DENVER - There is a reason Blair Betts went unsigned until the last day of training camp in September.
When Betts is healthy, everyone knows the impact he can have as a defensively responsible faceoff and penalty killing expert. TSN analyst Pierre McGuire once called Betts the most underrated player in the NHL. The New York Post said Betts - who played for the Rangers for four seasons before joining the Flyers this year - was the best penalty killer to ever play for New York.
He has been indispensable for the Flyers this season. Chew on this: The Flyers are 10-3 with Betts in the lineup. Without him, they are just 2-4-1.
Undoubtedly, Betts is a steal at $550,000 - if he can stay in the lineup. But that is the big "if."
Betts' signing was one of general manager Paul Holmgren's calculated risks. Betts dislocated his right shoulder Saturday night in Phoenix for the second time this season and will be out for 4 to 6 weeks.
"I think, more than anything, his ability to play the role of fourth-line center for us," Holmgren said when asked about what his team misses without Betts in the lineup. "With [Dan] Carcillo and [Ian] Laperriere, they are just a good, hard-working line. They recognize danger in the neutral zone . . . and they do a good job of getting in on the forecheck.
"We'll miss him in some other areas, like we did last time he was out."
Betts only missed seven games earlier in the season with the same injury over a 3 1/2-week span. This time, the Flyers won't have the luxury of lengthy gaps between games to soften the blow.
Betts, 29, told the Daily News earlier in the season that he has dislocated this same shoulder at least "four or five times" in his career. He has had multiple shoulder and knee surgeries and skates with braces on both knees. Last year in the playoffs, Washington's Donald Brashear broke Betts' orbital bone with a vicious elbow to the face.
Holmgren said yesterday that Betts doesn't need surgery and he can begin rehabbing soon. He is already back in South Jersey. With the first injury, Betts was on the ice within a week.
The Flyers were thankful that a similar injury to Darroll Powe also won't require surgery. He will be out 4 to 6 weeks. Holmgren said the initial thought with Powe, who was hit by Doug Murray after taking a shot on goal in San Jose on Friday night, was that he would need surgery.
"He needs rest time, obviously," Holmgren said. "But he can start his rehab soon."
Powe has six goals this season, already matching his total from last year. His absence presents a significant secondary scoring gap in the lineup.
For most teams, injuries to third- and fourth-line forwards would not be crippling. But the Flyers' plans to fill these two very different roles up front are woefully lacking. Andreas Nodl and Jared Ross were recalled from Adirondack yesterday morning, making both players available for tonight's game in Denver against the Avalanche.
Neither Nodl nor Ross will pick up the scoring slack for Powe. Nodl is running out of chances in the NHL; the Flyers were clearly upset with his lack of scoring touch from his 38-game audition with the big club last year in which he posted just one goal and three assists.
Similarly, Ross - the only Alabama native to ever skate in the NHL - went scoreless in 10 regular-season games. He did score once in the playoffs against the Penguins.
Stefan Legein, who has three goals in 10 games with the Phantoms, would have fit well in this spot. Legein is a natural scorer and spark plug.
"He was a name that we talked about at length," Holmgren said. "We thought we needed someone who could play both wing and center. Nodl's familiarity with the system, the coaching staff and the team may have won that decision for him."
Two consecutive losses are no reason to sound the panic alarm. But the Flyers' 3-1 loss in Phoenix on Saturday may have been their most emotionless effort of the season.
"I was not pleased at all with the effort," Holmgren said. "It's a tough league. I don't think you can look at any team and say, 'There's a guaranteed two points.' I can guarantee one thing: If you don't put forth effort, you won't win against anyone. I wasn't happy with the game. We have to dig in a little harder and work for things. I don't think the last few games, we have."
Make no mistake: Missing two nose-to-the-grindstone players? These injuries will hurt.
By the numbers
0-for-8: Flyers' conversion rate on the power play in their last two games, losses to San Jose and Phoenix. The Flyers' power play is third in the NHL with a 25 percent success rate.
1-2: Flyers' record on this current five-game road trip, which concludes Wednesday night on Long Island. It is their longest trip in distance this season.
41: Seasons in which the Flyers have beaten the Los Angeles Kings at least once in their 42-year history. The only year it did not happen was 2003-04.
The week ahead
Tonight, 9 o'clock
Like the Flyers, the Colorado Avalanche head into tonight having dropped their last two games. They were outscored by Edmonton and Vancouver, 11-6, in those contests. Colorado (13-7-3) still holds a one-point lead over Calgary in the Northwest Division. The Avalanche are one of the surprise teams this season; few expected them to contend after last year's 69-point performance. A youth movement in Denver has been key: Rookies Ryan O'Reilly (15 points) and Matt Duchene (10 points) already have made their mark. The Flyers have not won at the Pepsi Center since Dec. 27, 2002, going 0-2-1 in the Mile High City since then.
At New York Islanders
Wednesday, 7 o'clock
There could be a lot of reasons to look past Wednesday night's game on Long Island: It is the end of a five-game "West Coast" road swing for the Flyers, the Islanders have been perennial Atlantic Division doormats, and the game is on Thanksgiving eve. If so, the Flyers are in for a rude return to the East Coast - because this isn't the same sagging Islanders bunch. New York (8-8-7) has stunned a few teams this season. This will be the Flyers' first up-close look at John Tavares, last year's No. 1 overall pick, who leads the Islanders with 19 points.
Friday, 1 o'clock
Are you tired of the Buffalo Sabres yet? Friday is the Flyers' third game against Buffalo in the month of November. Both teams have won once, with the Sabres stealing the last game, 3-2, at the Wachovia Center on Nov. 14. Buffalo is 0-2-1 since that game. The Sabres play in Washington on Wednesday. No player on the Sabres has more than seven goals this season. After this Black Friday matinee, these two teams don't see each other again until March 5.
Saturday, 7 o'clock
The Flyers close out the month down south against the much-improved Thrashers (10-7-2). Guess who leads Atlanta in scoring? Not Ilya Kovalchuk. With 24 points, it's Rich Peverley. Max Afinogenov has played his best hockey in years (20 points) since being signed in September as a free agent by the Thrashers. This is the last of the Flyers' 10 games in 17 nights' tour, but they shouldn't sleep against the Thrashers, who lead the league in comeback wins.