Mid-Season Grades

Discussion in 'EAST: Metropolitan Division' started by BasX, Jan 7, 2008.

  1. BasX

    BasX I Win

    Jan 4, 2008
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    Dans la ville avec cette chute d'eau énorme
    <div class='quotetop'>QUOTE </div><div class='quotemain'>The Flyers have two more games to play until they reach the statistical midpoint of the 2007-08 season.

    But we're close enough to hand out midterm grades to the club and, hopefully, generate some debate.

    I've trade to base player grades on the player's role on the team, and not make apples-to-oranges comparisons of players with fundamentally different responsibilities.

    Part I will look at John Stevens and the Flyers' forwards. The second part will look at the defense and goaltending.

    Coaching: John Stevens is still growing into the role of NHL head coach. He seems more assertive this year than last year and seems to have the trust of most of his players, especially the likes of Mike Richards and R.J. Umberger, whom he coached on the Phantoms.

    On the flip side, for all the talking Stevens has done about the need to correct certain problems that have plagued the team since the opening month of the season -- more complete 60 minute efforts, more concerted puck pursuit, etc -- the actual progress from October to January has been relatively modest.

    Some of it may be personnel, and clearly injuries have played a role. But the jury is still out on whether Stevens is a coach that get the most out of his players and consistently put the club in position to succeed in must-win games.

    I also think that while Stevens has managed the development of some young players extremely well, he's dropped the ball on others. He talks about accountability a lot, but the consequences only seem to fall on the role players.

    I don't think he's been an especially good coach for fully tapping into the potential of Scotty Upshall or Lasse Kukkonen for reasons I'll discuss in each player's grade.

    Grade: B-

    Forwards: On the whole, goal scoring has not been a problem for the Flyers this year. Team speed and skill have been upgraded and, for the first time in awhile, this club can generate goals off the line rush.

    On the flip side, with the exception of a few players, the team does not consistently gain enough puck possession time in the offensive end to wear down opposing teams. The defensemen often get the heat for turnovers and inability to generate many tape-to-tape breakout passes, but the forwards are equally to blame for letting the gap get too wide and putting the defensemen.

    Even in the absence of Simon Gagne, the Flyers have had good scoring balance on the whole. The team is greatly improved on the powerplay, and they are dangerous counter-attackers in shorthanded situations. But they've rarely had two lines going well at the same time in five-on-five play.

    A healthy, productive return for Gagne is imperative, especially if Joffrey Lupul misses significant time with the concussion suffered in the game in Toronto last night.

    Mike Richards: What can you say about Mike Richards' breakthrough season that hasn't already been said? He is a joy to watch -- not only for the offense he's generated -- but for the effort he brings to every game. Quite simply, he plays hockey the way it's supposed to be played.

    When I watch Richards play this year and think back to his struggles in the first half of last season, I'm reminded of something Gary Dornhoefer said of his own career.

    As a young player, Dorny went through a massive goal drought and years later pointed to it as a pivotal point of his career, saying, "My confidence was pretty low. You start squeezing your stick into sawdust and it feels like the puck will never go in for you again. You just have to keep plugging away, and contribute in other ways to the hockey team. Later, when things are going good, you can look back at those bad times."

    That, in a nutshell, is what Richards has done. He weathered the storm, gotten healthier and used the tough times last year as motivation to elevate his game.

    After a strong start in the faceoff circle, Richards has struggled somewhat over the last few months. That's an area he can improve in the second half.

    While he's not immune to turnovers or mistakes at the point on the powerplay, Richards usually bounces back quickly and contributes far more good things than bad when he has the puck. His play without the puck has been strong.

    Grade: A

    Daniel Briere: Of all the Flyers forwards, Briere is in the one that's the most capable of striking out of nowhere offensively. He is a treat to watch on the powerplay. On the other hand, he's also capable of utterly disappearing and has been on the ice for too many backbreaking goals against in big games.

    Briere will always first and foremost be a player who is judged by his offensive production. Given the long-term absence of Gagne, Briere's numbers are right about where they should be.

    There's always going to be give-and-take with him. It's not fair to ask him to be Peter Forsberg, playing excellent two-way hockey and winning a lot of battles in the trenches. That simply isn't Briere's physical makeup or style.

