If you're like me and have looked through the roster/lineup a million times since the lockout ended (or even while it was happening), you've probably found yourself asking a lot of questions about the guys slated in for the Flyers. Where's the scoring come from? Wait, that's seriously the blue line? Bryz is still nuts, right? And then it kind of hits you: there is a sh*t-ton of risk and uncertainty on this roster.
So that's the point of this list here. "Riskiest players" is a cleaner headline, but also a kind of negative one; rather, think of these guys as the 10 most important, highest-variability gambles that the Flyers are making. Let's say that if you were to make a list of 10 guys who really need to hit the upper, more optimistic end of their 2013 projections in order to make this team hit its ceiling, it would be this list. (But that doesn't quite look as sexy in a headline. I hope you understand.) So Claude Giroux, who would top all of the best or most valuable lists for this team, wouldn't be too high up on this list, because the difference between expected awesomeness and potential awesomeness beyond what's expected is really not that large, unless he starts channeling a whole new level of Claude-fu that we didn't even know possible. Similarly, a few other young, offensively-talented forwards aren't on the list at all because we either pretty much know what we're getting from them or can reasonably be optimistic enough about them that I don't think we can call them much of a gamble. You want to talk about how awesome Wayne Simmonds and Jake Voracek are gonna be? Cool. So do I. But not here.
No, this is meant more for guys like, say, Luke Schenn or Ilya Bryzgalov (uh spoiler alert I guess), who have a biiiiiiiiiiiiig gap between what you can rationally expect from them and what you'd get if everything breaks right (or wrong) for them.
Got it? Cool. Admittedly, the order is sort of all over the place here, so don't put too much stock into where I put each guy unless you've got a strong opinion about any of them.
HONORABLE MENTION: Zac Rinaldo
Zac Rinaldo is nuts. And ideally he wouldn't be much more than a 12th forward, making his appearance on this list probably a bit perplexing. But here's something that our dear head coach apparently said the other day, via Sam Carchidi:
Lavy on Rinaldo: "We'd love to expand his minutes." #Flyers
Look: there are some testimonials (ones I'm skeptical of, but ones that exist) that Rinaldo's been a bit more disciplined this year in Adirondack than he was in the past. There's some evidence that Laviolette at least somewhat likes Rinaldo's defensive game, based on how often he put him out with Couturier and Talbot late last year. And there's some hope that he realized he was a healthy scratch last year when everyone was healthy and he knows he's got to get it together this year, in the last year of his rookie deal, if he wants to stick around in the league. If they're truly looking to "expand his minutes", we're gonna have to hope at least some of those things end up working out well and that he makes some big steps forward this year.
10. Claude Giroux
Now, now--I said that he wasn't the most important or the biggest gamble. I didn't say he wasn't on the list.
We've seen Claude play aside guys like Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who are respected as legitimate top-line threats in this league. We've seen him truly emerge aside Jaromir Jagr, who is, well, Jaromir Jagr. But the truth is: as of right now, he doesn't have a guy like that this year.
Sure, we could hope Scott Hartnell does again what he did last year, which is a bit of a risky proposition (SPOILER ALERT HE'S HERE TOO). We could hope that Jake Voracek, who may end up on his line eventually, turns into the monster that many of us think he's primed to (personally, I think this is a decent possibility, but I digress). We can hope Brayden Schenn, who's been skating with him and Hartnell lately, takes a real big step forward.
But even moreso than last year--far moreso, without Jagr around--there's a huge gap between Claude and the second-most talented offensive forward on the team. He will hopefully have to take on less defensive responsibility this year, meaning he'll have more offensive chances to balance out what looks like less forward depth around him. I have no doubt that he'll be great--fantastic, even--but he just might fall off a tiny bit, and for the sake of this team we kind of need him not to.
I don't know if I'd say this is really a gamble, given Sean's defensive prominence last season. But in a year where we're replacing three point producers from last year, it's a bit of a crapshoot guessing what the high-ceiling, 20-year old, third-line, defensively-oriented center is going to provide offensively. Jordan Staal, everyone's favorite comparison for him, dropped off significantly in points from his first year (42) to his second (28), and while much of that was due to shooting luck/lack thereof, it's worth noting regardless that a step forward isn't a given.
He'll get a boost from not spending most of his time playing with Rinaldo and Shelley, and if he's going to be on a line with Talbot and Voracek as has been reported, then I'm actually very optimistic. Not to mention he and others have said that they have expected him to spend more time on the PP this year. But while I'm completely on board with using him as the defensive third-line anchor, I kinda feel like we need to temper expectations for him offensively. I'd love to be wrong--and I'm really high on Voracek/Talbot with him, so I could be--but centers in his role don't typically score a lot unless they're Jonathan Toews. (Who I've seen compared to Couts as a sort of upper-bound comparison before, by the way. Wouldn't that be great?)
