Three Reasons To Be Excited About The Flyers Next Season

The Flyers season has come to an end after a valiant effort against the “mighty” Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. The lockers have been cleaned out, the post-season interviews are complete, and the team is scattering for several months to rest, heal, and rebuild in preparation for training camp in September.  I, like most fans, started thinking about the promise of next season the second the final playoff game ended.  Here are three things we learned about the Flyers this season that make the promise of next season so exciting:

The plans work. Flyers GM Ron Hextall has a plan to be patient and grow the organization from within. In a similar way, rookie coach Dave Hakstol has a plan for how to guide a winning hockey team.  And this season proved that both plans are working well.  The Flyers had a very successful 2015 draft, taking several highly-touted prospects in early rounds, including number seven pick, defenseman Ivan Provorov, who is regarded as one of the top NHL prospects.  The Flyers’ farm system is stacked with many other promising prospects who could make a huge impact on the Flyers within the next few years.

When many people thought that Hextall would take the conservative route and hire a seasoned NHL coach at the beginning of this past season, Hextall went outside the box and hired University of North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol. I am sure there were people who did not think Hakstol could make the leap from college to the NHL.  And though it took a little while for the Flyers to adjust to Hakstol’s system, they did and have thrived in it.  I think that the team gelling together in Hakstol’s system was a main reason for the Flyers’ successful season-end push to the playoffs.  I see this positive trend only getting stronger as next season gets underway.

This team has tons of heart and perseverance. Innately talented, smooth-skating teams are a dime a dozen. I’ll take an underdog with heart and a no quit attitude every time.  And that is what we saw from these Flyers in every minute of play versus the Caps during the playoffs.  The Caps were bigger, faster, and more talented, but they almost didn’t win the series.  (And, it’s tough to lose when it seems like even the officials are on your side.)  But personal feelings about the horribly uneven officiating aside, the Flyers never gave up, even after going down 0-3 in the series.  I was at the first playoff game in Philly and it was not a pretty sight.  No one would have blamed the Flyers for giving up after that one.  But they didn’t.  They never gave up and were within a goal of pushing the series to a decisive Game 7.  And, in every penalty kill, impossible save, and struggle for a quality shot on goal, the Flyers stayed in the game by sticking together and never giving up.  That is a team that any fan will be proud to cheer for when hockey season starts again.

The future looks bright. Thanks to Hextall’s focus on building this team from within, the Flyers are already looking like an incredibly promising team over the next few seasons as the stable of elite draft picks start making their way to Philly. The names go on and on (Konecny, Provorov, Sanheim, Morin, Stolarz, Hagg) and it is feasible that all of them could make a huge impact on the Flyers soon.  Add them to the solid core that already exists and the sky’s the limit.  And Hextall has proven that he is capable of making nearly impossible deals to clear cap and roster space to make room for the rookies when they are ready.

Is it October yet? The 2016-17 season can’t get here soon enough.

 

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Flyers Not Playing Boldly

By guest blogger Joseph Franco

#PlayBoldly! That is the Flyers slogan for the season. Too bad the Flyers’ marketing department didn’t check with the players before plastering this phrase all over souvenir cups and the like.

Let’s take a look at a season that started with a good effort versus Tampa. That’s about where the season ended.  Since that opening night in Florida, the Flyers traveled to Miami, where they ran on the beach before the game and then didn’t #PlayBoldly versus the Panthers. They’ve also managed losses against New Jersey, who was projected to be as bad as the Flyers. The Flyers then lost to Buffalo at home and lost to Buffalo in Buffalo. They gave up 49 shots while putting up only 22 in Edmonton. They lost to Calgary, who had been 1-5 in their building before the Flyers came to town. The Flyers also carried a four-plus goals against for that stretch.  #PlayBoldly.   And let’s look at the goals scored on that trip. Buffalo: 1,  Vancouver: 1, Edmonton: 2, Calgary: 1.  And the picture looks even more bleak tonight after a shutout loss to Colorado and another team meeting.

