Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Read and Zepp at All-Star Break Crossroads

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ALL-STAR BREAK CROSSROADS: READ HAS CHANCE TO REGROUP

If there is one Flyers’ player who needs the All-Star break more than anyone else on the team, it is Matt Read. The 28-year-old limps into the break with just three goals and 18 points in 48 games while battling through a lower-body injury that has noticeably affected his skating ability.

His confidence has seemed low at times.

A microcosm of Read’s season to date: the shorthanded goal the Flyers yielded to the Islanders in the second period of Monday afternoon’s 7-4 loss in New York. Read made a poor decision in shooting the puck with no lane — Nikolay Kulemin was about five feet away, and Read shot the puck directly into the Islander’s shin pad, leading to a breakaway.

Even more notably, though, was what happened as Kulemin sped off on the breakaway. Kulemin blew right past him and got separation. Read made a concerted effort to backcheck and atone for his mistake but he skated like his feet were in cement.

That play alone strongly suggested that Read is still not a healthy player. Plain and simple, a speed-oriented player with no speed is going to struggle to be effective.

After Monday’s game, Flyers head coach Craig Berube called out the entire Sean Couturier line — Read, Couturier and R.J. Umberger — for not competing hard enough in the game.

Berube was especially disgusted with Read’s decision-making on the shorthanded goal. That part of the criticism was valid, and had nothing to do with Read’s level of health. It was a bad play and Read has made more than his share of bad plays this season after being one of the team’s savviest players with the puck on his stick through most of his career. In prior seasons, the Flyers could count on Read to make the safe play when there wasn’t open space.

The rest of the play, though, had everything to do with a player who was making a 100-percent effort to backcheck and simply couldn’t catch up. Despite everyone’s insistence that Read is now healthy after working through a lower-body injury — first explained by Berube after the team’s Dec. 15 practice in Voorhees as a previous foot problem and, several weeks later, reported by the Daily News as a high ankle sprain — he is still not skating like the speedster we have seen in the past.

There has always been a Catch-22 in hockey: Players are expected to play through injury if at all possible, cannot use injury as an excuse if their performance suffers yet must continue to put their bodies on the line on a game-in and game-out basis with no regard to a pre-exisiting injury.

It’s always been that way, and probably always will be. Ultimately, a player is responsible for his own performance, yet every player craves the chance to play and will go out on the ice at just about all costs. A player may insist he’s fine but there are tell-tale signs when he’s not. The way Read has been skating most of the season has been a red flag, especially in situations where he’s needed the rapid acceleration that was previously one of the strongest points of his game.

Read has been nowhere close to his norms this season, in pretty much any facet of the game, including penalty killing and forechecking. He lacks size but his speed and hockey smarts have always enabled him to compensate.

While Read is not an elite NHL offensive talent, he’s been a reliable 20-plus goal pace scorer in his NHL career to date. He had 24 his first season, 11 in 42 games (prorated to 20 to 22 in a full season) while battling through upper-body issues in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and 22 in 2013-14. That is a sufficient track record to suggest that the way he’s played this season is a negative aberration. It should also be noted that Read also spent the 2013-14 season on Couturier’s line, so it’s not a matter of lacking linemate chemistry.

Apart from diminished skating, Read has played tentatively in a variety of ways. For instane, compare his penalty killing work from past seasons to the present season.

Yes, penalty killing is very much a collective area of success or failure. There is plenty of blame to go around for the team’s PK issues this season. Nevertheless, Read has not been nearly as good as he’s been in past years in getting into the passing lanes. When he gets the puck on his stick, he’s not getting it out of the zone, which had been fairly automatic with him in previous seasons.

Additionally, whereas Read had previously been one of the team’s prime threats to generate a shorthanded breakaway chance. Claude Giroux is the best at it when asked to kill penalties, but Read has usually been quite quite in that area, too. This season, the shorthanded counterattacks from Read have been few and far between.

This seems partially due to reduced confidence — being less active in getting into the lanes — and partially due to the aforementioned skating issues. Even when he does intercept a puck with skating room, he’s not getting separation. Likewise, on five-on-five line rushes, Read has not been able to avoid opponents applying back pressure.

In forechecking situations and play along the walls, Couturier and Umberger (in the latter’s case, mostly since December) have elevated their games after a slow start. Read’s game seemed to be picking up in those areas as well but then dropped off again.

When he gets the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, Read has seemed a little too anxious at times this season. That’s a definite sign of reduced confidence because he had usually been a very patient player in studying his options and making a play. Read asked to be switched from left wing to right wing earlier this season, because the righthanded-shooting forward felt he would see the ice better on that side rather than his off-wing. The net result, unfortunately, was pretty minimal.

The good news for the Flyers is that Matt Read didn’t suddenly forget how to play hockey. A little better health and a dose of success to breed confidence will most likely get the 28-year-old forward back to where he had been. The weight of three seasons worth of pretty consistent play versus three-plus months of struggle still leans toward the positive side going forward.

