On The Edge Blog

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Leighton, salary cap could end Flyers' goalie carousel

I remember thinking way back in the summer (those warm days without snow) that this would finally be the season that the Flyers did not have a goaltender controversy.

Well, like my Super Bowl prediction, I could not have been more wrong!

Two years ago, I wrote a column stating that three things happen on the Flyers’ roster every year around this time: a concussion knocks a star out of the lineup, a superstar is underachieving, and the backup goalie is doing far better than the starter. Luckily (of course I probably just jinxed it), no Flyer is working his way back from a concussion, but sadly, we do have a superstar going through a season-long slump and, of course, we have upheaval in the crease.

Right now, only Simon Gagne is mired in a deep slump, although I would like to see some more production out of guys like Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and James VanRiemsdyk. Despite being the third-highest paid forward on the roster, Gagne has provided the Flyers with just seven goals, which breaks down to a cost of $750,000 per goal scored so far this season.

I don’t know why a guy who scored 34 goals last year suddenly can’t seem to find the back of the net, but with a salary cap number of $5.25 million per year through next season, he better start scoring soon or will be forced to take a massive paycut in 2012.

While Gagne’s contract is essentially unmovable, the Flyers’ goaltender situation certainly is in limbo, so I will now attempt to break down the Flyers’ umpteenth consecutive year of goalie drama, caused this year by Ray Emery’s potentially season-ending injury.

First, a little background information.

Since the 1994-95 season, the Flyers have had 19 different goalies set up shop in the crease, eight different netminders have started a playoff game, and five times, a goalie started in the playoffs despite not leading the team in games played that season.

Back in January 2008, when Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki were battling for the temporary position of the Flyers’ top goalie, I compared those stunningly awful statistics to the New Jersey Devils, who won three Stanley Cups in the same time period while Martin Brodeur led the team in games played each year and was their only playoff goalie. In that same column, I wrote that the Flyers had the chance to end the “goalie carousel” by naming Niittymaki as the starter, and then sticking with him through the ups and downs.

Needless to say, Niittymaki did not get that chance, but is currently dominating for the Tampa Bay Lightning while Biron’s best work this year has come while playing for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League.

So now, in 2010, the Flyers have a chance to start fresh and end the carousel by naming Michael Leighton as the starting goalie for the rest of the year, and then for next season as well.

While former goalie coach Reggie Lemelin, who was fired after last season, ruined the form and confidence of every young goaltender the Flyers had during his 13 seasons with the club, new goalie coach Jeff Reese has actually fixed several flaws in Leighton’s style, turning him into the stonewall netminder that has led the Flyers to a 12-3-1 record as a starter in two stints as an injury replacement.

And yes, I am placing the blame for the last 13 years of goaltender instability on Lemelin’s shoulders, as we have watched Brian Boucher, Robert Esche, and Niittymaki all look like the goalie of the future, only to see them flame out soon after they began to take the lion’s share of the work in practice under Lemelin’s tutelage.

Despite all that, this could finally be the year that the Flyers begin to develop some consistency in the blue paint by sticking with Leighton instead of making a desperation move once the NHL’s roster freeze ends after the Winter Olympics.

It seems as though every other team nurtures their young goalie, giving them time to grow and develop without the fear of an overpriced, under-skilled veteran taking their job. If you don’t believe me, just sort this year’s goaltenders by save percentage and you will find that all of the top guys followed this path, including youngsters Tuukka Rask, Jimmy Howard and Antti Nemi, along with veterans Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist, Evgeni Nabakov, and Miikka Kirpusoff.

Thankfully, I don’t think the Flyers have a choice in the matter this year, or surely General Manager Paul Holmgren would screw it up.

In Leighton’s 18 games this year with the Flyers, he has a 2.19 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage, which would both rank in the top six in the NHL for the season. However, based on nearly two decades of impulsive bad decisions, he will be the starting goalie for the rest of the season only because the Flyers don’t have the room under the salary cap to trade for Marty Turco (2.63/.915), Tim Thomas (2.52/.915), or J.S. Giguere (2.90/.907), who has already been traded to Toronto.

All season, Flyers fans (including me) have been groaning that a bunch of overpaid mistakes made by Holmgren have left the team with no cap space, but this year, that might be a blessing as it hopefully will result in the phones staying silent in the offices at the Wachovia Center and Leighton in net the rest of the season.

Like the “On the Edge” column? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Eagles defense needs more consistency

After watching the first three rounds of the playoffs, it is pretty clear that the Eagles’ defense ranked near the bottom among the 12 playoff teams. In fact, out of those teams, the Birds were 11th in points allowed.

Of the teams that made it to the NFL’s version of the Final Four, the Eagles’ defense would have been shredded by all four of them, as Philadelphia struggled to stop the run, and showed throughout the season that they were susceptible to essentially all passing plays.