And the pride problems run deep in this organization. The newly-promoted president, Paul Holmgren, started the problem when he was general manager. He signed several big-dollar, long-term contracts with veterans that didn’t pan out. And it will take new GM Ron Hextall several more years to dig out from under the impossible salary cap situation that Holmgren left him. Yet Holmgren still collects a paycheck from the organization.

After the loss in Calgary, the team strives to remain positive. Michael Raffl was quoted as saying “if we play like we played last night, we’re going to win a lot of games.” But here’s the problem, did I mention that the Flames only beat one team in six tries before the Flyers came to town? And that they gave up an ungoldly 4+ goals a game at home? So, it’s great to be positive, but Raffl, your squad just lost to a team that is BAD. You’re not going to win games when you can’t win a game against a team that hadn’t won at home.  Follow that with Dave Hakstol’s quote: “We earned a point.” Well, I know that you’re coming over from college, but the game in the NHL is to win. A point isn’t helpful when it’s against a team that gave away 10 before you came into town. It’s a loss. It is what it is.

And all of this brings me to the subject of leadership. Where is Giroux? Where is Voracek? Didn’t they both recently sign big contracts? I seem to recall comments from the captain such as “we’re hungry after reflecting on last season.” Really? #PlayBoldy? Really?   There seems to be a lack of pride amongst the team. Raffl’s quote could be taken as being good with losing. Team meetings mean nothing if they don’t translate into change. Too many men on the ice penalties. Twice in a game? Three times in two games? Where is the focus? Where is the pride? Where is the leadership? Where is Hextall (who is actually trying to fix the mess)? At the very least, the Flyers should be competitive. And the team should figure out how to play 60 minutes every game, not just the games against winning teams. The fans are paying big bucks to fill the Wells Fargo Center seats and are devoting time to the team only to watch losses to bad teams. Sloppy play. No defense. No offense. Pride? Where is it?

#PlayBoldly?  Really?  When does that start?

Bittersweet Seasons End

A few weekends ago I lived this hockey lover’s dream:  two games in less than 24 hours played by my two favorite teams.  Unfortunately, these games marked the end of disappointing seasons for the Flyers and their minor league affiliate Phantoms given that neither team made the playoffs.  But being a fan means enjoying seeing your team play no matter what, so I was excited to attend my first Leigh Valley Phantoms game and my last Philadelphia Flyers game of the season.

My husband, who grew up near Allentown, eagerly watched the Phantoms’ new arena, PPL Center, being built over the last few years via the Phantoms’ live cam at the construction site.  He and I were very excited to attend a game in the new arena and had booked a room in the beautiful Renaissance Allentown Hotel that is part of the arena complex.  PPL Center did not disappoint and I now understand why Flyers GM Ron Hextall once joked that the Flyers players didn’t mind so much getting sent down to the Phantoms given the beautiful new arena and its amenities.

Though I was excited about seeing the new arena, I was most excited about seeing the Phantoms play.  I had seen them play two years ago when they were the Adirondack Phantoms visiting the Hershey Bears.  Getting to Adirondack to see them play was never going to happen, but I had kept up with how the team was doing.   And because I keep track of the Flyers prospects, I found that I was familiar with most of the players on the Phantoms roster.  In fact, I had seen several of them play for the Flyers this season.

One of the things I like most about minor league hockey is the smaller arenas and thus the closer proximity to the ice.  We sat on the seventh row by one of the goals, but it felt as if I could jump into the face-off circle if I wanted to.  Hockey is one of those sports that is best appreciated in person, and most perfectly appreciated up close in person.  The game is fast and intense, and I don’t think that fact is truly appreciated until one sees (and hears) it firsthand.

