Philadelphia Flyers’ Last Few Results Reveal Frightening Pattern

It began last season when the Philadelphia Flyers gave up a third period lead to the Phoenix Coyotes and lost a 3-2 contest in overtime at the Wells Fargo Center. From there, the Flyers’ season spiraled downward, as they limped to the end of the season with just eight wins in their last 23 games, part of an 8-8-7 record rom February 22 to the end of the regular season. As the playoffs began, the team struggled through a weaker Buffalo Sabres team, and then experienced a demolition of their season when the Boston Bruins blew through them in four easy games.

This season, the Flyers are 4-7-1 since February 4 and have lost two of their last three games, to opponents ranked below them in the standings. Their play is reminiscent of last year’s at the same time, straying away from coach Peter Laviolette’s system and playing with little to no heart for a majority of each game. It is extremely rare to see the Flyers put together 60 strong minutes of play in a night, as their rival New York Rangers are managing to do most nights, leading to their seven-point lead of the Eastern Conference as of Saturday night.

From a technical standpoint, the Flyers’ defensive zone coverage is lacking, to say the least. More times than not, players are running around in the zone, rather than staying in the box-plus-one that Laviolette is so well known for perfecting. The system calls for a containment of the other team, rather than an attack. It is meant to force opposing players to the outside of the ice, and keep them away from the high slot and shots in close. However, they are giving up high percentage shots, making their two goaltenders look even worse than their statistics are showing. Both Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky are capable goaltenders, regardless of off-ice rumors and media reports otherwise. However, when shots are taken from the spots the Flyers are allowing, not even Terry Sawchuk could stop all of them.

On the forecheck, the Flyers have been running an aggressive 2-1-2 system since Laviolette was hired in 2009, and immediately began running it to perfection. The system calls for two players to attack the man with the puck, while the third man positions himself high enough in the offensive zone to both direct the play and retreat on a backcheck if the first two forwards are ineffective. However, the Flyers’ recent forecheck resembles more of a 3-2, in which all three forwards end up under the circles, leading to numerous odd-man rushes and offensive opportunities for the opposition. In addition, because of three forwards constantly needing to backcheck from such a long distance, it is almost impossible to retreat into the defensive formation in time to prevent optimal scoring chances.

The Flyers have the deepest offensive team in the league (and are still ranked second in the NHL in goals scored, and have ten players with ten goals or more). Their defense is lacking without Chris Pronger, but is still a deep defense capable of performing well. But if the team continues to repeat last year’s March and April bonanza, then Paul Holmgren and Co. can begin booking early-May tee times yet again.

Alan Bass, a former writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever. He currently write for HockeyBuzz on the psychology of the game. He was the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College Division II hockey team as well. You can contact him at Alanbasswriting@aol.com.

Unknown Chicago Blackhawks Rookie Steals Show in First NHL Game

Although the Philadelphia Flyers managed to steal their second game in a row from the Chicago Blackhawks since falling to them in six games in the 2010 Stanley Cup final, the big story of the night (and one that was a nice surprise to the numerous NHL scouts in attendance) was Chicago rookie Andrew Shaw. Having been drafted in the fourth round (139th overall) in this past year’s draft, everyone expected that he would spend another year or two in junior before turning pro.

But like a few other of his brethren in the NHL world, Shaw was able to impress his employers enough and be placed on the Rockford IceHogs’ American League roster to start the 2011-12 campaign. It should not come as a shock to those who have followed him the past few years. Last season he posted a career-high 54 points in 66 games with the Owen Sound Attack in the Ontario League, en route to leading them to an OHL Championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup. In that tournament, he led all players with seven points in just four games – and was awarded the OHL’s Hardest Working Player of the Year award.

Most players recently drafted are under the age of 20 and cannot be assigned to the minor leagues according to the rules of the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. But having been overage in the summer and turning 20 before September 15 of the current season, he became eligible for all three professional hockey leagues, allowing Chicago to expose him to higher competition, rather than allowing him to score at will in the OHL.

On January 4, he got the call from head coach Joel Quenneville, informing him that he would be joining one of the best teams in the NHL to Philadelphia, one of the toughest buildings in the league, to face off against the Flyers. Not only did he come along for the ride, but he managed to win a spot on the first line along with captain Jonathan Toews and sharpshooter Patrick Sharp (no pun intended).

As if that was not enough, Shaw decided to drop the gloves against Zac Rinaldo, the small, yet feisty Flyers forward with a knack for introducing opponents to the Wells Fargo Center ice. He did the same with Shaw, but even after a facial cut that sent him to the locker room, it was simply not enough to prevent him from performing some grade “A” stickhandling en route to his first NHL goal, off passes from Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and the Conn Smythe Trophy winning Toews.

