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Points for Pelicans center Anthony Davis on Sunday, setting All-Star Game record

The first half of the NFL season featured pleasant surprises, disappointments and teams that performed as expected. Eric Fisher places every NFL team in one of the three categories and projects each team’s fortunes during the second half of the season.

Quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seahawks produced a tremendous comeback to defeat the Packers in overtime, 28-22, in the NFC Championship game. The Patriots had a much easier time, crushing the Colts, 45-7, in the AFC Championship Game.

As Sam Ficken celebrated the game-winning kick in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, he symbolized the perseverance and dedication necessary to overcome incredible odds, both for himself and for Penn State’s football program.

Archive for February, 2017

Flyers Notebook: Flyers should be sellers

Posted by Eric Fisher On February - 20 - 2017 ADD COMMENTS

The Flyers should be sellers before next week’s NHL trade deadline, and high-profile players such as captain Claude Giroux and center Brayden Schenn should be made available for the right price.

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Do the math. The Flyers have 63 points. They are two points behind the Maple Leafs for the final wild card position. The Islanders and Panthers  are one point ahead of the Flyers. The Flyers have 23 games left in the regular season.

The Panthers have played two fewer games than the Flyers. The Flyers have played one more game than the Maple Leafs and Islanders.

It’s certainly not impossible for the Flyers to make the playoffs. But it’s a difficult road. It doesn’t help that two of the Flyers’ next five games are against the Capitals, including Wednesday night (8 p.m.), and another game is against the Penguins. By the time that five-game stretch is over, the Flyers probably won’t have gained any ground. A best-case realistic scenario is that they will maintain their current position. Basically, they’d be treading water, except they’d only have 18 games remaining.

Three games into that five-game stretch is the NHL trade deadline. That means that general manager Ron Hextall has to decide whether it’s more important to make the playoffs this season or to build for the future.

What’s the upside to the Flyers making the playoffs? It will be a good experience for the younger players, such as Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny. A strong finish to the regular season should help the Flyers’ confidence.

On the other hand, the Flyers still have trouble scoring goals, which was their downfall during last season’s hard-fought first-round playoff series against the Capitals. I think it’s time to start moving pieces.

Whom should the Flyers try to trade? Let’s start with the easy ones. Veteran defensemen Mark Streit, Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz all have contracts that expire after this season. Streit and Schultz are nearing the end of their careers. Del Zotto, who is a minus-13 in 32 games, has been inconsistent and injury-prone as a Flyer. None of them appears to be in the Flyers’ future, so Hextall should try to get something in return for them rather than let them leave without getting any compensation.

Teams looking for a boost for the playoffs might be willing to part with draft picks and possibly a prospect for these defensemen. Streit is a liability in his own end, but he can quarterback a power play. Schultz is steady and reliable, and could fill in nicely on a third pairing. Del Zotto is more of a wild card, but teams may take a shot that Del Zotto lives up to his promise. As for Andrew MacDonald, his contract ($5 million per year for 3 more seasons) makes him virtually untradeable.

Speaking of unrestricted free agents, goalies Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth both fit into that category. Neither one has demonstrated that he deserves to be the No. 1 goalie, and the Flyers have plenty of young goalies in their system. The Flyers should certainly listen to offers for either one. Anthony Stolarz could move up from the Phantoms to be the backup for the rest of the season.

And that brings us to the big names. Well, let’s start with a mid-sized name. Matt Read, who is likely to be exposed in the expansion draft anyway, should certainly be made available. Dale Weise, whom the Flyers signed to a four-year contract last summer, should be available to teams looking for a veteran fourth-line forward for the playoffs.

But the Flyers should also listen if teams inquire about Claude Giroux and Brayden Schenn. Giroux only has 12 goals this season. More alarming is that his plus/minus rating is minus-20. Giroux, 29, has five years remaining on a contract that pays him $8.275 million annually (all salaries courtesy of capfriendly.com). The contract is an impediment to making a deal, but if a contender could add Giroux, it should boost their chances in the playoffs. The Flyers should strongly consider trading Giroux if there is a legitimate offer.

Schenn is an enigma. He leads the NHL in power play goals (14), yet he is not among the top 50 goal scorers in the league. Think about that for a moment. How is it possible to lead the NHL in power play goals yet not be among the top 50 scorers? By being terrible at even strength. Schenn has just four goals that weren’t on the power play. He only has 15 points that aren’t on the power play. His plus/minus rating is minus-20.

