Shortened NHL season ends; Flyers look ahead

Opinion July 3, 2013 0 Comments

by Clark Groome

Sure, I knew the NHL season that ended June 24 was shorter than usual, maybe even shorter than it should have been. The lockout that kept the season from opening until Jan. 19 reduced the number of regular season games from 82 to 48. I knew all that, but like lots of people who love the sport – even those of us who are supposed to be objective about it – hockey ended too soon and too suddenly.

Here are a few post-Stanley Cup thoughts about the Flyers and the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.

First, the Flyers:

Their year was a huge disappointment. While everyone was expecting the team to reach the playoffs, major injuries to significant players (Scott Hartnell, Danny Briere, Maxime Talbot and most of the defense) and underachieving performances from others (newly minted captain Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn) kept the team from living up to expectations.

The loss of Chris Pronger to career-ending injuries a year ago and Jaromir Jagr and Matt Carle to other teams last summer also contributed to the team’s shortcomings. While the controversial Ilya Bryzgalov got off to a strong start, the lack of a reliable backup until the last few games of the season exhausted him. The result was a significant drop in his performance.

On the plus side, the team brought back three popular former Flyers: Ruslan Fedotenko, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble. All had decent seasons, sometimes playing together on what was dubbed “The Alumni Line.” Gagne’s return was the most successful.

Late in the season, the Flyers traded for former Calder Cup-winner (that’s the rookie-of-the-year award) Steve Mason. The team finally had a reliable second goaltender. His play, in the seven games in which he appeared, was superb and encouraging.

Now that the season’s over, the Flyers have a lot of decisions to make. Each team is allowed two “compliance buyouts,” a/k/a “amnesty buyouts,” to help them get their payroll in line with the new, lower salary cap. The Flyers have already exercised theirs.

The first to be bought out was Danny Briere, one of the classiest men ever to don a Flyers sweater. That saves the team $6.5 million in cap space for the next two seasons. The fans, the media and his teammates will miss him a lot. But he was just too costly to keep.

It’s likely that only reporters who found him a great source of stories based on his outlandish and self-serving comments will miss the other, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. His numbers as a Flyer have been mediocre. This past year his save percentage was a barely acceptable .900 and his goals against average was a relatively high 2.79.

Without him, the Flyers will have fewer distractions, a happier team, the possibility of finding the elite goalie they’ve lacked since Ron Hextall retired in 1999 and, what General Manager Paul Holmgren says is most important, save $5.667 million for each of the next seven seasons.

All of this leaves lots of questions. Who will the goaltender(s) be? How are they going to fix the defense? Will the young guys who had less-than-great 2013s be back in form for the new season?

Time will tell, but the team’s core is solid. Those closest to the team say they expect a busy and perhaps surprising summer ahead. It’s fun to contemplate what this team will look like when training camp opens Sept. 11.

The Stanley Cup playoffs were as exciting as anyone could wish. Vaunted teams like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh were eliminated. In the end the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks met in the first Original-Six Finals since the Montreal Canadiens bested the New York Rangers 4 games to 1 in 1979.

The Blackhawks/Bruins series was a corker. Three of the games were decided in overtime (one in three extra periods). Game six ended with the Blackhawks winning the Cup in the last 90 seconds, scoring two goals in 17 seconds to prevent the Bruins from taking the finals back to Chicago for game seven.

I have a question for NBC. Why – if you’re trying to promote the sport, have the best play-by-play man in the business, and have clearly proven that the Stanley Cup Finals are a draw – do you only schedule games 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7 for the network and assign games 2 and 3 to your cable outlet, NBCSN? My God, people, how can you possibly choose “The Voice” over the voice of hockey? Why should all the games be on NBC? They said it themselves: “Because it’s the Cup.”

One final thing: The Daily News’ Ed Barkowitz said on CSN’s “Philly Sports Talk” that the MVP of the Stanley Cup Finals was Mike “Doc” Emrick, the aforementioned “voice of hockey.” Patrick Kane was certainly deserving of the Conn Smythe Award – the official MVP award – but I agree completely with Ed’s comment.

Doc and the rest of the league will be back in about 10 weeks after what promises to be a very interesting summer. Stay tuned.

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