Pre-season Prediction Review and a Thank You

I’ll be brutally honest with you; I thought Berube was toast going into the presser Wednesday.  I still think he is and that Hextall is just biding his time to line up a replacement.  I really thought I was going to lead this, the last column of the season, off with a 15,000 word “we came not to bury Craig Berube, but to praise him” opening, but alas, such is not the stuff of fact.

As you may recall, in September, we brought aboard Dan and Kara along with myself and answered questions about the upcoming season.  Here’s what we said then and what actually happened.

Q:   Will Claude Giroux have another slow start due to missing the pre-season?

Kara: It definitely worries me. He got hurt at camp, which makes me question what kind of shape he was in to begin with. You would think these guys would show up at camp conditioned and in shape, but that’s not always the case.

Dan: I don’t believe he will have a slow start due to his current injury. He is currently doing workouts off the ice to keep up with conditioning. I think he’ll be ready to go for the visit to Boston as long as he doesn’t agitate it any further. It will be nothing like last year when he injured his hand.

Jay: Even if he’s physically fine for the Boston opener, those couple weeks are pretty valuable in terms of getting timing down. I think G starts slowly yet again.

What actually happened: Giroux did not start slow, and in fact was in Art Ross discussion for most of the year, finishing with 73 points in 81 games, good for tenth in the league.  Nice work, Dan!

Q: Who spends the most time at LW1 this year?

Kara: As a personal preference, I’d like to see what (two-time Swedish league champion center) Pierre-Édouard Bellemare can offer; he’s a fast skater who has an excellent shot. If that doesn’t work, I’d go with Michael Raffl.

Dan: I think a fight will be between Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn will emerge. Simmonds has that gritty feel that will fight around the net to get those dirty goals from rebounds and deflections. Schenn has the speed that can match with Voracek and he can fit around defenders, especially if they tend to try and shutdown Giroux and Voracek. Michael Raffl I think can be a sleeper as well.

Jay: My guess is it’s Brayden Schenn, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Simmonds and Raffl both spend a little time on the top line. The Flyers are simply too deep up the middle, meaning someone has to get moved to a wing; it won’t be Lecavalier (that was terrible last year) and Couturier is too valuable defensively to move out of the middle. I think Schenn gets bumped to the wing.

What actually happened: It was a mishmash of players, but ultimately when Michael Raffl got to the first line, he looked the best there.  In fact, Raffl was the best forward for the Flyers advanced stats-wise.  It’s a shame Berube has no clue and didn’t just roll with him constantly on the top line.  Kara hit this one.

Q: Can Steve Mason repeat last year’s performance?

Kara: I think so. I’m typing this as I watch the game. His lateral movement has gotten quicker, as has his puck handling. My biggest concern isn’t him, it’s the defense in front of him. He can make big saves and bail out the defense, which they need.

Dan: Since coming here, he’s revived his career and produced numbers similar to his rookie season (.916 SV% past season, .917 SV% rookie year). He is a Calder Memorial Trophy winner.  He’ll have his great saves and shutouts, but he needs help from the defense in front of him.

Jay: He’s capable of it. The big question really is the defense in front of him; if they can offer him some support, I think he’ll have a successful year. If they leave him out to dry though, or if he can’t match the quality of his play from last year, this will be a very long season.

What actually happened: Mason didn’t repeat last year’s performance, he bettered it: his save percentage went up (.917 to .928), his goals against went down (2.50 to 2.25), and he was a lifesaver on many occasions.  Unfortunately, the defense was good for an uncovering or two a night that he couldn’t stop.  However, Steve Mason is the reason why this team isn’t drafting even higher and even sniffed the playoffs.  We all hit this in one way or another.

Q: The biggest addition to the Flyers this year is? The biggest subtraction is?

Kara: Robert Hagg is spending his first full year in the AHL with the Phantoms this year, and he’s going to be huge when he’s NHL ready. The biggest loss? Kimmo. Despite his age, he’s a workhorse. He’s a great veteran presence who will be missed on and off the ice.

Dan: The Flyers couldn’t do much besides rid themselves of bad contracts. As much as the Hartnell trade was a surprise, I’m not extremely upset about it because it helps long term by freeing up cap space. I do somewhat like the Del Zotto signing because it’s a low risk high reward move. The biggest subtraction may be two more years of Zac Rinaldo, who I see as an agitator who takes bad penalties and nothing more.