8. Brayden Schenn
People seem to be bullish on the younger, slimmer Schenn, and rightly so. He seemed to round the corner as the season went on, he looked much-matured in the playoffs, and I think we can reasonably expect a solid improvement in his scoring rates in his first full season (well, full shortened season) with the team.
No, my concern with Schenn is basically the opposite of what it is with Couturier. Remember when we traded for Schenn and we all kept reading scouting reports that compared him to Mike Richards? Well, while it isn't quite fair to expect all rookies (or, really, any rookies) to do what Couturier did last year and be outstanding defensively and competent offensively, Schenn's defensive performance last year was...underwhelming. That, despite facing the lowest level of competition on the team. Heck, his whole possession line is fairly uninspiring, given his competition.
If what we're hearing now is true, Schenn is going to be spending at least some time on the top line with Giroux and Hartnell. So I'm not worried about him getting his offensive opportunities or points. But if he's going to be aside those guys, then he's either going to be facing the other team's best defensive players or its best offensive players in pretty much every game, depending on line matching. And in those games where the matchups end up being power vs. power and the other guys' top line is facing our top line, we're going to need to hope his defense has improved in a hurry.
7. Max Talbot
I wrote about
my mancrush on how utterly stunned and impressed I was with Max Talbot's first season with the Flyers last January...and as it turned out, Talbot actually became even more important in the months after I wrote that post, as he and Sean Couturier were the two anchors on the team's shutdown unit that emerged in the season's final month-plus and ended up stymieing Evgeni Malkin in the first round of the playoffs. A lot of other guys ended up playing that third spot at times--Rinaldo, Giroux, Voracek, Eric Wellwood--but Talbot was a rock beside Couturier.
Now, Talbot's impressive 19 goals and 34 points last year--both career highs--along with his solid defense, made him well worth the $1.75 million cap hit that seemed ridiculous at the time. Those paces are almost certainly not going to keep up this year, given that he shot a career-high 16.5% last year and that number's probably going to fall a bit. In that piece above I mentioned that I thought his improved offensive performance last year was at least a small bit sustainable, thanks to chemistry he had established with Voracek that gave him more shots and a solid linemate, but either way, some dropoff is almost inevitable. The fact that he's apparently been skating with Couturier and Voracek in practice lately is encouraging.
But the fact is this: Max Talbot displayed proficiency last season, both offensively and defensively, that we had no reason to expect based on his career to date. He also has had health problems in the past, which will be magnified in a shortened season. I really do believe he was one of the most under-the-radar valuable Flyers last season--but we may need some luck for him to do something similar this year. And the underlying assumption that he'll come close to that is a dangerous one.
Probably some selective memory going on here on my end, but for some reason I feel like I've seen a lot of people randomly freaking out in the past week or so about the very specific fact that Kimmo Timonen was eighth on the Flyers in even-strength ice time (per-game) last year. I think that specific worry is overblown--he led the team's defensemen in PP time and SH time per game, not to mention that in a shortened season I think you can take a risk and play him more than usual. And I think that injury concerns are also a teeeeny bit overstated as well for a guy who had played in over 200 straight games before March of last year. And if Coburn and Grossmann are expected to get the tough defensive minutes, it should hopefully make Kimmo's job a bit easier.
Still, the point remains and this one's fairly self-explanatory: he's a really old dude who himself has voiced concerns about a short season recently. I don't want to be too worried, but the fact that he himself claims to be worried concerns me a bit. Not to mention it sounds like he's going to be paired up with Luke Schenn, which is going to be an adventure at least. I think he'll be fine, but there's surely cause for concern.
While everyone was talking about Sean Couturier and the steps forward he took in the last couple months of the season defensively, some credit (though not quite as much) rightly went to the defensive pairing that they spent the vast majority of their ice time with: Nicklas Grossmann and Braydon Coburn. It's a true defensive, shutdown-oriented pairing in every sense of the word, and the night that the two of them started playing together was the night that Ilya Bryzgalov's wonderful month of March began, so there's obviously reason to like them together.
But let's not forget a couple of things: Dallas sent us a 27-year old defenseman for really not that much, due in no small part to some inconsistency over his career. He's got injury concerns--he's never played a full season, and he got his knee blown up by Joe Vitale last April and suffered a concussion at the elbows of Evgeni Malkin a few weeks later. He doesn't offer much of anything offensively, which isn't necessarily surprising based on his career role, but it's worth noting. And while it's to be expected for someone with his role, his metrics last season were less than flattering. So, in sum: an injury-prone, offensively unimpressive defenseman is taking up a lot of the minutes that were recently occupied by a not-injury prone, top-tier offensive defenseman. Hopefully you understand my concern.
