Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Simmonds, Opening Night Lines, Jones, Prospects and More

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SIMMONDS IN WALKING BOOT

According to reports from CSN Philadelphia and other local outlets, Flyers assistance captain Wayne Simmonds is still sporting a walking boot on his left foot as a result of taking a puck off his foot in last Tuesday’s preseason game against the New York Rangers. With each passing day, it becomes less and less likely that the power forward will be ready to play on opening night in Boston on Wednesday.

Simmonds seemed OK after the game last Tuesday. He walked normally and wasn’t sitting with an ice pack. He was in a jovial mood as he did a relatively lengthy postgame interview session. The next day was an off day. Presumably, Simmonds felt OK after the game but realized the extent of the injury on Wednesday.

That is not all that unusual. In January of last season, Zac Rinaldo seemed totally fine after a game, which included scoring a rare goal and having a hilarious postgame interview where he misunderstood Tim Panaccio asking a question about boos getting to the team and thinking it was a question about booze. Everyone, including Rinaldo, had a huge laugh. The next day, it turned he had suffered a high ankle sprain in the game the previous night. He missed 10 games.

There have also been situations where players have suffered bone bruises after blocking a shot without immediately realizing it for awhile afterwards. There was a similar situation a few years ago with Kimmo Timonen, who was expected to miss time and somehow played through the injury with his almost legendary pain tolerance and by taking some maintenance days off from practice.

From a Flyers standpoint, if Simmonds is forced to miss a few games in the regular season, it’s perhaps better that it comes at the start of the marathon-like campaign. In early October, many teams (even the elite ones who are considered Stanley Cup contenders) are still getting in synch in areas such as power play, penalty killing and team defense. A few weeks later, the better opponents have started to fire on all cylinders.

Ron Hextall referred to this common scenario last Friday in regards to why the team elected to return 2013 first-round pick Samuel Morin to his junior team. The general manager noted that things get more difficult as the season progresses beyond its earliest games.

Said Hextall, “These are preseason games and there’s a lot of young players in the lineup and a lot of the older players in the lineup aren’t necessarily bringing their good stuff. There are two more levels that the play goes up between the preseason and the regular season 15 games in.”

The Flyers have a difficult early season schedule in terms of the 2013-14 records and the preseason expectations for most of their October opponents. However, there is no getting around the fact that Philly has to play these teams sooner or later. It’s long been my belief that the best time to catch the toughest teams is either very early in the season when they are trying to incorporate new players and hit their stride in certain areas or at the tail end of the stretch drive when the clubs may already be looking ahead to the playoffs.

Of course, to win these games, the Flyers will have elevate their own level of play and avoid the “one bad period” or “one killer turnover” types of letdowns that can easily prove fatal against top teams. That would be the case with or without Simmonds. The challenge gets a little tougher without his net-front presence on the power play, but the process is still the same.

************ PROJECTED OPENING NIGHT LINES: WHAT CAN JONES ADD?

Assuming that Wayne Simmonds is not ready to play on opening night, veteran forward Blair Jones will step into Simmonds’ spot on Sean Couturier’s line at 5-on-5. As of now, the projected lineup for Wednesday is as follows:

Brayden Schenn – Claude Giroux – Jakub Voracek

R.J. Umberger – Vincent Lecavalier – Michael Raffl

Matt Read – Sean Couturier – Blair Jones

Zac Rinaldo – Pierre-Edouard Bellemare – Jason Akeson

Andrew MacDonald – Braydon Coburn

Nicklas Grossmann – Mark Streit

Michael Del Zotto – Luke Schenn

Steve Mason

[Ray Emery]

Scratches: Wayne Simmonds (foot, day-to-day), Nick Schultz (healthy).

Entering training camp, the 28-year-old Jones was not among the favorites to win an opening night roster spot. He was signed to be a swingman between the Phantoms and Flyers, who could fill in as needed at center or wing at the NHL level. However, over the course of the preseason, Jones made himself too valuable for Craig Berube to cut from the NHL roster.

Jones is a perfect case in point about just good NHL players really are and how stars at lower levels often have to adapt to being low-scoring role players in the NHL. This is a guy who was a big scorer as a 19-year-old in the Western Hockey League and has become a bonafide point-per-game player in the American Hockey League. He has good size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), grit, versatility and a two-way game that enables him to deployed in all situations. All that he really lacks is speed but Jones is sturdy and hard to knock off the puck.

During training camp last month, Jones said that with the exception of a very brief look-see in Calgary for a couple games in the top-six of the forward rotation, he has mostly skated on the fourth line in the NHL. Previously, he made an opening night roster with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Offensively, he hasn’t produced much in the NHL in his limited ice time — just seven goals and 17 points in 128 regular season games and no points in seven postseason games.

