If you were to embark on a journey to any website with an article about the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers you can expect to find two things: a mention of Chris Pronger and that Ray Emery could be the downfall of the Flyers’ season. It is odd though that no one so far has mentioned exactly how Emery could dismantle one of the best on-paper lineups the Flyers have ever iced. Maybe it is meant to be left up to the imaginative reader to think up scenarios for themselves? Could Emery self-destruct in a cluster of off-ice incidents leaving the Flyers without a goalie? Could he divide the locker-room into two seperate factions that hate each other? Could he alienate the coaching staff and ignore what is best for the team? Could he stab Pronger and take a baseball bat to Jeff Carter’s knee?
There’s a limitless possibility of bad scenarios that, given the proper time and motivation, a once innocent hockey fan can create in his head. What most of these articles fail to mention is that Emery, though the same “firecracker” and “locker room cancer” that apparently destroyed the Ottawa Senators, was often praised for his colorful personality and his ability to bond with his teammates by those same people who threw him under the Senator’s team bus leaving the only ride left a plane bound for Mother Russia.
This isn’t of course to defend Emery or his “extracurricular activities”, but it is to question an entire philosophy when handling speculation. The same Emery that was kicked out of the Ottawa clubhouse seems to be working well so far in Philadelphia. He has not been spectacular in the preseason but has remained solid. There are no uprisings, no drunk-driving incidents, no trainers getting punched in the face, nor even stabbings. Granted, the sample size is rather small, but that does not mean Emery is some tiger stalking through the bushes; though if he stands behind Pronger and Braydon Coburn in those pads he could fool you.
So how does one exactly go about assessing the Emery scenario in Philadelphia? You don’t. It is impossible to prove an unknown one way or another. In order to make an educated guess you have to look at what is already known.
It is known, for instance, that the Flyers roster is generally in tact from last season with the exception of Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul. Now, trade Pronger for those two and think about who wins in that scenario. Pronger’s offense covers one of the two by himself. I’m sure his defense easily covers the other. You also cannot forget his locker room presence. One thing the Flyers have lacked since the LTIR escapades of Derian Hatcher is a leader who will get frustrated and yell at his teammates. The Flyers’ biggest fatal flaw after all is not their goaltending but could quite possibly be an overall lack of emotion.
Who was yelling at the team in the locker room right before they blew home-ice advantage in the first round playoffs by allowing their first shorthanded-goal-against of the year in the final game of the regular season against a New York Rangers team that was just looking to stay healthy? Who was reprimanding the entire roster when they were on the verge of elimination and gave up a commanding lead only to face the long golf-outing known as the offseason? It wasn’t Head Coach John Stevens, who, rather than being THN’s coach of the year in 2007-08, has trouble getting his team to come out for games and play 60-minute-hockey. It certainly wasn’t Mike Richards either. Though he is a strong on-ice leader he is admittedly quiet at times in the locker room. Do you think it could have been Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen, Simon Gagne, or Jeff Carter?
At best the Flyers’ vocal presence last season was Scott Hartnell. Adding personalities such as Pronger, Emery, and Ian Laperriere will go a long way in changing the locker room if Stevens will not do it himself.
While everyone focuses on how Emery could implode mentally they forget to mention how much good he can do in a locker room that’s already controlled by forces such as Richards, Pronger, Timonen, Briere, Gagne, and Carter. As for a possible issue with his on-ice production and consistency, they also forget that he has not necessarily stood out before as a consistency issue. He certainly wasn’t in Russia. Why would such problems appear now with as much talent as the Flyers have this year? If the Detroit Red Wings are any indication of how a team brimming with talent can carry a goalie until that netminder is ready to step up, then why can’t the Flyers enjoy similar success? Chris Osgood is no Emery. Neither is Martin Biron. It’s impossible to compare goaltending personalities unless you’re trying to argue between Martin Brodeur and Justin Pogge. The Flyers aren’t looking for a savior. Instead, what they only need consistency.
Emery remains a mystery and will be a mystery for the remainder of his career. As of right now though he is not the greatest downfall of this team or even a downfall at all. Instead the Flyers’ greatest issue could be their focus. That’s a coaching problem, not a personnel issue.