The games immediately following the All-Star break will be crucial ones for Read. With six days of respite from practices and a full week between games, it be just what he needs to recover physically and mentally treat the rest of the season like a fresh start. There is still time for him to salvage something from the 2014-15 season even if his final stats (both primary and shot-attempt differential based) are down from his previous ones.

*********** ALL-STAR BREAK CROSSROADS: ZEPP AWAITS NEXT OPPORTUNITY

With Flyers number one goaltender Steve Mason undergoing rehab for a lower-body injury and pushing for a return shortly after the All-Star break — there is still no specific target date, at least publicly — Rob Zepp is back in a familiar spot.

The 33-year-old goaltender is trying to focus on the things that are within his control rather than worrying about when Mason returns or how Ray Emery plays. Specifically, Zepp can control how he plays when given the opportunity, the work ethic he shows in practice and being supportive of Emery and his other teammates when he does not play. If and when he returns to the Phantoms, Zepp can control how he makes a case for another callup should the need and opportunity arise.

In my dealings with Zepp, I have found him to be a very confident and positive-focused player. He is very honest with himself about what he does well and what could be improved, but he does not dwell in negativity. Any goalie who plays professionally as long as Zepp has — and especially one who has traveling the long and winding road he has to finally get some time in the NHL — has to have tunnel vision and a short memory.

After the Islanders’ game, I asked Zepp to comment on an observation of his play I’ve noticed in watching him from afar over the years and more closely now that he’s been with the Flyers and Phantoms: his best asset as a goalie is his feet. He moves well with good push-offs and does not often get beaten on pucks around his feet.

For example, in two of his starts with the Flyers, Zepp has made spectacular skate saves. In the first period of the Islanders’ game, he made a beauty on a Casey Cizikas shorthanded chance. Unfortunately, the game was otherwise not a good one for Zepp or the Flyers.

Zepp agreed with the assessment. He said, “My feet have always been my bread and butter as a goaltender. It’s kind of the foundation that I’ve tried to build from over the years.”

The biggest vulnerability with Zepp at the NHL pace seems to be some rebound control issues and tracking the puck through traffic. His goals against average and save percentage took a hit in the game on Long Island, but those stats are volatile — like baseball pitchers’ earned run averages and hitters’ batting averages and slugging percentages — with a low number of games played. Overall, though, Zepp has not looked out of place in the NHL.

While Zepp’s overall performance to date may have surprised some people because of his advanced age at the time of his NHL debut, he has played against quality opposition before.

He’s done it internationally for Team Germany, on a perennial championship contender in the DEL (many in North America don’t realize that the import-heavy German League has often featured a host of former NHL players) as well as very solid play back on the smaller rink in the AHL this year. The AHL-to-NHL talent gap is not as wide as it was in the past. Zepp also fared well for the Flyers in the preseason, although preseason pacing is not the same as the NHL regular season.

Only time will tell how many more games Zepp sees in the NHL this season and beyond. The one thing that’s for certain is that lack of preparation will not be the cause of failure. No matter what the level of league in which he’s played, Zepp enters every game prepared both physically and mentally. That’s why he’s been a pro this long and still has years ahead of him assuming good health.

Side note: After the Flyers practice in Voorhees on January 13 — the day following Zepp’s home-ice debut in the Flyers’ win over Tampa Bay — I noticed that the well-traveled veteran goalie has a decal on the back of his mask that says “Yard Sale.” I found it to be pretty humorous.

The back of Zepp’s mask also has the name of his kids and wife emblazoned across the top, the nickname “Zepper” written on the bottom and overlapping decals of the flags of Canada and Germany. Proud of his dual heritage as well as a devoted family man, Zepp also sports a tattoo with an interspersed maple leaf and German eagle, along with his kids’ names (Gavin and Madelyn) along the edges of the maple leaf.

I took a picture of the back of Zepp’s mask while fellow writers and I waited for Craig Berube’s daily post-practice media availability. Unfortunately, the picture was taken from too far away and at the wrong angle. Cropping it to reveal just the mask produced a blurry result. As such, I did not post the picture on HockeyBuzz or Twitter but simply described the mask in a tweet.

I gave no further thought to the mask until yesterday, when I received a tweeted message from the social media managers of the German embassy in Ottawa. They asked if there was a good photo available of Zepp’s mask with the overlapped flags of Canada and Germany. Since my only photo was the blurry one, I asked Flyers’ public relations manager Zack Hill if he had a photo.

Ten minutes later, Zack delivered. He sent me a just-taken photo snapped by Flyers’ training center maintenance manager Mike “Huggy” Craytor. Here is the image shared with the German embassy in Canada, depicting the personal elements, the flags of Canada and Germany and the “Yard Sale” decal of the mask:

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