Subject: Flyers at Devils recap: Bah humbug
Flyers came out flat against a reeling Devils team, losing 4-0 in the last game before the holiday break
The Flyers couldn’t solve Schneider, who wasn’t tested, en route to a 4-0 defeat at the hands of the New Jersey Devils. The loss leaves a bit of a bitter taste before the holiday break, with the team losing their third game in four after their 10-game winning streak. The Flyers had only 16 shots on goal, a season low. It was, by far, their worst effort of the season.
The Flyers were facing their rivals for the first time this year. The Flyers came into tonight hoping to sweep a back-to-back and keep pace with a white-hot top of the Metropolitan division, that has seen a lot of seen a lot of separation between the top five teams and the other three. To that end, Dave Hakstol rolled the same lineup as last night’s shootout win over Washington, with Steve Mason getting the nod again after a stellar performance in the victory.
The Devils were mired in a slump, one that saw them lose 7 straight games — gaining only one point in the process — while being outscored 29-9. Ouch. New Jersey goalie Cory Schneider is also having an off year, with a GAA close to 3.00 and a save percentage of just .904 — both numbers well off his career averages of 2.23 and 0.923 respectively. He had allowed at least four goals in seven of his last 10 starts.
After a nondescript start, New Jersey got on the score sheet first with a power play goal via a PA Parenteau deflection off a Michael Cammalleri point shot. It was the first goal allowed in 17 penalties against the Flyers. The Devils weren’t done, scoring another goal off a brutal turnover in the Flyers zone. Miles Wood was given credit after a bit of a scrum in the crease, and after 13:26 it was 2-0 Devils.
The rest of the period had some extracurricular activities. A bunch of fights broke out, with Brandon Manning, Nick Cousins, Nick Gazdic and Vernon Fiddler involved in the first, with all participants getting roughing minors; Dale Weise, Seth Helgeson duking it out shortly after that with an undercard of Radko Gudas, Helgeson, Giroux and Damon Severson; and at the end of the period, Cammalleri and Nick Cousins settled their differences. Wayne Simmonds drew an extra penalty to give the Devils a power play to start the second, and a total of 46 PIM were assessed in the first. It was a period indicative of a frustrated team, and with the Devils’ recent woes it was expected that they might be a bit amped up for something like this. The Devils also got the better of the Flyers on the scoreboard with the two goals, and led the shot battle 8-6.
Steve Mason was benched after the first in favor of Anthony Stolarz after the first. No word was given on why this happened; it’s assumed Hakstol was trying to send a message to his team in addition to resting Mason after last night’s game. The Flyers did respond with a better effort to start the second, having killed the Simmonds penalty. They were nearly rewarded with a Michael Raffl goal, but Schneider was able to get his glove on the puck an instant before it would have crossed the line. The play went to review, and the call of no goal was upheld. Based on the views available, it was the correct call.
More nondescript play followed, and Adam Henrique managed to get one by Stolarz at 13:49 to increase the deficit to three. On the other end of the ice, the Flyers couldn’t get anything going in terms of offensive zone pressure and Schneider faced very few high-danger chances aside from the Raffl non-goal. Speaking of, Raffl left the game in the middle of the second with an apparent leg injury and did not return for the rest of the game. Hextall said in game that Raffl would be out for a week or two with a lower body injury. Great! Shots in the second were 9-7 Devils.
The third period was more of the same. More intercepted passes, more blocked shots, more penalties, another PPG for the Devils (Kyle Palmieri), more offensive futility and just overall uninspired play. It wasn’t good, and mama said if you can’t talk good about something then don’t say it at all. I have nothing left to say about this game.
Thankfully, the Flyers have some time before their next game Wednesday night in St. Louis. Even the best teams have games where the mail just doesn’t come through. Thankfully, Sean Couturier should be returning soon, along with Matt Read and Mark Streit, so hopefully those guys can help the team get over this game in short order.
Subject: Friday Morning Fly By: I got a lot of problems with you people...
Today's open discussion thread, complete with your daily dose of Philadelphia Flyers news and notes...
*Ever notice how hockey is more fun when the team to which you are partial wins the game? RECAP!
*Speaking of The Train, he's here on this list of the best front-of-the-net guys in the league. [Dobber Hockey]
*DGB grades the Western Conference on its 2016 trades. [Sportsnet]
*Fines and suspensions are down in the NHL, so it seems like the players are learning to be less bad. [USA Today]
*Does the NHL need to rethink its playoff format? [Vice Sports]
*On the wonderful world of Canadian hockey jargon. [The Athletic]
*And finally, from all of us here at Broad Street Hockey, we hope you have a wonderful Christmas! Enjoy your long weeked and we'll see you Tuesday!
Subject: Devils 4, Flyers 0: 10 things we learned from a terrible final game before the holiday break
The Flyers followed up maybe their most entertaining win of the season with their most unwatchable loss.
Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Classic low-event Devils hockey game
Ever since the mid 90s, the New Jersey Devils have owned the same, distinct identity. Their whole strategy is to choke the life out of teams, and win low-scoring games that contained little in the way of shots or quality chances. The specific tactics in order to achieve that end have changed — their famed “neutral zone trap” can no longer be employed exactly as it was during the franchise’s heyday due to NHL rule changes — but the philosophy remains. Now, the Devils use a persistent offensive zone forecheck combined with a very high third forward to both slow down breakouts and clog up the neutral zone. The result is that the Devils remain one of the NHL’s true “low-event” hockey teams, and that showed last night.
In a little over 44 minutes at 5v5, the Flyers and Devils combined for just 53 shot attempts, with Philadelphia holding a slight 28-25 edge. For the Flyers, that’s a 37.79 Corsi For per 60, which isn’t just way below their season-average of 57.63, it’s also almost 12 shot attempts per 60 lower than the mark of the worst 5v5 shot creation team in hockey (Detroit). The Devils rank 28th in the NHL by this metric, so they are far more comfortable playing at this snail’s pace than the Flyers, who ranked 8th in the league coming into last night. Nothing was really working for Philadelphia — their breakouts were stifled by Jersey’s irritating pressure, speed through the neutral zone was nonexistent, and the team couldn’t seem to buy a puck battle while on the attack. They ended up holding their own in the 5v5 metrics (48.72% score-adjusted Corsi, 48.96% xG) but don’t be fooled. Philadelphia played the Devils’ game, and they looked ugly trying.
#2: Flyers also got sucked into extracurriculars in first period
The Philadelphia Flyers franchise will never shake the “Broad Street Bullies” reputation that was their calling card back in the 70s. But unlike the trapping Devils, the present-day Flyers have mostly shed that on-ice philosophy. As recently as four years ago, the Flyers used to ramp up the chippiness against more talented opponents to “bring them down to their level,” with the classic example being the 2012 playoff series against the Penguins. That’s changed. Sure, Wayne Simmonds is ridiculously tough, and Radko Gudas can go over the edge at times, but this isn’t a team that tries to intimidate their way to many victories anymore. If anything, now it’s other teams that try to get under the Flyers’ skin, and not the other way around. Last night, the Devils succeeded with flying colors in that regard during the opening twenty minutes.
After being called out by their GM in the media for lacking toughness on Wednesday, it wasn’t a huge surprise to see the Devils try to stir the pot early. More surprising was the Flyers’ willingness to engage against an inferior club even after falling behind 2-0 on the scoreboard. The fun was kicked off by Brandon Manning’s collision with Sergey Kalinin, which occurred with about six minutes left in the period and was almost certainly accidental. But the brawls started anyway, and by the end of the period, Philadelphia had lost Manning, Gudas, Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds all to time in the penalty box, when the team’s true focus should have been on overcoming an unlikely deficit. Instead, New Jersey was able to squeeze two power plays out of Philadelphia’s willingness to engage, and take key contributors off the ice at an important point of the game. The Flyers simply needed to be smarter.
#3: There was a second period push, but it didn’t last
To the Flyers’ credit, they did respond well out of the gate to start the second period, likely after being read the riot act from head coach Dave Hakstol. They ignored the Devils’ attempts to stir things up after the whistle and went on a 7-2 run in terms of 5v5 shot attempts over the period’s first seven minutes. Maybe the game would have even followed a different path had Michael Raffl been able to slip the puck past Corey Schneider during the surge, but the New Jersey netminder made a stellar save, barely preventing the puck from crossing the goal line with his glove.
The surge halted when Simmonds took a bad boarding penalty on Ben Lovejoy, and even though the Devils did not score on the power play, Philadelphia could not recapture their form from before the infraction. The second was still the best Flyers’ period in terms of 5v5 play-driving, but it was nowhere near enough to engineer a full-fledged comeback.
