Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Signs of Hope & Concern, Phantoms and Prospect Updates

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THREE SIGNS OF HOPE, THREE AREAS OF CONCERN

Whenever a team is winless in four games, it is easy to dwell on what has gone wrong and the areas of weakness on the roster. For the Philadelphia Flyers, who will look to improve their 0-2-2 mark tomorrow night when they embark on a three-game road trip with a game against the speedy Dallas Stars, there have actually been some encouraging signs to go along with undeniable trouble spots.

Thus far, there has been a carryover of three of the main positives from last season:

1) The Flyers have once again been good on special teams. The power play has connected on five of 17 chances (29.4 percent) and has generated good puck movement and scoring chances on several other power plays that did not result in a goal. In the meantime, the penalty kill has staved off nine of 10 disadvantages thus far. Something less discussed is an area of improvement thus far: The team has been taking fewer penalties and has an encouraging ratio of power play opportunities to shorthanded time.

2) The club is resilient. The Flyers have once again demonstrated that they are capable of successfully playing comeback hockey even against strong opponents that are good defensive teams. Philly has come back from deficits in three of its four games this season; including multi-goal deficits in two games. The other game was the one where the Flyers took a 3-0 lead into the third period and went on to blow the lead before losing in a shootout.

3) For the most part, the Flyers have gotten good goaltending. Steve Mason was excellent on opening night against Boston and, apart from an iffy rebound on Anaheim’s first goal of Tuesday’s game, was very solid against the Ducks. He was average against New Jersey, but could not be faulted at all on four of the five goals he yielded (which have made his early season save percentage look ugly). Ray Emery was outstanding in the Montreal game.

While these are all important traits for a hockey team to have, there are also good reasons why the team is winless thus far. It’s tough to be satisfied with sporadic stretches of strong play — an excellent period here, some high tempo two-way play there — when the breakdowns are so glaring and the bad periods have been horrid.

It is not all that hard to root out the main causes of the team’s problems thus far. The concerning part is that two of these are big carryover problems from the last two seasons, and may not be solvable — although they can at least be improved — in the short term.

1) The Flyers blueline is a trouble spot. Every player in the top four is slotted bigger-than-ideal responsibilities for a player of his strengths and weaknesses. This issue has been discussed repeatedly, so the particulars need not be repeated. What I will add is this: the Flyers still need to get better at breakouts, clearing attempts, gap control and the consistency of their weak-side coverages. Some of that is on the defense, some is on the forwards.

2)While the Flyers have slightly upgraded their team speed relative to last season and have shown they can play at a brisk tempo when they collectively keep their feet moving and maintain strong puck support, they still fall out of this too often and too easily. With a few notable exceptions, the current Flyers are also not a particularly physical or big team so it’s even more imperative that they show quickness. Lastly, while there are some defensively responsible forwards in the mix, the Flyers still need to generate more back-pressure and reduce the number of low-percentage plays that lead to counterattacks.

3) This is interrelated to the first two points: the Flyers still remain a below-average team at 5-on-5. Moving up the ladder into the top half of the NHL in even strength play was one of the primary off-season objectives that Ron Hextall and Craig Berube set for the club. Well, so far, the Flyers have been outscored by a 12-6 margin at even strength. That’s why they’ve had to play catch-up hockey and rely so much on special teams.

********** PRE-ROAD TRIP QUICK HITS

* The Flyers will hold practice this morning at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, NJ. Thereafter, the team will catch a flight to Texas for tomorrow night’s game against the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center.

*As most of you know, the Stars are the other team I cover for HockeyBuzz. I have been in Texas since Wednesday, and will cover tomorrow’s game from the AAC pressbox. I will return to Philadelphia for the Flyers’ next home game (Oct. 25 against Detroit) and thereafter resume covering Flyers practices in person through early December.

* Braydon Coburn (lower-body injury) continues to practice with the team after returning to practice on Wednesday. Although no one will say so officially, it looks like Coburn will be ready to play tomorrow night. Nick Schultz appears to be the most likely candidate to be scratched.

* A special thank you goes out to Flyers beat writers Randy Miller and Dave Isaac for sharing the post-practice quotes from Voorhees with me the last few days. Normally, when I cover practice in person, I write contextual post-practice summaries of what was done and said that day. In lieu of being able to be at the last few practices, the quotes have been quite helpful in determining the themes of each day.

* After yesterday’s practice, Craig Berube was asked by the beat writers about the team’s issues with getting pinned in their own end of the ice. He responded, “I think what happens a lot of times, it starts from the D-zone coverage. You break a play up and we get the puck and we don’t execute the play and now we’re in our zone longer. That’s what really puts you on your heels. Play good defense and you break pucks up and when you get the puck you have to make a play. It’s important.”

* Expanding on the topic of five-on-five play, Berube talked about the team’s need to better turn defense into offense and to generate more shots on goal.