Schenn, 25, is under contract for three more seasons at $5,125 per season. If a team makes a good enough offer, which involves a package that must include at least one top prospect on the wing, the Flyers should strongly consider letting someone else find out if Schenn will ever develop into the top player everyone thought he would be when the Flyers acquired him from the Kings.

The Flyers should also listen to offers for center Sean Couturier, although I would be more reluctant to trade him than Giroux or Schenn. Let’s begin with the fact that Couturier is the Flyers’ best defensive center. The fact that he’s only a minus-3 on a team with a minus-25 goal differential is impressive. That fact he has that rating while frequently matching up against the other teams’ best centers is remarkable.

Those who want to trade Couturier frequently point to his offensive production. He certainly has a lot of room to improve, but his numbers, relatively speaking, aren’t so bad. None of his nine goals and only two of his eight assists have come on the power play. That means he has more non-power play goals than any Flyer except Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek. Yes, he has more than Giroux (7) and Schenn (4). Couturier has as many non-power play points (15) as Schenn (15) and nearly as many as Giroux (19) despite playing 13 fewer games than Schenn and 16 fewer than Giroux. A solid case can be made that Couturier is the Flyers’ best center at even strength. At $4.33 million for five more seasons, Couturier also has a salary cap-friendly contract.

The only players who should be safe from trade speculation are Simmonds and rookies Provorov and Konecny. It would take a tremendous haul to pry Voracek or Shayne Gostisbehere away from the Flyers, but everyone else should be fair game as the Flyers become sellers at the trade deadline.

 

LEADER IN THE CLUBHOUSE: If the Flyers trade Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds should be next captain. He is a terrific player and he leads by example. Simmonds, who is currently an assistant captain, epitomizes what it means to be a Flyer.

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OUTDOOR FUN: The Flyers will face the Penguins at Heinz Field on Saturday (8 p.m.) as part of the NHL’s Coors Light Stadium Series. It would be wonderful if this became an annual tradition, perhaps at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, or with a rotation between Heinz Field, Citizens Bank Park and Beaver Stadium.

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GRAND ACHIEVEMENT: Penguins center Sidney Crosby notched the 1,000th point of his career Thursday during a 4-3 overtime victory over the Jets. After registering No. 1,000 with an assist, Crosby later assisted on the tying goal and then scored 21 seconds into overtime to complete a three-point night.

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BEING A MAN(NING): Brandon Manning deserves a lot of respect for the way he handled himself Thursday in Edmonton. Manning is public enemy No. 1 there for breaking young star Connor McDavid’s collar bone last season, which led to a spat earlier this season in Philadelphia. Manning played a composed game before, when the time and score were right for it, obliging the larger Patrick Maroon by engaging in a fight.

On a side note, the penalty for embellishment called on Manning after Oilers forward Milan Lucic japed him in the groin with his stick from behind is one of the worst calls of the year.

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DETENTE: The Flyers Alumni are in the midst of a tour of Russia, which is ironic, considering the Flyers were vilified in Russia after defeating the Soviet Red Army team at the Spectrum in 1976. The alumni are participating in clinics and are playing three games. There are rumors that Russian president Vladimir Putin may play in the final game. A hard hit reminiscent of the Ed Van Impe check that caused the Russians to walk off during the 1976 game could spark an international incident.

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ALUMNI REMATCH: Given the success of the Flyers Alumni vs. Penguins Alumni game at Wells Fargo Center, the teams will have a rematch on March 18 at Santander Arena in Reading. Proceeds will benefit the Flyers Alumni Association and Reading Royals Charities, with the alumni funds going toward a $2 million pledge to support the construction of the Edward M. Snider/Flyers Alumni Ice Hockey Rink.

Fish ‘n Chips

Posted by Eric Fisher On February - 20 - 2017 ADD COMMENTS

The Fish ‘n Chips column is sponsored by Legal Sea Foods – Gourmet Gift Division … so much more than Fish ‘n Chips … “If it isn’t fresh, it isn’t Legal!”)

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Sometimes there is too much of a good thing.

I remember how thrilled I was to see the Flyers play in the Winter Classic in Fenway Park in 2010. It was exciting two years later when the Flyers hosted the Rangers in the Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park.

Next Saturday the Flyers will face the Penguins at Heinz Field, the site of the 2011 Winter Classic. It’s a cool idea, but this game, even against the hated Penguins, isn’t generating anywhere close to the level of excitement as the Flyers’ two Winter Classic appearances.

