For the third year in a row, I attended the Philadelphia Flyers Season Ticket Holder Town Hall meeting. This year, to the inconvenience of all the Jewish STH’s, the meeting was on the first night of Passover. So in addition to serving the folks who usually check in on this annual blog, I hope I’ll be able to provide some insight for those whose observance left them out of the loop.
Luukko and Tilger–Operations
My first stop was with Flyers President Peter Luukko and his right hand, Shawn Tilger (Sr. VP of Business Operations). They started out with a conversation about the Flyers having bid to host the NHL Draft. (When I said I hoped it would be when we actually had draft picks, Tilger did say it was a three-year cycle. I’m pretty sure the underlying agreement with us not having draft picks was not intended.)
The Flyers have also bid to host the NHL All-Star weekend. Because the Flyers hosted back in 1992, just a few years before the new building opened, they put themselves behind the other new buildings in the league to host again. But they believe they have a good shot at hosting soon. This process, too, is a three-year cycle.
I’ll admit to having missed a bit of the next topic. There was some discussion of the HBO documentary on the Broad Street Bullies, which will premier on May 4. The Flyers will be holding a preview screening for season ticket holders (since Monday, it has been announced that this will be at the Wachovia Center on April 13).
A season ticket holder asked if the Flyers would wear the Winter Classic jerseys more and Luukko said, yes, that will be the Flyers away uniform next season.
On the progress toward moving the Phantoms to Lehigh Valley, the Flyers are working with the Brooks family (new Phantoms owners) and the governor to get it done. It will be funded with incremental funding, not with direct state grants.
A rather belligerent fellow asked if General Manager Paul Holmgren’s job is safe, no matter how the season turns out. Luukko said yes. The guy persisted, with complaints about inconsistency, lack of results, and was pressing for Mr. Luukko to waver. But Luukko stood firm, and seemed genuine.
One attendee said if nothing changed he’d cancel his seats. And Luukko said that was his decision, with language about this being a team and you win and lose as a team.
At one point, the guy in the back with the Holmgren questions was pretty animated and was standing, a security guy discreetly came in and made his way up the side of the room. But there was no altercation. The STH was really het up, though.
There was a question about groin and abdominal injuries and Luukko said the Flyers had studied this but the issue is a league-wide one and really isn’t more prevalent among Flyers players. The fans didn’t want to hear this. I piped in with support for the Flyers position. If you follow the injuries of other teams, there are plenty of groin and abdominal injuries across the league. What do you expect in a violent game played by men on skates. Although I must admit, I do wonder at the REinjury rate of the Flyers.
Don Luce and Chris Pryor
Player Personnel and Player Development were the next presentation on my tour. Don Luce and Chris Pryor had brought a series of film clips (admittedly not the highest quality) of Glens Falls Phantoms players who are the Flyers’ next generation of prospects.
They started with Joonas Lehtivuori, whom they described as a good skater, and smart player–a Timonen type (I’m hoping not only because he’s Finnish) who had a good year in the AHL. They feel he’s come a long way in the physical aspect of the game, which is usually the toughest thing for young European players to get used to. They say he has good offensive instincts and likes to move up in the play. I’m a little disturbed his clip didn’t show any evidence of his defensive skills.
Kevin Marshall was described by Luce as a hard-nosed player who is physical and tough to play against. He can move the puck, is consistent, and is primarily a defensive defenseman who makes the simple play. He’s a competitive guy who will get in the other team’s faces and will scrap. I’m hoping this does not mean he is a tough guy who can’t really play a lick.
Next up was Marc Andre Bourdon who was described as a player with good puck skills. Luce said Bourdon had a tough start this year in the AHL. He was dominant offensively in juniors and had to work on his defense and conditioning moving up a level. In the second half they’ve been happy with his play, saying he’s a strong kid with a good shot.
David Laliberte is a player we saw a bit of in the NHL earlier in the season. Luce says he’s improved every year offensively. He has a knack around the net and knows how to get open. This year David has struggled with injuries but has come on down the stretch.
My inner goon hater came out in the discussion of the next player, Garrett Klotz. He was described as a role player–considering the first film of him was of a fight, I’d say that’s a not too nuanced way of saying he’s a goon. Luce said Klotz’s skill and defensive ability have come miles and his hands have improved as they showed him fighting. I said, I hope it wasn’t his hands doing that that had improved. Which took Chris Pryor back a bit. But this let to an exchange between primarily Pryor and I about the role of dinosaurs in the NHL and the importance of finding guys who can play and be tough, in order not to leave the bench short throughout the game. He agreed with me (although some of the fans of the more goon-loving variety were appalled at my insistence that this is an issue). I really will never understand the guys who think there is still room in the NHL for players who can’t play, no matter how big and tough they are. Fortunately, I think the Flyers development and personnel guys may agree with me.