Not many fourth round draft picks even make it to the NHL, let alone the season after being drafted. Yet Shaw has already impressed Chicago management and is looking to stake claim to a permanent spot for what should be another impressive Stanley Cup run in the spring.

Live From the 2012 Winter Classic: Eric Lindros Among Flyers Alumni That Bring Back Memories

Just like it was 15 years ago, John LeClair shot down the wing on a 2-on-1 with Eric Lindros on the other side of the ice, looking to receive a pass. As the defenseman bit, LeClair coolly flipped a saucer pass across the ice to watch Lindros fire it past a flailing goaltender, culminating in a multitude of fans leaping to their feet with their arms raised high.

It seemed as if a dam had been lifted, allowing memories to rush back like a stream of water, to the pleasure of over 1,000 fans in attendance at the Flyers Skate Zone and to the players themselves. Eric Desjardins, Brian Propp, Joe and Jimmy Watson, Orest Kindrachuk, Bill Barber, Bernie Parent, Neil Little, Jeremy Roenick, Lindros, LeClair, and others, entertained fans for just under an hour as the Flyers alumni took to the ice for practice before heading to the locker room to speak with the media – with smiles on their faces as if they had rekindled the extinguished flames that were once vibrant NHL careers.

“What a great showing for us old guys,” Roenick exclaimed. As he spoke you could see the glow in his eye, like a child finally getting to meet a boyhood idol. “You talk about this weekend as being a celebration, but having something like this – bringing back guys like Clarkie, Bernie [Parent], [Rick] Tocchet, it really is historic. It’s a humbling experience being here with some of these guys. Seeing Eric and John, guys I battled against, this is a really good step back in time.”

“I had a good time,” Lindros said with a Don Cherry-like smirk as he peered around the locker room to examine the historic faces he had just laced up with. “Saw some old people. Big turnout for a little get-together.”

When asked about the fan turnout for the alumni skate, Lindros began to answer, but paused ever so briefly and looked up, deep in thought. In just a split second, the memories of the prime of his career – centering the famous “Legion of Doom” with LeClair and Mikael Renberg, the line that combined for 305 goals and 666 points in just over two seasons together – appeared in his mind like a movie reel. “I’m not surprised,” he finally muttered, a grin forming at the corners of his lips, perhaps thinking of the great times he shared with millions of Flyers fans for almost a decade – including a Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP, a Stanley Cup final appearance, and enough highlight reel plays to fill a YouTube account. “Flyers fans are so supportive of their team.”

“Flyers fans are like that,” LeClair chimed in from the next stall. “They really enjoy this and support us.”

As the media dispersed, Lindros sat, enjoying a few laughs with LeClair, Bob Kelly, and more. He signed a few pucks for the organization, a picture for Kelly, and a jacket for Reggie Leach’s young grandson, who was puttering around the locker room as if he were just mesmerized by a shooting star. As little Leach stared at the behemoth of a man (6-foot-5, for those that do not recall), Lindros talked with him about school, about treating his teachers right, doing his homework and catching up on the work he is missing by being here for the festivities. The tyke walked away like he had been given a message from God himself, while Lindros craned his head around the room. He took one last look at the legends and role players that donned the Orange and Black before, with, and after him. The former league MVP slowly walked out of the Philadelphia Flyers locker room, as he had done so many times.

 

Alan Bass, a former writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever. He has worked for the Philadelphia Flyers’ Fan Development department, going to schools throughout the tri-state area to teach about fitness and the importance of teamwork. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College Division II hockey team as well. You can contact him at Alanbasswriting@aol.com.

Live at the 2012 Winter Classic: Marketing and Branding the Event

As a chilling wind blew across the field at Citizens Bank Park – bitter enough to remind climbers of the slopes of Mount Everest – Daniel Craig and his ice crew continued to lay down layers of mist onto the surface of the rink that has become an annual event. By the end of the day on Wednesday, December 28, the ice surface was just over one inch thick, and on schedule to be ready in time for Friday morning’s media hockey game. Although this scene is one that has been constant since 2008 when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres faced off at Ralph Wilson Stadium for the first ever Winter Classic, the NHL has made it a point to ensure that the idea of the Winter Classic remains fresh each year, rather than becoming “just another event,” as so many detractors of the event have posited.

