umberger will get looks from Berube as the potential third component of the top line.

Schenn has shuttled back and forth between the middle and the wing in all three of his NHL seasons, and the addition of Vincent Lecavalier last summer ended up creating an even bigger conundrum.

A career-long center, Lecavalier was tried on both wings this season. He had little success. In the meantime, the veteran also got exposed defensively and struggled to gel with Schenn and Simmonds when Lecavalier was used as the second line center and Schenn played left wing. The line was also configured for a time with Schenn in the middle.

Schenn has tended to play better games when placed at center. He has not been as effective when playing the wing. The frequent changes of position may not have been helpful for his all-around development to date. Shortly prior to giving up the general manager job to Hextall and accepting the club presidency, Holmgren said he saw things otherwise. Nevertheless, he conceded that Schenn is a natural center.

“I don’t know. I do think he’s a center deep down,” said Holmgren. “I think you all know I like having a lot of centers. I believe that center is huge. I think it’s easy for centers to play wing.”

That final statement is not necessarily true. Lecavalier certainly didn’t find it easy to play wing last season. Danny Briere was never as effective at wing as at center. During his Flyers days, Jeff Carter did not do as well at right wing as he did in the middle. Going back some years, Rod Brind’Amour performed decently when asked to play wing but was better and happier at center. Chris Gratton, on the other hand, was a disaster at left wing when Brind’Amour was eventually switched back to center.

Right now, it looks the Flyers will not be able to trade Lecavalier before the start of the season. It is possible another team (for whom Lecavalier would be willing to waive his no-trade clause) could have a pre-season injury that ignites a trade. As of now, though, it looks like Lecavalier will remain in orange and black heading into the 2014-15 season.

Plain and simple, last season showed that Lecavalier needs to play center. Moreover, the team is not paying him all that money to be a fourth-line center and power play specialist. Meanwhile, Schenn is also better at center, and his role needs to be as a top-six forward.

Earlier this offseason, Berube said he did not want to commit ahead of time to where he’d play Schenn and Lecavalier next season. He has maintained the same public stance throughout the summer.

Said the coach, “I think we’ve got to come to camp with a clean slate and we’ve got to see where we’re at. I can’t sit here and say this guy goes here this guy goes there. I can’t do that right now. I’ve got to see at camp and see what kind of team we’ve got at camp. Who knows how it’s going to change? I’ve got to evaluate that then.”

In an ideal scenario, in lieu of a Lecavalier trade, Schenn would make the transition and blossom as Giroux’s left wing while Lecavalier would have a healthier and more effective season as the second line center. That would go a long way toward solidifying the team’s lines and strengthening its top six.

************ FYTEN COMES FULL CIRCLE

Earlier this week, the Phantoms signed former Texas Stars left winger Austin Fyten to a two-way AHL contract (one rate for the AHL, another for the ECHL). The 23-year-old forward has split the last two seasons between the ECHL and AHL levels.

Fyten was an offensive standout for the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads, averaging nearly a point per game. He received limited AHL playing time in 11 games for Texas in 2012-13. He was basically in the same situation early in his 47 game tenure last season with the Oklahoma City Barons, but ended up posting a respectable seven goals and 20 points.

The 6-foot-2, 200 pound winger has caught the Flyers’ eye in the past. In 2011, the late-blooming Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL) standout was invited to the Flyers’ development camp. Unfortunately, he tore in ACL and missed the remainder of the 2010-11 season as well as all of the 2011-12 regular season. As a WHL overager, he dressed in six playoff games for the Vancouver Giants before signing with the Texas Stars.

A couple years ago, Tiburon Films produced a 20-plus minute documentary on Fytin’s story. The documentary traces his comeback trailing from the torn ACL, detailing both the physical rigors and mental challenges involved. The first step of the process was to overcome the disappointment of getting hurt before his first NHL camp and dedicate himself to basically starting from scratch again in his dream of playing professional hockey.

The video, entitled “Chasing the Dream: Road to Recovery”, is available on Youtube.

************ TODAY IN FLYERS HISTORY: BARBER RETIRES

Twenty-nine years ago today, Hall of Fame left winger Bill Barber officially announced his retirement as an active player to begin a career in coaching and scouting. The decision was already a foregone conclusion because Barber hadn’t played in over a year due to chronic knee problems.

Barber’s career was unofficially over at age 32, and he had not been a healthy player for a few years leading up to that point. Even in decline, in 1982-83, Barber posted a 27-goal, 60 point season in 66 games and still managed 22 goals and 54 points in 63 games during his final NHL season. A lot of younger, healthier players would gladly have taken that!

I don’t know if it can be said that a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee was an underrated player, but if any such caliber player fit that description, it was Barber. In the Flyers’ pantheon, there is Bobby and Bernie and then there’s everyone’s else; including their teammate Barber. Over the years, I have seen some folks wonder why Barber is in the Hockey Hall of Fame when he scored “only” 420 goals and 883 points in 903 games. That objection mostly comes from people who never saw him play.

Barber was one of the most complete players I have ever seen, and was easily one of the top two or three left wingers in the NHL for much of the 1970s. The consistency of his scoring production only tells a fraction of the story — when healthy, he could be penned (not just penciled) in before the start of the season for about 35 goals in an average year and 42-plus in one of his big years.

Barber was also very solid defensively, had off-the-charts natural instincts and was unselfish almost to a fault. Barber legitimately never knew or cared how many goals or assists he had in a season. He most certainly knew how many games the team had won or lost. He was a coach’s dream.

*********** FRIDAY QUICK HITS: AUGUST 22

* Today in Flyers History: On Aug. 22, 1974, the Flyers hired Barry Ashbee as an assistant coach. A highly respected team leader as a member of the defense corps, Ashbee suffered a career-ending eye injury in the 1974 Stanley Cup Semifinals against the Rangers.

* Alum birthday: Longtime Hershey Bears fan favorite Mitch Lamoureux turns 52 today. The feisty 5-foot-6 forward was a prolific AHL scorer, hitting the 35-goal milestone four times (with a high of 45 goals and 105 points) for the Bears. Lamoureux was pretty much a career minor leaguer but dressed in 73 NHL games, scoring 11 goals and 20 games. He dressed in three regular season games for Mike Keenan’s Flyers in 1987-88, failing to record a point in very limited ice time.

* Alum birthday: Former Phantoms and Flyers defenseman Bruno St. Jacques turns 34 today. It has been said that the reason why the Flyers drafted St. Jacques in the ninth round of the 1998 Draft was that general manager Bob Clarke did a favor for his former teammate Andre “Moose” Dupont, who served as Bruno’s agent.

Supposedly, Dupont walked over to the railing and hollered over to Clarke to get his attention, telling him to choose his client with the 253rd pick (there were 258 picks made in all in the nine-round Draft).

Any time a player drafted that late so much as appears in an NHL game, it’s a bonus. An effective player for the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms, defenseman St. Jacques briefly played parts of two seasons for the Flyers at the NHL level before being traded to Carolina in the deal that brought Sami Kapanen. In all, St. Jacques dressed in 67 NHL games with the Flyers, Hurricanes and Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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