We’ve seen Andreas Nodl at the NHL level a few times. Luce described him as an offensive player who lacked knowledge of the defensive end when he joined the organization. Now he’s developed into an excellent penalty killer who is becoming more physical–beginning to use his body more effectively. They consider this a two-three year process. His offensive game has suffered a bit from his concentration on the defensive game. But they expect him to put it all together. That’s the whole point of having a young guy learning at the AHL level.
Pat Maroon, Luce says, is probably the most skilled guy with the phantoms. He’s got good size (an understatement–he’s 6’3″ and 220 lbs.) and great hands. He needs to work on the defensive side. After being hurt earlier in the season he came back more consistent and is picking up his defensive responsibilities.
Johan Backlund is a rather old player to be considered a prospect at 28. Luce described him as the backbone of the Glens Falls team who played well all year long. The toughest thing for a European goalkeeper is to get used to a game in which there is less passing and different angles. Backlund reportedly got used to being more challenging and playing at the top of the crease, rather than back in the net. The organization feels he’s done a tremendous job this season and is a good competitor with lots of skill.
Another player we’ve seen from time to time is Jon Kalinski, who suffered a rather gruesome injury last year when on a Flyers West Coast trip. He’s considered the best face-off guy on the Phantoms and very good defensively. He’s a good penalty killer and checker but they are trying to get him to be more offensive minded.
Finally, we come to the lone Russian on the horizon, Denis Bodrov. He came late in the season and his conditioning was off. But he’s worked hard and gotten into good shape. He has great skills and is getting used to the greater intensity and more physical nature of the North American game.
Unfortunately, there was no time for questions at the end of the session. I’d have liked to have their reaction to the Flyers not having anyone in the system judged as one of the top 50 prospects.
Our group of STH’s arrived next at General Manager Paul Holmgren’s station. John Paddock was there, as well, and I teased Holmgren, asking if he needed a body guard this year. He either is very dry (certainly possible) or has no sense of humor (also possible) because he explained Paddock hadn’t been with the team last year. Ah well, I tried to lighten the mood. But then the session started and it wasn’t light at all.
Holmgren said he’d heard we were a tough group; took off his jacket, folded it, and laid it on the table; rubbed his hands together, while telling us he wouldn’t start with remarks but we’d go straight to questions. Let me tell you, when you are sitting down and Paul Holmgren is standing in all his serious size he is an intimidating figure! But the word that came to mind right away was feisty. He was in a feisty, challenging mood. And maybe that’s what the situation required.
Belligerent man from the Luukko session started right in. He wasn’t really asking questions though, he was basically explaining all the mistakes he felt the GM had made. And Holmgren was challenging him to ask questions and to allow him to answer questions. It took a minute or so, but belligerant man was disarmed and not really heard from for the rest of the session.
When true question and answer started, the tension in the room seemed to ease and Holmgren was as forthcoming as we’ve come to expect from prior years.
Holmgren was asked what could be done with all the no movement/no trade clauses. He said there was no reason they’d ever be a problem. No player wants to stay where he isn’t wanted. He was asked about Hartnell specifically. And he said there were 10 teams inquiring about Hartnell at the trade deadline but the Flyers weren’t interested. Was it the NTC? No, Homer said Hartnell hadn’t been asked, but Holmgren knows that if Hartnell were asked to give the Flyers 10 teams he’d be willing to move to that he’d present the Flyers with a list.
Someone asked if Emery’s injury was career ending. Holmgren said Emery would have surgery next week, and that it was possible he’d need hip replacement. But it was unlikely they’d know for sure for six months. But yes, it is career threatening. (Obviously, if Emery needs a new hip, he won’t be playing in the NHL again.)
He was asked about trading Carter straight up for a goalie and said moving Carter is not a good idea.
Another STH asked about the persistent consistency problem over the past three seasons. Without a lot of content, there was a lot of heat. But Holmgren said he’s as upset about it as the fans are. However, it is up to the players to find a way to win. Chemistry and heart are not in short supply on this team.
On the question of Mike Richards. They’re not trading him. He is a gem of a player and captain. When they were leaving Pittsburgh after Saturday’s game, the bus got to the airport and Richards asked nonplayers to leave the bus. He then held a team meeting on the bus, keeping the plane waiting for a half hour. The results of that meeting were clear Sunday.
A questioner asked why now. Holmgren said there had been meetings before. “Then why didn’t they work?” he was asked. “How do you know they didn’t?” he replied. There was disbelief expressed by the audience. But Holmgren stood his ground.
