With the start of a new year, there’s a lot to be excited about.
Now halfway through preseason, with the Flyers sporting a record of 3-0-1, and the roster cut by 28, its time to take a look at how they’ve looked until this point.
In their preseason opener at home against the New Jersey Devils, the Flyers jumped to an early two goal lead, but allowed the Devils to climb back and reclaim it before Danny Briere sent the game to overtime with a slap shot in the final minutes of the third. On stellar play by Sergei Bobrovsky and goals by Richards and Giroux, the Flyers put the Devils away in the shootout.
They moved on to split a pair of shootout victories with the Maple Leafs. Bill Guerin, still working to make the team on a tryout contract, notched a goal during the Flyers loss in London, Ontario. Nikolai Zherdev contributed a pair of goals in the Flyers’ win during the second of the two games.
When facing the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, the Flyers alternated goals, with each team scoring two before stealing the game in a shootout on a shot by Nikolai Zherdev. Bobrovsky started this game and stopped 26 of 28 shots.
The standout stars in their first few games have been an interesting combination of new and returning players.
In goal, the 22 year old Russian prospect Sergei Bobrovsky has looked exactly as the organization had hoped. He’s proven that he has the athleticism and natural talent to be a force in net when given proper direction. Bobrovsky – featured in High Hopes’ “Flyers Prospect Analysis” back in June – had spent four years in Russia’s professional league – the KHL (previously the RSL).
In that time he sported a dastardly low record, but not for lack of talent on his end. His team simply could not put the puck in the net, winding up dead last in a league of 24 in scoring; Bobrovsky’s play helped them to a 13th place finish.
The fact that he has never had access to a goaltending coach, however, leaves him vulnerable in a higher quality league with a new North American style of play. He knows little about controlling rebounds and playing angles, instead focusing on simply using his body and cat-like reflexes to stop the puck any way he can. With proper training, he can be groomed into a top tier goalie the likes of which this franchise hasn’t seen since the days of Ron Hextall or even Pelle Lindbergh.
So far in the preseason Bobrovsky has played the third period and overtime in two of the three games he dressed for as well as starting and finishing an entire game on his own. In that time he’s given up only three goals and has won two shootouts. Style aside, his play is certainly NHL-caliber.
Another addition showing positive signs is Nikolai Zherdev. Zherdev – a bargain bin replacement for the scoring touch of Simon Gagne – has clicked with this Flyers’ roster, forming chemistry on the wing of both Claude Giroux and Mike Richards.
Zherdev, as I’ve discussed in previous offseason installments, is considered a high risk player. Aside from one down year, he’s been a consistent point-getter during his years with Columbus and New York. But he also has had conflicts with coaches and teammates and was eventually shipped off to the KHL.
Still fresh at 25 years old, he may have his best years ahead of him yet as he looked to make an NHL comeback. Maturing past that, and buckling down, his preseason showing of three goals in three games – not to mention the winning goal in their most recent shootout – shows signs of an important scoring piece in this Flyers’ lineup.
Rising stars James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux continue to make an increased impact on the team. Claude Giroux’s soft hands, vision, and pure goal-scoring talent have continued on the rise. JVR’s desire to improve on his rookie campaign (15 goals, 20 assists) by packing on the muscle and sharpening his stride – he proved himself to be one of the team’s fastest skaters during camp – may just pay off come time for the regular season. Last year he had an early flash but died off during the long stretch between the excitement of opening day and the home stretch. This year, with a body more suited to the rigors of an NHL season, JVR is sure to make his presence known both in the corners and on the scoreboard.
Danny Briere is is also, as all Flyers fans have been hoping, continuing his success from the playoffs last year. Nearly matching Wayne Gretzky’s Cup Finals 13 point scoring record, Briere showed the kind of brilliance that the Flyers haven’t seen out of him since acquiring Briere from the Buffalo Sabres following his 95 point 2006-2007 season.
With a pair of goals and some shootout tallies to boot, his preseason showing may be signs of history repeating itself if all goes well and his line of Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino remains anywhere near as dominant as they were during the postseason.
As was mentioned before, the roster has been trimmed down to 37 players from 65, with players returning the AHL or their respective Junior teams. None of the moves were a major surprise. All the players sent away at this early juncture were competing for future consideration, but none were really competing for a spot on this year’s lineup.
The only major concern out of the preseason so far is the injury to Michael Leighton. He played the entirety of Friday’s shootout win over the Leafs, leaving the game just prior to the shootout itself “as a precaution”. Leighton suffered from pain in his back during the final minutes of the game.
After sitting out Saturday’s game against Minnesota, Leighton was administered an MRI scan on Sunday. Results have been slow and vague since then, as the Flyers staff stick to the tried and true method of waiting until they “get the results”. Given that the outcome of an MRI can be quickly interpreted and Leighton’s status determined almost immediately, its worrisome that details are taking so long to surface – as if there’s something the staff is mulling over and deciding regarding his injury, which would imply something long-term.
Whatever happens, the Flyers still have goaltenders to fall back on in the form of Brian Boucher and, when he recovers from hip surgery, Johan Backlund. Bobrovsky is a last resort as he plans to spend his season in the AHL.
Without worrying more than may be necessary about this mysterious back injury ailing Michael Leighton, all we have to look at is the way the rest of the team is playing so far this preseason – and there’s nothing to complain about there.