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Flyers have a need for speed

Flyers' skaters need to be faster to keep from falling behind the rest of the NHL.

Flyers captain Claude Giroux. (AP photo)
Flyers captain Claude Giroux. (AP photo)Read more

ASK PAUL Holmgren the biggest things the Flyers need to do this summer, and his answer is simple.

"We need to get bigger, stronger, faster," Holmgren said, "throughout the whole organization."

Speed was the Flyers' Achilles heel in their first-round series with the New York Rangers. It was the first thing Craig Berube attempted to improve when he blew his first whistle as head coach in practice on Oct. 8.

The Flyers skated lap after lap, circling behind nets, day after day in practice for that first month.

"We did get faster," Berube said. "But we've got to get faster. It's about playing faster more than the players, I'd say. I think we can play the game faster - with and without the puck. I think we did get faster, with and without the puck, and we got to a certain level - not good enough, though. We've got to get better."

So, how do the Flyers get faster? Berube seems to think it is not all based on the players, but also partly on puck movement. Holmgren agrees.

"There's good teams in the league that I wouldn't really classify as 'fast' teams," Holmgren said. "I don't know if you'd call the Bruins a fast team, but they are definitely one of the best teams.

"I don't think speed is that big of an issue with this team. I think we're a fast team if we're executing."

The game has changed - and not just since the 2004-05 lockout, but even in the last three or four seasons. Hockey is less about "bigger" and "stronger" and more about "faster." At least publicly, the things the Flyers say make me believe they are disillusioned with the speed of their skaters.

There is more talk of "getting faster this summer" rather than acquiring players who are quicker. San Jose GM Doug Murray, presiding over one of the slower teams, saw the shift and dumped players such as Douglas Murray, Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus, and brought in guys such as Tyler Kennedy.

It is no accident that the Flyers struggled this season against some of the teams that were more fleet of foot: Tampa Bay, Carolina, Minnesota, Montreal, Dallas, Chicago, Colorado, Anaheim, Columbus and the Rangers. Their combined record against those teams was 8-16-2, or 11-20-2 if you include the playoffs.

The Flyers barely have any players who would qualify as "fast" in today's NHL. Claude Giroux is not slow, but would he finish in the top 10 among the NHL's fastest skaters at the All-Star skills competition? Probably not. Braydon Coburn, Jake Voracek and Michael Raffl are all above-average skaters, but are not "fast."

The Flyers do not have a Carl Hagelin or Michael Grabner or Colin Greening. Those players help not only to win 50/50 puck battles, but to increase puck-possession time by their ability to skate it into the zone, past defenders, to avoid dumping it in. That breakaway-type speed creates respect in gaps between offensive players on the rush.

It works both ways, leaving the defensive zone and when the Flyers are defending. Speedy players are given a little more room to work on the rush, because defensemen have to respect their opposition's skating. Part of the reason the Rangers' defense was able to be so aggressive at the blue line is they knew only Voracek could beat them off the rush.

Berube even predicted before the series that Voracek was the only one who could skate around Ryan McDonagh. Hockey can be a game of angles. Even if the forward can get around the defenseman - the defenseman can skate in a straight line to the post and still beat him.

"We have a lot of players I would call good skaters," Holmgren said. "I don't know that we have slow skaters on our team."

At the very least, Holmgren said the Flyers have placed a bit of a priority on speed as an organization when drafting.

"Some of the guys that we have drafted in recent years have increased our organizational speed," Holmgren said. "Taylor Leier has tremendous speed. Scott Laughton has good speed. [Shayne] Gostisbehere has good speed. Robert Hagg is a good skater. Zac Rinaldo, who was in the draft about 5 years ago, is a good skater."

However, the Flyers are currently built around a young core of forwards who are not fast: Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and even Matt Read.

Without acquisitions to improve team speed, the Flyers will need to rely on things such as execution to be successful. We've seen that it is spotty and that they might not have the consistency required to win in the playoffs. Until then, they will exercise in the summer with hopes of becoming a faster team, even though they will return one season older in the fall.

"I think it means you have to, in the summer, actually get faster," Kimmo Timonen said. "You can work out and come to camp in good shape and try to get faster, but I think it's the way we play, too. We can get faster, and I think everyone knows that."