Kurt of Broad Street Hockey was nice enough to ask me a few questions about the Blues, which you can check out here. Being from two different conferences means there's not a lot that fans of both teams know about the other - except for the goaltending. The Flyers are familiar with Ryan Miller, and the Blues are familiar with Steve Mason. Aside from that, well... not much. As a matter of fact, the Blues are the Flyers' only team that they haven't seen this season - and they'll see the Blues again the first week in April.
Here, from Broad Street Hockey, is Kurt and his answers. There will be a quiz later.
1. Claude Giroux: Hart candidate? Do you think that voters outside of the Philly area agree with you, or will the Hart go to that guy across state?
I mean, much as we'd hate to admit it, it'd be stunning if anyone other than Crosby won it, and I think that's understandable. He'd have to collapse completely to really open the door up for anyone else, including Claude, to have a real chance at it. That said, though, Giroux's definitely got a case to be a finalist for the award with the tear he's been on basically since the second month of the season began. He's scoring as much as basically any player in the league and has pretty much put this team on his back. So no, I don't think he's got any sort of chance at winning it, but if he keeps this up and the Flyers make the playoffs I think he's a pretty good bet for a finalist spot. Especially if some of the other candidates out there (and/or their teams) keep falling off the pace a bit (i.e. if, say, Phil Kessel's team misses the playoffs, would the voters actually pick him over Giroux?).
2. What do you feel best explains the switch from the floundering team the NHL saw at the start of the season to the current team, who has only lost one game in regulation this month?
I think there are a lot of possible explanations. The Flyers probably needed some time to really get comfortable with new head coach Craig Berube's systemic changes, and they're seeing the results now. A lot of individuals have just stepped their games way up; we talked about Giroux, but several of the team's older guys -- Mark Streit, Scott Hartnell, and Kimmo Timonen -- have all got progressively better as the season's gone on. And the Flyers have been really, really impressive on both sides of special teams as well, which helps make up for the fact that they haven't really been a great team at 5-on-5. So there's been a lot of things.
That all said, though, they've looked better than they had all year across the board since the Olympic break, and that reached a crescendo with three of their best games of the season in wins over Pittsburgh (twice) and Chicago within the last week. Even when they were getting wins before, it seemed like they were a pretty mediocre-to-average team that wasn't much cause for excitement. What we've seen in the past few weeks has looked like a genuinely good team, and one that could (in my opinion) probably hang with any Eastern team but Boston in a seven-game series. Could that just be a fluke that will eventually fall apart overnight? It sure could, and no one would really be surprised. But it's been fun in the meantime.
3. Are you comfortable with your goaltending situation now, or do you think more needs to be done?
Ehhhhh. I mean ... there's no denying that Steve Mason was anything short of outstanding for the first 30 games of the season or so. Your opinion of him since then (.903 save percentage since December began) probably depends on who you talk to -- i.e. people who think he's done a great job given this defense vs. people who think he just doesn't stop enough pucks. I lean closer to the latter. But he's been better than I anticipated -- his numbers on the whole are pretty average, and if you'd offered me that before the year I'd have taken it every time. He's typically done a good job stopping the ones he has to stop, and I wouldn't say there have been many losses at all that fell primarily at his feet. So I'm not really comfortable, per se, but I'll live with it.
As for what more can be done, the fact that the Flyers extended Mason for three years probably means that there won't be a huge upgrade coming any time soon. However, they could stand to either play their backup more or get a new one -- Ray Emery has started just six games since 2014 began, despite Mason not exactly lighting it up in that stretch, which probably indicates that the Flyers just don't think he brings a ton to the table anymore (and his overall numbers are iffy, with a .900 save percentage). So finding a backup that they can feel confident in when they use him to spell Mason every so often would be nice. Their AHL goalie has been good this year and could get that backup spot next season, but the Flyers tend to lean towards veteran types for their backup goalie spots. So we'll see.
4. Are there any free agent defensemen that Paul Holmgren will stalk over the summer? Are you guys getting tired of that being the running joke of the NHL?
Ha. This summer? Probably not. They traded for former miscast Islanders top-pairing defenseman Andrew MacDonald over the break -- a move we did NOT like at the time over at BSH, by the way. He's been pleasantly surprising in a third-pairing role with Luke Schenn so far, but it'll be a lot less pleasant this summer when he'll want to get paid like a top-4 defenseman this summer and the Flyers give him that money (which, by all indications, they probably will). Which will probably drain up most of their budget for defensive upgrades this summer, depending on whether or not they bring back Kimmo Timonen (which I think they should). But then again we didn't see a lot of what happened last summer coming, and sometimes the Flyers seem like they can just make cap space appear out of thin air, so what the hell do I know.
I guess that segues into the point about Holmgren -- when this front office (and Ed Snider is no doubt a part of this) sees someone they like, they're gonna effin' go and get him, whatever it takes, and no matter how little foresight it exhibits. Sometimes that works out. Sometimes it doesn't. The times where it doesn't (read: "nine years for Ilya Bryzgalov", "James van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn", "planning your whole offseason around offersheeting Shea Weber") are pretty much how he gets his reputation as being batshit insane. I think a lot of things generally said about Holmgren have some truth to them and a lot of them get overexaggerated a bit. But yeah, he's something.
I think that what gets Flyers fans the most is that we're all pretty sure that Holmgren knows that a top defenseman is exactly what this team needs (and has needed since Chris Pronger's career ended in late 2011), and we all think it's good that he realizes that and does things to try and solve it. It's just that he'll do all sorts of stuff (i.e. signing middle or bottom pairing guys to long-term, big-money deals) that makes fitting guys like that in that much harder. You'll probably see it if and when the Flyers extend MacDonald. It can get frustrating.
5. Other than Giroux, which player has been indispensable to your team this season? What do they bring to the table?A few come to mind (other potential answers in my opinion include Kimmo Timonen, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, maybe even Mason depending on what your timeframe is), but if I'm just picking one? Let's go with Sean Couturier. He picked up a lot of love in the past week or so for his defensive efforts against the likes of Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, but he (and his partner-in-crime, Matt Read) has been doing that just about all season -- frustrating the opponent's best forwards, playing them well territorially despite having tough defensive-oriented minutes, and chipping in offense as necessary. He takes on the tough matchups, which helps free up Giroux and Brayden Schenn's lines a bit offensively. He's also anchored the Flyers' penalty kill, which has been the best in the league at preventing the other team from getting shot attempts off, and may be the single biggest reason why the team has outperformed its mediocre 5-on-5 possession numbers for most of the year.
He's one of the league's better shutdown centers already, he's only 21, and it still seems like he's got a ton of room to improve offensively. We still have to hear the jokes every time Jeff Carter scores a goal over in L.A., but Couturier (along with Voracek) has most Flyers fans really, really excited wondering just how good it is he can be.