With the 2012 Winter Classic just around the corner, I asked Geoff Detweiler of Broad Street Hockey and George Ays of Blueshirt Banter to weigh in on the fortunes of the Philadelphia Flyers (22-10-4, .667, +27 GVT) and the New York Rangers (22-9-4, .686, +27 GVT) prior to the January 2 contest.
Timo Seppa: Excited for the Winter Classic? It's a new thing for the Rangers, but Philadelphia was just in it two years ago. Same old, same old?
Geoff Detweiler: It's pretty exciting to host the Winter Classic, so it's not the same old stuff. It isn't as exciting as the first time, but it's still exciting. I think one of the biggest problems for me was the delayed buildup. We waited so long for the official announcement and for the jerseys to be released, but once 24/7 came out, it created a solid month of anticipation.
George Ays: I've been more excited about the 24/7 coverage than the game itself. It's a great novelty, but it's still just a regular season hockey game in the long run.
Seppa: As you've both mentioned, we've got the dynamic of 24/7 once again. How do think the show has portrayed the teams? Anything you've been surprised to see?
Detweiler: I've been a little disappointed with 24/7 this year, but that's mostly because there seems to be less scenes of multiple players joking with each other. Last year, the Penguins stole the show with their practice games, airplane rides, and hotel hijinks, which is something I wanted to see this year. Still, I think the Flyers look like a loose, young team led by an intelligent and fiery coach. I really like how Peter Laviolette has come across.
Ays: I've been happy with the portrayal so far. I wouldn't say there are any surprises per se, but I have been disappointed by the lack of coverage of the Staal concussion situation, especially since he seems to be on his way back soon. Jordan Staal had his injury recovery progress covered last year, Giroux obviously got attention this year with his concussion. I'm also disappointed that we haven't seen Glen Sather at all. We know he's the invisible man (to the media) during the regular season, but I was hoping there'd at least be a scene or two of the front office workings. Laviolette is more fiery than I would've thought. He's been the biggest standout to me. I've liked seeing the interactions between the players on both teams off the ice.
Seppa: Both teams made big moves in the offseason, with the Rangers adding top free agent Brad Richards, while the Flyers went berserk trading off cornerstones Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and signing Ilya Bryzgalov long term. Neither Richards (2.5 GVT) or Bryzgalov (-5.8 GVT, bottom five in the league) are exactly setting the league on fire. Were they bad signings, in retrospect? Or perhaps to put it another way, at least worse than you thought at the time?
Ays: Brad Richards has done most of what he's expected in his first year. He's been (wrongly) matched as a power vs. power player at even strength, and it's not a role that puts him in the best place to succeed. He's been a good mentor for the younger players, especially Stepan, and oddly, Michael Del Zotto. The Rangers are a fairly young team, so that aspect does have value. So far, so good, but there were never concerns over the first year of the deal, it's the seventh, eighth, and ninth years that makes you wonder what will happen.
Detweiler: I don't think Bryzgalov is a worse signing than I thought at the time, though this is exactly why I was against the signing: goalies go hot and cold, they can have season-long slumps and the difference between the best goalie in the NHL and an average goalie isn't all that large. Bryzgalov is a much better goalie than he has been this year, but the position is just too inconsistent to justify putting such a large portion of your salary cap in one guy.
Seppa: How about the secondary signings? I'm not really sure what Atlantic Division teams see in Mike Rupp that make them want to sign him. Sure, he can play center and wing, but he's a replacement-level bottom-sixer who isn't known for special teams play. And it was certainly curious to see Max Talbot come to the Flyers from the rival Penguins. He's a jack-of-all-trades type with more versatility than Rupp, but still a lower-line forward. Though he's been playing pretty well.
Ays: 24/7 has helped explain the Rupp signing a bit more. John Tortorella clearly has a fondness for the style of play he brings. I could see him helping out in the playoffs where physicality on the fourth line has some more value. He can't live up to that contract, but no one will care if he's in the lineup for playoff wins. The other signing that has not worked out well was the re-signing of Ruslan Fedotenko. He's chipped in some goals, but defensively he has really struggled this year. He had a very good 2010-11 campaign playing with Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust in a defensive role, so I expected a lot more. Defensively, the two depth signings that Glen Sather made have turned out to be a godsend. Jeff Woywitka filled in decently, but the signing of Anton Stralman is what will end up benefiting most. He took some time to get acclimated, but he's playing good hockey right now, and should keep his spot in the rotation even when Staal, Mike Sauer, and even Steve Eminger get healthy.
Detweiler: Talbot is a guy I really like, mostly since watching him on 24/7 last year. I don't like his contract (five years at $1.75 million) at all, nor do I think he will continue playing as well as he has, but he can play any bottom-six position while chipping in on the penalty kill. Solid player, great guy (at least as shown by HBO), but overpaid.
