Friday Odds and Ends from a Flyers Lens


1) If there was ever a doubt as to how much Sean Couturier means to the Philadelphia Flyers, the second period of Thursday's game in Pittsburgh was a good case in point about how much the player's absence is felt when he is not in the lineup.

Even if Couturier had been in the Flyers' lineup, it is certainly possible that the Penguins may still have come back to erase an early 2-0 deficit and beaten the Flyers. No one player is a miracle-worker.

However, Couturier is a stabilizing force who can restore order to a game not only with his attention to defensive detail but also his ability to protect and cycle the puck in the offensive zone. Without Couturier, the Flyers forward lineup looked mighty thin as the Penguins ran roughshod. 

2) The Flyers' third-line and fourth-line forwards have caught a lot flak of late, and not entirely without justification. Philly essentially does not have a bonafide third line — rather, it is more like a fourth-line A and a fourth-line B.

As a result, the unit of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare centering Chris VandeVelde and Ryan White ends up getting overused as essentially the default third line. The line brings good energy most games and has elements of hustle, skating ability and grit but is best used in more of an energy line (i.e. fourth line) role. The trio can handle secondary defensive duties but is not an ideal "shutdown line" nor can it keep the pace offensively with what teams with a bona fide third line can expect from the unit in terms of adding scoring depth.

While Matt Read has been an effective player higher in the lineup at times in his career and still plays in special teams situations, he played his way down in the lineup at five-on-five. Scott Laughton is still trying to find his NHL niche in his second pro season. He is finding play away from the puck — one of his strengths at the junior level — to be much tougher in the NHL because the NHL guys are bigger and stronger than junior players and are superior to the opposition Laughton faced in the AHL with the Phantoms.

Lastly, R.J. Umberger keeps things very simple in his game and, while not a defensive liabilty or unusable as a 12 forward, his contract is an albatross. Umberger gets paid like he's still a 20-plus goal scorer who plays in all situations. Unfortunately, he hasn't been that caliber of player in several years and is unlikely to turn back the hands of time.

3) In today's NHL, having two high-quality goaltenders is no longer a luxury; it's a necessity. Although the Flyers have hurt their cause this past week with back-to-back regulation losses, their three-point weekend against the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings was steeped in the team's ability to go into tough games on consecutive days and be able to use both of their goaltenders with full confidence.

Even in the two losses this week to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, the play of Steve Mason was not among the team's problems. In the bigger picture, the Flyers' ability to switch as needed between Mason and Michal Neuvirth is one of the team's strengths this season.

4) Over his last 16 games played, Jakub Voracek has posted 18 points (five goals, 13 assists). Even with his slow start included, Voracek is on pace for about 60 points. The prediction here is that he will finish closer to the 70-point ballpark. His goal-scoring pace is still way off where he'd like to be — his first-period tally in Pittsburgh was just his sixth goal  and his first power play goal of the season — but he is well within reach of a 50-assist season. Voracek's rapid adaptation to playing left wing at even strength has been a help to the team because it enables the team to stack the top line with Wayne Simmonds joining Voracek and Claude Giroux.

5) Giroux has fully matured as an NHL captain. He has always been a hard worker and competitor but he seems to have reached another level in the ways he leads by example — everything from blocking shots on penalty kills to the attention to detail he's paid in being a 200-foot player at even strength.

Giroux is also a calming influence in the dressing room. He genuinely believes in his team's abilities, and conveys a sort of confidence that has been a big part of the team's 15-9-5 run over the last 29 games. The leadership group as a whole is showing more maturity than it did a year ago when the loss of Kimmo Timonen left a huge void. No one player can lead alone. However, Giroux is the team's number one leader and not just because he's got the best stats or simply by virtue of having the C on his chest.

Former Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock once challenged Keith Primeau by saying, "Do you want to be the most popular guy in the room or do you want to be the captain of the room?" Giroux has always been well-liked by teammates but he has matured into the guy who keeps things moving forward even when (or especially when) there are stumbles and losses to overcome.

Another sign of Giroux's maturation. He has finally learned how to put out the right messages in the media: positive-focused but always emphasizing ways the team can better and needs to stick together. He'll never be Danny Briere as an eloquent orator but Giroux now regularly shows that he has his finger on the team's pulse. It's not what he says but how he says it.

6) The 2015-16 season has been a transitional one in the career of Michael Del Zotto. Always considered more of an offensive defenseman than a two-way player, he brought out his two-way game a year ago. This season, he's been asked to take on tougher defensive responsibilities than he carried in previous years. He's sacrificed some offense — actually quite a bit — but his puck possession analytics at even strength in the majority of games have made him a good fit for Dave Hakstol's system.

However, in an ideal world, Del Zotto would not be a top pairing defenseman. It's just a necessity on the current roster. While absorbing very heavy minutes and playing in tough situations, there are still areas of Del Zotto's own-zone game that get exposed against high skill teams. He is an adequate coverage defenseman, but not a great one. Del Zotto is still one of the likeliest suspects to be used as a screen by a shooter or to defend a 2-on-1 in such fashion that he takes away neither the pass (typically the defender's primary responsibility) nor the shot. Playing in front of the net, Del Zotto is inconsistent in his ability to get advantageous stick or body position. He's an average-sized defender, but he is not devoid of physical play (something that was a bit of a pleasant suprise to discover last season).

Offensively, Del Zotto has had fewer opportunities this season to pinch down to the left circle and make use of his wrister from his shooting sweet spot. That was where he scored seven of his 10 goals last season.  Del Zotto has three goals this season, one of which came from that area. Del Zotto does not have much of a shot from the point, so he is not a big threat either from center or left point. 

With the addition this season of Shayne Gostisbehere and to a lesser extent Evgeny Medvedev, the Flyers are pretty deep in backline offensive punch along with veteran offensive defenseman Mark Streit. As such, it would be foolish to judge Del Zotto's season by comparing his offensive numbers this season to last year's totals. First and foremost, Del Zotto is out there to assist in creating puck possession, and he usually does that pretty well while absorbing a heavy ice-time workload.

No player is perfect and Del Zotto's role could change again as some of the prospects in the system continue to develop and graduate to the NHL level. Del Zotto does a lot of the heavy lifting on the current blueline because there aren't really any other candidates to do all of the things he's asked to do. That does not mean Del Zotto gets an automatic free pass when he has a bad night such as Thursday's game in Pittsburgh.  Instead, it's just a small snapshot in a bigger collage of a team that's still very much in a transitional phase.

Bill Meltzer is a columnist for Flyerdelphia. Follow him on Twitter @billmeltzer.

Go to top button