Said Berube, “I don’t think we’re generating enough 5-on-5 and that’s just a mentality we need to get: putting pucks on net from everywhere. You go to the wall in the offensive zone, you turn up and you wait instead of just putting it on net. Just put it on net from everywhere. It creates chaos for the other team. You look at the elite teams in the league over the last few years, that’s what they do. It’s important that we shoot off the rush. Twice this year, not shooting off the rush has cost us hockey games. Twice. Because you turn the puck over and they’re gone the other way. Gotta put the puck on net.”

* Berube said he is not concerned by R.J. Umberger’s slow start offensively and feels that the veteran forward has done the job defensively, which is why he is being used on the shutdown forward line with Sean Couturier and Matt Read. Said Berube of Umberger, “He’s a good defensive player. Checks well, kills penalties. That’s what we expected out of him. He’ll get his goals. He goes to the net. That’s what he does.”

* Berube was also asked about the play of the defensive pairing of Michael Del Zotto and Luke Schenn. The coach said he does not currently plan to break up the pairing and, apart from the game against New Jersey, feels both players have done OK in the early going of the season.

* Through the first four games of the regular season, Nicklas Grossmann is the only Flyers defenseman who has yet to be out on the ice for an opposition goal. He’s had several close calls, though, including one against New Jersey where Jaromir Jagr powered around him to the outside and Grossmann was forced to take a holding penalty. Berube said he’s been pleased with the Big Swede’s overall play. “He’s a big, stable guy back there and a good penalty killer. A big guy who blocks a lot of shots,” said Berube.

* One thing that Berube does not want to dwell on right now is the team’s struggles in shootouts. “Don’t put so much emphasis on it,” Berube said. “We need to win a regulation game.”

*********** PHANTOMS GAME NIGHT: HOME OPENER VS. ADIRONDACK

Coming off an opening night 5-2 road win against the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins last Saturday night, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (1-0-0-0) will play their first regular season home game tonight at the new PPL Center in Allentown, PA. Terry Murray’s team will take on the club that now represents the Phantoms’ former home of Glens Falls, NY: the Adirondack Flames (0-3-0-0).

Tonight’s game is the start of a home-and-home set between the teams. Tomorrow night, the scene shifts to the Glens Falls Civic Center.

On opening night, a pair of power play goals by Chris VandeVelde led the way for the Phantoms. Defenseman Mark Alt and forwards Brandon Alderson and Nick Cousins (power play) also tallied goals for Lehigh Valley. Rookie Phantoms defenseman Robert Hägg and second-season forward Petr Straka each earned assists on the first and third goals for Lehigh Valley.

Rob Zepp was strong in net for the Phantoms in his regular season debut for the club. The veteran netminder turned back 21 of 23 shots. The two Penguins goals came late in periods, with Bryan Rust scoring a buzzer beater at the end of the second period and Conor Sheary scoring a meaningless goal in the final minute of the third period to cut Wilkes Barre/Scranton’s final margin of defeat to three goals.

With VandeVelde being recalled by the Flyers on Wednesday as an extra forward for the team’s upcoming road trip, the Phantoms will adjust their forward units. The club has recalled forward Andrew Johnston from the ECHL’s Reading Royals. However, the added offensive burden will primarly fall on the lines centered by second-season center Cousins (coming off a two-point opening night) and rookie Scott Laughton.

Tonight, the Flames are playing the second segment of a three-in-three gauntlet of games. Last night, Adirondack sustained a 4-2 home loss at the hands of the Rockford IceHogs. Michael Ferland and Corban Knight scored in a losing cause, while Brad Thiessen turned back 35 of 38 shots before Rockford sealed its win with an empty net goal in the final 10 seconds.

*********** FLYERS JUNIOR, EUROPEAN AND COLLEGIAGE PROSPECT UPDATES

* Flyers 2014 first-round pick Travis Sanheim (Calgary Hitmen) has been named to Team WHL for the annual Subway Super Series pitting teams chosen from the three CHL leagues against the Russian national under-20 team. The WHL portion of the tournament will take place on November 10 in Saskatoon, SK, and Nov. 11 in Brandon, MB. The OHL portion will be held on Nov. 13 in Peterborough, ON, and Nov. 17 in Kingston, ON. Finally, the QMJHL segment will take place on Nov. 18 in Bathurst, NB, and Nov. 20 in Rimouski, QC.

* The Subway Series rosters for Russia, Team OHL and Team QMJHL have yet to be announced. Flyers 2013 first-round pick Samuel Morin (Rimouski Oceanic) will be a shoo-in for Team QMJHL if he is recovered from a broken jaw suffered last weekend. He has a recovery timetable of one month. Flyers 2014 second-round pick Nicolas Aube-Kubel (Val-d’Or Foreurs) is another strong candidate for the Team QMJHL roster, while Flyers 2014 sixth-round pick Radel Fazleev (Calgary Hitmen) is likely to be named to the Team Russia roster.

* WHL: In his first two games since returning to the Kelowna Rockets after sustaining a preseason upper body injury in a game for the Rockets and undergoing elbow surgery while in training camp with the Flyers, 2013 third-round pick Tyrell Goulbourne has posted a goal and two assists while staying out of the penalty box in both games. The Rockets are on the road tonight, providing the opposition to the Spokane Chiefs. Game time is 10:05 p.m. EDT.

