Almost Decision Time
The Flyers continued their stellar preseason Friday night with a 3-1 victory over Buffalo. Nikolai Zherdev (who apparently wants his name spelled Nikolay) and James van Riemsdyk netted the first two goals and Blair Betts closed the game’s scoring with an empty-net goal. The effort was extremely sloppy in the first and third periods, but the second was about as good as the team has played all preseason. The talent is most definitely there when the team plays at their potential. When the gears are clicking, they look about as good as anyone in the league. However, mental breakdowns like stupid penalties, unorganized power plays and defensive breakdowns overshadowed the talent in most of the game Friday. The good news is the team still found a way to win the game, even if it is preseason, it’s good to see them find a way to win. With one preseason game remaining, a rematch in Buffalo on Sunday, it’s getting down to the nitty-gritty when it comes to roster spots. As I wrote in my last post, the decisions will be tough to make for all the right reasons.
It appears as if Sergei Bobrovsky will start the season with the big club until the bulging disk in Michael Leighton's back clears up. I don’t necessarily agree with the decision, but at the end of the day, it makes sense. Johan Backlund still hasn’t had any work this preseason, and to put him on the roster would be a risky move. Bobrovsky obviously needs time in the AHL to adjust to the North American style of play, but a month traveling with the team shouldn’t hinder his learning curve too much. There is the possibility that he performs poorly when given the opportunity and it could shake his confidence. However, if a bad performance seriously hurts ‘Bobs’ future in the league, then I don’t believe he has much of a future to begin with. Quite honestly, I don’t think he’ll see much time on the ice and more time with goalie coach Jeff Reese can’t hurt the kid. Laviolette and Holmgren are in a tough situation, as they look around and see there really are no other viable options. The worry about Bobrovsky is a rational one, but at this point, he’s the best option as the number two goalie.
The defense seems to be decided at this point. Chris Pronger will start skating either Sunday or Monday, and it seems as if his return by the season opener on Wednesday is unlikely. As it stands now, I would assume the top six defensemen without Pronger would be Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros, Sean O’Donnell and either Oskars Bartulius or rookie Erik Gustaffson. Gustaffson has looked pretty good all preseason, but Bartulius obviously has more professional experience. Either way, Pronger should return to the ice fairly soon for the team, and the sixth defensemen will either be scratched or sent to the Phantoms.
At forward, the Flyers have a couple of decisions to make. I think it comes down to four players for a couple of spots. Bill Guerin, who is suffering from an infection which was caused by cutting his elbow the other night, brings all of the intangibles that a cup contending team needs. Dan Carcillo has looked absolutely miserable in the preseason, but his physicality has always been welcomed by Mike Richards in the past. It seems that Richards plays better with Carcillo on his line, but as the Captain and one of the better players in the world, he should be able to play with anyone. Carcillo’s preseason has been marred with penalties, stupid plays and invisibility when he’s not doing either of the aforementioned. Many will chuckle, as the description of Carcillo is what is usually noticed most about him, but he played an important role in the Flyers’ Stanley Cup run last season. With the addition of enforcer Jody Shelley in the offseason, Carcillo may not be necessary to fill that role.
The other two players that are competing for a spot on the team are most likely Andreas Nodl and Ben Holmstrom. As for Holmstrom, I must admit I’ve loved what I’ve seen this preseason. He skates hard, makes efficient plays, and seems to be everywhere. However, he is a rookie and I really don’t think there’s a necessity for him to be on the roster when the season starts. He has put himself in a great position for a call up during the season. To put a rookie on a team is always a risky move, especially collegiate players. The season is much longer, and there’s no telling whether Holmstrom would be able to make it all year without completely wearing down. James van Riemsdyk, a much more talented player took his lumps last season after hitting the ‘rookie wall’. On a team that is clearly aiming to win the Cup this season, adding Holmstrom could be too much of a risk with too small a reward. Nodl too has impressed, he’s been absolutely everywhere through the preseason. Friday, he was involved in a couple of great scoring chances, some of which were of his own creation. However, he doesn’t seem to be able to score to save his life. He looks like an NHL caliber player, but I question if he has the confidence at this point to be on the team.
I believe for a team with the lofty goals that the Flyers have this season, Guerin and Carcillo are the better of the four options to put on the opening night roster. They simply have more experience and extra time in the AHL will only help Nodl and Holmstrom. It is worth noting that Guerin still doesn’t have a contract, but obviously that could end at any moment. It’s clear that at least four Flyers will be playing for jobs Sunday (if Guerin can play). I’m sure they will do all they can to make Laviolette and Holmgren’s decision a difficult one.