#4: Still, let’s not forget the stellar results of December
Momentum is a curious thing — not necessarily for NHL teams, who are filled with professional players trained to avoid getting too high after a win and too low following a loss, but for the fans. Because Philadelphia will not play another game until December 28th, it’s very easy to let this dismal performance cloud the prevailing view of the Flyers’ current status. However, we’re just two days removed from an impressive victory over a Stanley Cup favorite, and less than a week removed from a ten-game winning streak. Had the Devils and Capitals games been switched on the schedule and the same outcomes earned, my guess is that fans would be feeling far more optimistic about their favorite team while discussing sports around the Christmas dinner table than they will in two days.
Despite the recent losses to the Devils, Predators and Stars, the Flyers still hold a stellar 9-2-1 record during the month of December, and even if they drop both games of next week’s west coast trip, a 9-4-1 record is perfectly respectable. After you account for the fact that second-line center Sean Couturier missed the entire month, and play-driving winger Matt Read also was out for nine of the games, the record becomes even more impressive. This has been a ridiculously successful month for the Flyers, a month that saw them climb out of the conference basement and move solidly into playoff position. Let’s not lose sight of that.
#5: Gostisbehere one of the few standout Flyers
In a poorly-played game like this, it’s tough to praise any individual members of the team for their performance. However, Shayne Gostisbehere was maybe the only Philadelphia player to bring his “A” game, at least at even strength. On the rare occasions that the Flyers looked dangerous at all, Ghost always seemed to be on the ice, and it was no coincidence — Gostisbehere was the one putting the team in position to be on the attack in the first place. Only Ghost on the defense was regularly trying stretch passes to get around the Devils’ tight neutral zone checking, and he was also one of the few players on the team who was actually able to get his shot through to the net, finishing with four on goal (leading the Flyers).
The advanced metrics also liked Gostisbehere’s game, as he posted a defense-high 56.47% score-adjusted Corsi For percentage. But it wasn’t just Ghost’s play with the puck that stood out. He also was throwing his weight around, which is certainly not something you expect to see from the sub-200 pound Gostisbehere. Two hits stood out — a neutral zone standup of a Miles Wood rush, and then a depositing of Kyle Palmieri into the Devils’ bench. Surely, Gostisbehere can’t be expected to that on a regular basis, as his body likely wouldn’t be able to withstand the pounding. But I’m sure his teammates took notice that Ghost moved out of his comfort zone in an attempt to help his team engineer a comeback.
#6: Raffl injury is not good news
Around the midpoint of the second period, winger Michael Raffl disappeared from the Flyers’ bench without any obvious on-ice issue apparent to those watching the game on television. The initial assumption was that it was a minor bruise or even an equipment problem, but Raffl did not return for the rest of the period. At the start of the third, the Flyers announced that he had suffered a lower-body injury, and in unprecedented fashion, immediately announced his timeframe for return (1-2 weeks) prior to the game even ending.
The Flyers did get lucky from a timing standpoint. After all, if this timeline holds, Raffl may only miss two games, and at most would sit four, far from a devastating blow. Still, Philadelphia really needs to hope that one of Couturier or Read is ready to return on Tuesday. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, the three highest ranking Flyers forwards in Corsi For% RelTM are Read, Raffl, and Couturier, and now there’s a chance that all three could miss games against St. Louis and San Jose, two fantastic hockey teams. While the ten-game winning streak gives the Flyers some breathing room, you’d hate to see them fall right back onto the playoff bubble due to two straight losses next week. Absent their three best play-driving forwards at 5v5, that seems like a plausible outcome.
#7: Penalty kill lethargic and tentative
The Flyers have been on quite a run recently in terms of penalty kill efficiency, jumping all the way up to ninth in the league with an 83.0% efficiency rate. They did it by breaking up more entry attempts in the neutral zone, by pressuring the outside of opposing power play formations once they set up, and by receiving awesome goaltending from Steve Mason. Last night, however, the PK appeared to regress, allowing two goals on six opportunities. A poor goal-based outcome night can happen, and isn’t necessarily cause for alarm — power plays do have the inherent edge over penalty kills, and are going to beat even the best ones sometimes. More concerning was the poor defensive zone execution on the part of the skaters.
This season, the Flyers have adopted a “Czech Press” as their primary defensive zone penalty killing tactics. Also dubbed a “Triangle +1” by some, the point of the Czech Press is to use the high man in the PK formation to press down on the player on the half boards, forcing him to move down closer to red line or move the puck. The goal is to take away time and space from a power play, creating mistakes. Last night, the Flyers used their Czech Press, but it appeared half-hearted.
Rather than truly attack the half-boards forwards, Philadelphia seemed more interested in preventing a pass back to the defenseman up high rather than actually trying to force turnovers. It may have been intentional, but to my eyes, it looked more like the penalty killers were just playing more tentative than usual. Combined with poor work in clearing the crease, the shoddy execution of the Czech Press was a big reason why New Jersey’s power play was so successful.
#8: Little offensive creativity
Frankly, there wasn’t a zone of the ice where the Flyers looked especially impressive, but in order to finish a game with just 20 unblocked shot attempts in over 44 minutes of 5v5 play, it’s necessary to be really, really bad while on the attack. The Flyers have run into this issue before, due to the fact that much of their offensive zone structure stems from low-to-high passing and lots of point shots, which are inherently lower percentage shots. On Wednesday, the Capitals aggressively attacked the point men, trying to force dangerous turnovers, but instead only succeeded in giving Philadelphia free reign in the slot. The Devils, on the other hand, smothered everything.
Most of that was due to extremely poor decision-making on the part of the Flyers, and it started in the neutral zone. Even when Philadelphia would gain the zone with control, their passing leading up to that point was predictable, allowing the Devils to be set in perfect position for blocks. Cut off from immediate shooting lanes, Philadelphia tried to move around the perimeter with the eventual goal of getting to the slot, but their passing was inconsistent and their play in puck battles was worse. The result was repeated wasted zone entries and little in the way of dangerous attack time.
#9: Who replaces Raffl on the top line?
It doesn’t seem like Michael Raffl’s injury is too serious, but he still should miss at least two-to-four games, leaving a tough decision for Dave Hakstol. The top line has been flourishing since Raffl was added to the unit alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, and they noticeably struggled in the shifts after Raffl left the game. Especially if Sean Couturier cannot play next week (still a dicey proposition), Philadelphia will need impact performances from their best forwards in order to come out on top against teams like the Blues and Sharks.
So who is the best fit? Hakstol tried Dale Weise up there last night, and truthfully, the move wasn’t that ridiculous. After all, you’re looking for more of a support player with Giroux and Voracek, and Weise has driven play very well at 5v5 this year. However, Weise’s performance in the offensive zone has also been a straight-up mess, and I’m not sure that’s a player you want with your stars right now. For me, there are two good options. If they want to stack the top line with talent, the Flyers could elevate Travis Konecny to 1LW, which would certainly give them a spark of offensive firepower and creativity, no disrespect to Raffl. The other option would be Roman Lyubimov, who has excelled in a checking role this year. He doesn’t bring Raffl’s high-end hockey IQ to the table, but he could replicate the Austrian’s tenacious play in board battles.
#10: Smart move to start Mason?
Following the first period, starting goaltender Steve Mason was removed from the game in favor of Anthony Stolarz. At first, it appeared that Hakstol had made the switch with the intention of sparking his struggling squad, a tactic that head coaches around the league often employ. But following the conclusion of the game, it was announced that Mason was a little banged up in the first, and that’s why he was removed. That’s obviously the correct call — Mason has been one of the biggest causes of Philadelphia’s resurgence, and with the holiday break coming up, there was every reason to play it safe.
The bigger question is whether he should have been starting at all. Past research from Eric Tulsky held that starting a goaltender in both games of a back-to-back was setting that netminder up for failure. However, there is also evidence that in the years since, the negative impact has been far less obvious, so the issue is not cut-and-dry at this moment. Still, Mason did appear a bit out-of-sorts at the start of this game, and with Michal Neuvirth expected back from injury soon, this may have been the last opportunity to give Anthony Stolarz a start. At the same time, Mason struggled with rebounds early against the Capitals as well, and by the end of the game he was the Flyers’ best player, so maybe fatigue wasn’t affecting Mason at all. Personally, I probably would have went with Stolarz, but with the way that the Flyers’ skaters played last night, I’m not convinced that prime-age Dominik Hasek would have escaped North Jersey with a W anyway.
Subject: Anthony Stolarz: ‘Unforgettable first half’
He’s not wrong; he made his NHL debut, and that’s always incredible.
It’s been quite a first half of the season for Anthony Stolarz.
Drafted in the second round of the 2012 NHL draft, Stolarz has been a member of the Philadelphia Flyers for several years now. It’s only been since the 2014-15 season he’s played professionally, but this season was the next in a line of big steps forward.
Stolarz’s save percentage in the AHL steadily increased, from .905 in his first year to .916 and then, finally, .927 - until he was recalled to make his first NHL start, that is.
And so he has. And his second, and he played in his third game, too, albeit in less-than-ideal circumstances. Stolarz took the next step forward this season, making his NHL debut on Nov. 27.