Seppa: Both teams have gotten a shot in the arm from youngsters as well, which has been a positive trend for the Blueshirts especially over the past couple of years. George, do you like what you've seen from Stepan, McDonagh, and Hagelin? And from the bounceback of Del Zotto? And Geoff, Matt Read's already in double figures in goals for the Flyers.
Ays: Derek Stepan I thought might be a candidate to improve his play without improving his boxscores, but he has been making a lot of positive plays this year. He does lead the team in PDO right now by a healthy margin, so you can expect some bumps at some point. His linemate, Artem Anisimov, is the engine of the line though. He's young also (just 23) and still has potential to be a top two-way forward in the league. Ryan McDonagh has struggled more in the last 10-15 games or so, but he has really stepped up and helped out the depleted defense, logging a ton of tough minutes for a second-year player. As for Hagelin, all he's done since he's come in has been a possession machine, and chipped in more offense than I think anyone reasonably expected. All in all, it's hard not to be happy with any of their play so far.
Detweiler: Matt Read has definitely played fantastic hockey. He's slowed down of late (just broke a nine-game goalless streak), but he's playing a lot of shorthanded time (2:51 per game), usually playing the point on the power play (2:45 per game), and playing third-line minutes. He's on pace for 27 goals and 23 assists, which is far, far better than I could have hoped. I don't think he'll break 25 goals, but it's still a pleasant surprise, and one that the Flyers need out of their third line.
Seppa: What's your take on Jagr? Obviously, he's done great thus far. Weird to see him in orange and black? Tough to root for him/against him?
Ays: It's strange any time a player shows up in opposing colors for the first time, but right now he's just another opponent. It's good that he didn't come back and fail, though. You never want to see a player of his caliber return, only to struggle.
Detweiler: It's still really weird to see him on the Flyers, but he's been fantastic. It's not hard to root for him at all, actually, which is surprising. He seems like a genuinely nice guy who is having a blast. Whether it's posing with a policeman's hat before a game, smiling on the ice, or joking with reporters who act like fanboys around him, Jagr is very, very easy to like.
Seppa: Hall of Famer? That's obvious, right? He's in the top 10 of all-time GVT, you know. Do you consider him an upper-echelon Hall of Famer?
Detweiler: I consider him a first ballot Hall of Famer, no question.
Ays: Not sure about upper echelon, but he's certainly one of the five best players I've seen in my young (I'm 33 now) life.
Seppa: Geoff, who's your favorite all time Flyer, and why?
Detweiler: All time, my favorite Flyer is Brian Boucher. I'm a little younger than most, so the 2000 run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals was the first time I was old enough to understand what was going on (I turned 11 in the 1997 playoffs). That was Boucher's rookie year and he just captivated me. From beating Dominik Hasek in the first round, losing the first two games against Pittsburgh at home before winning in five overtimes, the sprawl on his back while losing his helmet save on Patrick Elias, to getting a puck stuck in his mask and needing to wear his old Phantoms mask in Game 6, that was the definitive spring of my hockey life. So Boucher will always be my favorite.
Seppa: George, how about your all-time favorite Rangers?
Ays: John Vanbiesbrouck and Mark Messier. Vanbiesbrouck was the reason I started watching the Rangers, Messier was always my favorite player, and thus the reason I really became a proverbial 'die-hard' fan.
Seppa: Who did you hate the most on the Rangers, over the years?
Detweiler: I wish I had a reason, but I never liked Adam Graves. I hated Darius Kasparaitis too, but I hated him more as a Penguin.
Seppa: Who did you hate the most on the Flyers, over the years?
Ays: Never been a fan that spends time thinking about who I hate. I enjoy the rivalry, so whoever the Flyers' players are that year, that's who I'm rooting against.
Seppa: How would you rank the Flyers/Rangers as far as your archrivals? Down a notch from the Penguins, Devils, and Islanders, or pretty much the same?
Detweiler: For me, they're definitely behind the Penguinswho are on a tier of their ownand Devils, sitting somewhere in the tier of "I don't like them." The lack of playoff matchups has really calmed my hatred.
Ays: Below the Islanders, probably even below the Devils at this point. The proximity of all four teams makes for a great dynamic, though. I personally might dislike the Flyers more if I were a Giants or Mets fan and had the extra Philadelphia hate, but I don't.
Seppa: What's your prediction for your team, for the rest of the season?
Detweiler: I think the Flyers will battle for the Atlantic Division before succumbing to a fourth-place finish and a first-round matchup against Pittsburgh. Then, who knows. A lot of teams scare me in the playoffs, so I'll avoid making predictions beyond regular season finish.
Ays: The Rangers won't stay at the top of the conference, as there are still some common advanced stat red flags out there. That said, they're a good team with arguably the best post-lockout goaltender around, so they'll be in the hunt all season. They'll need continued success from the 'GAS' line, and big second halves from Brandon Dubinsky and Marc Staal to feel confident they can make any type of serious Cup run.
Seppa: So when's your team going to raise the Cup?
Ays: June of some year in the hopefully not distant future.
Detweiler: Ha ha, hopefully soon.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.