The annual Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Award is voted on by the Flyers players and given to the teammate who has been the club’s most improved player that season. The award commemorates the process by which the late Swedish goaltender recovered from a horrific second NHL season to win the Vezina Trophy, a Hart Trophy finalist spot and backstop the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final in the 1984-85 playoffs.
Although there are still nine weeks left in the 2014-15 regular season, Chris VandeVelde is the clear-cut favorite to win the award. He has gone from an injury replacement player shuttling back and forth from the AHL to the NHL to becoming an every-game starter for the Flyers who has even chipped some unexpected offense with eight goals and 13 points in 42 games.
“Vandy works really hard and he’s been a good player for us,” Flyers right winger Wayne Simmonds said on Jan. 30. “He’s been one of our unsung guys for sure.”
VandeVelde came to the Flyers last season as an unheralded player on an AHL-only contract at the recommendation of Ron Hextall before Hextall took over the Flyers’ general manager position from Paul Holmgren (now the club president). He was a late cut from the Flyers’ preseason roster but played well enough to have his AHL-only deal converted into a two-way NHL contract.
Although VandeVelde dressed in 18 games for the Flyers during the 2013-14 regular season, he did not particularly stand out except for having good size (6-foot-2) and being a pretty good skater. This season has been different, and it’s not simply because he’s unexpectedly scored some goals.
“Chris keeps things simple,” said Flyers head coach Craig Berube. “He’s used his size well. He’s physical, he makes good plays with and without the puck and he skates well.”
VandeVelde has become a regular part of the Flyers’ penalty killing rotation, along with usual five-on-five linemate Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. They have actually been more effective than players higher in the rotation of pressuring the puck and shutting down passing lanes.
The goal scoring from VandeVelde has been a bonus. Most of his eight goals have been the result of getting himself into the heavy punishment areas around the net and generating deflections or rebound put-ins; the sorts of gritty-but-good goals that all NHL teams need to score especially from the supporting cast players. A breakaway goal in Buffalo was a flubbed puck that had eyes.
Nevertheless, VandeVelde has also conjured a few “skill” points this season. For example, in November, he had a picturesque assist on a Nicklas Grossmann goal; perhaps one of the unlikeliest yet highlight-reel worthy tallies of the year. In the Flyers’ most recent game, VandeVelde sniped a goal over Jaroslav Halak from the right circle on a 2-on-1 rush.
“I know my role, and [Berube] gives our line a lot of opportunities to play,” said VandeVelde. “I’m not out there looking to score goals but I always felt I could do that, too.”
VandeVelde’s line with Bellemare and veteran Vincent Lecavalier was the Flyers’ best trio in the game against the Islanders. There have been many other games in which VandeVelde and Bellemare in particular have been among the team’s most effective players at creating energy in a disciplined way. They keep their feet moving and battle for pucks. When they don’t have the puck, they apply back-pressure. Their Corsi numbers may not wow but the work ethic is obvious.
“I’m not really surprised anymore,” said VandeVelde. “Maybe at first I was, but we’ve been on such a roll just playing hard and working the line we’re against. We’ve been scoring. I think for the last 20 or so games we’ve been playing well, so we’ve just to keep that going.”
VandeVelde’s goal against the Islanders was a good case in point of how his confidence has grown as an NHL players. As he carried the puck up the ice on the 2-on-1, the defender took away the passing lane. During his Oilers days or even last season with the Flyers, VandeVelde might have tried to force a pass, anyway. This time, he read the play, and fired off a good shot that found an opening over the goaltender. He wasn’t aiming specifically to pick a corner, he just stayed relaxed and shot for a general area.
Double-digit goals for VandeVelde — perhaps even a dozen goals for the season — is a realistic possibility if he keeps playing as opportunistically in the offensive zone as he has. More importantly, if he keeps on doing all the little things he’s done well this season, VandeVelde’s lineup spot will remain secure.
As long as he keeps doing what he’s been doing, it would be a major surprise if VandeVelde’s teammates do not select him at the end of the season as this year’s Lindbergh Award winner. Here is the list of the previous honorees:
1993–94 Mikael Renberg
1994–95 John LeClair
1995–96 Shjon Podein
1996–97 Trent Klatt
1997–98 Colin Forbes
1998–99 Daymond Langkow
1999–00 Luke Richardson
2000–01 Simon Gagne
2000–01 Dan McGillis
2001–02 Justin Williams
2002–03 Donald Brashear
2003–04 Robert Esche
2005–06 Joni Pitkanen
2006–07 Ben Eager
2007–08 Braydon Coburn
2007–08 Riley Cote
2008–09 Darroll Powe
2009–10 Matt Carle
2010–11 Andreas Nodl
2011–12 Scott Hartnell
2012–13 Jakub Voracek
2013–14 Michael Raffl