That’s an incredibly special moment for any goalie, without a doubt.
A photo posted by Anthony Stolarz (@stoliethegoalie) on
The Flyers have taken to mostly playing Steve Mason as they deal with Michal Neuvirth’s injury, but when they’ve turned to Stolarz, they’ve had success. He’s won both of the games he’s started to date, and currently carries a .932 save percentage at the highest level.
While it’s probably a bit more likely the second half sees Stolarz spending more time in the AHL, pending Neuvirth’s return to health, he’s already put together a season to remember. Here’s to building further on that - because, if all goes well, there’s going to be a lot more to come.
Subject: Mason’s shootout numbers are impressive... seriously
The Flyers are winning shootouts... what a time to be alive!
During the offseason, Steve Mason mentioned how one of the areas he focused on was the mental side of being a goaltender, specifically when it comes to a shootout.
In what used to be an area Mason (and the Flyers, as a group) struggled in, the 28-year-old netminder has somewhat done a 180-degree flip.
He stood on his head once again as the Flyers knocked off Washington via shootout on Wednesday. Aside from one that got by him off of the stick of T.J. Oshie (a man known for taking down an entire country by way of shootout), Mason was brilliant.
“He is a confident goaltender in all areas of the game,” said head coach Dave Hakstol afterwards. “I see a confident goaltender when it comes to the shootout as well, even tonight. It was a tough situation, he has to make a save, we are down one and he stayed patient and did a great job. He gave us a chance to get ourselves back into the shootout. I give the guys credit; they did that for [Mason] as well.”
The Flyers are tied for the league lead with four shootout wins -- which also ties the franchise record for most in a single season. Mason was in net for three of those.
To no surprise, Mason has seen the most shootout opportunities of any goalie in the NHL entering Wednesday’s schedule of games. He has allowed just five pucks to get by him on 25 shots. Among the 10 goalies that have seen 13 or more shots, Mason (80.0%) is second behind Boston’s Tuukka Rask (84.2%) for the best save percentage.
That’s a far cry from what Mason’s previous numbers used to look like.
Last season, Mason actually saw one less chance than he has this season. In those 24 chances, he allowed 10 of them to get by for a 58.3 percent rate. That number was the third-lowest among goalies that saw 20-plus shots.
Before that, Mason stopped just 59.5% of his shots in the 2014-15 season. There were 13 goalies that saw 30 or more shots -- Mason had the second lowest save percentage among them.
In other words, Mason appears to have solved those shootout demons that once haunted him in past years. If he can continue to gain confidence in the 1-on-1 skills competition, that’ll bode well for a team that already has eight wins past regulation and seemingly plays an overtime game twice a week.
Subject: Claude Giroux’s dog is all of us after the holidays
Maybe not as cute, probably just as sleepy.
It’s Dec. 26, which means hockey still isn’t back for another day, and the Philadelphia Flyers still aren’t back for another two.
On one hand, the lack of hockey during the holidays kind of sucks - other sports get to have their showings - but on the other hand, hockey is very physically punishing, and it’s nice for players to get a break in.
Perhaps we should be thinking of Dec. 26 as a recovery day. Not only does everyone have to get back to their respective cities, but there was probably a lot of food consumption over the previous days. That’d be enough to lay anyone out for a bit.
To which point, Claude Giroux has shared the perfect image of what such a recovery day looks like:
Yeah, I think that’s basically everyone (though probably nowhere near as cute).
We’ll take that extra day off, knowing the guys probably need it - and here’s to everyone being fresh and ready to get back to work tomorrow!
Subject: Tuesday Morning Fly By: Baby Flyers are at it in Canada
Today's open discussion thread, complete with your daily dose of Philadelphia Flyers news and notes...
* World Juniors started yesterday! We’ll have more on that as it continues into next week, but here is your list of all nine (!) Flyers players/prospects participating: [Philly.com]
* Back at the NHL level, who has been the most impressive Flyer so far this year? [CSN Philly]
* Some extensive notes on the Phantoms’ season, both high-level and looking at several specific players: [Hockeybuzz]
* Down Goes Brown reviews every team’s trade resume for the year of 2016 and man he was not NEARLY as excited about trading Vincent Lecavalier as I think literally everyone in the Flyers’ fanbase was: [Sportsnet]
* Finally, as we look back at 2016, here are 16 memorable moments in 2016 (please note that some of these are actually bad) ... [NHL.com]
* ... and the 10 most “controversial” people in hockey this year, whatever that may mean: [Puck Daddy]
Subject: BSH Radio #90: Good year, good hockey.
In which the gang discusses how injuries are affecting the lineup, our World Juniors excitement, and the way the hockey community treats NHL tough guys.
On the final episode of 2016, Kelly, Steph, Charlie, and Bill examine the final two Flyers games before the holiday break and discuss potential lineup options in light of Michael Raffl's injury. There is some discussion about Brayden Schenn’s performance at center and how the team will look once Sean Couturier and Matt Read make it back into the regular lineup. The gang also looks at the league-high nine prospects the Flyers are sending to the World Junior Championship, and talk about the role of fighting and violence in hockey after Steve Downie's poignant Twitter comments over Christmas. All while eating cookies!
Follow us on twitter @BSH_Radio and let us know what you think about us by rating our show on iTunes.
Subject: The Philadelphia Flyers have very convincing reasons for to vote Wayne Simmonds to the All-Star Game
The NHL All-Star Game isn’t until Jan. 29, but when you think about it, that actually isn’t all that far away.
And while Wayne Simmonds is currently fourth in Metropolitan Division voting, he can always get more votes. After all, fourth means three guys are ahead of him: two Penguins and a Capital. What is that??
So the Philadephia Flyers want you to get out the vote. And they have a lot of convincing reasons as to why.
... Okay, three.
... Okay, one that counts.
You may be asking yourself, why is there a video that has Simmonds pulling a bunch of puppies wearing his jersey in a Wayne Train across a rink? To which I respond: is there any single good reason as to why this video shouldn’t exist?
Subject: Wednesday Morning Fly By: Finally, it's game day again.
Today's open discussion thread, complete with your daily dose of Philadelphia Flyers news and notes...
*It's finally game day! The Flyers are in St. Louis tonight on NBCSN, so we have to deal with the infernal 8pm-ish puck drop. Here's some updates from Ron Hextall on the status of the team.
*Which Flyer has disappointed you most this season? It's important to focus on the negative at the end of the year if you ask me. [CSN Philly]
*The World Junior Championship is in full swing now, and here's a handy guide to help you catch all the Baby Flyers in action. [Courier-Post]
*We're only only a couple of days into the tourney and Phillippe Myers is already getting a lot of (well deserved) attention. [CBC]
*Seriously, look at this assist he had during Team Canada's first game. Beaut. [Sons of Penn]
*As usual, all eyes are on Team Canada. And if they're going to win, Baby Flyer Carter Hart needs to get it together. [The Hockey News]
*You know what time it is: time to rank things! First up, Leafs' beat writer Steve Simmons puts Wayne Gretzky at #2 on an all-time best list. [The Toronto Sun]
*DGB brings us a definitive ranking of the best goaltender reactions ever. [Sportsnet]
*The top ten trades of 2016... [The Hockey News]
*...although it could be argued that you've already forgotten about some of the year's best trades. [SB Nation]
*AND FINALLY, in case you missed it, this week's episode of BSH Radio is a real gem. There are cookies. Enjoy. [BSH]
Subject: Flyers vs. Blues preview: Sean Couturier returns for Philadelphia
Flyers return to the ice against St Louis tonight on NBCSN
Oh hey, remember hockey? It was that sport that you liked once upon a time, back before some jolly dude dressed in red committed home invasion against billions of people this past weekend.
The world is obviously reeling from this brazen crime spree, but have no fear -- sports are a distraction from the difficulties of life, and the Philadelphia Flyers are here to help you forget.
Since we last saw them, the Flyers have basically held steady in the standings thanks to a league-wide holiday break. They enter tonight’s game in St. Louis, the first of a three-game road trip that will carry them into 2017, seven points up on the trailing Carolina Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division standings.
Sean Couturier will make his return to the Flyers lineup tonight, likely centering the third line and taking it easy on special teams as Dave Hakstol eases him back in after missing 16 games. Taylor Leier will jump up to the top line, replacing an injured Michael Raffl, while Brandon Manning and Mark Streit will be out on defense. That means Nick Schultz is back in the lineup. Yeah, I forgot he was on the team too.
Steve Mason will get the start in net for Philadelphia.
St. Louis, like the Flyers, has not played in nearly a week, coming off a 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay last Thursday. Overall, the Blues have been a bit disappointing so far this season, sitting in third-place in the Central Division with a mediocre 18-12-5 record and a goal differential of negative-5. They’re likely only in third place thanks to the poor play of teams like Dallas and Nashville that were expected to be contending for the division title, but there’s obviously still time left in the season for all of that to work itself out.