Perhaps the relative lack of excitement is because the Winter Classic was a fresh idea. The Fenway Park game was the third Winter Classic. The Citizens Bank Park game was the fifth. Playing hockey in a stadium was a novel idea at the time.

Perhaps the lack of excitement over Pennsylvania bragging rights is because this is the third outdoor NHL game in 2017. The Maple Leafs and Red Wings squared off on Jan. 1 in the NHL Centennial Classic, which celebrates the NHL’s 100th anniversary. The Blackhawks and Blues battled one day later in the Winter Classic.

How many of you remember either of those games? For the first five or six years of the Winter Classic, almost everyone remembered who played in that game.

It will be fun to watch the Flyers and Penguins play outdoors as part of the Coors Light Stadium Series, but the uniqueness of outdoor hockey games has worn off.

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FAKE NEWS? ESPN’S Ramona Shelburne reported that the Sixers were very close to sending Jahlil Okafor to the Pelicans about 10 days before New Orleans acquired DeMarcus Cousins and Omar Casspi in exchange for former Philly guard/forward Tyreke Evans, former Saint Joseph’s guard Langston Galloway, rookie guard Buddy Hield and first- and second-round selections in this year’s NBA Draft. According to Shelburne, the Sixers turned were offered a similar package except that it didn’t include Hield, the sixth overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft.

If Shelburne’s report is true, Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo should be fired. The Sixers are not going to get more than that for Okafor, especially now that three of the four teams reportedly interested in the young center – the Pelicans, Nuggets and Trail Blazers – have acquired centers. That leaves the Bulls, if they’re still interested, bidding against themselves, which will keep the price low.

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ARMS RACE: The Phillies have so many quality starting pitchers at spring training that there is talk of some of them moving to the bullpen. Wait a moment. The Phillies have too many quality starters? When did this happen?

The Phillies have done a terrific job in acquiring young pitchers in exchange for established pitchers such as Cole Hamels and Ken Giles. They also have put a priority on drafting pitchers. Sprinkle in a few veterans and you have a solid rotation.

Barring injuries, the rotation will consist of Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Buchholz, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola. If Hellickson and Buchholz get off to strong startas and are moved at the trade deadline, the list of pitchers in line to fill their spots includes Alec Asher, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Adam Morgan, Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta and Mark Appel. With so many young arms, the chances are good that at least two or three of them will develop into solid major-league starters.

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EAGLES GO TO MARKET: Speculation about the Eagles’ potential free agent targets will continue to build until March 7, when teams can begin negotiating contracts with free agents. Teams can begin signing free agents on March 9, which is also when trades can be made.

It remains to be seen how active the Eagles will be in free agency. They certainly have numerous areas of need, but will they spend the money for top free agents at receiver and cornerback or will they find the cost too expensive, causing them to rely on the draft for their primary acquisitions.

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FEELING A DRAFT: Don’t forget that the NFL Draft is April 27-29 in Philadelphia. Before we get to the draft, though, there is the NFL Scouting Combine, which takes place Feb. 28-March 6 in Indianapolis.

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ALL-STAR AVOIDANCE: The two minutes of the NBA All-Star Game that I watched were enough to remind me why I can’t stand watching all-star games. Any resemblance between the West’s 192-182 win over the East and actual basketball was purely coincidental.

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FLAT TAX: I sincerely hope that Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving was joking when he said the world is flat and seemed to indicate that “they” are trying to convince people the earth is round. I thought we were at least several hundred years beyond real debate over whether the earth is round, or thinking that the assertion that the earth is round is some sort of conspiracy theory.

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PRESEASON KICKS OFF: In case you missed it – and I’m guessing many of you did – the Union kicked off their preseason Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay at the Suncoast Invitational in Florida. Chris Pontius scored the game’s only goal.

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ALMOST TOURNAMENT TIME: Is college basketball’s regular season really almost over? Some conference tournaments begin in less than two weeks. On the positive side, that means that the NCAA Tournament is less than a month away.

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GENTLEMEN, START YOUR ENGINES: There is an entire week of activities at Daytona leading up to Sunday’s Daytona 500, which officially kicks off the NASCAR season. Can Jimmie Johnson successfully defend his title? Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. make a successful return after being sideline by a concussion? Check out my NASCAR preview later this week.

Eric Fisher, who has been covering sports for more than 28 years, is fairly certain that world isn’t flat.

Classic George Steele (RIP) match, interview