Two teams buried in the Eastern Conference standings put on a dull display of listless hockey for roughly 55 of 60 minutes yesterday in Buffalo. The Flyers and Buffalo Sabres didn't exactly put the pedal to the metal for most of the afternoon, and the result was a match that had the look and feel of a preseason game. Most of the noticeable players were the ones auditioning for jobs beyond this season.
Ultimately, the Sabres won the game, 1-0, on a fluky goal scored 17 seconds into the third period. Christian Erhoff's point shot went wide of the net, caromed off the end boards, hit the pads or skate of Flyers goaltender Steve Mason and went into the net.
Apart from his sloppy positioning on the game's only goal, the play of Mason was one of the positives of the game for Philadelphia. He only saw 21 shots for the game, but he was tested a few times (particularly in the second period) and looked sharp. Whether it is Mason or Ilya Bryzgalov or any other netminder in goal, it's awfully tough to win with zero goal support.
Over the course of their four-game losing streak that has emphatically slammed the door on their already slim playoff hopes, the Flyers have scored a grand total of three goals. As has been the case all too often this season, yesterday's game entered the third period tied and the Flyers were unable to muster a goal in crunch time.
Danny Briere, making his return to the lineup after a ten-game absence due to a concussion, hit the crossbar in the final second of regulation. That was as close as the Flyers came to scoring a goal yesterday. They generated few scoring chances in the first 50 minutes of the game, but did test Buffalo backup goalie Jhonas Enroth (29 saves) several times in the waning minutes. All the scoring chances were either blocked, shot wide of the net or stopped by the acrobatic netminder.
The cause of the recent scoring problems is not hard to find. Philly has been terrible at five-on-five this season, both offensively and defensively. Offensively, they have relied on their power play to provide the bulk of their goals. The power play has gone cold over the last four games and, as a result, the team is not scoring at all.
Defensively, the Flyers played reasonably well yesterday. It should also be said that Buffalo didn't exactly forecheck with a lot of gusto for much of the game. Even so, Philly did not have a lot of glaring breakdowns, which have plagued the club all year.
None of the Flyers reconstituted lines looked particularly good yesterday. However, certain individual players performed with energy and alertness.
Up front, I thought impending unrestricted free agent Simon Gagne had the best game of anyone on the top forward line. Defenseman Erik Gustafsson, fighting to be in top-six mix for next year, quietly played a strong game on the blueline. Rookie Oliver Lauridsen threw his weight around and mixed it up early in the game with despised Buffalo forward Patrick Kaleta. As mentioned before, Mason was good in goal.
Among the players who have secure spots for next year, Wayne Simmonds was arguably the most effective Flyers player. He forechecked hard, drove the net and went all out in pursuit of loose pucks.
The Flyers' regulation loss, coupled with Tampa Bay earning one point against Washington yesterday, dropped Philadelphia to 13th in the Eastern Conference via tiebreaker and 26th in the NHL. Carolina and Calgary each have one fewer point than Philadelphia. It is entirely possible that the Flyers could finish the season as the 28th of 30 teams in the NHL, ahead only of Colorado and Florida.
Some may consider that good news, because each successive Flyers loss improves their chances at winning the top pick in the NHL Draft lottery. Personally, I consider it a disgrace for a team to barely make an effort to play out the string rather than being professionals who fight the good fight.
At any rate, a top-three pick would mean one of Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones or Jonathan Drouin would be available to be selected by Philly in the draft. A top-five pick would put the team in position to draft a player such as Aleksander Barkov, Sean Monahan or Elias Lindholm.
BRIERE DESERVES CHANCE TO PLAY
Plain and simple, the reason why Danny Briere was in the lineup yesterday, and will continue to be, was that Peter Laviolette wants him there if possible and Briere is eager to show he's healthy and try to finish the season on a positive note to show both the Flyers and other prospective employers he can still contribute.
Briere has brought a lot of good things to the organization on and off the ice during his six years with the team. Apart from the clutch goals he's scored, especially in the playoffs and overtime situations, he is an eminently considerate and likeable person who goes out of his way to be a good teammate and a good human being. Letting him play the remainder of the season is one way the Flyers' hockey people can give something back to a loyal player who would finish his career here if it were up to him.
A summertime buyout seems almost inevitable. Briere's $6.5 million cap hit, mounting injuries, advancing age, and relatively modest remaining salaries in the final two-years of his frontloaded contract make him the team's most obvious buyout candidate despite his history of playoff heroics.
As a business decision, using a compliance buyout on Briere is a virtual no-brainer with the salary cap about to drop. Even so, anyone who has ever been around the man or the Flyers locker room knows that Briere would be missed in a lot of ways if and when the team buys out the remainder of his contract.
I will also say in Briere's defense this season that he's played much of the season out of his customary center position. His year was set back at the start by what turned out to be a pretty significant hand injury and, later, by a concussion (he's had quite a few of those).