Jay: Biggest addition is Del Zotto. Guys with that kind of potential just don’t grow on trees. He could be an enormous steal. The biggest subtraction is Kimmo; he’s just not replaceable, between his special teams work and overall steadiness and leadership. That one-year deal he signed was a bridge the Flyers erected to let them cross into next year and welcome the first one or two of the new crop of defensemen they have maturing on the farm now, but now that bridge is gone.

What actually happened: the biggest subtraction was of course Kimmo, who was impossible to replace both on the ice and in the locker room.  The biggest new addition?  Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White both looked good, but Michael Del Zotto was every bit the steal we thought he could be.  Even after being inexplicably scratched time after time, he came out and played well, offering offense from the back end while providing solid cover in their own zone.  I hit this one dead on.

Q: Will we see any of the highly-touted defensemen in the system this year?

Kara: I don’t think it happens unless there’s an injury. If Hextall sticks to what he said, no one in the Flyers pipeline will be rushed.

Dan: With Grossman and Timonen already in question, I think Hagg and Gostisbehere are most NHL ready and will have their names brought up. Sam Morin has put on twenty pounds of muscle from the end of last year’s season. Our defense is older and I feel injury prone. Won’t take much to have a call up.

Jay: If Timonen was healthy I would say no. Now I’m not sure. It’s possible if a couple defensemen go out that we see one of the kids for a couple games, but I don’t think anyone will be promoted because the organization deems them “ready”.

What actually happened: we had a Ghost sighting!  It was a couple games both filled with hope and concern, as Hextall said he wouldn’t rush the future, and then called up Ghost for a couple contests.  Was he abandoning the plan?  The answer was no, and we were tantalized by the potential of Gostisbehere.  We all kind of hit this.

Q: How does Michael Del Zotto fare?

Kara: I loved this signing. He’s a 3/4 defenseman and a good PP guy. He carried the Rangers PP while he was in NY and has an offensive upside. It’s a low-risk high-reward contract. I’m hoping a change of scenery will help him, too. People forget he’s only 24. Defensemen take time to develop. Del Zotto is at a perfect age, and I think he’ll fit in well.

Dan: I think Del Zotto will step it up. I think he could be a great addition to the power play. He has some speed and a big frame. He will be above Nick Schultz on the depth chart. He definitely has something to prove in the organization with Gostisbehere and Hagg showing promise too.

Jay: I’ve warmed to this signing (see above). Initially all I could remember was Rangers fans blaming him for everything from turning the puck over in their own zone again to the ice being cold (kind of like how we do Braydon Coburn). He was bad last year but it could just be an aberration. That, and I’m hoping he catches fire for us so he torments New York in the orange and black for the next decade, like so many ex-Flyers do to us.

What actually happened: He did well, certainly enough to merit a re-signing (which the Flyers are looking to do now).  He even scored the game winner against the Rangers on Feb 28th.  Not bad, kid, not bad.

Q: Who would be the player hardest to replace if they were lost for the year?

Kara: Mason. Emery can’t handle a starting role anymore; it’s just too much for him. He’s an average goalie at best.

Dan: Giroux, because of his playmaking abilities.

Jay: Mason. The other options are terrifying: Emery (old, slow laterally), Stolarz (needs time in the AHL), Zepp (signed as organizational depth), a free agent like Brodeur (yuck, just, yuck). If Mason goes down, what hope the Flyers have of making a run is most likely lost.

What actually happened: It was Mason undoubtedly.  Everyone else basically panned out how we thought: the organization didn’t want to rush Stolarz, Emery was old and slow (although he deputized well in occasions), Zepp showed himself as better than the AHL and not-quite NHL material.  You could make a serious case for Giroux or Voracek, but this has to go to Mason.

Q: The Flyers’ leading goal scorer is…

Kara: Voracek. He gets better every year. He has the potential to be a pure goal scorer. I think this season will be huge for him.

Dan: Voracek, with Simmonds and Giroux closely behind.

Jay: Simmonds. The league is all about deflecting pucks and screening the goalie and he excels at both. He can score on anyone.

What actually happened: Jake Voracek made The Leap to being a point a game player, scoring 81 points in 82 games, good for fourth place in the race for the Art Ross.  Simmonds ended up with 50 points in 75 games.  That’s not bad, but uh, let’s just move along, shall we?

Q: How many points do the Flyers have at the end of the year?

