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Slow start, drop in scoring finished Flyers season

by Adam Kimelman

For the second time since the 1994-95 season, the Philadelphia Flyers will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs, their hopes ended when the New York Rangers defeated the Buffalo Sabres on Friday.

With most of a roster returning from a team that posted more than 100 points and impressively eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, expectations were high entering the season. However, a slow start put the Flyers in a hole they never were able to dig out of.

How did the Flyers come up short? What reasons are there for optimism next season? Let’s take a look:

1. Where did the scoring go? -- The Flyers were second in the NHL in offense last season at 3.13 goals per game and returned eight of their top 10 point producers and all four of their 20-goal scorers. However, five of those eight scorers have seen their per-game average drop, and three players have reached double-figures in goals.

Scott Hartnell, who was tied for sixth in the League last season with 37 goals, has seven in 28 games this season; Matt Read, who led all rookies last season with 24 goals, has nine this season, two in his past 20 games; Wayne Simmonds, who had 28 goals last season, has 12 this season, six at even-strength; and Danny Briere, who had 34 goals two seasons ago, hasn't scored in 17 games and has five goals in 30 games this season.

On a few nights the offense of last season has shown itself: They've scored seven goals in a game a League-best three times, and nine times have scored at least five in a game. However, the Flyers have been held to one goal or fewer 13 times, and were shut out four times -- including a 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday that pushed them to the brink of elimination.

2. Bit hard by the injury bug -- From the beginning of the season, the Flyers never were able to ice their full lineup. Briere missed the first four games, Hartnell broke his foot in the third game of the season and missed a month, Simmonds missed three games in early February with a concussion, and key penalty killer Maxime Talbot had his season ended by a broken leg March 31.

Most of the early injuries were to the forwards, then the defense was taken out later in the season. Shot-blocking force Nicklas Grossmann never returned to the lineup after sustaining a concussion during a February practice, and shoulder injuries ended the seasons of Braydon Coburn and Andrej Meszaros one game apart late in March. Kent Huskins was lost to a concussion and Bruno Gervais to a torn stomach muscle.

3. Defensive drop-off -- While the offense wasn't scoring, the defense was doing little to keep the opposition off the board. Of the 12 defensemen to play a game for the Flyers this season, only Kimmo Timonen has a positive plus/minus rating (plus-2). Coburn, the team's ice time-leader, was a minus-10. Gervais, who averaged more than 17 minutes in his 37 games, was a minus-17. Meszaros, limited to 11 games by Achilles and shoulder issues, managed to go minus-9.

And when they weren't on the ice for a goal against, there was a good possibility they were in the penalty box. Timonen and Coburn have been sent off for 18 minor penalties each, tied for the fifth-most in the League. As a team, Philadelphia leads the League with 200 minor penalties, 77 of them credited to their blueliners.


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4. Sophomore slumps -- Last season the Flyers relied on a group of rookies who evolved into important roles last season, among them Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Eric Wellwood. As a group, that quartet regressed in a major way.

Couturier, the eighth pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, starred in a defensive role, especially in his blanketing of Penguins star Evgeni Malkin the playoff series last year. Couturier also contributed offensively, finishing with 13 goals in 77 games. With more ice time this season, including on the power play, Couturier never took advantage. He has four goals in 42 games, at one point went 28 games without a goal, and had one stretch of two points in 20 games.

Schenn had a strong second half and playoff run last season but hasn't been able to duplicate it (eight goals and 24 points in 43 games). Read led all NHL rookies with 24 goals last season, and had seven goals in his first 17 games of this one. However, he hasn't been the same player since returning from torn rib-cage muscles sustained during a game against the Penguins Feb. 20, scoring twice in 20 games.

Wellwood, who played a vital role as a speedy fourth-line center and penalty killer, was held without a point in the first four games of the season, was returned to the minor leagues and never was recalled despite all the injuries up front. His season ended April 7 when he sustained tendon and ligament damage, including a severed Achilles, from a skate to his left leg.

5. Road woes -- A year ago the Flyers were the best team in the Eastern Conference away from home, going 25-13-3. This season, they've managed to go from first to almost-worst -- they're 14th in the East and 27th in the League at 6-15-1, with two more road games to go.

Considering so many players returned from last season, it's tough to discern a reason for the dip in play away from home, but it's all part of the team-wide failures that have gone with the season.

Here are reasons for optimism on Broad Street:

1. A high draft pick -- One of the only benefits to missing the playoffs is a shot at a top pick in what could be the deepest, most talent-laden drafts since the legendary 2003 group. The Flyers' biggest need appears to be on defense, and that's an area full of talent, from projected top pick Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks, to Darnell Nurse of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Shea Theodore of the Seattle Thunderbirds, Ryan Pulock of the Brandon Wheat Kings and others. The Flyers did awfully well in that 2003 draft, landing forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in the first round and two-time Stanley Cup champion forward Colin Fraser in the third. They certainly could use a repeat performance.

2. Rebirth of Steve Mason -- Many around the League were surprised when the Flyers acquired Mason from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the NHL Trade Deadline, but he's been outstanding as Ilya Bryzgalov's backup so far. In four games he's posted a 1.82 goals-against average, and his puck-handling ability has helped the defense in front of him. Whatever the future holds for Bryzgalov, the Flyers can go into the offseason knowing they have a good foundation in net going into 2013-14.


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