Flyers mixing luck with quality ingredients down the middle
The Philadelphia Flyers made news on and off the ice this past week, pushing their run to 8-0-1 and inking integral players Claude Giroux and Jeff Carter to extensions. In Carter's case, his new contract is an ultra re-up at 11 years and $58 million that headed off his upcoming unrestricted free agency. Impending restricted free agent Giroux re-signed for three more years. Both moves made sense.
The Flyers are three deep down the middle with Carter, Giroux and captain Mike Richards, who signed a 13-year pact back in 2007. All three were first round picks by the organization and they now form the backbone of organization's core group. Giroux broke out during the Flyers' spring playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final, registering 21 points in 23 games. His scoring pace hasn't slowed, as he leads the Flyers with 18 points in 17 games. The next two on the Flyers' scoring list? Richards followed by Carter.
Making sure you are three deep at center is becoming a theme in the Eastern Conference. Strength down the middle is hardly a new concept -- in hockey or any sport for that matter -- but with the Pittsburgh Penguins locking up centermen Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal last season, the Flyers are merely following suit. Add the Boston Bruins with Marc Savard, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, and it is easy to spot the teams that are growing from the middle of the ice on out. By having three top centermen, a team creates mismatches against most foes. Many teams can match two lines, but few have the depth to contend with an elite player who is centering an opponent's third line.
So, pushing all in when it comes to centermen, the Flyers are now set in that regard. The rest of the roster construction becomes a brainteaser and GM Paul Holmgren has done a masterful job, mixing in trades and free agents to keep his team in the constant conversation of legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Other than Oskars Bartulis -- eighth on the depth chart -- not one regular defensemen was a Flyers draft pick. Chris Pronger -- also signed long-term by Holmgren last season -- Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Coburn, Matt Carle and Andrej Meszaros all came via trades. Holmgren pilfered Carle and Meszaros from the Tampa Bay Lightning and both have fit in remarkably well. Carle teams with Pronger to form a comfortable tandem, and Meszaros and partner Sean O'Donnell -- a free agent signing by Holmgren this past offseason -- lead the team with a plus-10 rating. This after Meszaros posted a minus-14 last season in Tampa.
Go figure. Pieces that were misfits elsewhere have meshed and flourished in Philly. Ville Leino is another prime example. Acquired from the Detroit Red Wings midway through last season, he exploded during the playoffs with 21 points in 19 games -- one more than he had in 68 regular season games during parts of the previous two NHL seasons. Now, Leino might just be the next player Holmgren looks to lock up. The term won't be 11 years -- it might not even be three -- but Leino is the perfect example of the complimentary cap era piece working to flesh out a roster's worth of predetermined, committed funds.
It's all part of the plan for Holmgren and his counterparts. A little good fortune -- like a little-known, unheralded 22-year-old rookie goaltender showing up from a Russian outpost and standing the NHL on its ear -- doesn't hurt, either. His name is Sergei Bobrovsky and his is one of the great stories of the young season.
Holmgren thought about drafting Bobrovsky back in 2006 with one of his three second round picks. He passed, as did everyone else. Still, the Flyers' European scouts saw Bobrovsky play a lot during the past couple of seasons in the KHL, and based on what they saw, Holmgren brought him to training camp. He played exceptionally well and when Michael Leighton went down with an injury, Bobrovsky rose to the occasion, becoming the youngest goaltender to start opening night in Flyers history.
Bobrovsky's emergence completes the Flyers' commitment to strength down the middle, proving that every well-conceived plan still has room for a pleasant surprise along the way.