At the NHL level, Jones has focused on trying to be an effective forechecker and defensively responsible player. He also showed a willingness to drop the gloves during the Flyers’ preseason, collecting three fighting majors. There were also hints of the offensive game he’s displayed in the AHL, as he compiled four assists and received time on the power play as well as the penalty kill. Over the course of the exhibition slate, he played both center and right wing.

It remains to be seen if Jones will be tabbed to substitute for Simmonds on the power play as well as at end strength. During the preseason, he showed some aptitude for setting up his big frame in the tripod position directly in front of opposing goaltenders. He does not have Simmonds’ quickness in getting to loose pucks around the cage but stylistically he can play the net-front role with no difficulty and, like Simmonds, is also a righthanded shot.

An alternative temporary option would be to place Brayden Schenn or Jason Akeson on the top power play unit. During the preseason, the Flyers had Vincent Lecavalier stationed in the “Scott Hartnell territory” (bottom of the left circle or mid-range slot) and have continued to practice with him stationed there. Schenn has played on the second power play unit despite playing with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek at five-on-five. If the lefthanded shooting Schenn gets moved onto the top unit, it would probably be to replace Lecavalier and not in Simmonds’ spot.

Akeson has superior puck skills and creativity than Jones. However, he lacks size and not someone whom a team would use as a net-front forward. Placing Akeson on the top unit would require a little more adjustment of the style of attack.

As the season opener approaches, Jones is still in competition with Akeson and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare for playing time. When Simmonds returns, either Jones or Akeson is the most likely player to be designated as a healthy scratch barring other injuries in the lineup. Winning an opening night roster spot is a nice accomplishment for a hard-working veteran who has had to work very hard to earn his keep. Now comes the challenge of keeping his lineup spot.

*********** PHANTOMS UPDATE

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms went 0-3-0 in the American Hockey League preseason, stymied by their inability to score goals. The Phantoms dropped a pair of 3-1 decisions to the Hershey Bears (after Lehigh Valley scored first in both games) and then closed out the preseason with a 2-1 loss to the Albany Devils. The Phantoms went just 1-for-16 on the power play in the preseason and yielded a shorthanded goal along the way.

Realistically, goal scoring could continue to be an issue as the regular season opens. Having AHL veteran Andrew Gordon in the lineup helps a bit but more veteran firepower is needed up front. It would help the Flyers’ farm team even more if someone such as Blair Jones or Jason Akeson is sent down by the parent club — assuming the player clears waivers — but that would also mean the player did not do their hoped-for job effectively enough with the big club.

In lieu of more veteran help up front, the Flyers will need young players to step up in a hurry. That’s a big burden on rookies Scott Laughton and Taylor Leier, who project more as reliable two-way role players as future NHL players than as prolific scorers. Likewise, the team will need the second-year trio of Nick Cousins, Petr Straka and Brandon Alderson to step up more than they did in the preseason. Smallish young forward Kevin Goumas, who scored a nice goal against Albany, could also be relied on to produce some offense.

The good news for head coach Terry Murray’s club is that the corps of young defensemen have all more or less come as advertised in the preseason. Shayne Gostisbehere was the Phantoms’ most dangerous offense player — more so than any of the forwards — over the course of his two preseason games. Second-year pro Mark Alt has shown early signs of taking the next step in his development, and Swedish rookies Robert Hägg and Jesper Pettersson both contributed their share of quality shifts in the exhibition slate.

Likewise, the goaltending duo of veteran Rob Zepp and rookie Anthony Stolarz looked good both in camp with the Flyers and during their respective AHL preseason appearances. In particular, Zepp played well. Although rookie signing Martin Ouellette is probably bound for the ECHL’s Reading Royals along with former Buffalo Sabres goalie Connor Knapp, he also put in some quality work in the preseason.

In order to get the season off to a good start, the Phantoms are probably going to have squeak out their share of 3-2 and 2-1 wins while making opposing teams earn all of their goals. That’s a tough task for a team with so many young players who are in the process of adapting to the professional level. Murray is a coach who constantly preaches attention to detail and strong team defense, so there is at least a chance the team can overcome its seemingly modest firepower from its group of forwards.

The Phantoms open their regular season on Oct. 11 with a road game against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The home opener at the PPL Center in Allentown, PA, is on Oct. 17. On that night, the Phantoms will take on the team who replaced them in Glens Falls, NY. The Adirondack Flames will provide the Phantoms’ opposition in the first regular season game at the new building in the Lehigh Valley.

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

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