Off The Post: Offseason Demolitions Not Slowing Down Flyers and Panthers

National Hockey League general managers usually abide by the 2 R’s of roster building in the off season: “Remake” or “Refine”.

When you’re a contending team, the general rule of thumb is the second option. A general manager of a team that has had decent success rarely looks to upset the apple cart. Instead, he looks for ways to augment the lineup.
Conversely, if you’re the GM of a team that has had limited recent success and your current crop of players are not buying into the game plan, you look to do the former. Ideally, the rebuild is accomplished through a variety of methods: making major trades, signing expensive free agents and/or stockpiling Entry Draft picks.

One might expect a perennial also-ran like the Florida Panthers to eventually make some movement to shake things up as they attempt to get into playoff contention for the first time in years. However, it is unsual for a contending team to shake up its nucleus nearly as extensively as the Philadelphia Flyers did.

When the dust settled at the end of the 2011 off-season, Florida and Philadelphia combined for an astounding 18 player acquisitions through trades or free agency (10 for Florida, eight for Philadelphia). Call them the Webster Dictionary definition of “silly season” participants.

It was understandable to expect that both teams would face early-season challenges in getting all of their new faces to play together. As such, there was high potential for respective slow starts in the standings.

Instead, both the Flyers and Panthers are enjoying successful beginnings to their 2011-2012 campaigns, as they are competing for the top spot in their respective divisions.

So how were they able to get it to work so far and what parts of their newly reconfigured rosters are still works in progress?

How They Were Built

In making the decision to acquire and sign goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a long term contract, it was generally acknowledged that the Flyers had to be creative if they were to fit his contract under the salary cap ceiling. In short, roster changes had to occur.

Amongst their flurry of player movement, the Flyers parted with team captain Mike Richards and leading scorer Jeff Carter. In their places came wingers Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, likely Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, centers Max Talbot and Brayden Schenn, along with defenseman Andreas Lilja.

The Flyers also entered the season with a number of rookies, most notably 2011 first round pick Sean Couturier and forward Matt Read. Both have been impressive for different reasons: Read has notched eight goals and 15 points in 17 games played, while the 6’3 Couturier has become a penalty killing linchpin with a plus-nine rating entering Saturday’s action.

Florida’s offseason movement it was notable that a number of them were former Chicago Blackhawks players familiar to general manager Dale Tallon from his previous post including defenseman Brian Campbell, wingers Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky.

Tallon, with a mandate to improve the team (and reach the salary cap “floor,”) also brought in forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall, Marcel Goc, Tim Kennedy, and Matt Bradley, along with their 1994 first overall pick in defenseman Ed Jovanovski, signed from the Phoenix Coyotes.

Unlike Philadelphia, they decided to shy away from a major money investment in a goaltender, opting to let Tomas Vokoun walk in free agency and sign Jose Theodore as a serviceable starter to ensure a smooth eventual transition for top prospect Jacob Markstrom.

Youth was also expected to be served in Sunrise, Florida. Rookie defenseman Erik Gudbranson and 3rd year man Jason Garrison learning from Jovanovski and Campbell, respectively. Garrison’s offensive performance has been especially impressive with seven goals and nine points in his first 19 games.

The initial knock on the Panthers’ acquisitions was that they weren’t big splash acquisitions like a Brad Richards. Instead, the predominant view looked at their additions as a series of second, third, and fourth line players; an example of “quantity over quality.” In the early going, quality exists in the players Tallon chose.

What’s Working?

Going into the season, one of the main concerns for Philadelphia was their scoring prowess. How can a team lose players like Richards, Carter, or winger Ville Leino and not suffer in the offensive department? Needless to say, team wide scoring has not been much of a concern at all as they led the league in goals per game with a 3.7 average.

Another question was whether or not center Claude Giroux could carry the scoring load from the departed players. A three point effort Saturday left him at 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) and second in league scoring behind Toronto’s Phil Kessel. His uncanny chemistry with Jagr (out with a lower body injury) has been a sight to behold in the offensive zone.

Jagr, at 39, has been especially impressive with nearly a point per game pace (6-11-17, +7) while additional production from Talbot (6-5-11, +3), Voracek (3-10-13, +2), and Danny Briere (5-8-13, +2) emphasize the forward scoring depth is not in short supply.

From a general team standpoint, Philadelphia has benefitted from being an opportunistic first period team with 28 goals scored (12 more than their opponents), leading the league in that category. They have also finished strong in the third period with a 26-22 margin.

Philadelphia’s penalty killing unit was ninth in the league entering Saturday’s game at 87.2 percent and have benefitted from the speed and anticipation provided by Talbot, Giroux, Read and Couturier.