The Blues are led offensively in just about every category by phenom Vladimir Tarasenko. His 16 goals and 22 assists through 35 games played this season are a team-high, and it’s good for fourth in the NHL. He’s been particularly hot in recent games, but hot streaks are kind of irrelevant when it’s been six full days between games.
In an odd twist, the Flyers will face goalie Carter Hutton tonight. Hutton is the clear backup for the Blues behind Jake Allen, and with the long break it’s a little odd that Hutton will get the start, even if Allen was going through some slight injury issues before the break.
You might remember Hutton from the 2009-10 season when the Flyers signed him right out of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to serve as a backup when Johan Backlund went down to injury. (Hahaha man, that season was dumb.)
Tonight’s game is an 8 p.m. start on NBCSN across the USA. You can watch the game live streaming on the NBC Sports app or on NBCSports.com.
Flyers projected lineup:
Leier - Giroux - Voracek
Konecny - Schenn - Simmonds
Cousins - Couturier - Weise
Vandevelde - Bellemare - Lybimov
Provorov - MacDonald
Del Zotto - Gudas
Schultz - Gostisbehere
Subject: Thursday Morning Fly By: Nobody likes you, Mike Milbury.
*Ronnie Hextall on what he wants to see in the second half of the season. [CSN Philly]
*Speaking of the WJC, there have been a lot of empty season in Toronto for this thing. Is the problem location? Or maybe ticket prices are a little too high? [Toronto Sun]
*Here are your top ten goals for all of the 2016 calendar year. [Puck Daddy]
*And finally, we are coming up to Winter Classic Weekend, and in that vein, let's take a second to appreciate how much fun it is to ice skate outdoors. [ESPN]
Subject: Blues 6, Flyers 3: 10 things we learned from a third period lead squandered
The Flyers faced a road game against a tough opponent while missing some key players. But they still found a way to take the lead in the third period before it all fell apart.
Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Flyers survived injuries, buried by breakdowns
A road matchup with the St. Louis Blues was never going to be an easy one for the Philadelphia Flyers, but current circumstances just added to the degree of difficulty. Michael Raffl’s injury right before Christmas forced Hakstol to go with a makeshift first line, Matt Read’s continued absence weakened the bottom-six, and Sean Couturier was expected to be eased back into the rotation after missing a month due to a knee injury. To add insult to injury, Nick Schultz checked back into the lineup to replace Brandon Manning, swapping in a “keep them to the outside” defenseman for a play-driver. The end result was a Flyers roster far from at its optimal point.
Regardless, the team put together a passable 5-on-5 performance. Philadelphia actually led in score-adjusted Corsi (53.34%), even if they were less impressive in Fenwick (45.34%) and Expected Goals (41.58%). Still, the Flyers hung close enough with the Blues to make victory a possibility, and after regaining the lead with a Brayden Schenn power play goal in the third period, the opportunity was there for the taking.
Instead, the rest of the third period was reminiscent of early season Flyers hockey, when every mistake ended up in the back of the net. St. Louis took just nine shots on goal in the period but scored on four of them, on two point shots that were deflected, one empty-net goal, and one complete defensive zone breakdown by the whole team. Some of it was bad luck (deflections aren’t easy), but on each of the goals, Philadelphia could have been more physical, won a puck battle, or been in better position overall. It’s not the loss that truly stings; it’s the manner in which the Flyers fell.
#2: Flyers again played opponent’s preferred style
Play did ramp up in the third period, but for the game’s first forty minutes, the Flyers and Blues played at a snail’s pace. Disruption was the name of the game, as the teams combined for just 19 shots on goal at 5-on-5 and 43 total shot attempts. The low-event style was far more conducive to the Blues’ preferences, as St. Louis actually averages just 104.58 total Corsi events per 60 from both clubs, second-lowest in the NHL. The Flyers, on the other hand, rank eighth in the league at 114.31. Essentially, Philadelphia prefers to trade shots and chances, while St. Louis wants to slow things down and win in a slog.
For the second straight game, the Flyers played right into their opponent’s hand. It’s not as if Philadelphia wants to struggle in creating shots, of course, but just like in their matchup versus the Devils (27th in the league in pace), they simply weren’t sharp enough in their passing to break through tight checking in the neutral and offensive zones. The injuries haven’t helped (Raffl and Read are two of the best play-drivers on the roster), but the healthy players simply need to execute better at 5v5 if the offense is to get going again. There’s certainly enough talent left to do so.
#3: MacDonald struggled mightily
It’s no secret that Andrew MacDonald isn’t looked upon favorably by the internet-based Flyers fanbase. Part of the vitriol stems from his enormous contract, but most of the frustration is caused by his poor play-driving metrics at 5-on-5 and penchant for big mistakes defensively. To MacDonald’s credit, in recent weeks he had cut the glaring errors out of his performance, and the result was strong goal outcomes for the Flyers when MacDonald hit the ice. However, the play-driving problems remained, even as he moved up the lineup into a top pairing role alongside Ivan Provorov. Going into last night’s game, the pairing had delivered a Corsi For percentage around 40%, but a Goals For rate of 66.6%. The latter was due for a fall closer in line with the former, and that’s exactly what happened against the Blues.
If you spend so much time defending that you post a Corsi around 40%, mistakes are bound to occur eventually. MacDonald was hit with the devastating blast of regression last night, making error after error from the opening whistle. He was a turnover machine, failed in numerous attempts to clear the crease, and provided his usual passive neutral zone defense. MacDonald finished with a team-low 40.13% score-adjusted Corsi on the night, and was on the ice for four of St. Louis’ six goals. It was a disaster.
This game was an anomaly, in the sense that MacDonald hasn’t looked this sloppy since before Thanksgiving. But the poor play-driving rates are nothing new. That’s the inherent risk of playing such a passive style — more opportunities for mistakes to creep in. At the very least, MacDonald is overmatched receiving top-pair minutes (he was second in 5v5 TOI yesterday) and primarily facing top competition. Pulling back on his minutes and seeing if the performance improves as a result is a good place to start in trying to solve this obvious problem.
#4: Couturier not sheltered in return
When it was announced yesterday that Sean Couturier would officially return to the Flyers’ lineup, there was some concern regarding his role in his first game back. Rather than replace Brayden Schenn as the pivot between Travis Konecny and Wayne Simmonds, Couturier would instead center Dale Weise and Nick Cousins, on a line that had been used as the fourth in recent games. The prevailing theory was that Hakstol was planning to ease Couturier back into the lineup, giving him limited minutes until he proved he was physically capable of more. Well, Couturier quickly showcased the speed and physicality that makes him such a useful player and even strength, and Hakstol did not hold back on the minutes granted to his shutdown center.
Rather than move Couturier up in his lineup, Hakstol instead just elevated the whole line. Couturier finished with 13:30 minutes at 5-on-5, the third-most among Philadelphia forwards, with Weise and Cousins both receiving over 10. Couturier also received nine defensive zone faceoffs and just one offensive draw, showing that the coach had no qualms with putting the center back into a tough-minutes role. And while it wasn’t an especially flashy performance, Couturier’s metrics were strong, as he finished with a perfectly-fine 53.87% score-adjusted Corsi and 51.15% xG%. At least in terms of driving positive 5v5 outcomes, Couturier didn’t miss a beat.
#5: Top two centers drove play, other lines not so much
In the wake of the Couturier injury, the Flyers’ lack of high-end depth at the center position was severely tested. They tried everything at 2C — first Nick Cousins (too limited offensively), then Brayden Schenn (a mess defensively), before finally settling on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as the best of a number of bad options. And to be sure, each had their moments. Bellemare was still receiving praise from the NBC commentators for his “shutdown” games in December, and the team was satisfied enough with Schenn’s play in between Konecny and Simmonds to keep that line together even with Couturier back. But let’s not kid ourselves — there are only two players on this roster capable of playing center at a high-end level in the NHL, and they are Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier.
As a result, it was no surprise to see Giroux and Couturier check in as the only Flyers centers to finish above water in terms of Corsi For percentage against Blues. Giroux led the way, posting strong Corsi and xG percentages (59.09%/57.37%) with Couturier close behind. Schenn and Bellemare, on the other hand, were buried especially in xG, with the former posting a poor 34.09% and Bellemare somehow finishing at 0.00% in limited minutes. The 2C replacements may have done their best with Couturier out, but the master of the role has returned, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.
#6: Bellemare line relegated to fourth line duties
The biggest adjustment from a line usage standpoint came in how Hakstol chose to deploy the trio of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov. While Brayden Schenn has been given the 2C designation by many in the media, the time on ice numbers didn’t lie — it was Bellemare and company that was truly the Flyers’ second line over the past few weeks. As a result, it was a surprise to see them dropped not only below Couturier’s line in terms of TOI, but Schenn’s line as well. In fact, none of the trio received even seven minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, with Lyubimov the trailer at 4:36.