I understand that Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott was thrown into a very tough position this year, replacing the late Jim Johnson, but he was certainly not up to the task of leading the defense for a Super Bowl contender.

Too many times this year, McDermott went into a game with a bad plan, which was especially clear against New Orleans, San Diego, Dallas and even Oakland.

Going by Jim Johnson’s belief that 17 points is the magic number for a defense, McDermott failed 11 out of 17 times this year. Johnson always said that if the defense surrenders 17 points or more, the blame should fall on the ‘D’ in a loss. Based on that premise, the Eagles’ offense bailed out the defense six times this year, while failing to back up a strong defensive effort just once (Oakland).

Based on those numbers, the Birds will need to improve both the roster and the game plans drastically, because in 2008, the defense failed only eight of 19 times, and in the process, the Eagles made it within a few minutes of the Super Bowl.

Here are my predictions and thoughts on the Eagles’ roster by position:

Defensive Line: This is one part of the defense that I thought pulled its weight, as linemen accounted for 38 of the 44 sacks this season. Trent Cole and Juqua Parker combined for 20.5 sacks this season off the edge, and Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley were forces up the middle. I really don’t have any complaints about this group, and I would love to see the same nine or 10 guys come back next year, which could happen. I imagine the Eagles will use a few late-round picks to push for the final spot in the rotation, but I wouldn’t expect big changes here.

Linebackers: Remember that statistic I just gave you about the Eagles’ linemen registering all but six sacks this year? That’s a good thing for the guys in the trenches, but it’s a terrible sign for the linebackers, who came up with just 4.5 sacks this season, and 1.5 of those sacks came in the first game of the season.

That means Chris Gocong, Akeem Jordan, Omar Gaither, Moise Fokou, Tracy White, Will Witherspoon, Jeremiah Trotter and Joe Mays combined for just three sacks in the final 15 games of the season! By the way, 22 linebackers had at least 4.5 sacks this season on their own in the NFL.

The lousy numbers don’t stop there. The linebackers combined for just three forced fumbles and four interceptions this year, giving the ever-changing middle group a total of 11.5 big plays this season. That’s less than three plays per month!

I know that people will point to Stewart Bradley’s injury as an excuse for this unit, but while he was a tackling machine in 2008, he only accounted for one interception, one sack and one forced fumble last year, so his presence would not have greatly altered those statistics.

It is pretty obvious the Eagles need to improve at the linebacker position. Hopefully, the front office will resist the urge to go with a combination of Bradley, Jordan, Witherspoon and Gocong, but I have a terrible feeling that is what will be on the field in September.

If I had my way, the Eagles would send Gocong and Gaither packing, replacing them with actual edge-rushers. It’s astounding that the Eagles can’t find someone to simply run around the edge on Cole’s side, forcing a left tackle to choose between allowing a defensive end or a linebacker to crush his quarterback.

The Eagles should spend their first round pick on a superstar outside linebacker like Navorro Bowman from Penn State or possibly wait until the second round and grab someone like Sean Weatherspoon or Eric Norwood if they decide that free safety is the top priority.

Honestly, I don’t really care who the Eagles draft at linebacker, just don’t give me a mid-round project pick from a small school like Gocong, Brian Smith or Matt McCoy.

Secondary: The Eagles obviously need a free safety to replace Brian Dawkins, as Macho Harris, Quintin Demps and Sean Jones did not adequately fill in for Weapon X in 2009. They need to draft a do-it-all safety, instead of playing mix-and-match with three guys.

Jones did a great job against the run, but was too slow in pass coverage. Demps can cover a slot receiver, but is too small to handle the run. Harris can’t do either, but does a superb job of picking up unnecessary roughness penalties.

The goal here should be to draft Taylor Mays out of USC in the first round. At 6-3, 236 pounds, Mays is described to have “top-end speed” by Scouts, Inc., and would certainly make a difference on run defense when the Eagles drop into their nickel package, unlike Harris or Demps. Mays played all four years at USC, registering 268 tackles, including 88 as a senior, and would immediately make this unit better.

At cornerback, we will have to accept that Asante Samuel will never tackle a player, but his NFL-leading nine interceptions do make up for his lack of physicality. Joselio Hanson is an excellent nickel corner, but Sheldon Brown needs to be replaced. He has never had good speed, but always had good instincts. For whatever reason, this year, Brown seemed susceptible to the double-move, so without “make up” speed, he was burned repeatedly, especially down the stretch.

My guess is that the Eagles will keep Brown because of his low salary, but bring in an Ellis Hobbs-type corner to play dime and occasionally on the outside.

Like the “On the Edge” column? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show.
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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
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