After seeing dozens of NHL games and a handful of AHL games, I am convinced that AHL games are what I would call more “brutal.”  The intensity and physical play seems higher in the AHL than in the NHL (excluding the NHL playoffs, which are definitely a step up in intensity).   I am probably not the first person to point out this difference between the AHL and the NHL, and I am not exactly sure why it is true, but I suspect that is has to do with where the players are in their careers.  The AHL players are talented for sure (though maybe at more varying levels than in the NHL), but each one is fighting hard each night to prove that he deserves to play in the NHL.  The NHL players, on the other hand, are likely more evenly matched in skill level and do not have as much to prove since they now have the coveted NHL contract in hand.  As a fan who appreciates the physical play of the game, I find the AHL game quite thrilling.

The other aspect of the AHL game that I really enjoy is getting the chance to evaluate future Flyers.  Finally, thanks to Ron Hextall’s sound plan to rebuild the Flyers from within, the Flyers farm system is starting to get flush with prospects.  A few of those highly touted prospects played for the Phantoms this year and will hopefully have a shot at playing for the Flyers next season.  One of those prospects is Scott Laughton, who spent time with the Flyers this season.  He did not disappoint in this Phantoms game.  He scored the Phantom’s only goal in regulation and won the game for the Phantoms in a thrilling shootout.  Here’s hoping he is with the Flyers all of next season if for no other reason than to slay the shootout beast that continues to befall the Flyers.

Another prospect who looked sharp and nearly ready for the big time was young defenseman Robert Hagg.  His smart play and toughness are things that the Flyers could have desperately used this season.   At one point during the Phantoms game, Hagg got clocked in the face by what looked to be the elbow of one of the Norfolk Admirals players.  Hagg barely blinked, just briefly put his hand to his face and kept skating.  Tough as nails.  (Fortunately, the official finally acknowledged the infraction and called a high sticking penalty on the Admirals player.)

Fortunately for the Flyers, the defensive prospect depth chart is starting to look deep (and big).  Another Phantoms defenseman who saw some time with the Flyers this season is Oliver Lauridsen.  At 6’6”, when he is on the ice he towers above almost every other player.   As I continue to try to learn more nuances of the game, I spent one of Lauridsen’s shifts watching only him in order to study a defenseman’s every move on a shift.  He never stopped working, and he disrupted or blocked at least four shots during that shift.  I found myself wondering why he wasn’t in Philly all year.  Hopefully he will get his chance in the upcoming season.

The Phantoms and the Admirals were tied 1-1 at the end of the third period and went into a five-minute four-on-four overtime.  I had no idea how much taking two opposing players off the ice would open things up.  Lots of shots on goal ensued, but the game was still tied after OT.  Then came the shootout.  If it were a Flyers game, I would have gone ahead and conceded a loss considering their dismal performance in shootouts.  But I knew the Phantoms had a better shootout win percentage, and I had seen them win a shootout in a televised game over the holidays.  They did not disappoint as Laughton sneaked the puck past the Admirals’ goalie and skated back to his jubilant bench having sealed a Phantoms victory.

The next morning my husband and I got an early start and headed to Philly for the Flyers season finale at Wells Fargo Center that afternoon.  It was surreal to think this was the last time we would be at a Flyers game for months.  In the same way, though, the season-ending break seemed necessary.  Wipe the slate clean and start over again in October with hopes of a better season.  As the Flyers came onto the ice for their pre-game warm-up we saw two familiar faces:  Jason Akeson and Mark Alt, who had both played for the Phantoms the previous night, had made the trip to Philly to play in this game (and would be sent right back to Lehigh Valley after the game).

The game seemed like so many other Flyers games this season.  The Flyers looked capable of beating the Ottawa Senators, but then came the defensive lapses that left goalie Steve Mason vulnerable, and soon the Flyers were on the wrong side of the score.  Matt Read scored to tie the game in the second period, but soon the Senators were leading again.  Before I knew it, my husband and I were exiting the arena with only a few minutes left in the third period.  As we listened to the end of the game on the radio it hit me like a ton of bricks.  The season was over.  No more Flyers hockey.  I was stunned….and depressed.  What would I do without hockey?  But then I thought of the calendar:  draft in two months, preseason camp three months after that, and all of the hockey news that would occur between now and then.  The 2015-16 hockey season would be here before I knew it.