Maybe the demotion shouldn’t be too surprising, though. After all, Bellemare’s line was getting heavy minutes primarily because of their role as a shutdown unit tasked with directly matching an opponent’s first or second line. With Couturier back, they no longer need to take up that mantle. However, Hakstol still wants scorers like Simmonds and Konecny on the ice at 5v5, so that leaves Bellemare’s unit as the one on the bottom of the depth chart. Truthfully, it’s a good sign for the future, even if the top-nine probably could use some additional shuffling.
#7: Penalty kill struggled, Blues attacked it perfectly
After an especially dominant stretch by the Philadelphia penalty kill, it’s struggled in recent games, allowing two goals against the Devils last week and two more last night versus St. Louis. But often, it’s not merely poor penalty killing that results in goals against. In many cases, the opposing power play is simply executing their gameplan to perfection, with a prior knowledge of the PK’s tendencies. That’s exactly what happened last night.
Take the first goal, for example. The Flyers run a Czech Press defensive zone strategy in the defensive zone, which mandates that the high forward (or F1) put constant pressure on the outer edges of the PP formation, and trades off with the slightly lower forward (F2) if the puck is moved to the other side. In this case, Chris VandeVelde pressured Kevin Shattenkirk who dished the puck down to Steen, which should result in F2 (Bellemare) quickly switching to attack Steen. However, Jaden Schwartz set a pick in the middle of the ice, blocking Bellemare from rushing to challenge Steen as he should have done.
Given time and space, Steen moved into the slot before passing back to Shattenkirk, who now was facing a collapsing PK formation in chaos, and he didn’t miss on his golden opportunity. That’s not to say it couldn’t have been played better by Philadelphia — Bellemare should be more aware of his surroundings and take a better route, or Provorov needs to step up and create puck pressure himself — but it’s important to note the impeccable play design on the part of the Blues. Sometimes, you just have to tip your cap.
#8: Power play struggled, then robbed, then came through
You have to give the Philadelphia top power play unit credit — they sure seem to have a short memory. After two disastrous opportunities in the second period that saw the PP seemingly allow more chances than they created, the unit quarterbacked by Giroux and Gostisbehere came out firing during their first chance in the third. In fact, they should have scored about a minute before they actually did, and were only thwarted by some bad luck. Simmonds was able to knock a loose puck that was under the elevated pads of Carter Hutton, but the referee in back of the net could only see that it was seemingly covered by the pads and blew the play dead. But the Flyers weren’t to be denied, and eventually Schenn scored on a slick zone entry and backhand pass courtesy of Gostisbehere.
On the whole, it wasn’t a great night in terms of process for the Flyers’ top unit — they generated just 67.62 shot attempts per 60, far below their season average. But the strong performance in the third period does give some hope that they may be coming out of their recent slump.
#9: Was it a bad game by Mason?
It’s easy to look at the raw stats and wince when glancing at Steve Mason’s 0.792 save percentage from last night’s game. However, when breaking down each of the goals, Mason’s performance looks far more acceptable. On each, Mason was either screened (first, second and fifth goals) or victim of a perfect deflection (third and fourth). Those circumstances aren’t going to be properly captured by a statistic like xG, which had Mason as only being “expected” to allow 2.07 in all situations. Instead, this was more like many of the early season performances by Mason, where he maybe could have came up with a big save at some point, but on the whole was more a victim of poor defensive zone coverage and some unfortunate bounces.
#10: Flyers actually did a great job on Tarasenko
After two straight 35+ goal seasons, Vladimir Tarasenko has rightfully established himself as one of the NHL’s most dangerous forwards. So in a game that saw the Blues rack up six goals, Tarasenko was obviously a key part of the offense, no? As it turns out, the Flyers must be commended for their stellar work in neutralizing Tarsenko, even if they struggled against the rest of the St. Louis roster. In 12:52 minutes at 5-on-5, the Russian sniper finished with a 29.14% score-adjusted Corsi, and was on the ice for just one Blues scoring chance. In addition, Tarasenko had just one shot attempt all game long, which missed the net.
He received the bulk of his minutes against the Giroux and Couturier lines, and Tarasenko was essentially stymied, earning just one secondary assist on a power play tally. Generally speaking, if you erase an opponent’s best player from the equation, you’re likely to win the game. That didn’t happen last night, but Philadelphia’s successful efforts against Vladimir Tarasenko should still be praised. It’s not an easy task to slow him down.
Subject: Friday Morning Fly By: Good riddance, 2016!
*One more Flyers game this year and it's tonight at 10PM because it's in stupid California. Upside: Brent Burns. Go Flyers!
*Before tonight's game look back at Wednesday's third period meltdown with Charlie's observations. [BSH]
*As we bid farewell to stupid 2016, here's the top 16 Flyers people of the year. [Sports Talk Philly]
*DGB brings us the dumbest controversies of the 2016 year in hockey. [The Hockey News]
*DGB also looks back and ranks the best divisions in NHL history. [Sportsnet]
*Hmm..this possibly leaked Adidas hockey jersey showcases some possible changes to hockey jerseys we'll see in the new year. [The Hockey News]
*How do hockey fans rate the product the NHL is currently putting on the ice? [Puck Daddy]
*And finally, looking for a way to kill time before tonight's super late puck-drop? Listen to the latest episode of BSH Radio!!! It's really really good you guys I swear. [BSH]
Subject: Doug Pederson says he’s “enjoyed” calling his own plays this season
The rookie head coach said he thinks he and his staff have done a good job on game days.
Doug Pederson spoke to reporters for the final time in 2016. Here’s what he touched on:
Pederson said every player would practice on Friday. He said Allen Barbre, who will be listed as doubtful, is going to be limited as he continues to test his hamstring. If Barbre can’t go, and even if he can, expect to see Isaac Seumalo, who will be listed as questionable but is expected to be fine, in at left guard at some point.
Jordan Matthews, who missed the first two days of practice this week with his ankle injury, is practicing Friday and will be listed as questionable.
Same thing for Jordan Hicks, who is also dealing with an ankle injury. He’ll practice and be listed as questionable.
And Halapoulivaati Vaitai is healthy, and will probably be the seventh active offensive lineman on Sunday.
Roster move in the wake of Ryan Mathews heading to IR?
“We’ve got to get through practice today, but we anticipate Terrell Watson probably being the guy up to give us depth at the running back spot.
“Right now, going in, he’s more of an emergency. We’d obviously love to see Byron quite a bit in this lsat ball game, see what you’ve got there. But [Watson] will definitely be there in case, and then some situational football.”
On Tony Romo possibly seeing playing time on Sunday
“Anything’s possible in this last game. It doesn’t surprise me. Knowing where they’re heading, going into the postseason, obviously getting him some snaps would be beneficial. And that’d be something that I’d even consider in that situation, if we were in that situation.”
What would your reasoning be behind doing the same?
“One, don’t risk injury to your starter, and two, your backup needs to be ready in those crucial moments. We were faced with it just a week ago with Chase.”
After a full season of you calling plays, how do you think you’ve done?
“I’ll evaluate that quite extensively in these coming weeks, but I’ve enjoyed doing it, number one. And I think from a game management standpoint, I don’t think it’s interfered with anything, from a decision standpoint. I’m getting a lot of information from other coaches and guys in the box. For crucial decisions, I think we’ve handled those well.
“Are there calls that I would do differently, looking back? Sure. There’s a few plays I would take back, call a different play, and I think that’s part of the learning process for me, going through it, and making myself better in the future.”
Where has Carson grown these past few weeks?
“I think with Carson, these last couple weeks, the way he’s been able to spread the ball around to different positions, he’s getting through his progressions better. Not getting stuck on a receiver. He’s utilizing his backs a little bit more, you’re seeing that. His tight ends underneath, things like that.
“And those are things you learn once you really get comfortable with the offense and understand where guys are going to be. I think that’s the thing he’s taken really big strides here in these last couples weeks of doing, and is something we can build on this offseason.
What plays are going to haunt you this offseason?
“There were some fourth down decisions where I maybe could’ve called a different play when I made the decision to go for it. I think back to that Giants game, running Carson on fourth and two, I’d probably call a different play. The decision to go for it was okay, but the play design not so much.
“Even looking back on a third down where there — and again, specifically thinking down and distances, those third and fives, not necessarily one specific, I know where maybe I’ve thrown the ball in that situation as opposed to running it in that situation. Teams will usually anticipate a throw. Those are in-game decisions you do to help your offense stay on the field.
“And areas of the field, where we start crossing that plus-40 yard line. You see teams, and I’ve been on teams, where that’s a good opportunity to take a shot, try to get a quick score, which we did last week. We hit Nelson in that area.
“Those are things I’ve learned where I would probably change the course of the play a little bit.”
Jeffrey Lurie said he wanted emotional intelligence in his coach. Has that helped you this year?