As noted by Philadelphia Inquirer writer Sam Carchidi, in their last eight games entering Saturday’s tilt in Winnipeg, the team’s penalty killing units allowed only one goal in the past 35 penalties incurred by the team (a 97.1 percent kill rate). It’s a remarkable uptick from their first 10 games of the season when they gave up 10 goals in 51 shorthanded situations (80.4 percent kill rate).

As a Philadelphia Flyer last season, Versteeg had difficulty with the changing roles the team had for him. In Florida, the role is a simple one: go out on the top line with Stephen Weiss and start scoring. He has done that in abundance as he cleared the 20 point mark by his 18th game, including a hat trick earlier in the week.

Top line left wing Tomas Fleischmann overcame a career threatening ailment suffered while in Colorado to post a 7-10-17 line in the same number of games. A healthy Fleischmann is a very versatile player who can play the pivot well (66.7 faceoff percentage).

From the blue line, Campbell has been an outstanding trigger man for the sixth ranked power play in the league, with 16 assists and 17 points to start the year, while young Dimitry Kulikov has also maintained an impressive scoring pace with 13 points.

And much like Giroux, the hope in Florida was that the newly configured lineup would provide Weiss with new opportunity and deliver on the promise he had as the fourth overall pick in 2001 NHL Entry Draft. While not scoring at the prodigious clip that Giroux is, the Panthers have to be happy with Weiss’ performance of 6 goals, 15 points, and a plus 10 rating to start the season.

While Bryzgalov was the more ballyhooed goaltender acquisition, Theodore has certainly been a more consistent goaltender thus far, with a 2.49 goals against average and .920 save percentage, while Markstrom has been excellent in relief with a 2.05 GAA and .944 save percentage in 5 games played.

What Remains Works In Progress

As good as the Flyers penalty killing units have been, their power play has been lukewarm at times. Philadelphia’s man advantage production has been good at home, scoring at 19.6 percent clip, but their road performance at 15 percent causes their overall mark to fall to the middle of the pack in that category.

The Flyers also have some concerns in terms of their ability to win faceoff battles in the offensive and defensive zones as Briere leads the team with just under 51 percent successful draws. While Max Talbot is a versatile player, a 43 percent success rate from your primary checking center isn’t going to intimidate opponents at the dot.

There has also been communication issues between defensemen and the goaltenders at times, spotlighted during the team’s 9-8 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on home ice in October. Bryzgalov’s performance improved substantially from that game, so the Flyers are hoping that is an issue that is on its way to resolving itself.

As stated, the Panthers power play has been very impressive, their penalty killing unit’s performance could be their undoing as they stand currently 22nd in the league with a 80.4 percentage overall . Those totals include an even worse performance at home (76.4 percent kill rate). Head coach Kevin Dineen must improve on that if Florida hopes to remain in the postseason mix throughout the season.

Much like Philadelphia, Florida also has concerns at the pivot position, albeit from a talent standpoint. The Panthers have Mike Santorelli anchoring the second unit, the formerly waived Tim Kennedy handling line three, and Sean Matthias on line four. Santorelli’s production, especially, isn’t scoring line worthy with four points in 11 games played.

From a team perspective, how the Flyers and Panthers get their victories is an interesting study of contrasts. The Flyers pattern has been get out in front fast, survive second period lulls, and score timely goals in the third to ensure the win. Florida, on the other hand, has had to battle tooth and nail period after period for theirs.

Both teams have struggled at times with their second period scoring production. Both Philadelphia and Florida are dead even in scoring with their opponents (17 and 15 goals for/against, respectively). The Flyers, in particular, have allowed opponents back into games that they would seem to have a relative hold on, making for interesting conclusions in the final stanza. As hard as both teams work, at times they struggle to provide a “60 minute effort.”

Lack of initial engagement has been a fatal flaw in Philadelphia’s case as they tend to fall behind and stay there. They may mount a comeback, but usually they won’t have enough gas at the end to finish it.

Despite these flaws, both teams have been impressive in their early season performance and considering the amount of turnover they undertook this offseason, the fact that they have looked as good as they have reflects well on the coaching acumen of both Peter Laviolette for Philadelphia and Dineen for Florida.

Whether they’ll maintain this level of success over the whole season remains to be seen, but early returns look promising for a pair of teams who helped to redefine “silly season” back in July.

Be sure to tune into Blog Talk Radio on Monday November 21 at 9:30-10pm for the premiere episode of the Off The Post Show co- hosted by yours truly and Russ Cohen from Sportsology and XM/Sirius.
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photo by del Tufo