The Typical Female Hockey Fan

There has been a lot of focus by the NHL recently on trying to attract more female fans to the game. I applaud that the NHL acknowledges the female fan and wants more of them; however, I think that sometimes the NHL is misguided in its efforts.  Maybe that is because there is no typical female hockey fan.  And here’s why:  In my experience as a female fan attending Philadelphia Flyers games, I see many female fans of all ages.  And I imagine they are at the game for many different reasons.  There was a time when “nice girls” didn’t attend hockey games.  But these days (thank goodness), hockey has many female fans.

In my case, I was a hockey fan long before I met my husband seven years ago, but he is responsible for turning me into a Flyers fan. But that said, I can fairly say that I am the bigger Flyers fan now.  He is a fan for sure, but I am the one who drives the fandom bus so to speak.  It is because of me that we travel from Northern Virginia to Philly for weekend Flyers games.  And, I am the one who reads newspapers articles about the Flyers daily, keeps up with the team on social media, and watches every game on my tablet.  And, I am sure there are many other female hockey fans who are just as passionate about the game as I am,  if not more so.

When I am at Flyers game I see many other female fans and speculate on what has brought them to a hockey game. I imagine that some are at the game because their male significant other is a big fan.  These women may follow the team and know the game, but are there mainly because their significant other wants to go to the game.   Along the same lines, I see young girls and teenagers who may be at a game as part of a night out with family or friends.  I see a lot of young women at Flyers games.  Many seem to be there with friends or boyfriends, and some seem to be what some people would call  “puck bunnies.”  But in any case, these women are at the game, wearing Flyers gear, and cheering the team on.

Speaking of team apparel: In a recent trip through the Flyers merchandise store in Wells Fargo Center, I was happy to see many clothing items specifically made to fit women.  The encouraging thing was that I saw very little pink.  Instead, I saw many cute shirts and jerseys in classic styles, very similar to the merchandise marketed to men.

While the NHL may be doing better when it comes to providing classic apparel for female fans, there are other areas that could seem to use a bit more tweaking. One example that comes to mind is the popular “Hockey in Heels” event that many teams offer.  This event is marketed exclusively for women to introduce them to the game and help them understand it better.  A friend of mine who is a Washington Capitals season ticket holder (and a very knowledgeable hockey fan) is planning to attend the Caps Hockey in Heels event this month.  She said that it is a three-plus hour event and includes on-ice skills demonstrations by Caps players.  That part of the event impressed me and is something that even a knowledgeable fan might enjoy.  However, on the surface, this kind of event sounds patronizing to women.  When I first heard about this event, my first thought was:  How in the world does it take an entire evening to explain hockey.  It’s not like it’s rocket science.  I figured it out myself (and still learn new things every day) and so can everyone else.

I think that the best way the NHL can market to women is to treat us just like they treat their male fans. We are all fans of the game and want the same kinds of things from the game experience.  And, when I am at a game, I don’t want to be treated any differently than anyone else.  Though there may not be a typical female hockey fan, when it comes right down to it, we are all typical when sitting in an arena cheering on our favorite team.

Player Development’s Main Ingredient Is Patience

.Highly touted prospects Samuel Morin, Shane Gostisbehere, and Travis Sanheim made big impressions in the Flyers’ pre-season training camp.  Though it seemed obvious that recent draft pick Sanheim would go back to his junior club before the NHL season began, many fans expected that Morin and/or Gostisbehere would stick with the big club, at least for a little while.  But before the regular season began, Morin was sent back to his junior club (he is not allowed to play in the AHL because he is not yet 20 years old) and Gostisbehere was sent to the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms.  It is no secret that the Flyers desperately need help on defense, and Morin and Gostisbehere would likely have made an immediate impact in the NHL.  But new Flyers GM Ron Hextall has made it clear that he believes in being patient with young prospects and not rushing them to the NHL.