“That’s a great question, because I really feel we got to this point where we were still, each week, if we win this game, we were still giving ourselves an opportunity for the postseason. And then we slipped up and got on that losing streak right there before the Giants game.
“About three weeks ago, that team, this team, really could’ve flipped and gone the other direction. And I think by knowing and understanding the dynamic of that locker room, you go around and you talk to the leaders of the team, the leadership council, and you just keep fighting. You keep buying in.
“And I think that’s helped me these last few weeks, and you’re seeing how these guys have responded. A great win last Thursday. There’s no quit. The fight’s been there, the effort’s been there. And that’s something these guys have really bought into these last few weeks.
“For me, that’s been a defining moment, this first year of these guys really buying into what I’ve been saying. Keeping my messaging consistent with the team, and letting them kind of take charge with it.”
Subject: Friday's bowl game draft profiles, featuring Dalvin Cook
Friday! Friday! Gotta get down on Friday!
With one day to go before the first College Football Playoff game of the season, the bowl games all feature quality match ups with talented NFL prospects getting involved. Today holds five games playing all afternoon and each one should be exciting and worth watching for at least a few NFL prospects. Here is who to watch in today's games...
12 PM on ESPN-Liberty Bowl: Georgia v. TCU
- Greg Pyke, Tackle, Georgia: With Nick Chubb and Sony Michel set on returning for another year at Georgia, the best Bulldog to watch would be Greg Pyke, their talented offensive lineman.The 6-6, 320 pound senior has experience playing guard and tackle and his long arms, strength and mean streak allow him to get the job done on a regular basis. He is inconsistent as a pass protector because sometimes he runs into issues keeping up with speedier edge rushers. However he is a very good run blocker and could be a good player on a lot of NFL team's lines.
- Patrick Morris, Guard, TCU: Patrick Morris is the main cog in a talented TCU offensive line. The 6-3, 300 pound guard is a good athlete with consistent technique and awareness. He is an outstanding pass protector who rarely, if ever, allows disruption of the passing game. He is a solid run blocker to complement his overall skill set. In a weaker offensive line class, Morris is a player to get excited about.
2 PM on CBS- Sun Bowl: Stanford v. UNC
- Solomon Thomas, Defensive Line, Stanford: Solomon Thomas is not only a standout on the Stanford defense, but he is among the best defensive line prospects in the country. Even in a more talented class, the 6-3, 280 defender should warrant first round hype. Thomas gets moved around a lot and struggles with consistency, but he has as good of flashes as there is among this year's class. His athletic ability and ceiling to be a disruptive and versatile defender are tantalizing aspects of his NFL potential.
- Ryan Switzer, Wide Receiver, UNC: Considering that Mitch Trubisky will likely be the highest drafted Tarheel and Eagles fans should have no draft interest in any of the top quarterback prospects, be sure to keep an eye on his top target in the passing game, Ryan Switzer. Switzer does not have amazing size, but he is a dependable target with incredible route running skills and with the ball in his hands, he becomes a dangerous threat after the catch. While he will not be a number one receiver in the NFL, he is every bit an outstanding #2 receiver prospect who will thrive in the slot.
- Elijah Hood, Running Back, UNC: Elijah Hood is having a down season relative to what he did last year, but his talent is still evident. He is a well built running back (6 foot, 220) with a very impressive blend of burst, power, long speed and agility. He can also contribute in the passing game. Unlike a lot of the top backs this year, Hood lacks one elite trait, but makes up for it with a very complete overall game.
3:30 PM on ESPN- Music City Bowl: Nebraska v. Tennessee
- Derek Barnett, EDGE, Tennessee: Derek Barnett has been one of the most productive defenders in the country over the last few years. Barnett is not an outstanding athlete, especially in relation to a lot of the other pass rushers in the class, but he has an excellent build to go along with great strength and a high motor. He is a well rounded defender and while he may not ever be a top defender in the league. He is the type of guy who could consistently be among the 20 best defensive lineman on a yearly basis. He is one of the safer picks in the draft.
- Alvin Kamara, Running Back, Tennessee: About halfway through the year, Alvin Kamara took over the role of the Volunteers lead runner and immediately showed his talent. He has a strong build at 5-10, 215 and his biggest strengths are excellent balance and agility. He does a great job of making players miss and breaking through arm tackles and rarely looses speed through his cuts. He is not a great inside runner, but flashes a home run threat skill set and due to his great third down ability, he should have a place in the league sooner than later.
- Nate Gerry, Safety, Nebraska: Nate Gerry does not get enough credit but the 6-2, 220 pound safety is one of the more well rounded defenders in the country. He is an incredibly savvy player who is always on alert, but he has an aggressiveness to his game that allows him to make impact plays against the run and the pass, as evidenced by the 13 interceptions and three forced fumbles he has accumulated over the last three seasons. Gerry is not a great athlete and is not a single high safety at the NFL level, but he could very quickly be a very good strong safety for an NFL team.
5:30 on ASN- Arizona Bowl: South Alabama v. Air Force
- Gerald Everett, Tight End, South Alabama: South Alabama's main offensive weapon is their 6-4, 240 pound match up nightmare, Gerald Everett. Everett is a bit smaller for a tight end and that hurts his blocking, but he is a good athlete with strong hands who can create mismatches for defenders. Everett looks like the new age NFL tight end and should warrant late round consideration.
- Randy Allen, EDGE, South Alabama: Randy Allen is one of the most productive defenders you have never heard of. The 6-2, 245 pound senior pass rusher has accumulated 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss this season despite being more of a rotational player. Allen is a bit smaller at 6-2, 245 but his quickness and motor make him incredible hard to deal with. It is to be seen if Allen's athletic ability will overshadow his diminutive stature in the NFL, but at the moment he stands as a stud college defender.
- Weston Steelhammer, Safety, Air Force: Despite having the coolest name in college football and possibly (definitely) the entire world, Weston Steelhammer might be the most productive defensive back in college right now. Over the last three seasons, Steelhammer has racked up 17 interceptions, an astounding number. Steelhamer has NFL size (6-2, 220) and has a ballhawking mentality. He is not an outstanding athlete, but has good quickness to complement his field IQ. A playmaker like Steelhamer deserves an NFL roster spot, even if it is just to get that name on a jersey.
- Jalen Robinette, Wide Receiver, Air Force: Air Force does not throw the ball much, but when they do, they throw it deep to Jalen Robinette. The senior wide out has only caught 59 passes in the last two years, but he averages 25 yards per catch. The 6-4, 215 raw athlete has an awesome skill set despite lack of polish and should warrant serious consideration as a high upside pick in the middle rounds.
8 PM on ESPN- Orange Bowl: Florida State v. Michigan
- Dalvin Cook, Running Back, Florida State: I have waxed poetic about Dalvin Cook's immense talent many times before, but I might as well do it a bit again. Cook is the best running back in this class. Not only is he an awesome athlete with world class speed, he is a versatile and well rounded offensive player who can make in impact in the passing and running game. He is the type of player a team can build an offense around and he should be the first running back taken, no question.
- Demarcus Walker, Defensive Line, FSU: Demarcus Walker has had a very productive season for FSU. The 6-3, 270 pound defender has long arms, incredible strength and a relentless motor. He is not the great, bend around the edge type of athlete that a lot of this year's defenders are, but his skill set should make him a productive NFL defender, even if a team wants to change his role at the next level.
- Marquez White, Cornerback, FSU: A bit underrated is Florida State's Marquez White. The 6-1 cornerback has good size and arm length and possesses NFL athletic ability. He is a bit raw in terms of awareness and technique, but he is a gifted athlete at a position where gifted athletes are at a premium. I should be interesting to see how the NFL values him.
- Jourdan Lewis, Cornerback, Michigan: Jourdan Lewis has a lot of convincing to do. He is a gifted player with incredibly consistent technique and awareness and has been one of the most reliable defensive backs in the country. However, the NFL is bound to worry about his size (5-10, 185) and he will need to display incredible athletic ability to compensate. I think Lewis will be an excellent NFL defensive back regardless of where he is chosen, but the next few months will dictate where that might be.
- Channing Stribling, Cornerback, Michigan: Stribling does not have the consistency of his teammate, Jourdan Lewis, but his size (6-2, 175) and play making ability (16 PDs, 4 INTs and 1 TD) will make some people like him more. I would disagree with that sentiment, but there is still plenty to like about Stribling, especially if he can add weight to his farm without losing speed.
- Taco Charleton, EDGE, Michigan: Michigan's incredible defense starts up front and starts with Taco Charlton. The excellently named defender has incredibly long arms to pair with his 6-6 frame and he is a good athlete. His flashes in the passing and running game are very exciting and if he can nail down consistency, he will be a very good NFL player.
- Amara Darboh, Wide Receiver, Michigan: Despite not being a passing team, Amara Darboh has still been a spectacular player for the Wolverines during his career. The 6-2, 215 target has highlight catch after highlight catch, a testament to his outstanding ball skills and concentration. He is not a great athlete in terms of speed, but his ability to consistently convert targets, even tough ones, into catches will make him a coveted NFL player.