Another ticket holder asked about the importance of finding, signing, and developing Russian players, something the Flyers are notoriously ineffective at. Holmgren discussed the realities of Russian players in the time of the KHL. That a player can make so much more money in Russia right off the bat, he must be really committed to the NHL to be willing to come to North America at the lower salary and be developed.
The Caps were brought up as a team with many Russians, and Holmgren pointed out that Ovechkin’s goal was always to play in the NHL. And that now that he’s in DC, the Caps have an ambassador to other Russian players. It is important for the Flyers to develop ambassadors. They believe Bodrov is the beginning of that. They also believe they are very close to signing Andrei Popov. But in the draft it is very important to know not only how good a player may be, but whether he is signable before you use a pick on him.
The team’s consistency came up again and Holmgren said they didn’t respond well to injury, bad goals, or disallowed goals. But Sunday Coach Laviolette gave them a list of excuses and told them that if they are thinking of any of those they are no good to the team. Holmgren said Laviolette tried the speech out on him and he was ready to suit up and play.
With Laviolette the subject Holmgren said it had been hard for him to make the decision to fire John Stevens, who is his friend and whom he respects, but he feels the style of play Laviolette favors is more suited to the current Flyers team. Holmgren was asked if Laviolette is safe and said, “Peter’s our coach.” Holmgren believes next season, with Laviolette able to take the team through a training camp and all start on the same page will really benefit the team.
The final question was about Jeff Carter’s injury. Jeff was examined today and will have another MRI on April 8. The earliest day he could be cleared to skate is April 9, so it is unlikely he’ll play again in the regular season. But he’d be ready to play for the playoffs.
Again we were greeted by someone saying he’d heard we were a rowdy bunch. Coach Laviolette didn’t look happy to see us, but he assured us he was very happy to be there and happy to see us, and he was never happy to see the media.
Asked how he’d felt when the Flyers contacted him he said that before there was a job available he felt choice number one for him was Philadelphia, or “Man, I’d love to be in Philadelphia.” He understands that it is a big market with passionate fans (like Boston, where he grew up).
He sees the season since he got here in segments. The first 10 games were disappointing. They didn’t get off the ground the way he’d wanted to. And after selling Holmgren on his system and how the team would work with it, the losses weren’t what he’d hoped for. But from Christmas to 10 days ago the Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL, moving from fourteenth to fifth. Over the past two weeks, with pulling pieces out of the lineup, he’s unhappy with the consistency.
The point is to strive to find success on more nights than not. The team had it before the Olympics, but he’s not happy with them since. Sunday night it was important to stop the bleeding. The message is no excuses. No one outside Philly cares if the Flyers are struggling.
A guest asked about Carcillo and his development since Laviolette got here. He said there’s not a team who wouldn’t want him because he can agitate, irritate, and still score goals. Playing on the line with Richards he’s so much more effective against Parise and that type player than he’d be playing on a fourth line. But Laviolette gets no credit, give all the credit to Carcillo. They wind him up before the game and then just before going out say, “But don’t take any penalties.”
Does he think the Flyers are overpenalized? “Yes. More so now that [he’s] been here.” That got a good laugh.
The team has been more disciplined since Laviolette has gotten here. At first, he’d skate the team, and then the transgressor, for every bad penalty. The players are much better at controlling their “extracurricular activity” now. Too often the 2-minute penalties are phantom or back calls now. Overall the team is much better about taking bad penalties.
When asked about the Flyers and how they deal with officials Laviolette said, “Referees don’t like coaches. They think they yell and whine too much.” The team and coaches are trying to control that, but on Sunday that control didn’t help, either.
On the new rule about blind-side hits–you can always talk about rulings. But when does the blind side start?
Another question from the crowd, this one about the Flyers play around the nets. Laviolette said the most important places on the ice are the creases. It is important to find consistency in the game and he’s not happy with how that is going. A team needs to get into that area when they aren’t scoring goals. That’s been the topic for the past 10-12 games.
Laviolette likes the team’s defense. He believes Timonen is the most underrated guy in the league. He isn’t big but he plays a very effective style.
At the other end, the loss of Knuble did affect the team, but Knuble is the best in the league in front of the net. Hartnell has had an off year.
Asked about Coburn’s play, Laviolette said that being a young defenseman learning the game in the NHL is not an easy thing. Coburn is big, strong, and can skate. The best thing the coaches can do is keep teaching them (young players) and hopefully they keep learning and get better and better.
The final question was about the condition of James van Riemsdyk. They expect him to be available to play on Thursday.
Thus ends another year’s Town Hall. I’m never sure that what the Flyers participants say is as important as that they are there and making themselves available. This year the questioning was more pointed and the fans were less happy and less likely to accept the answers at face value. But it’s good for the fans to have the chance to vent their concerns and important for the team not to isolate itself from those impressions.