* WHL: Sanheim, Fazleev and the rest of the Calgary Hitmen return to action tonight, playing a road match against the Medicine Hat Tigers. Game time is 9:30 p.m. EDT.

* QMJHL: Aube-Kubel and the Foreurs are in road action tonight, taking on the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. Game time is 7:30 p.m. EDT. The game will be streamed live and for free on the official QMJHL website.

* SHL: Flyers 2014 fifth-round pick Oskar Lindblom is rehabbing from a lower-body injury that has kept him out of the Brynäs lineup for the last six games. The projected timetable for his recovery, barring setbacks, could have him back in the lineup by early November.

* KHL: Flyers 2012 seventh-round pick Valeri Vasiliev skated 14:40 of ice time in Avangard Omsk’s 3-1 loss to Sibir on Tuesday. He was credited with four hits, one shot and was a minus one in the game. For the season, Vasiliev has dressed in 12 of the team’s 17 games to date. The stay-at-home defenseman has not registered a point. He is minus-two with nine penalty minutes (including a fight with Amur Tigers’ forward Mikhail Fisenko) and has been credited with 18 hits while averaging 12:44 of ice time. His teammate, former Flyers defenseman Erik Gustafsson, is fifth in the league in average ice (24:07) and has posted two goals and seven points despite missing two games earlier this month due to an undisclosed injury.

* NCAA (WCHA): Flyers 2014 third-round pick Mark Friedman and the Bowling Green Falcons are in WCHA conference action tonight and tomorrow night with road games against the University of Alabama Huntsville Chargers. Both games start at 7:07 p.m. EDT. Last Sunday, in his second collegiate game, the freshman defenseman scored his first NCAA goal. On the play, Friedman pinched into the slot and scored from point-blank range.

* NCAA (ECAC): Flyers 2012 fifth-round pick Reece Willcox will begin his junior season at Cornell University shortly. Last season, Willcox was usually paired with San Jose Sharks prospect Joakim Ryan, who will return to the Big Red for his senior season in 2014-15. Ryan is the offensive-minded half of the pairing, while the righthanded shooting Willcox is the more defensively oriented partner. Although best noted for his mobility, Willcox blocked a team-leading 70 shots last year. The Big Red will play their annual Red-White scrimmage tomorrow night in Ithaca and match up against the Team USA National Team Development Program U20 team next Friday before starting their regular season schedule.

* NCAA (ECAC/HEA): Flyers 2013 fifth-round pick Terrance Amorosa’s Clarkson Golden Knights (ECAC) will play head-to-head against Flyers 2010 sixth-round pick Nick Luukko’s University of Vermont Catamounts (HEA) tonight and tomorrow night. Freshman defenseman Amorosa made his collegiate regular season debut last Saturday in a 3-1 win against RIT. He did not register a point on the game but recorded one shot on goal and a blocked shot while posting a minus-one rating. Clarkson enters tonight’s game with a 2-0 record. Vermont downed 16th-ranked Northeastern by a 6-2 score last Saturday. Senior defenseman Luukko did not register a point.

* NCAA (NCHC): Flyers 2010 fifth-round Michael parks will begin his senior season tonight with the highly touted University of North Dakota Big Green. The team has games tonight and tomorrow night against Colorado College. Parks is coming off a bounceback junior season following an injury-marred sophomore campaign.

* NCAA (Hockey East): Flyers 2013 seventh-round pick David Drake is a freshman defenseman this season for the University of Connecticut Huskies. He did not appear in either game the team played last weekend against Penn State. The Huskies take on Merrimack tomorrow night.

* NCAA (ECAC): Flyers 2013 sixth-round pick Merrick Madsen is a freshman goaltender at Harvard University this year, where he will back up senior starter Steve Michalek, a 2011 sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Wild. The team starts its regular season schedule on Nov. 1, hosting Dartmouth.

******* TODAY IN FLYERS HISTORY: OCTOBER 17

Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent recorded two October 17 shutouts in his Flyers career. Both came against the Pittsburgh Penguins during his first stint with the team in its early years as an expansion franchise.

On Oct. 17, 1968, Parent turned back all 20 shots faced his way in a 3-0 win at the Spectrum against the Penguins. Early game goals by Garry Peters and Leon Rochefort stood up until late in the third period when Forbes Kennedy rounded out the scoring. Left winger Brit Selby notched two assists for the Flyers. Les Binkley turned back 37 of 40 shots in a losing cause for Pittsburgh.

Parent’s road shutout of the Penguins on Oct. 17, 1970, was a much tougher one to achieve than the first. The game ended up a 0-0 tie as the Penguins outshot the Flyers by a 30-24 margin for the game. Philly spent much of the early part of the game in penalty trouble, killing off four penalties in the game’s first 21 minutes. Binkley was the busier goal in the second period and play was fairly even in the final period of the scoreless game.

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

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