- Jake Butt, Tight End, Michigan: As much as I want to make a joke about a tight end named Butt, I won't. I will let you do that. However, I can talk about how dependable Jake Butt is not only in terms of being a pass catcher, but also in terms of his blocking. He is a consistent, dependable blocker who can basically function as an extension of a line. While he may not be the flashy, new age tight end that this class has in spades, his old school game will make him highly coveted.
- Jabrill Peppers, Defender, Michigan: It is only December and Jabrill Peppers is already the most talked about and divisive player in this class. The former top high school recruit has played more positions on offense, defense and special teams than I can count and was a Heisman finalist this year. There is no doubt that Peppers is a flashy athlete and that shows during his highlight kick returns and plays on offense. However, there is a doubt that he really has a position in the NFL. Peppers is too small (Six Foot, 220) to play linebacker every down in the NFL and is too raw in coverage to be an immediate impact defensive back. Playing him at linebacker will get him washed out on a regular basis and it will take time for him to grow into covering as a safety. So, at this point, Peppers is basically an NFL box safety with potential to be something more. That does not really sound like a top five pick. He is a good player and prospect, but they hype could have him going about 30 picks before where he should.
Subject: Your Week 17 first round draft pick rooting guide
The Eagles can win and improve their draft position
There’s one week left in the season, one week for Sam Bradford and Vikings, along with a little help from some friends, to get the Eagles a top 10 draft pick.
Entering last week, the Eagles held, via the Vikings, the 15th overall draft pick. A week later, they still hold the 15th overall draft pick as a lot of breaks didn’t go the Eagles way. Could that change this week?
The best the Eagles/Vikings can do is slide up to 9th overall pick. For that to happen they need a certain set of dominoes to fall. A pick around 15th overall is most likely, as the Eagles need the Vikings to be upset and need some other upsets to happen.
Bears at Vikings
First order of business is for a Vikings loss, which would give them a 7-9 record. The Bears are terrible, so the Vikings stand a good chance of winning, but with players defying Mike Zimmer’s orders, the last week of the season being divisional games and teams occasionally sleepwalking through the end of a lost season, stranger things have happened.
The Eagles need Matt Barkley to lead his team to victory over Sam Bradford and his team. What a season.
Cowboys at Eagles
With the Eagles win over the Giants, they are just a game back of the Vikings. With a Vikings loss, an Eagles win would see them leap frog the Vikings, as their strength of schedule, currently at .542, is too big to drop enough to lose a tiebreaker.
Cardinals at Rams
At 6-8-1, a Cardinals win and a Vikings loss will see them leap frog Minnesota on record alone, no tiebreaker needed.
Bills at Jets
The 7-8 Bills currently have a .496 strength of schedule, so the Eagles need the Bills to win along with the Vikings to lose to leap Minnesota.
Saints at Falcons
The Saints are also 7-8 and currently have a worse strength of schedule (.511) than the Vikings, so a Saints win and a Vikings loss is needed here to be sure of an improved pick.
Jaguars at Colts
Like the Saints, the Colts are 7-8 with a .511 strength of schedule. At home against the Jaguars, a Colts win might be the best chance for the Eagles/Vikings to move up a spot, even if the Vikings win.
Texans at Titans
At 8-7 the Titans sit ahead of the Vikings, but a loss and a Vikings win would see that end, as the Titans have a .462 strength of schedule, a gap too big to flip. The Eagles need a Marcus Mariota-less Titans win to help keep a ceiling on the Vikings.
Raiders at Broncos
The 8-7 Broncos could finish with the same record as the Vikings if Denver loses and Minnesota wins, but with a current .536 strength of schedule, a lot would have to go wrong for the Vikings to edge out the Broncos in a tie breaker, but a Broncos win against a Derek Carr-less Raiders team will take that completely out of consideration.
Ravens at Bengals
The Ravens are 8-7 and have a .507 strength of schedule. Like the Titans and Broncos, a Ravens win would keep them ahead of the Vikings and help keep their pick from entering the top half of the draft.
And then there is a game that hinges on the outcome of the Vikings game.
Panthers at Buccaneers
At 6-9, Carolina currently holds the 9th overall pick, 8-7 Tampa Bay the 17th or 18th pick (tied with the Ravens). A Vikings loss and a Panthers win would put the teams into a strength of schedule tiebreaker, which the Panthers (.513) currently hold over the Vikings (.516) by a very thin margin.
But if the Vikings win to improve to 8-8, then they need all the 8-7 teams ahead of them to win , which means a Buccaneers win would be necessary.
If the Vikings lose to the Bears:
Panthers over Buccaneers
Eagles over Cowboys
Cardinals over Rams
Bills over Jets
Saints over Falcons
Colts over Jaguars
If the Vikings beat the Bears
Buccaneers over Panthers
Titans over Texans
Ravens over Bengals
Broncos over Raiders
Subject: Five Questions for the Foes: Previewing the Cowboys, Pt. II
We asked experts on the (ugh) NFC Champions about their team.
The Cowboys are the NFC Champions. We’re going to have to learn to deal with that one. To get a better grasp on the Cowboys, as we barrel towards a Week 17 matchup that means nothing for either side, I chatted up Jason Halprin of Blogging the Boys. Here’s what we talked about:
1. Dak Prescott threw 20 passes in a meaningless game two days after the Raiders lost Derek Carr for the season. How do fans feel about Jason Garrett's decision to play his best players in games with no postseason implications?
This is a very tough call with opinions all over the place. Some people want to rest guys like Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Sean Lee, Jason Witten, Dez Byrant and a few others that are key components to the Cowboys success. There is also a push by some to rest as much of the offensive line as possible. With the 46-man active day roster, you can't rest everybody so even agreement over who to rest or who to limit is problematic.
The other camp of keeping the pedal to the metal got what it wanted on Monday night, a blowout win and one of the Cowboys better games of the year. But every time Dak took a big hit, or when Tyron Smith went out with a knee injury, there was a whole lot of collective gasping going on in the Cowboys fanbase. In the end I don't know if there is one "right" way of handling this situation, but my guess is the Cowboys will be resting a lot more guys, or at least limiting their reps, this week.
2. This will be the Cowboys' first postseason run in a new era. What are reasonable expectations? Do fans think the young stars will be able to keep excelling under increased pressure?
As the season has progressed, there has been what we've termed "moving the goalposts syndrome" going on. When Dak first took over the team and excelled in preseason, there was the "yeah but he hasn't seen a real NFL defense game plan yet." The thought was that he would struggle. Then when he didn't there was always the "he hasn't seen a really good defense yet" or "he won't be able to keep his job when Tony Romo is healthy" going on. So basically what I'm alluding to is that there has been bunch of "yeah, but can he handle the next step" going on this year and every time Prescott has shown he can take the next step.
So when you ask me if he can keep excelling under the increased pressure, I just can't bet against him. Not with the way he has responded to everything that has been thrown at him this season. The guy just seems to shake off pressure and keep his cool at all times. So the expectation is that we are contenders to win it all, not that we should win it all, but that we are definitely in the mix to win it all and it wouldn't be a huge surprise if we did, and it would be disappointing if we didn't.
3. It's a bit big-question for a team focused on the postseason, but, to you, what does this year say about Jason Garrett as a coach? Is he a beneficiary of good/lucky drafting? Is he to thank for the success of the young guys?
What I think this shows more than anything is that Jason Garrett had a plan, a vision for this team, and that it is finally working out the way he envisioned. You could see it already working in 2014 when the Cowboys went 12-4 and were one Dez non-catch call away from going to the NFC Championship game. This team is really an extension of that team which was a ball control offense with a terrific offensive line complementing a dangerous passing game and an opportunistic defense. Last year was washed away when the Cowboys didn't have an adequate backup to Romo.
This year they had the adequate backup (and then some) and they look more like that 2014 team. I think that every successful NFL coach is the beneficiary of good drafting and sometimes lucky drafting, but it's no coincidence that the first player the Cowboys drafted once Garrett was the permanent head coach was Tyron Smith. The Cowboys, specifically Jason Garrett, decided what kind of team they wanted to be, built that team and now he is seeing the benefits. This is really a tribute to his steadiness and his unwavering commitment to his process.
4. We know the names who get the headlines. Who are two guys (one offense, one defense, if you please) who've gone unnoticed in propelling the Cowboys to 13 wins in 15 games?
On offense, I usually say Cole Beasley, but he's not going so unnoticed anymore. So let's go deep and say right guard Ron Leary. Why Leary? Because he lost his job to La'el Collins last year, and then wanted to be traded this offseason and the Cowboys were tempted to do it, but decided not to. Lucky Dallas, because Collins went down to injury very early in the season and Leary had to step in. He not only filled the job, but is probably playing better than Collins did and has helped the offensive line keep its status as one of the best in the league and has allowed Elliott and Prescott to get the glory. So kudos to an unsung lineman.