Brian Jennings, the NHL’s Executive Vice President of Marketing has been with the league since 1990, and is in charge of one of the largest sports marketing campaigns in the world – and a daunting task at that, considering the NHL’s standing among the four major sports in the United States. Yet somehow the NHL has managed to increase the event’s popularity in its fifth year of existence. According to Jennings, Winter Classic products made up for 15 of the top 20 items in the NHL.com store, and demand for the event’s products online and in the NHL store in New York is helping contribute to a double digit increase in sales – despite the announcement and jerseys coming much later than normal.

In addition, there was a worry that the lack of change in the Philadelphia Flyers’ logo would hinder sales of the products – but it wasn’t one that Jennings shared. “The Philadelphia uniform, Mr. Snider has a real passion for the Philadelphia logo itself, not a lot of alterations to that,” Jennings explained at a press conference at Citizens Bank Park. “In the past years, a lot of teams have allowed us to do a fusion type of Winter Classic uniform, but he felt strongly in what the (logo) represents.”

The league also released two commercials that grasp at the two sides to this year’s Winter Classic. The first one (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuW_hvVQXUI) focuses on the rivalry between the Flyers and Rangers, citing the “City of Brotherly Love” as null and void for just one day in Philadelphia. The second is a take of the famous “Good Ol’ Hockey Game” song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yd5dF5Tjg4E), instead focusing on the fun of an outdoor game in the cold of winter. These two ads have both contributed to the experienced and expected success of this year’s game.

Lastly, Jennings discussed how he and the league manages to keep this event special for the fans each year. Above all, he believes, the location of the game keeps it fresh. “The marketplace is what you look for in those periods of being unique,” he explained. “So you always want to tip your hat and acknowledge that you’re in a marketplace – Philadelphia – that has strong hockey roots. Each year we try to do things differently with our partners to showcase the game. I think you look to your partners, to see if they’re launching a new product or commercial, as a point of differentiation.”

Jennings concluded by explaining the process by which the league makes decisions on how to approach each year’s outdoor game. “When we do an event like this, we do a pretty extensive debrief. We look at what went well, or if something hadn’t gone well, how do we fix it, how do we make it special for the fans? I can tell you that the league has a very laser focus on what that fan experience is, from those that are walking into Spectator Plaza, those that are going into the stadium, and those that are watching from home.”

And if it’s any consolation for those worried about how this year’s Winter Classic will turn out, it’s already shaping up to surpass expectations – for the fifth year in a row.

Alan Bass, a former writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever. He has worked for the Philadelphia Flyers’ Fan Development department, going to schools throughout the tri-state area to teach about fitness and the importance of teamwork. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College Division II hockey team as well. You can contact him at Alanbasswriting@aol.com.

Why Did Claude Giroux Come “Out of Nowhere?”

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The entire hockey world knows Claude Giroux’s name right now. Maybe it’s because he is currently out indefinitely with a concussion. Maybe it’s his league-leading 39 points. Maybe it’s his 15 power play points, his 23 even strength points, or simply his dazzling style of play that Philadelphia Flyers fans have witnessed for the past three years. But why is it that no one in the hockey world (outside of Philadelphia) had been talking about him before this season? Where did this kid come from and what is with this seeming ignorance of his hockey skill the past few years?

As it turns out, this “ignorance” has been there for much longer than his brief NHL career. After playing Midget AA in 2003-04 and jumping to Junior A, Giroux was hit by a bout of mononucleosis. Although he still managed to put up 40 points in 48 games, and claim the rookie of the year award, Major Junior teams were not too impressed with his accomplishments. In fact, through 20 rounds of Ontario League draft, every team in the OHL passed over him, leaving him a “free agent” (so to speak) in the Canadian League.

But Giroux was lucky enough to be invited to the Gatineau Olympiques’ training camp before the start of the Quebec Major Junior League season. After seeing his abilities, head coach Benoit Groulx brought Giroux onto the team and immediately received dividends, as Giroux potted two points in his first game, and three points in his third game.

Giroux went on to be named the QMJHL Rookie of the Month twice that season, and ended the season with 39 goals and 103 points in 69 games – enough to be named to the league’s All-Rookie Team. That summer, Giroux had the privilege to attend the NHL’s Scouting Combine and attend team interviews. In fact, one interview with the Columbus Blue Jackets, which was recorded in Gare Joyce’s book, Future Greats and Heartbreaks, shows the general opinion of Giroux around the NHL. “I watched you play lots of times,” Columbus scout Wayne Smith said to Claude Giroux. “You played great pretty well every time I saw you…on a good team, too. You’re going to play in the NHL…but where did you come from?”

