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Greenberg: Timonen's Talent

by Jay Greenberg / Philadelphia Flyers
Kimmo Timonen doesn’t really look all of his purported five-feet, ten inches, so they much have been measuring him not from head to toe, but the top of the chip on his shoulder to the heart.  Asked in Year 15 of his 16 year NHL career for his proudest accomplishment, Timonen hesitated about as much as he ever did before moving the puck, which was practically not at all.

 
“That I am still here,” he said. “Nobody wanted to give me a chance at 5-10 except for (Nashville GM) David Poile and I have played 1100 games.”
 
Of course, Timonen said that before finishing up as a member of the 2014-15 Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks, the kind of storybook ending many have earned and all but a few get to celebrate only in their dreams. That was some ride off into the sunset, Kimmosabe, so the Flyers want to thank him Wednesday night for his superlative service in Philadelphia, in front of most of the same Blackhawks with whom he shared champagne.
 
So complete was Philadelphia fans’ respect for Timonen that they didn’t begrudge him for a second that triumphant hoist last June, even as another year went by without a Flyers’ championship. But the Blackhawks will just have to excuse our slight smugness in the knowledge that Philadelphia, not Chicago, got Timonen at his best. 
 
You can’t even call that eight minutes a game he was spotted by Coach Joel Quenneville at age 40 as a cameo. That wasn’t Timonen, just a shadow of the workhorse who:
 
  1. Is in the conversation with Mark Howe, Eric Desjardins and Jimmy Watson as a top four defenseman in Flyers history.
  2. Was the single most important acquisition that turned a 54-point Flyer disaster in 2006-07 into a Stanley Cup semifinalist the next season.
  3. Averaged .52 points per game he played in his seven Philadelphia seasons.
  4. Quarterbacked a Flyer power play that was top three in the NHL three times, top seven two more seasons, and only once was in the bottom half of 30 teams.
  5. Was matched against the opposition’s top players practically every night except during Chris Pronger’s one full Flyer season (2009-10), and was a plus player for all but one of those years.
 
“You knew what you were getting from him every game,” said Howe, now Director of Pro Scouting for the Red Wings.  “And if you are a coach, that is golden.”
 
It also was worth a silver and three bronze medals in Olympics for tiny Finland.  Alas, second was the best the Flyers ever came in with Kimmo, too, the 2010 heartbreak being the biggest of his career.
 
 “We just didn’t play as well as we had against Boston and Montreal,” he recalls, but seven playoff series victories during his Philly run made Timonen arguably the top veteran free-agent acquisition in franchise history, even if, technically, he was acquired in a deal. The smartest thing GM Paul Holmgren did in the fast rebuild that enabled a team dead last in the NHL to surge back to the conference finals the very next season was to trade back to Nashville the No. 1 pick the Flyers received from the Predators for Peter Forsberg.  In return, the Flyers received the rights to negotiate with Scott Hartnell and Timonen before the July 1 start of free agency.
 
Hartnell committed first to Philadelphia that weekend. Timonen, who had no interest in another slow build that had not enabled him to win a playoff series in eight seasons with Nashville, grilled Holmgren long and hard on the Flyers’ plans to flip the switch pronto.
 
It didn’t hurt their chances that good buddy Hartnell was coming or that the previous season Kimmo’s brother Jussi had played 14 games in a Philadelphia uniform. But what really got Timonen to sign on, rather than wait and see what other offers July 1 would bring, was Ed Snider’s team’s reputation for going for it.
 
“Kapanen (a Flyer since 2003) told me the same thing as Homer, that the organization would do anything to get better,” recalls Timonen. “I didn’t want to go through again what I did in Nashville the last four years, that was not fun.”

Even as the team improved incrementally, the Predators’ future in the city was troubled.
 
The team was for sale and could make no offer to keep him, a shame for Poile, who, in Timonen, was losing perhaps his most successful project.
 
The Kings had drafted him in the 10th round in 1993, looked at him in camp just once and had zero intention of signing him. But after watching Timonen in a European tournament, Poile told him he thought he could play, acquired him for a song, and was proven right.  The Predators received excellent mileage from the mighty mite but the Flyers would get his best years. 
 
“He was a really well-rounded defenseman,” said Kapanen, not only a countryman of Timonen but a hometown guy from Kuopio, too.  “The amazing thing is that early on, under the old NHL rules, it was thought he was too small and not strong enough to play but he proved all the people wrong. 
 
“For his ability to read the plays and make the right decision at the right time he was one of the best I have played with. He was an extremely good skater, low balanced and strong on his legs while having a high skill level. He had ability to run the power play and be a shutdown guy --all that one in one defenseman," Kapanen added.
 
Complete things come in small packages. For a little guy, Timonen had a big voice in addition.
 
“He demanded a lot from his teammates while always being positive,” said Kapanen.
 
All those things Holmgren had surmised.  What was unknown was whether for a six year, $37 million commitment, the Flyers were getting somebody who could last. The GM looked at the track record – since joining the Predators full time Timonen had played 82 games twice and never been absent more than 10 in a season -- and took a measured chance.
 
It paid off. Timonen had to miss most of the conference final in 2008 and his final Flyer season at age 39 because of a clotting problem but otherwise never missed more than six games in any Philadelphia season.
 
“Early in the Nashville years, I played through injuries because I thought I was going to lose my spot,” he said. “So I learned how to play with tiny injuries.
 
“You have to be lucky but you have to be smart, too, on how you go into corners and get the puck. Read the play, where the other guys are. Everyone is smart out there, you know. But I had to be especially.”
 
The time of possession metrics that Flyers study indicated Timonen was one of the best at anticipating the caroms.  Just like when nobody thought he was an NHL player, this player knew better than anyone.
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