So while TSN rants and raves about Emery and Pronger in Philadelphia while dropping the Flyers in 9th behind teams like Washington, Boston, and Vancouver, all of which have far greater issues to work out, they should first work on getting their facts straight. Mentioning that prospect Ryan Dingle was in fact sent from the Flyers to the Anaheim Ducks instead of being packaged with Pronger on a cross-United States road trip doesn’t help matters either. It’d be nice if TSN could get something correct whether it be the package of a major trade or the evaluation of a dangerous Stanley Cup contender.
Unfortunately, lost in all this Emery and Pronger business is the emergence of rookie James van Riemsdyk. He was widely criticized in Philadelphia for returning to the University of New Hampshire for a second season. When the young power-forward failed to make a gigantic leap in offensive production in his sophomore year he was on the verge of being labeled a bust by virtually every prospect information service available on the web. When he failed to bring a medal to the United States during the World Junior Champions the fact that he ranked up there with the most talented American skaters ever to take the ice in the tournament was forgotten.
Through the preseason van Riemsdyk has quietly held his ground when asked whether he expects to be on the Flyers opening day roster. He came into camp expecting to make the team. General Manager Paul Holmgren has mentioned on numerous occasions that if JVR is ready to compete at the NHL level he will wear orange and black on October 2nd. Quietly the former 2nd overall pick has snuck up on the rest of the hockey world during the preseason. He has had playing time with all the Flyers’ offensive heavyweights; Giroux, Briere, Carter, Hartnell, Gagne, and Richards. Each time he is on the ice he exceeds expectations; not in that he was a 2nd overall selection but in that he has not been treated as such since being drafted.
In a rookie scrimmage against the Washington Capitals he looked like a man among boys. If anyone caught a glimpse of Briere playing a few AHL games last season, the result was similar though van Riemsdyk is a much bigger body to try and throw around. In the victory the young power-forward was responsible for four goals, two of which were spectacular enough for the crowd to question their perception of reality, as well as an incredible, highlight reel assist. It seems as though while everyone had their mind set on placing van Riemsdyk in the AHL for a season he didn’t get the memo. Through prospect camp he was solid. In rookie camp he was spectacular. Now in training camp he has fit right in as a regular forward on this roster. He has skated well and competed hard on all ends of the ice. That of course isn’t to mention his hands which rival the best in the NHL. With plenty of talented skaters on the roster to get JVR the puck there’s no reason he can’t succeed with all of his size and talent.
In preseason the monstrous 20-year-old has not disappointed either. In four games he is responsible for three goals with an ever-changing cast of line-mates and is up with Briere for the lead in scoring. With the Finnish-born, Swedish Elite League standout Mika Pyorala also turning some heads and racking up some preseason points the earlier questions about the Flyers’ offensive depth after the losses of Knuble and Lupul can be thrown right out the window.
Since van Riemsdyk and Pyorala are looking more like orange and black veterans there are a limited numbers of roster spots left available. Roster forwards from last season such as Andreas Nodl, Jared Ross, and Jonathan Kalinski have already been sent to the minors. Former 20-goal-scorer Mark Bell, who was invited to compete for a contract in camp, has been released. Krys Kolanos, who many thought might compete for a roster spot, has been also dropped to the Phantoms.
Still realistically competing for one spot left in the top nine, three spots open on the fourth line, and a position for a 13th forward are Ian Laperriere, Arron Asham, Darroll Powe, Dan Carcillo, Lukas Kaspar, Patrick Maroon, Riley Cote, and camp invitee Blair Betts. While Betts does not currently have a contract with the team, after some impressive penalty kill work throughout the preseason many suspect he is due for a contract. It’s likely that the Flyers send him their offer, but it is looking tighter than ever to make the orange and black.
Most other concerns about the Flyers have also been thrown out the window in preseason. Emery looks good. Briere has been healthy and dominating other teams offensively. Gagne made his preseason debut after dropping out of Team Canada’s Olympic Training camp with a tightness in his hip/groin region. He skated well and fought hard along the boards. It’s safe to say he looks healthy. Pronger has continued to impress and show why he is one of the elite NHL defensemen. Despite their preseason record the Flyers are looking good. Granted, this must all be Emery’s fault as well.