Things could work out for Grossmann. As you can see on that link in the previous paragraph, two years ago his metrics were sterling given his situations, and if we get a season close to that out of him, then he'll be fine next to Coburn. But there's a lot of risk there, and given what we know about his offensive abilities and the amount of offensive firepower that needs to be replaced, he simply must be defensively excellent for this team to succeed.
4. Ilya Bryzgalov
Honestly? I try not to be that worried here. We know based on his career that Bryz is a solid, above-average goaltender, and I've explained before that not only is it not surprising when above-average goaltenders have down years, it's pretty much to be expected at some point. And I think he can handle the short season without concern--remember, he spent his years in Phoenix being a workhorse. And, like with Briere, he's playing to not get amnestied this summer.
But we're talking about the (nutso Russian cosmonaut) goalie in Philadelphia. Come on now. Of course he's a gamble. At least we've got a good back-up in case he scr...wait...um.
Please do well, Bryz.
3. Scott Hartnell
Some people much wiser than I here at BSH has written a lot about what to expect from Hartnell this year to follow up his career year and whether or not he was worth that contract he got in August, so I'm not going to go into much more detail than those two have already told you. There's reason to believe Hartnell has turned a corner and/or has been given more opportunity to succeed. But there's also a lot of reason to believe things will fall off for him this year at least a bit, and if that top line sags too much, it's trouble.
2. Danny Briere
Ah, yes. One of the site's favorite whipping boys. The guy who won't even be available for the first few games of the season. The one whose defensive shortcomings make his clutch playoff performances that much more maddening...and exciting. The one who clearly has a positive effect on this team's youngsters but whose contract is going to be a huge problem in signing said youngsters two summers from now. Yeah. That guy.
Again, one of our recently-departed here at BSH has spilled a lot of virtual ink over Danny Boy even since the end of last season, and his role has been discussed...a lot, so I'm not going to go too much into detail here. But here's what I will say in his defense: even last year, in his crappiest year in a long time, when he had only one consistent linemate (Wayne Simmonds) and had a poor shooting percentage (9.2%) and PDO (996, worst among Flyers forwards with at least 60 games), he still managed to tally 49 points, which was just barely off the top-90 threshold that would liken someone to a "first-line forward", and .7 points per game, which would put him just inside of that threshold. Is he overpaid and a defensive liability? Absolutely. But in a year where there's a lot of offense to replace, there's at least a decent reason to believe that (a) he's still got something left in the tank, and (b) he was the victim of a bit of hard luck last season. Maybe we can also hope the fact that he's almost certainly playing to not get bought out next summer will give him a kick in the ass.
So if I'm writing all of those nice things about him, then why's he this high up on the list? Because he has to bounce back. Absolutely has to. He's making all of that money because the Flyers know the one thing he can still do fairly well: score. If he doesn't score, then he's going to turn into a biiiiiiiiiiig problem very quickly. And hitching your wagon to a guy like Danny is not an easy proposition to make.
1. Luke Schenn
Now, like I said at the top of the article there, I didn't put a ton of thought into ranking the nine guys listed above this one, knowing that you could probably make a good case for all of them to be higher or lower than they are. But I feel pretty confident about this one in the top spot.
Consider: On June 23 the Flyers sold low on their 23-year old, former #2 overall pick and current top-6 forward, coming off of an injury-riddled, poor-luck season, sending him to another team for a defenseman who's had one good season in his four NHL seasons and was last seen on the bottom pairing of the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference. Two weeks later, they let their previous-season leader in ice time go to another team, presumably entrusting many of his minutes (along with the aforementioned Nicklas Grossmann and Kimmo Timonen) to said defenseman.
Surely you understand the risk there, right?
This has also been discussed a lot in the last seven months, and there have been several reasons to believe this trade will end up as a flop while we've also seen some of our own here at BSH defend the older, fatter Schenn in the Fanposts. And the trade certainly has some potential to kind of work out--it's ridiculous to give up on a defenseman at age 23, let alone one who has top-5 draft pedigree. And who knows, maybe our Finnish God of Defense will be able to teach him a couple of things.
But again: the Flyers are entrusting a big chunk of their defensive minutes that used to belong to their (arguably) best active defenseman to a guy who was the sixth defenseman on the Leafs last year, and to do so they gave up a 23-year old forward who looks like a lock to at least be a top-6 forward for a while, if not better. And the Flyers, given the state of Grossmann and Timonen and whoever the hell is on the third pairing at this point, are pretty much staking the fate of their blue line to this guy coming around and playing well.
High reward? Possibly. High reward hidden inside of far higher risk? Mmmhmm.