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Meltzer's Musings: Timonen, Laviolette, Shero and Tarasov

August 28, 2013, 1:22 PM ET [103 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Timonen May Extend NHL Career Beyond 2013-14

Shortly after signing a one-year contract extension with the Flyers for the 2013-14 season, defenseman Kimmo Timonen said that he was "ninety nine percent sure" that it would be his final campaign in the NHL. Now, the 38-year-old defenseman is reconsidering his future.

Yesterday, the four-time NHL All-Star told CSN Philly/HockeyBuzz writer Tim Panaccio that he may continue playing after next season. It depends on how his body feels and whether he can maintain his accustomed standards on the ice.

There is no question that Timonen has lost a step to age and the accumulated pounding he's taken. There is also no doubt that he is still one of the better defensemen in the NHL, and remains the Flyers' top all-around blueliner as well as a key locker room leader.

Despite coming off back surgery last summer and playing through a compression fracture in his foot for much of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Timonen had a strong year on an otherwise disappointing club. He ranked sixth among NHL defensemen with 29 points and managed to finish as a plus-three on a team that ranked near the bottom the league in five-on-five play while ranking number one in combined special teams play.

Some people have questioned why the Flyers agreed to pay Timonen $6 million for this season. The answer is simple: That is his market value, even at his advanced hockey age.

Sports fans often look at the leagues through a narrow prism, paying little attention to leaguewide trends. They focus only on what is directly in front of them, which is the team of their rooting interest.

On a leaguewide basis in the NHL, teams are signing their high level -- and, often, even mid-level -- defensemen to contract extensions before they can reach unrestricted free agent status. For the most part, the only defensemen who are on the open market these days are either a) players with significant health or other major question marks or b) aging or non-All Star types who wanted significantly more money/years than their current team offered before the start of free agency.

As a result, salaries are very inflated for veteran defensemen throughout the NHL. The lockout didn't change this trend, or even slow it down to any significant degree.

The contract the Flyers gave to Mark Streit is another sign of the times. Everyone knew the organization wanted a proven puck mover to trigger breakouts. Streit can do that and is also a very good power play defenseman. He has drawbacks to his game and is 35 years old. But there was not much other suitable alternative on the unrestricted free market.

In the meantime, NHL general managers know that most every team is looking to add to its defense, so the asking prices in trade are equally inflated. It is NOT that the Flyers have no interest in trading for an All-Star caliber defensemen in his prime (such as Phoenix's Keith Yandle). The problem is that it takes two sides to make a trade happen, and the trading cost of the acquisition can't be so high as to rip open other holes on the team.

In acquiring and signing Streit, the Flyers were able to accomplish it without giving up any roster players or a draft pick in the top three rounds. They sent a 2014 fourth-rounder to the Islanders. The bottom line was that Philly was forced to overpay one way (Streit's long-term contract) or another (a depth-gutting trade for a younger defenseman). They chose the former.

What about pursuing restricted free agents? The Flyers swung for the fences in their offer sheet to Shea Weber last summer. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a fly out to the warning track in dead center field. Philly concocted one hell of a poison pill but the Predators' ownership decided to keep their franchise player at all costs, especially after Ryan Suter -- whom the Flyers heavily pursued as an unrestricted free agent -- bolted for Minnesota.

Forget about the Flyers tendering an offer sheet to Alex Pietrangelo. Yes, he is still unsigned in St. Louis. But he is going to be a member of the Blues for many, many years to come. I am almost certain that the holdup right now is whether he signs a maximum-length, megabucks deal or signs a "bridge" (shorter-term, somewhat lesser money) deal and has a big year or two before getting his monster extension. Either which way, the Blues aren't letting him get away, nor are they going to trade him in any realistic scenario.

Even if the Flyers had the immediate open cap space -- which they don't, after signing Streit and Vincent Lecavalier -- to put together an offer sheet for Pietrangelo, the Blues would match it. It would be a pipedream to suggest otherwise.

More and more, it is becoming imperative for NHL teams to build their bluelines from within. As has been much discussed this offseason, the Flyers aren't there yet. Bolstered by bringing along young defensemen (Erik Gustafsson, for instance) more patiently of late, selecting eight defensemen in the last two NHL Drafts and acquiring Mark Alt from Carolina, they have begun to assemble a pretty good pool of defense prospects. Even so, it is likely to be three to five years before we'll see any dividends from these recent steps.

For all of these reasons, Kimmo Timonen is still worth his weight in gold to the Flyers. It would be very good news indeed for the organization if he is healthy and effective enough to play beyond next season. Each additional year he plays is one more year of the Flyers having their blueline leader. If all goes well, it also would bring the organization one year closer to bridging the gap between the current, expensive and veteran-heavy defense lineup.the emergence of some younger talents on entry-level contracts in the years to come.


Laviolette's Pre-Camp Expectations

Following last season's debacle and the Flyers' five-game elimination by New Jersey in the second round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette may be on the hotseat entering this season. It it important for the team to get off to a solid start, show improved team defense and remain relatively healthy at key positions. None of those things happened last year.