    On the other hand, one area that's well within Briere's control (and was also a problem with Forsberg last year) is cutting down on the number of needless penalties he takes. He's taken 22 minor penalties already this season, and that number needs to be cut down significantly.

    Frankly, Briere has often been as undisciplined as the now-traded Ben Eager was in terms of ill-timed, bad penalties. One of my frustrations with John Stevens is that he pretty much publicly called out Eager for lack of discipline-- a young player in an agitator role still trying to establish himself -- and hasn't uttered a peep when one of his team leaders has done the same thing.

    The discipline lapses and defensive miscues may have been discussed with Danny behind closed doors, but there needs to be consistency. You can't just make the role players accountable.

    Off the ice, Briere is a player who is willing to be the one with the microphones in his face after a game. Along with Martin Biron, Briere seems to have helped lift some of the despair around the lockerroom when the club has been faced with adversity.

    Grade: B

    Simon Gagne: The Flyers could have fallen to pieces when they lost their 40-plus goal scoring team MVP for much the season with concussion problems. They've been inconsistent but are still right in the thick of the Eastern Conference picture.

    Even before suffering a pair of concussions in close succession, Gagne had not played his best hockey apart from the first week of the season. But apart from 2005-06, he's often been a slow starter. He started slowly last year, too.

    Gagne is not always a player whose effectiveness can be tied to his point totals. When he's at his most effective, he creates plenty of his own scoring chances, draws a lot of penalties on the opposition, and finishes a high percentage of his chances. There are other times when he gets his goals, but is not involved enough in setting the tone for the team.

    One thing you never have to worry about with Gagne is his play on his own side of the red line. For a few years, prior to the arrival of Forsberg, Gagne seemed almost too content doing the job defensively without pressing the attack offensively. He has remained a strong defensive player even as his scoring has blossomed.

    Grade: Incomplete

    Jeff Carter: Carter has been hot lately, with five goals in his last seven games. He also started the season on a tear, with six goals the Flyers' first nine games. Unfortunately, in the 23 games in between, he generated a paltry three goals and only has eight assists for the season.

    More than anything, what the Flyers need from Carter is consistency. He also could use a playmaking linemate, because he gets tunnel-vision in the offensive zone. He strongly prefers to play center, but I still think he may do better as a winger (among others, Gagne also started out as a center and thrived from the switch).

    Carter has improved defensively this year, but only ocassionally takes advantage of the muscle he added during the offseason. I'd like for him to be more a tone-setter than a go-with-the-flow type of player, and think he's capable of it when he applies himself.

    The mega-contract the Flyers signed Mike Richards to is also a gauntlet being thrown down to Jeff Carter. He's a different type of player than Richards, but can stand to dig down a little deeper and a little more consistently.

    Last year, Dave Poulin said of Carter that when he stops trying to pick corners on every shot and simply lets his size, skill and quick release work for him, he's going to become a more consistent scorer. Carter's maturation as a player is still a work in progress.

    Grade: B-

    R.J. Umberger: Umberger is one of the Flyers' hardest working players on a game-in and game-out basis and has emerged as a strong two-way player for the team. Umberger is a player who contributes even when he's not scoring goals.

    He's a good penalty killer. He keeps a lot of pucks alive near the net and he's a pretty clever passer.

    But the Flyers could use a little more goal production from Umberger, too. He's never going to be a huge goal scorer in the NHL, but is capable of duplicating his rookie 20-goal campaign. Half of his goals this year came in a single game, when he scored a hat trick against the Penguins). In fact, he's only scored in two of the last 26 games.

    If the Flyers make the playoffs, it wouldn't surprise me if Umberger (along with Scott Hartnell) scores at a more regular clip than he has in the regular season. But for the Flyers to make it that far in a tight Eastern Conference, Umberger is one of the players from whom the Flyers can use some timely offense.

    Grade: B

    Mike Knuble: Knuble had a rough start to the season, and has been subject to frequent criticism from some Flyers fans. There are things he doesn't do especially well (carry the puck, skate). Like Briere, can take some bad penalties (he also gets a lot of even-up calls made against him for incidental contact down low).

    Knuble may not work quite as well at even strength with Briere's bobbing-and-weaving game as he did with the more deliberate Forsberg, who often slows the game down and then finds an open man out of nowhere. But he remains the Flyers' top powerplay finisher (leading the club with nine powerplay goals) and you can never fault his work ethic or willingness to get involved even when at less than 100% health. With Knuble, you can often tell how well he's feeling by how strong he is on the puck down low in the zone.