On defense, you could basically name the whole unit besides Sean Lee. But the Cowboys defensive line has really come on strong the last month of the season and the charge has been led by guys like David Irving, Benson Mayowa and rookie Maliek Collins. Not exactly household names but they have finally given the Cowboys a pass rush. Also, rookie corner Anthony Brown has been asked to play all over the secondary because of injuries to other players and has been fantastic.
5. Looking at what Dallas has done this season, 13 wins per season obviously isn't likely for the rest of Dak Prescott's career. How much of what the Cowboys have done well this season do you think is sustainable over the next handful of years?
It's very sustainable as long as they keep the offensive line together, and eventually replace an aging Jason Witten at tight end and Doug Free at right tackle. The rest of the unit is very young, with Dez Bryant really the elder statesmen besides Witten and Free. Now replacing Witten is obviously not really doable, but getting a decent facsimile of him may be possible. But really, on offense it's all about the offensive line and they are young besides Free, so if they can keep that unit together and get Free's replacement, then there is no reason the offense shouldn't continue to roll.
The defensive side of the ball is really where the question marks are. Can they find an elite pass rusher, will linebacker Jaylon Smith ever be healthy enough to play, what do they do about the corners where contract issues are coming up. That's the side of the ball that is really an issue and needs to be figured out if they want to continue to be contenders.
BONUS: Who wins, and what's the score?
Cowboys win a very ugly game, 17-16.
Subject: The Linc: Did Howie Roseman hand contracts to the wrong guys?
Some of Roseman’s offseason moves look less great now.
Eagles news and notes for 12/30
The only other likely voice in the room was senior personnel scout Tom Donahoe, whom Roseman had hired several years earlier. It's unclear if Pederson's opinion was taken into account after he was hired, but negotiations continued until it was announced that Ertz, Johnson, and Curry had signed five-year deals in succession on Jan. 25, Jan. 29 and Feb. 2.
Ertz's extension was worth $40 million, Johnson's $56.25 million, and Curry's - he was set to become a free agent - $46.25 million. Veteran tight end Brent Celek was also signed to a three-year, $12 million extension on Jan. 26. And while Cox's contract would prove to take longer to work out, he signed a six-year, $102.6 million extension on June 16.
After each signing, Roseman spoke of the importance of locking up in-house talent and of forming a core the Eagles could build around. It's a sound philosophy, and in many cases one that produces Super Bowl contenders, but the players had better be difference-makers if you're going to pay them as much as the Eagles paid their own guys.
With one year almost in the books, it's fair to question whether Ertz, Johnson, Curry, and Cox are difference makers, or at the least, worth the contracts the Eagles gave them. It could be argued that not one performed up to expectations, or in Cox's case, as dominating as he played from 2014-15.
Only Johnson seemed to take a leap forward, but he was suspended 10 games for using a performance-enhancing substance. Ertz has had a solid second half, same as he had in his previous three seasons, but overall he has had a disappointing season. Curry couldn't even crack the starting lineup and has been severely lacking in difference-making plays.
The struggles of all four could merely be circumstantial. Perhaps the change in scheme and attention affected Cox more than anticipated. Maybe Johnson won't repeat his previous mistakes. It's possible that Ertz needed time to develop chemistry with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. And it's conceivable that Curry just had a down year.
The names on a team's short list are likely to include former head coaches and up-and-coming offensive and defensive coordinators. Names not likely to be on that list: special-teams coordinators.
When his Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl four years ago, head coach John Harbaugh, who spent nine seasons coaching the Eagles' special teams, thought it would kick the door open for other special-teams coaches to get serious consideration for head jobs.
He thought wrong.
"I'm shocked that more (special teams) guys haven't gotten the opportunity," Harbaugh said.
That's unfortunate for the league's top special-teams coaches. Guys like the Chiefs' Dave Toub and the Ravens' Jerry Rosburg.
And the Eagles' Dave Fipp.
Fipp's special-teams units have been among the best in the league the last three years. If the Eagles' offense or defense had performed at the same high level that their special teams have, Frank Reich and Jim Schwartz would have their pick of head-coaching jobs.
Fipp? The 42-year-old Eagles assistant probably won't even get invited for an interview, which is a shame.
"For whatever reason, I think sometimes special teams gets kind of snubbed a little bit, and it's unfortunate because there are some great special teams coaches in the league," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "Every year, these guys kind of get overlooked."
Owners covet the young offensive geniuses and the shrewd defensive generals who can beat protections and put quarterbacks on their butt. But the truth is special teams may be the best training ground of all for an NFL head coach.
"I think Dave is very capable," Pederson said. "Next to myself, he's the next coach on the staff that really is in front of the whole team, talking and coordinating meetings and things of that nature.
The Dallas Cowboys employ one of the most effective formulas for success in the NFL. And it’s no secret why they’re successful.
The reason why the Cowboys won 13 games this season is due to their run game. Dallas ranks second in the league in rushing and first in attempts. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott is an MVP candidate. He’s clearly a special talent whose life has been made even easier playing behind one of the league’s best offensive lines.
The way the Cowboys run the ball so effectively impacts the performance of the rest of the team. Dallas’ defense doesn’t have to face as many snaps due to the offense being able to control the clock, for example. The Cowboys rank second overall in average time of possession (31:56).
An elite run game can also be a quarterback’s best friend. Fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott certainly exceeded expectations while filling in for Tony Romo. The Cowboys’ quarterback has thrown 23 touchdowns to four interceptions and ranks third in the league in passer rating at 105.7.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson sees the value in the Cowboys’ strategy.
“Yeah, it is a strategy obviously for success,” said Pederson “And really, you look at Carson [Wentz’s] attempts per game and Dak’s attempts, I think it’s within four or five attempts per game, so it’s not that far off. Even our rushing attempts are 10th in the National Football League right now.”
“You know, it feels like we’re throwing the ball a bunch, but I think obviously a recipe for success is lower those attempts, keep them in that manageable 33, 34, maybe 30 attempts a game but still have the ability to run the ball just as equally, I think are formulas for success, and then obviously play great defense and special teams.”
His salary went up, his production went down, and Connor Barwin understands that at 30 years old and with the second-lowest sack total of his career, there is going to be plenty of speculation about his future.
And he knows it’s already started.
“It bothers me that I don’t have more sacks, so I understand why it bothers other people,” Barwin said at his locker Thursday. “So it’s been a tough year.
“But I know the game is much more than just that, so I try to keep things in perspective.”
Barwin recorded 26½ sacks in three years playing in a 3-4 front under Bill Davis, sixth-most in the NFC during that span and also sixth-most among all NFL linebackers.
But with the coaching change, a new defensive coordinator and a new system, Barwin went from 3-4 left outside linebacker to a 4-3 right defensive end, and his sacks dropped to four this year, including none in the last six weeks.
With upcoming base salaries of $7.75 million and $9.25 million in 2017 and 2018 and cap figures of $7.35 million and $8.35 million, the speculation about Barwin’s future is understandable.
The Eagles would absorb only $600,000 in dead cap money if they released Barwin this offseason, and Barwin’s age — he turned 30 in October — and declining production combined with his cap number add up to a huge question mark about his future for the cap-strapped team.
Barwin said it wasn’t appropriate to talk specifics until after the season but indicated Thursday he would consider taking a pay cut to stay in Philly.
Subject: The Eagles are probably going to see a lot of Mark Sanchez on Sunday
It seems Dallas plans on using the former Eagle.
Welcome back, old friend.
According to multiple reports, including this one from ESPN’s Adam Caplan, the Cowboys are preparing for Sunday’s regular season finale by assuming that Mark Sanchez will get the majority of the team’s snaps at quarterback.
For those in Week 17 fantasy football championships, don't expect to see Dak Prescott out there very long on Sunday.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) December 29, 2016
Rookie Dak Prescott has started the team’ first 15 games of the season, but with the No. 1 seed locked up, the Cowboys don't have anything tangible to play for on a Sunday.
It seems the team’s regular starters, including Prescott and fellow rookie stud running back Ezekiel Elliott, will begin the game in their regular roles, before being taken out to protect them from possible injuries.
Along with #Cowboys Mark Sanchez receiving most of the reps, expect same with Darren McFadden. An inexperienced LT adds to resting starters— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 29, 2016
It’s interesting to see Sanchez getting reps, and being expected to get the play time, over Tony Romo. Romo, of course, was injured in the preseason, which opened the door for Prescott to play and excel this season.
Romo is supposedly back and healthy, but it would appear the Cowboys either don't want to risk his injury, or Romo has decided to sit out in lieu of Sanchez to protect his worth in this upcoming offseason.
Either way, it’ll be pretty fun (and, likely, very funny) to see the Eagles’ defense face Mark Sanchez, who spent 2014 and 2015 in Philadelphia before being traded this past offseason.