Monday, May 19, 2008

This Blog Cries Uncle

Frankly, speaking for myself, I've had about just enough of that Pittsburgh outfit. Losing in the conference finals... well, let’s take a breath and remember Lea Thompson’s thoughtful narrative about Partisan Rock:
In time, this war, like every other war, ended. But I never forgot, and I come to this place often, when no one else does.
Losing to Pittsburgh is kinda like that. It is over- but the affected won’t forget. Now that the NHL is a salary cap League, you can’t build for sustained excellence anymore. Get to the final four, lose- and it is disappointment with no guarantee you can or will move forward. There is no solace in next year- with the cap, you don’t build, each year is distinct and not part of a plan, and you assemble what you are allowed. As Dr. Louis Creed would uniquely understand: the League is stony, a man tends what he can.

This PDN article reflects that. It isn’t a shopping list- but rather an inventory of what is coming back with an eye toward the price of asset retention. I have no desire to regurgitate that list- but below are my four off-season points- presented in the order and spirit of “do-ability”. Sure, the Flyers had a nice season and overachieved in the playoffs. The play-offs probably indicate they were better than the team that barely limped in the tournament. But they can’t be fooled either: overachievement has a way of being exposed in a regular season. For example, this run to the conference final is due to an utter implosion in goal for Montreal- and that ain’t gonna happen much in the regular season, let alone next year’s playoffs.

First, they got to look to make changes on the top line. Even the playoffs can’t hide the fact the chemistry doesn’t work at a high enough level. Briere and Prospal were both a minus three in the playoffs; Briere was an astonishing -22 in the regular season.

They got kind of a pass because that bunch does score. Briere, Prospal and Hartnell went for almost 90 markers this year- which isn’t bad at all. They also are very good on the power play- a must in the NHL where special teams are increasingly more than one-third of the total ice time. But the top line can’t be big, and I mean big, minuses at even strength- both logging a lot of ice time and playing a lot versus fourth line players at home. The easy solution is get Prospal out of there (he's a restricted free agent)- but isn’t so easy due to the tandem's success on the power play and the fact that Prospal isn't due even $2M (cheap insurance and he is a thirty goal scorer). But I think it has to change- forget winning the Cup, making the play-offs will be iffy in the Atlantic with Briere a -20. It is an obvious problem at even strength, the Flyers have so many winger options, and I expect to see a season long effort to do something, anything here.

Keeping with the theme of “first, we have to make the play-offs”, I’m sure the Flyers will look to improve their regular season point total by 8-10 points even before addressing the deficiencies exposed by Pittsburgh. Philadelphia can’t forget this was a nip and tuck affair to just get in. They clearly belonged in the play-offs; this points crunch was caused by playing an unbalanced schedule in a very strong division and finishing 25th in overtime shootouts. It is hard to get eight points better- but, with eleven overtime losses, they have room to try and get five-six points better here, get over .500 in the shootout. I imagine any free agent that can score in this format will get a long look from the Flyers- no matter what liability or age issue represented.

They need defensemen. Hatcher and Jones played credibly- but "credible" runs out of import in the conference finals. You need flat out "good". Plus, Hatcher is expensive, old and hurt a lot- a bad combo in a capped environment. I like Jones as depth and power play specialist- but not as a true top four defensemen.

Coburn and Timonen are traditional top four defensemen- so they need two more. Unlike last year, I doubt they can pay a free agent on the level of Timonen- so it will have to be a trade, particularly since obviously they have depth up front.

My one regret was the Flyers couldn’t find another thirty regular season games to dress Ryan Parent- who was credible in the little we saw him in the play-offs. I guess frantically battling for a play-off spot is not the time to dress the kid- but unlike Modry he wasn’t immobile and could carry the puck. As the guy they dressed in desperation he saw a lot of Pittsburgh’s top wingers- and I thought acquitted himself well: -1 in four games.

The hardest fix is the goal-tending. They owe Biron a zillion dollars over many years- so they’re stuck with him. I know the hockey press is agog over his play- notsomuch me. I grade his play, by series as “B” versus Washington, “B+” versus Montreal, “C-“ versus Pittsburgh- basically a journeyman goaltender having a good few weeks. They played 17 play-off games- only in one did Biron allow one goal or fewer- the proverbial steal a game. I list this fourth on the do-ability scale because something needs to be done and nothing obvious presents itself. Obviously, Niittykaki has done nothing to merit his retention here- so they have an open roster spot- but do you trade a forward for a goalie who might not beat out the incumbent? Particularly, again when you need a couple non-aging defensemen?

Unfortunately this is probably the ceiling with Biron- getting past this level requires top five goaltending- not up one series, down the next. This ceiling was acceptable when trying to get a credible netminder to move you out of the utter basement- and they had to pay up to encourage Biron to stay here. But that contract doesn’t look so great today- and it is a problem.