    Knuble is currently fighting through a stretch where he's scored just once in the last 10 games. He hasn't scored an even-strength goal since Nov. 21 against the Hurricanes.

    Off the ice, Knuble remains one of the classiest, friendliest and most articulate representatives of his team and sport that you'd ever want to meet. He's an easy player to root for, because he's very honest in his assessment of his own play and never makes excuses.

    Grade: B-

    Joffrey Lupul: Lupul is a streaky scorer, but his hot streaks have been quite a site to see. When Lupul uses his breakway speed and gets involved physically, he's a huge asset and the goals come in bunches. When he gets away from those things and tries to be a perimeter finesse player, he is a non-factor.

    This year, Lupul is tied with Derian Hatcher for the team lead in hits (59) and has taken care of the puck (12 takeaways to just nine giveaways).

    Hopefully, Lupul will return quickly and effectively from the injuries he suffered when Hatcher accidentally ran into him last night.

    Grade: B+

    Scott Hartnell: Hartnell has really struggled putting the puck in the net this season, but he brings several elements to the lineup that were missing last year. For one thing, he finishes his checks and riles up opposing players. For another, he backchecks diligently and does of unglamorous work on the ice.

    As often mentioned, half of Hartnell's six goals this year have been
    empty-netters. That has made him the target of criticism from fans, because of his big contract. Hartnell is essentially a very good third line player who can fit in on any line with the right linemates.

    He scored 22 and 25 goals with the Predators, but I don't know if the current makeup of the Flyers' offense is conducive to him having a double-digit second half to pull up to about 17 or 18 goals.
    However, Hartnell is the type of player who could have a more offensively productive post-season than regular season.

    Grade: B-

    Scottie Upshall: Upshall has struggled with injuries and inconsistency this year, landing in John Stevens' doghouse.

    The Flyers have tried to get Upshall to play a less hyperactive, more controlled style. Frankly, I think it's been to his detriment, and has moved him further away from building on the eye-opening play he exhibited last year after coming from Nashville.

    Don't get me wrong: A little more controlled aggression from Upshall would be ideal. It would keep him healthier (otherwise he's always going to be injury prone) and cut down on his mistakes (getting out of position, forcing the play and turning over pucks).

    At the same time, you don't want to undermine the things that come naturally to a player. I honestly think that Stevens' handling of Upshall has made him a less effective, less instinctive player.

    For one thing, considering that Upshall has only been able to play in 26 games this year, I think Stevens has shown too little patience with him and has been very quick to bench Upshall for shifts after mistakes.

    By way of comparison, the coach stuck with Lupul during a stretch of 11 games between Nov. 12 (Islanders) and Dec. 7 (Colorado) where the winger had maybe two or three decent games. It turned out to be a wise move, because Lupul exploded for 10 goals in the next 10 games.

    You can say that Lupul's strong start bought him time to get his ship righted again. I would agree. But Upshall was coming back from a pre-season broken wrist after having been a very effective player for Stevens last year. I think he earned himself a little more leeway than he was given when he struggled.

    Ultimately, however, a player is accountable for his own play. Upshall can play better.

    Grade: C+

    Sami Kapanen: The hustle, bravery, grit and leadership are still there from Kapanen, but there have been diminishing returns with each passing year. He hasn't been a regular goal-scoring threat in years, but had been a versatile role player.

    As age and frequent injuries have taken their toll on Sami, I think he's lost a step. It used to be that Kapanen (who once won the Fastest Skater competition at the NHL All-Star Game) almost never lost a footrace. He was on the puck in a flash. While he still skates well, he's not as fast as he used to be, and does not win as many one-on-one battles as he used to.

    Kapanen has always been a responsible player without the puck, but he gives up size against virtually every opponent. Over the course of his career, he's made up for it with savvy and by constantly keeping his feet moving. The work ethic is still there -- as evidenced by his 29 hits, and 13 takeaways to nine giveaways.

    But Sami can't score enough anymore to be a top-nine forward in the lineup on a game-in and game-out basis. On a team with several small, quick players in the lineup, he's not as effective as a change-of-pace forward as he was on past Flyers teams.