It is no secret that Briere is a subpar defensive player. Well, guess what: Briere may be the most noticeably overmatched forward, but the Flyers have quite a few forwards on the top end of their lineup who aren't exactly Selke Trophy candidates.
The ranks of average-to-below-average defensive forwards in the lineup include the likes of Brayden Schenn (who has improved in his two NHL seasons but still has plenty of room to get better), Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell.
Additionally, there are games where Claude Giroux takes shifts off on the defensive side of the puck, and games where he is solid defensively. Even potential Bobby Clarke Trophy winner Jakub Voracek arguably played a better two-way game at even strength last year, especially in the latter part of the season. Voracek is scoring more goals this year while averaging close to a point-per-game but he's also taking more low-percentage risks.
Many people focus exclusively on the defensemen (and/or the goaltending) when they talk about the team's defensive problems. Well, this team's goals against average isn't going to improve significantly unless they get more consistent defensive commitment from forwards as well as defensemen. Simply jettisoning Briere won't fix it, nor would a change behind the bench to a more defense-minded coach be an automatic cure.
Hockey is a tough, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. Loyalty is rarely a two-way street. Letting Briere show he is healthy enough to have a fighting chance at a bounceback season next year is one small way the Flyers organization can do right by an employee who has gone the extra mile from day one.
Fans see only what happens on the ice. But everyone around the team sees a guy who sets a positive, upbeat example every single day. They see a veteran player who is one of the first to come to the rink and one of the last to leave (long after the on-ice training is done). They see a guy who willingly takes young players into his home.
Moreover, they see a guy who takes media heat off of less talkative teammates by patiently answering both mundane and oft-repeated questions or tough and pointed ones when the team has not been winning.
Teammates see a friend who juggles being a devoted father and a deeply committed member of the team who has played an important role in the team's biggest successes since his arrival in 2007. In a highly competitive environment, Briere is unanimously liked and respected. That uniformity of esteem is not nearly as common as one might think.
The organization see a player who gives up his already limited free time to represent the team off the ice whenever asked to do so, especially when charitable causes are involved. He does it cheerfully and with a healthy dose of perspective. Briere is the first to recognize that the game has given him a lot and enabled him to provide a good life to his children. The least he can do is to give of his time for those who support his team and his sport, especially those who are less fortunate in life.
There IS some risk in letting Briere play. If he sustains another concussion or a serious injury that would otherwise lead him to fail a standard physical, the team would be prohibited from buying him out this summer. But even if that were to end up being the case, the Flyers would have an LTIR option on Briere next season if necessary.
SUNDAY QUICK HITS
* Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren confirmed yesterday that all of the team's injured players, including Zac Rinaldo (high ankle sprain) and Nicklas Grossmann (concussion, balance issues), would miss the rest of the season. It is no surprise that Grossmann will be held out the rest of the season. The prognosis on Rinaldo was not official until yesterday.
* Hockey Night in Canada reported yesterday that the Flyers are the front runners to sign undrafted Quinnipiac senior goaltender Eric Hartzell, a Hobey Baker Trophy finalist, to an entry level contract. Hartzell was an attendee of the Flyers' prospect camp last July. He is a big-framed goaltender who really came into his own this season playing behind a generally defensively sound team. The goaltender let in a questionable goal and an outright soft one in the Frozen Four final last night against Yale but that does not detract from the marvelous season Hartzell had. Without him, there is no way Quinnipiac would have gotten anywhere near the Frozen Four championship game, and he had been magnificent throughout the tourney as well as the first period of last night's game.
* Scott Laughton, the Flyers' first-round pick in 2012 who opened the lockout-shortened season with a five-game stint with the big club, scored his first professional level goal yesterday for the Phantoms. Laughton tallied an unassisted shorthanded goal in the first period of what would become a 4-3 overtime win against the Connecticut Whale. Jason Akeson tallied the overtime winner and a late second-period shorthanded goal for Adirondack. Rob Bordson had the other Phantoms tally. Laughton has a goal and an assist in two games with the Phantoms to date. Nick Cousins has gone scoreless in his three games to date.
* There have been reports from Russia, denied by the Flyers, that the Flyers have offered an entry-level contract to Sibir Novosibirsk defenseman Nikita Zaitsev. The story said that was first reported by Gazeta in Russia, saying that Sibir's general manager was uncertain of Zaitsev's return for next season because the Flyers had offered Zaitsev a contract and the player was weighing his options. The 21-year-old puck mover played on his KHL team's top defensive pairing this year, while serving as an assistant captain. The mobile righthanded shooter posted a career-best seven goals,18 points and 41 penalty minutes in 49 regular season games. He scored one goal in the playoffs, as his team got knocked out by Avangard Omsk in seven first-round games. Originally expected to be a mid-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft (he was ranked 13th among European skaters), Zaitsev went undrafted.
* Quite a few people have asked me for my thoughts on the Flyers' options in NHL Draft. I will address these issues with blogs after the end of the regular season, when their final spot in the standings. There will be plenty of time to discuss these topics in depth while the Stanley Cup Playoffs are being played.
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