The Olympic break is finally here. Our last mailbag was a little over two weeks ago, so, with the Flyers still 17 days away from playing their next game, I decided to answer some questions about how the team has fared since the middle of January.
Raffl's emergence this season has definitely been a bright spot, and I think everyone's beginning to notice it. Raffl originally found himself on a line centered by Brayden Schenn, but, since then, he's been thrown around a bunch. He stuck on the top line with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek for 13 games until recently, when he was placed on the fourth line as a center. That's where he's at now.
There was a little stink over Raffl being dropped down off of the first line despite posting pretty decent possession numbers. I think it pretty much comes down to production. 3 points in 13 games on a line with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek? Yeah, that's not going to cut it. Raffl's WOWY, however, showed that he made 28 and 93 better when he was on the ice.
Which is why he's been an absolute dynamite fit on the team's fourth line, something that a lot of us here at BSH lobbied for since Raffl's inclusion into the lineup back in December 2013. He's versatile and can drive play. His speed matches up well with Rinaldo, and he's covering center responsibilities (Adam Hall still takes faceoffs.) Now that the fourth line has a quicker, more skilled player covering 200 feet, their transition game is noticeably better.
I still think Raffl's in the middle of a "transition phase" from the Allsvenskan, but I haven't seen anything that leads me to believe he won't stick as an NHL-caliber forward. Some people could have argued against his production, and I would have wholeheartedly agreed, but he's putting up more points on the fourth line than he did with 28 and 93. It's not really all about points. The team is now rolling 12 competent forwards (although Rinaldo...... let's not go there.)
Another positive? He's smart on both sides of the puck; he's got a positive penalty differential this season, something that lends itself well for the fourth line. I think he'll stick there for quite a bit, unless an injury requires him to move about the lineup.
Two Saturdays ago, the Flyers started off their 7-game stretch before the Olympic break with a brutal 6-1 loss at the hands of the Boston Bruins. It, uh, wasn't pretty. Since that game, the Flyers went 5-1-0 over 14 days, including 4 straight against Los Angeles, San Jose, Colorado and Calgary.
The way that the team finished out these past two weeks has led me to believe management may be content with crossing their fingers and hoping this roster can squeak into the playoffs as-is, even though the team only played one great game (against San Jose). Because at this point, what can you do? You're not going to trade for an impact defenseman (read: top-pairing) with so many teams in the playoff hunt, and if you do, it's going to cost a fortune. Like 3 Sean Couturiers.
You've got a little over a month left of the season once the freeze is lifted, and management of teams already in a playoff position (wow - the Flyers actually fall into this category) are going to be weary of big trades that would dismantle their roster, so that narrows it down to prospect for rental situations. That's not really what the Flyers are looking for on the backend.
Names like Vancouver's Alex Edler or Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien keep getting thrown around, but I can't see either of those two teams letting go of players like that considering the Western Playoff race (Vancouver and Winnipeg are 1 and 2 points out of a wildcard position, respectively.)
But to answer the question, I'd like to see the Flyers make a play for one or both of Tom Gilbert or Ron Hainsey. The two of them could fit well into management's future plans for the direction of the defense, and they're only 30 and 32 years old. Tom Gilbert's quietly become part of one of the best pairings in the league, and it seems like Florida might be willing to move him for less than it would take to acquire some of the other names on the block. He may not be in their future plans, but he could very well fit in ours. Ron Hainsey is having an incredible year for Carolina.
Look for the Flyers to test the waters re: a top-pairing defenseman over the course of the summer.
In order to gauge how well a team or player on the penalty kill is performing, I generally look at shot suppression instead of save percentage. 4v5 save percentage is so volatile.
When Luke Schenn's on the ice, the penalty kill suppresses shots at a higher rate, which is less traffic to the net. It's a lighter workload on the goaltender. That's obviously good.
There's a slight problem with trying to compare these two defensemen on the penalty kill, however. You want these types of defensemen to be covering the front of the net. Big-bodied defensemen have to clear the crease, have to cover the boards, have to block shots and have to win battles behind the net. You don't have to worry about clean zone exits with possession. Both Schenn and Grossmann add value to the penalty kill, and both of them should be on it.
There's a reason why our penalty kill is thriving. We've got one of the most elite penalty kill units in the league.
I'm not going to get into a giant Grossmann debate RE: should he be in the lineup, because the coaching staff has shown that they have no desire to remove #8 from their top-four, despite how awful he looked in January and how horrendous his stats were over that same time. He's looked markedly better since the end of January, and I don't see the coaching staff taking him out as his play is starting to rebound. If they didn't sit him a couple games in January, I don't see them doing it now.
Exactly two weeks ago, Kurt put out one heck of an article on Steve Downie's descent into Berube's "doghouse", if you will. For whatever reason, Berube's decided that, despite being one of the best 12 forwards on the roster, Downie's going to be the odd-man-out whenever somebody needs to get pulled. Over the past month, things went a little like this:
Since returning to the team on December 28 from an undisclosed injury, Downie has moved around quite a bit, from the fourth line ... up to the third line ... to the first line ... to the third line ... to the press box ... to the a different, weirder version of the first line ... to a different, weirder version of the third line ... to the fourth line ... and finally back to the press box on Sunday. All of this happened over a 16 game span.
The past two weeks, he's been back on the third line with Couturier and Read. That's where he should stay. It's probably hard for Downie to get into a groove with the way he's been jerked around the lineup for the past month. He's proven he works well against top competition in Tampa Bay and Colorado, and he seems to compliment the skills of Couturier and Read very, very well. So just let him stay there, work it out.
Have the moves affected his confidence? Oh, I don't know. They probably have. Downie's shown he can be the type of player that can contribute effectively within this system. Perhaps the Olympic break will settle everyone down.
That's it. The Flyers return to the ice in 17 days, so enjoy the little break. Knit something, or whatever it is that you all like to do in your spare time.