One Flyers fan on social media had an excellent analogy for these prospects who look NHL-ready but probably are not.  The fan said that the prospects were like cookies being baked in an oven.  They look ready and smell ready, but when you take them out of the oven and bite into them, you realize that they needed another five minutes in the oven.

Unfortunately for Morin, that oven has recently proved to be very hot.  He was struck in the mouth by a puck this week during play with his junior club and will be out 4-5 weeks.  Several fans commented that if Morin would have remained with the Flyers, the injury would not have occurred.  But there is certainly no way to know that.  it is a dangerous sport at any level.

My opinion is that Flyers fans have to trust the process and give these prospects enough time to develop, even if it means the Flyers defense suffers for a year or so.  With any luck, the Flyers will make the playoffs next spring, and in the lineup with be two of the most promising young defensemen the league has seen in quite a while.

Don’t Stop Believing

My husband and I are die hard Philadelphia Flyers fans living in Northern Virginia. On Saturday we made our first trip of the 2014-15 season to Philly to see the Flyers play their second home game of the season.  My husband came by his Flyers fandom naturally, having been born and bred north of Philly, living and breathing Philly sports since birth.  He introduced me to Flyers hockey several years ago and I fell hard.  I quickly learned that being a Philly sports fan means plenty of passion….and plenty of heartbreak.  Philly hockey fans are incredibly knowledgeable and dedicated, but also happy to explain how empty the proverbial glass really is.   While I try to remain positive about the Flyers and maintain my usual “glass half full” mentality, the bad news just seems to keep coming as things this season have picked up right where last season left off.

The Flyers made the 2014 playoffs and went seven games in round one with the always strong New York Rangers, losing the series when they easily could have won. But it was amazing that they made the playoff at all after starting the season with a 1-7 record and getting a new coach after losing their first three games.  Now here we were at the beginning of the 2014-15 season and the Flyers were 0-2 and getting ready to face a strong Montreal Canadiens team.  I had been looking forward to this game for months.  It had been a long, hockey-less summer (with the exception of the NHL Draft in Philly, which we attended), and I was thrilled that hockey was back.  In our second year as partial season ticket holders, we had secured seats in the lower bowl of the arena and I was happy at the thought of watching the games from near-ice view after last season’s in-the-rafters seats.

The game started out like a dream, with the Flyers dominating the Canadiens and scoring three unanswered goals by the end of the second period. New alternate captain Wayne Simmonds was on fire as usual, scoring two of those goals.  But like the Flyers of last year, it all suddenly began to unravel.  The weak Flyers defense caved as the Canadiens put on a shooting clinic at the goal in front of us.  Flyers backup goal tender Ray Emery was having an amazing game full of many near-impossible saves, but even he couldn’t keep the puck out of the net with this kind of barrage and little help from the defense.

In a flash the score was 3-2 with about seven minutes left in the game and it was time for us to leave to start the long drive back to Virginia. As we exited the arena, the Canadiens tied the game.  It was probably a good thing that we left, because it was likely that the overly dramatic Canadiens fans sitting in front of us were now being berated by very angry Flyers fan.  And, as fired up as I had been during the game, there was no guarantee that I would not have participated in such a scene. The situation looked bleak because the Flyers never do well in shootouts.  And this one was no different.   I looked at my phone in dismay as the score read 4-3 Canadiens.

The one point earned by the Flyers for the tie was no consolation. I was so sad and angry.  I said to my husband:  “This is the only sports team I care anything about.  I can’t take it.  How do you blow a 3-0 lead in the third period at home?!”  He responded that everyone was saying this was a throw-away year (as the Flyers wait for their corps of young, talented defensemen to be ready to play in the NHL).  My response was:  “Well that doesn’t give you the excuse to blow a three-goal lead!”  I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it was still October.  There was so much hockey left.  Plenty of time for the Flyers to turn it around and start winning….and plenty of time for them to keep breaking my heart.  But I keep believing in the former…because that’s what being a fan is all about.

