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Becoming a Force

by Jay Greenberg / Philadelphia Flyers

Wayne Simmonds has five goals even faster than a fan can get bitter on a message board and after spending the final week of training camp in a boot. Simmonds is shooting 33 percent, which in hockey is almost as hot as Hexy used to get at the sight of Chris Chelios.

At this rate Simmonds will score 100 goals this season, which would squeeze past his personal mark by 71. But the counting he is doing is mostly of the days towards the Flyers’ first win, the one possible exception being an inconspicuous zero a couple columns over on the stat sheet.

“I don’t have a penalty yet,” he said. “Must not be doing anything stupid.”

It has been an ongoing dilemma of power Flyer right wings from Gary Dornhoefer to Paul Holmgren to Rick Tocchet to Simmonds to decide just how much bad is good.

As the NHL’s leading scorer a year ago to also have 100-plus penalty minutes, Simmonds moves into that class of player – and level of adoration by Philadelphia fans – looking for a balance, all the while understanding that it never hurts for opponents to perceive you as slightly unbalanced.

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“I would like to play the game a little more and I will concentrate on that,” said Simmonds. “But things happen where you have to be aggressive.

“Sometimes, you can’t take crap from people.”

And sometimes you should.

Having taken advantage of the remarkable stability in those sparrow-like legs to support a 25-29 yearly goal habit, Simmonds enters his seventh NHL season working on a better equilibrium between clean and mean that will enable his prime years to hopefully coincide with the next prime time for this franchise.

The strength of the Flyers is their young forwards, four of which -- Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier – arrived in the two-trade summer 2011 makeover.

After a bad 2013 October that looked a lot worse than does this one so far, in 2013-14 the Flyers increasingly got into a flow until one last ebb in the second period of Game Seven -- when the Rangers scored the two goals that won the series -- was dooming.

The Flyers let themselves down at times, in part because they too often let themselves into the penalty box. After four games, the league’s most penalized team a year ago is so far this year’s least, which seems a bit extreme, but is trending positively, especially since Craig Berube wants Simmonds, 26, to be an example-setter.

“He has to play on the edge and do what he has to do and is going to get penalties because of that,” said the coach. “But he gets frustrated and emotional and sometimes gets penalties from that, too.

“He knows his emotional level gets too high sometimes but I think he’s getting better every year. He has grown as an emotional leader but now I think he needs to take it to another level by being an example on the ice, too. That will develop him into an even better player than he is and he already is right up there with the best power forwards in the league.”

Boston’s Milan Lucic probably is the gold standard. Before we put Simmonds on the list, we asked for his.

“My kind of guys?” he said.

“I like watching Lucic play, (Anaheim’s’) Corey Perry isn’t much of a fighter but he’s pretty aggressive and finishes around the net. When he’s going, (Buffalo’s) Chris Stewart is pretty tough to play against. (St. Louis’s) David Backes can play on any line.”

That’s another definition of the premier power forward: He can fit anywhere and elevate anybody, even the most skilled players.

Simmonds, quicker than ever to release the puck and with a steadily-lowering panic point to find it lying in the crease, has enough game to help anybody, including himself to his best statistical year ever. Thirty goals, one more than his career high 29 of last year, seemed like a nice, round, goal until this hot start has made 40 a possibility.

“I’m just going to keep playing hard and as long as I am not handicapping my team with my penalty minutes I will be happy,” he said

“You can always pick something up: there is always another level to go to.”

Looks like he has arrived at the next one.

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