    Kapanen is another Flyers' player who is a real class act off the ice, and he's not only immensely respected by his North American teammates, he's also a player who helps build bridges for younger European players.

    Grade: B-/C+

    Riley Cote: Cote is a marginal NHL enforcer and 12th/13th forward who is more game than he is skilled. He's not a true heavyweight, but he is strong physically and shows no fear. He seems more coachable than Ben Eager, but is also an inferior skater and less skilled than the former Phoenix first round pick.

    Grade: C+

    Jim Dowd: The 39-year-old Dowd recently cleared waivers, along with Rory Fitzpatrick, but will remain with the big club for the time being. The team did the same thing a few years ago with Turner Stevenson, who stayed with the club the rest of the season. Dowd could go down to the Phantoms at some point.

    His main job was to win faceoffs and make sure his line wasn't scored upon at even strength. A 46.6% faceoff winning percentage and a minus-five rating in 8:37 of ice time over 31 games isn't quite good enough. Dowd is still an adequate 4th line player and penalty killer in a pinch.

    Grade: C

    Denis Tolpeko: The Russian rookie reminds me of Ruslan Fedotenko, minus the big shot. Tolpeko hustles,draws some penalties on the opposition and has superior raw speed to Fedotenko's. Tolpeko generally plays pretty well without the puck and has shown the ability to force turnovers on the forecheck.

    He has not been as effective in recent games as he was in the earlier phases of his callup. He could wind up going back down to the Phantoms, as his ice time has dwindled.

    Grade: B-

    Steve Downie: Downie is always going to be a player who has to push the envelope to be effective. He's also going to walk a fine line between getting himself in trouble on the ice and making things happen for the team.

    Downie's anger management and aggression has been debated to death, and I'm not going to comment any further on it.

    Instead, I'm going to focus on another area that will ultimately determine what kind of player he is in the NHL: skating.

    Downie is not a great skater, and needs to keep his feet moving to keep up with the play at the NHL level. Prior to the pre-season incident in Ottawa, he had noticeably improved in this area from last year's camp to this one.

    During his earlier callup to the big club, Downie seemed to be a little behind the play and was a non-factor physically in his limited ice time.

    Many of his NHL goals are going to look like the one he scored in Toronto last night. He's got underrated hands.

    Grade: Incomplete

    Stefan Ruzicka: Ruzicka has had a bunch of callups to the big team, as has quietly accumulated 10 games with the Flyers this year, with sparing ice time.

    I hate to say this, but each and every time I've seen Ruzicka, I get the same impression: He's an OK prospect, but probably won't stick for the long haul.

    In his third pro season, Ruzicka still better suited to the AHL than the NHL game. For a scoring prospect, that's not a promising sign.

    Ruzicka shows flashes of skill but he's not talented or consistently hard working enough offensively to play on a scoring line of a good NHL team. He's also not strong enough defensively to be a natural checking liner, although he's improved.

    There's often a tendency for hometown fans (in every NHL city) to overrate prospects like Ruzicka based on their junior production and/or AHL numbers. But there are a lot of players comparable to Ruzicka throughout the various NHL systems.

    A few ultimately make it as NHL, the majority wind up either as long-term minor leaguers or become regulars in the European leagues. Ruzicka could be a standout in the Czech Extraliga, for instance. To make it with the Flyers or another NHL club, he's going to have to improve further.

    Grade: Incomplete

    Ryan Potulny: If he could stay healthy, I think Potulny could emerge as an NHL regular. But I don't think it's going to be this year and I don't think it will be in Philadelphia.

    He's an offensive center without a real role on the team. He needs powerplay time to be effective, and might as well be in the AHL if he's confined to the fourth line.

    Could you say the same thing about Ruzicka? Perhaps. But here's the difference: Relative to his ice time, Potulny has shown the ability to generate some offense in NHL games (especially last year).

    There are areas he still needs to work on to be an NHL regular. He's not a blazing skater or a stellar defensive player. But I'd be willing to bet that he's skilled enough to perform adequately in those areas, assuming he produces some offense.

    With the Flyers, he'll never beat out Richards, nor are his all-around package of skills as good as Carter's. With Briere also aboard, that means Potulny either has to play a wing or he's on the fourth line.

    Grade: Incomplete</div>


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