Giroux, ranked 38th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, was not necessarily slated to be drafted in the first round. Many teams had him ranked in their second, or even third round, and although Columbus had him ranked 11th overall, their first selection in the 2006 draft came too early to snag Giroux off the board. But when the Flyers drafted him 22nd overall, he wound up being taken behind just four of the 400 players that were selected in his place in that 2005 OHL Draft. In the next two seasons in Gatineau, Giroux posted 218 points in just 118 games. Not included in those numbers was a record-setting 51 points in 19 games in the 2008 QMJHL playoffs, which resulted in a trip to the Memorial Cup. The next year, Giroux found himself in the NHL on a full-time basis.

Although people claim Giroux did not break out until the 2010 playoffs or the 2011 season, those in Philadelphia recognized his talents immediately upon his entrance to rookie camp in 2006. His hockey sense, his passing ability, and his incredible ability to turn on the jets when needed, peaked the attention of those involved with the Flyers, both internally and in the media. So when Giroux turned out to be the best Flyers player in a first-round exit against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, nobody really noticed, other than those watching the game.

Perhaps that’s why Giroux seemed to “come out of nowhere” this season, but it was to no surprise of those that watched him over the few years before the 2011-12 season. It was not long ago that a 5-foot-11, 172-pound forward from Hearst, Ontario would never even have sniffed the NHL, let alone become the league’s leading scorer more than a third through the season. But Giroux has proven time and time again that he does not need people’s recognition of his talents – he’ll score on you either way.

Alan Bass, a former writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever. He has worked for the Philadelphia Flyers’ Fan Development department, going to schools throughout the tri-state area to teach about fitness and the importance of teamwork. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College Division II hockey team as well. You can contact him at Alanbasswriting@aol.com.

The Financial State of the NHL

With Forbes’ recently released 2011 NHL Valuations, it is now possible to take a look inside the NHL and perhaps get a better idea of what state the league is in financially.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, yet again, rank atop the league’s elite, with a value of $521 million – directly ahead of the New York Rangers, who come in at $507 million. The Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, and Chicago Blackhawks round up the top six (ironically, all Original Six teams) with values of $445 million, $336 million, $325 million, and $306 million, respectively. All six of these teams saw an increase in their value from last year, with the Rangers increasing by 10 percent.

If the next CBA doesn't address rising expenses, the NHL's money could melt away

Altogether, the average value of NHL teams increased by about five percent (5.07, to be exact) to $240 million. The average NHL team is also worth about 47 percent more than it was worth before the lockout in 2004-05. The five teams that saw the largest increase were the Tampa Bay Lightning (20 percent), Vancouver Canucks (15 percent), Edmonton Oilers (16 percent), Washington Capitals (14 percent), and Winnipeg Jets (21 percent, although the majority of the increase is due to the relocation from Atlanta). Twenty-one of the league’s 30 teams saw an increase in value, while two teams remained about the same.

The Maple Leafs led the league in operating income, with $81.8 million. The Canadiens and Rangers were next in line, with operating income of $47.7 million and $41.4 million, respectively. The Vancouver Canucks also saw a large amount of operating income, with $23.5 million – most likely due to the high number of home playoff games last season.

Now to the negatives of the business release: the Phoenix Coyotes rank last in the league, yet again, at a value of $134 million. The team also reportedly had an operating income of -$24.4 million, easily the lowest in the league. Right behind the Coyotes are the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets, with values of $149 million and $152 million, respectively. Each of the two teams ended the season with a loss, losing $8.1 million and $13.7 million, respectively.

One of the darkest parts of this annual report was the NHL’s operating income, which dropped 21 percent to $126 million – something that will most likely need to be addressed when the league and the NHL Players’ Association begins negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in the upcoming months. This number led to a profit margin of just 4.2 percent.

Detroit Red Wing Mike Commodore understands how badly the players won the last CBA

Two teams that, although have average values, but are struggling to pay the bills, are the New Jersey Devils and Dallas Stars. Having just been sold to a bright new owner who looks to be setting the team in the right direction, the Stars should hopefully be able to overcome their debt-to-equity ratio of 126 percent. The Devils, on the other hand, have an abnormally high ratio of 144 percent, which suggests they are struggling to be profitable (the Devils had an operating income of -$6.1 million last year, while the Stars’ was -$1.1 million). Debt-to-equity ratio is the relative proportion of debt and shareholders’ equity that is being used to cover a company’s assets. A number over 100 percent is unreasonably high and can suggest trouble for any company, specifically that of a professional sports team. In comparison, the Rangers, Red Wings, and Blackhawks have debt-to-equity ratios of zero.