Laviolette needs -- and fully expects -- things to go better next season. The club has added a proven top-six forward in veteran center Vincent Lecavalier, an established offensive defenseman in Mark Streit and a capable goaltender in Ray Emery to compete with Steve Mason. Of particular interest is how the Emery-Mason goaltending rotation will be handled.

"I think when we get to camp and guys get back on the ice. I don't have a preliminary plan in place right now per se," Laviolette said to Randy Miller. "I think through conversations with the goaltenders and the practice in the training camp and the games, we'll get a good evaluation of these guys and make decisions from there."

"I think if they both play the way we think that they're capable of playing, I think we'll have the ability to use both of these guys to help our team get back to where we need to be as far as a playoff position. I don't think you can sit here in August [and predict] where is it going to play out. I think it's a little bit too early for that."

Laviolette understands just how far last season's team fell short of its pre-season hype, and that a lot of the blame was pinned on the defense corps and now-deposed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. The coach hopes that it can be channeled into a learning experience that, combined with the team's new additions, will result in a return to contender status.

"It goes on and on. When focusing on what went wrong last year, there were a lot of things that we can do better as a group,"said Laviolette. "I know with that we're moving forward in a healthy direction. Guys have been training hard this summer and we're back to a good standing in the health status. Guys are hungry. They're disappointed in the way things turned out last year and we think we're going to have a hungry group to start the season. I think all that adds up to a positive to this year."

"Certainly the back end took a lot of hits last year. The guys that came up [from Adirondack] did play real well. Look at the way we finished the season. That's a credit to Terry Murray and his development of the players in the minors leagues because lots of people are still talking about Oliver [Lauridsen] and the guys that came up. I think that's a credit to him and the way that he's handling the players down there. But it is good to get these [veteran] guys back."

Among the team's younger players, Laviolette identified defenseman Erik Gustafsson as one player who could step up into a full-time starting role next season. "Watching Gus develop the way he did at the end of the year" was one of the biggest positive takeaways from the 2013 season, according to the coach.

"He clearly was one of the most noticeable players on the ice in the last eight-to-10 games for us and then he carried it over into the World Championships as Sweden's leading defenseman who played for [and won] the gold medal," said Laviolette.


Shero and Tarasov

As much as he was respected, even revered, by many of his former players, Hall of Fame coach Fred Shero could be a pain in the neck to the powers-that-be in the NHL. He took pride in being considered a kook and a maverick, caring only that his teams were successful on the ice.

Toward that end, Shero drew inspiration from the legendary Anatoli Tarasov. As is well known about Shero, the coach was a big admirer and student of Russian hockey, even traveling behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1970s for coaching clinics and idea exchanges. What is not as well known is that Shero struck up an unlikely friendship with Tarasov, known as the "Father of Russian Hockey" for building the program from ragtag origins into a world power.

Shero, whose own parents had fled Russia for Canada to escape religious persecution, could understand some Russian but did not speak the language. Tarasov spoke no English. Even so, the two men got along wonderfully.

One night when Shero was in Moscow, he was surprised by a personal visit from Tarasov. Normally very socially awkward and shy, Shero gladly accepted an invitation to join Tarasov for a meal and hockey talk. With no translators present, the two men spent hour after hour sharing rounds of vodka and discussing their philosophies of hockey. Hand-drawn diagrams, gestures and some common hockey terminology was all they needed to make themselves clearly understood to one another. Each man admired the other for being forward-thinking and willing to challenge conventional wisdom about contemporary strategies and the game of the future.

Shero's favorite story about Tarasov, and the one from which he drew the greatest inspiration, was one that Tarasov told about the early years of Soviet hockey. Notorious Soviet premier Joseph Stalin appointed his son, Vasily, to oversee the national hockey program that Tarasov coached.

Vasily, who knew little to nothing about hockey, immediately began to abuse his powers. Over Tarasov's objections, he used to come into the locker room, ranting and raving at the team to play better. He also tried to tell Tarasov which players needed to be removed from the lineup, how to conduct practices better and how his game strategies were flawed.

Very quickly, Tarasov became fed up. Never one who was afraid to speak his mind -- even to a relative of Stalin's who had been appointed his boss -- Tarasov asked for a meeting with Vasily. Dispensing quickly with the pleasantries, Tarasov got right to the point.

"Remove me as the coach if you want, but I can't work this way and neither can my players," he said. "A coach has to be in control -- sole control -- of how he trains and uses his players, and the players can't be distracted from the games by a lot of nonsense. If you want me to stay, then I need you to back off and trust me to coach the right way."

Remarkably, Vasily complied.

Shero loved this story and, in his typical fashion, further built upon and exaggerated it in his own retellings. In Shero's version, it was Stalin himself whom Tarasov stood up to.

Shortly after the Flyers won their second Stanley Cup, there was a lot of bluster from the NHL office about how League president Clarence Campbell was going to crack the whip on the Flyers -- and issue fines to Shero for every violation of league rules -- the next year. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin asked Shero if he was going to have his team tone things down the next season.

Shero responded, "Anatoli Tarasov once told Joseph Stalin where to stick it when he tried to interfere with the way he coached the Soviet team. Why should I be afraid of Clarence Campbell?"


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