Hockey in Vegas and No Ice Girls

With the 2014-15 NHL season quickly approaching, this week brought several bits of news regarding the sport’s future. Rumors were flying that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has promised that there will be NHL expansion during the next few years. The city that is getting a lot of buzz as a potential site for a new NHL franchise is Las Vegas. My first reaction was, well why not? Then I thought about it and gave the idea a big thumbs down. And here’s why: As I have pointed out before, the NHL does not seem to know that their product can be too much of a good thing. There are already 30 teams, and some of them struggle financially, especially in southern cities like Phoenix and Nashville. Yet the NHL is apparently discussing putting another NHL team in the desert in a city that already has plenty of other attractions to vie for the attention of potential hockey fans.

I have only been to Las Vegas twice, and I cannot say that I have done any sort of research on the city’s population, its number of visitors per year, or their demographics. However, I heard a logical prediction on SiriusXM NHL Radio Network recently that sounded about right. The talk show hosts were predicting that since many Las Vegas residents probably work at night (given the vibrant Las Vegas night life and its related employment), these residents would not be able to attend evening hockey games on a regular basis. The other point made was that even if a Las Vegas NHL team could draw hometown fans, most of the game attendees would likely be tourists who are there to see “their’ team play against the home team. (I could easily see my husband and I planning a winter Las Vegas getaway around when the Flyers are playing there.) However, I don’t think that the NHL wants to fill a new arena with opponents’ fans. They want to build a strong home fan base and sell season tickets and luxury boxes to Las Vegas residents. We will see what happens, but I could see a Seattle or a Quebec City being a much more viable option for an expansion team. Or, better yet, maybe the NHL should just leave things as they are and avoid over-saturating the market and creating too much of a good thing.

The other piece of news that came out this week involved a Flyers home-game future without the Flyers ice girls. Though it has not yet been officially confirmed by the Flyers organization, apparently the ice girls have been nixed. I am sure many male Flyers fans out there are disappointed. Personally, as a female Flyers fan, I could care less either way. I always viewed the ice girls for what they were: attractive young women wearing very little clothing who skate around (very well I might add) cleaning the ice during breaks from play. My feeling always was that at least they were doing something versus just standing on the sidelines cheering.

Apparently, a recent article in the publication Mother Jones quoted former ice girls from various NHL teams (including the Flyers) complaining about poor working conditions and meager pay. I read the article and honestly I thought it was a bit ridiculous. Apparently, the girls were not allowed anywhere near NHL players socially (players walk into restaurant–ice girls box up their dinners and run); the girls were not allowed to eat in public while working, even when they were starving; and the girls got cold standing at arena doors greeting fans but were not allowed to put on their jackets. Sorry if I don’t shed a tear here, but no one forced them to sign up to be ice girls. And I would imagine that many current and former ice girls would say that it is a great experience that many girls would give anything to try.

I am not sure what the motive is behind the Flyers deciding to drop the ice girls. It is probably an effort to stay ahead of bad publicity (and perhaps law suits) that are likely to follow the Mother Jones article.  I just hope that this move is not some grand attempt to appeal to female hockey fans. Honestly, I cannot imagine a female fan being turned off to hockey because of the ice girls. I imagine that most female hockey fans either admire them or ignore them (or, like me, a little of both). I believe that the best way that the NHL can appeal to female fans is to treat us like any other fans. We love the game, know the game, love to see the game in person….and we do not want to wear pink jerseys.

I cannot wait for the NHL season to start and I am excited about the NHL’s future. Sometimes change is good. So, who knows, maybe hockey in Vegas and no ice girls is in hockey’s future.