Altogether, the league should be happy with the health of the majority of their franchises. However, they need to ensure that expenses manage to stay down in the next few years – something that will be addressed with the salary cap negotiations and potential salary cutbacks in the next CBA. The salary cap is currently set to 57 percent of revenue, but with the league’s struggling operating income, expect that to drop closer to a number between 48 and 52 percent.

Local Team – The Philadelphia Flyers saw a decrease in value for the first time in many years, dropping four percent to a value of $290 million. They managed to stay in the black, ending with an operating income of $3.2 million, the second least of any team in the top eight of the league. They rank eighth in the league, and the second of any non-Original Six franchise. The Flyers were the only team in the top-18 to drop in value from last year.

 

Alan Bass, a former writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever. He has worked for the Philadelphia Flyers’ Fan Development department, going to schools throughout the tri-state area to teach about fitness and the importance of teamwork. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College Division II hockey team as well. You can contact him at Alanbasswriting@aol.com.

Hall of Fame Inductions 2012: Bettman’s Turn

In the past, I have been extremely critical of Commissioner Gary Bettman. In fact, I’ve probably written an article on two in the past about my feelings for him. No no, no need to look it up. It probably won’t be there anyway.

Regardless, I’ve said some pretty nasty things about good ol’ Gary, most of which I no longer believe. After all, from ages 16 to 21, you learn a great deal about how a business works, specifically in the context of a major professional sport. And based on what I’ve learned, I believe that in 2012, Bettman should be the first person inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Bettman entered the league amidst one of the worst scandals in NHL history, but one that was covered up extremely well by his administration. Gil Stein, the previous president, had been in office for less than one year, yet had already cleaned out the entire NHL front office and the Hockey Hall of Fame staff, and mysteriously was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year in office. Yet when people raised questions about the legitimacy of this election, he withdrew his name from nomination and resigned the presidency.

Bettman jumped in at a delicate time when many were hesitant to trust higher-ups in the NHL – and he passed his test with flying colors.

I still disagree with many actions Bettman has taken throughout his tenure as the commissioner. For one, I believe the massive expansion throughout the Sun Belt was too much, too quickly. I also believe his treatment of the 2005 lockout was simply terrible. But what many fail to remember is that the commissioner is simply there to serve the owners. If Ed Snider, Mike Ilitch, Jim Dolan, and others want the NHL to appear in Arizona, Georgia, Carolina, and twice in Florida, the commissioner makes it happen.

However, all you need to do is look at the list of achievements on Bettman’s resume, and the credentials simply speak for themselves. He has seen the league grow from 24 to 30 teams, has relocated those that were financially unfeasible, and done his best to ensure the current teams are as healthy as possible, with relocation being a final option (see Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Edmonton Oilers, Phoenix Coyotes, etc.). In 18 years, he has seen revenues jump from $400 million in 1993 to over $2.2 billion in 2011. Even accounting for inflation, that’s an increase of over 350%. Any business that grows by that much in the amount of time Bettman has had would see a skyrocketing of their stock.

Bettman’s main, stated goal when he first became the commissioner was to increase the NHL’s exposure in the media. He signed a $150 million dollar deal with Fox immediately after taking the position, and continued to grow the league’s TV deals, culminating in the recent 10-year, $2 billion contract with Comcast/NBC. The addition of NHL Home Ice on XM Radio, including his own show in which he reaches out to fans, and the creation of the NHL Network and Gamecenter Live.

Lastly, regardless of my (or anyone’s) feelings on his handling of the lockout, it really was a win for both sides. Most owners are no longer in danger of losing the kind of money they were before the lockout. Revenues have hit record highs, almost catching those of the NBA, while the players are happy with how it turned out for them as well.

Now for those who believe the Hall of Fame is the last place Bettman deserves to be, take a look at the previous NHL Presidents. Frank Calder, the league’s founder, was in charge for 26 years, and was named to the Hall of Fame in 1947 in the second induction class. Red Dutton, who was the president for just three years, was inducted into the Hall of Fame just 15 years after being named to the position. John Ziegler was inducted ten years into his presidency, while still serving.

Now Bettman, 18 years into his reign, has accomplished arguably more than any of those presidents combined. He might not be around much longer, as he is nearing retirement age. So why not honor him now with a permanent shrine to his contributions to hockey? It’s the least the Hall of Fame voters can do, because without Bettman, their jobs might be at a hockey memorial – not a tribute to living history.

 

Alan Bass, a former writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever. He has worked for the Philadelphia Flyers’ Fan Development department, going to schools throughout the tri-state area to teach about fitness and the importance of teamwork. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College Division II hockey team as well. You can contact him at Alanbasswriting@aol.com.

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