Kara: 90-94. They didn’t get better in the off-season; they made lateral moves and signings.

Dan: 91, due to a big March.

Jay: 92; they made lateral moves while other clubs got better but are more familiar with the system in which they play, which counts for something.

What actually happened: the Flyers finished with 84 points, good for seventh worst in the league.  They had 18 overtime/shootout losses, the most in the league by three.  Seven teams in the league had fourteen or more OT/SO losses and only one (Detroit) made the playoffs.  The cutoff for minimum points for the playoffs in the East was 98 this year, so even 90-94 points wouldn’t have been enough.

Q: Rank the teams in the Metro in the order you expect them to finish:

Kara: Penguins, Rangers, Blue Jackets, Flyers, Capitals, Devils, Islanders, Hurricanes

Dan: Penguins, Blue Jackets, Rangers, Flyers, Islanders, Capitals, Devils, Hurricanes

Jay: Penguins, Rangers, Blue Jackets, Flyers, Capitals, Islanders, Devils, Hurricanes

What actually happened: Rangers, Capitals, Islanders, Penguins, Blue Jackets, Flyers, Devils, Hurricanes.  We all expected the Blue Jackets to play the way they did at the end of the year the whole year, didn’t anticipate all the Pens injuries and their propensity for going belly-up like a goldfish won at the local fair, and didn’t expect the Islanders to be SO young and SO fast and for Halak to be good enough to get them to the next stop.  Also, the Capitals, second?  Ugh.

Q: Do the Flyers make the playoffs? If so, how far can they go?

Kara: They go as a Wild Card and get bumped in the first round. They’re a fringe playoff team and not a contender. The right now is scary but the future has me excited, as it should all Flyers fans.

Dan: The Flyers will sneak into the playoffs with a very good March push, but will not make it past the first round.

Jay: They go as a Wild Card but, like last year, get eliminated in the first round. Their time is not now; their time is then, and then will be now SOON. Just, not yet.

What actually happened: Er, no.  Yuck.

That’s the end of our predictions in this wildly unpredictable season.  I’m sure changes will be in store, firings will happen, trades will be made.  I’m excited about our seven draft picks in the first 101 picks of this, the deepest draft in years.  If they get this right, it could set us up for success for years to come.  What a time to be alive!

It’s been a great pleasure to share this season with you, regardless of the result.  We’ve made friends, shared ideas, helped each other understand the game better, and all the while supported the Flyers through their ongoing struggles.  We’ve watched each game knowing the team is trying to win, that the goal is still the playoffs every year, that we’re not going to trade all our talent away because they would stop us from getting a better pick.  We’ve gone into the Wells Fargo Center each night knowing that we will see Flyer hockey, that our owner loves us and this team and that he will do whatever he can to help, that for the first time in years our GM is not just a former Flyer, but has experience winning elsewhere, and has a plan for us.  We watch players in this transitional phase, some young and some old, where names like Timonen, Grossmann, Lecavalier, Schultz, and Streit will be replaced by names like Morin, Hagg, Gostisbehere, Sanheim, and Laughton.  We follow the Phantoms almost as closely as the Flyers, because with them lies the future of the franchise and real hope for a Cup.

Most of all, we have each other, this crazy brother and sisterhood of orange-and-black-wearing diehards, young and old, who care more about this team than they do almost anything else.  Those who get season or partial season tickets, or stay up late to watch the team on a West Coast swing, or who DVR games because summer is long and there is little hockey to be had, so we do what we can to watch when we need to.  We understand that Cup droughts don’t last forever, that we have many reasons to be proud of our team, and that it’s not easy but instead rewarding to be a Flyers fan; we understand it doesn’t provide instant gratification or easy success on a national stage, but rather a loud, passionate family that has been through it all and accepts new fans as its own, a family who will be there regardless of the night’s result and has been for decades.  We are in Boston and Los Angeles, Winnipeg and Dallas, and parts in between; wherever there is hockey, there are we.  Our sterling examples of success that so many point to as so far in the past inspire us; the inexorable march of time slows us not, nor diminishes our passion or number. And on the day when Lord Stanley’s Cup finally makes the turn at City Hall, takes a right off of Market Street and onto the road so many know of us by, when the flatbeds slowly roll down Broad Street in a procession some of us thought we may never get to see, I will look for you friend, and I hope you look for me too, if only to say “we did it!”.

Thank you for reading this year.  It’s been an honor.

-Jay

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