ALLENTOWN — There he was again, in front of the net, bent and spun like a wind-blown inflatable as the puck moved around the outer edges of the offensive zone. You want to play in the big-boy league, you had better be ready to take big-boy punishment, Oskar Lindblom has discovered, and you had better be able to function when you do.
So there he was in the crease Wednesday night as one Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defenseman cross-checked him into another Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defenseman, pushing, spinning, and somehow always managing to return to that contentious area where dirty goals are scored.
"I'm feeling more comfortable on the smaller ice, for sure," Lindblom said after adding his fifth goal and 14th point in Lehigh Valley's 5-0 victory over its closest rival. "I just have to do my thing down here. Keep battling hard. Try to score a few goals and see what happens."
When the Flyers began training camp late last summer, Lindblom figured very much into their plans. General manager Ron Hextall raved about his under-the-radar ascent, about playing in Sweden's elite pro league as a teen, about his vision, about his readiness for the next step. He was even put on a line with Claude Giroux. At the start.
Mike Vecchione too, was thought to have a spot. A Hobey Baker finalist as a Union College senior last spring, he had been wooed away from other NHL suitors by the opportunity that the youth-oriented Flyers appeared to provide. A second-half emergence by Scott Laughton and a lucky lottery draft pick altered that scenario, though, and when camp broke he, too, found himself looking for lodging in Allentown, not Philly.
With his size and intimidating style of play, and the Flyers' recent history of permeability in their own zone, Samuel Morin was projected by many to also be on the roster when camp broke, not Robert Hagg. Morin, with Travis Sanheim, would begin the much-anticipated graduation of touted young Flyers defensemen into the NHL, players such as Philippe Myers and maybe even Bowling Green standout (and righthanded shot) Mark Friedman, a third-round pick in 2014.
Well it's Christmastime in Allentown and they're all still here. Morin and Myers have been slowed by injuries, the latter a recurring groin injury that has limited him to 14 games and has him currently in street clothes. Friedman has six assists and is a team-worst minus-13. Vecchione, the oldest of the group at 24, has taken the demotion as a challenge and has accumulated 20 points over 24 games.
Scoreless in his first six games, Lindblom, with five goals and nine assists, has averaged nearly a point a game since. The adjustment to the smaller surface, and the change of style from Swedish precision to North American puck pursuit, influenced the slow start, he said. But the bigger reason was what was going on in his head.
"Of course it did," he said when asked if his unexpected assignment to the Phantoms affected his play. "Like that was my goal, to make the NHL. And when you don't reach your goal immediately, it's tough. But you have to be strong mentally, work hard, and be better.
"At first, I was trying to chase the goal a little bit, trying to do too much out there. And once you get there, it's tough to get out of that. You start thinking too much, too. Even off the ice, it's like, 'What should I have done? What should I do next time?' Instead of just going out there have fun and do your thing. That's the only thing you can do."
In his way is the depth ahead of him, and contracts. Matt Read, a 31-year-old in the final season of a contract that pays him $3.625 million and has a $2.6 million cap hit, has yo-yo'd between Allentown and Philly all season. When the Flyers' secondary lines dried up during a recent 10-game winless streak, it was red-hot Danick Martel — who did not even participate in the Flyers training camp — who got the call. Not Lindblom. Not Vecchione, who seemed to be the obvious first man up when he lost out on that final roster spot despite what most acknowledged to be a strong camp.
"It didn't sting," Vecchione said of Martel's call-up. "Danick's a really good kid and he earned his way up there. He got hot, he's been in the league for a few years now. He's my linemate, too, so…"
There appears to be more frustration among fans in Philadelphia with Hextall's patient approach than there is from the players subjected to it. Some political correctness factors into that of course, but individually and collectively the players involved say they are addressing some of the shortcomings they believe are impeding them — or have been told that by Flyers brass.
For Lindblom, it's making the quick play or dump instead of holding too long to make the perfect pass. For Vecchione, it's adjusting to zone play in the defensive zone after a career of man coverage.
"We gave up a bad goal for the wrong reasons the other night to make it a 3-2 game with four minutes to go in the game," Phantoms coach Scott Gordon said. "I told those guys it's not a question of you playing the next game, it's not a question of you getting benched. It's a question of you learning from it and identifying that, if you want to play in the last four minutes of a game. … If you're doing that up there [in the NHL], you're coming back to me."
In his third season as Phantoms coach, Scott Gordon has already shepherded Laughton, Sanheim, Jordan Weal, Hagg, and others to the big club. Each had his doubts, detractors, and deficiencies, and each emerged via study, sweat, and self-criticism. Laughton took time to embrace the role of a defensive center. Hagg, too, had to alter his style to become more defensive-oriented. Sanheim, because of bad habits developed in juniors, was a risk-reward mess at this juncture last year, said Gordon, overhandling the puck and often getting caught too deep.
"Didn't have his first goal until the first 20 games," said Gordon. "And then all of a sudden he became a plus player. And then the last two months all of a sudden he started piling up points. … So that development … Hexy talks about that all the time. It's about playing.''
"Those are the lessons that are invaluable, that they get the opportunity to learn down here. Not just from making the mistake but also from having the conversation identifying that there are different mind-sets at different points in a game. Those are things you have to get."
In his third season at the AHL level, Martel has built himself from a one-dimensional minus player to a plus player Gordon trusts in every situation. He had several scoring chances during his four games with the Flyers, including ringing the post once. But he averaged just 10 minutes, 13 seconds of ice time and, he admits, he probably tried a little too hard.
"For sure I might have been a bit more stressful just because I want that first one," he said. "Maybe I thought too much. In the AHL, I wasn't thinking at all. Just bringing the shot to the net and see what happens. And driving. Some of my goals in the AHL were not very pretty. But that's the player I am. I'm a grinding player."
"When I watch my games I see little minor stuff that can make a big difference," Morin said. "I remember Ron Hextall told me like two years ago that Nick Schultz made a career by having the best stick in the league. Nothing fancy, or good for stats. Just made the NHL because he had a good stick …
"People don't see that. They see that I am big and I am physical, but there are a lot of little things to my game that I want to be better at. My stick position, getting my shot off quicker. Little details can make a big difference in the game."
The Flyers found that out the hard way during their long skid down the standings. The early-season effort that generated victories and optimism was not enough to overcome injuries and the opposition's precision, and it reignited the restlessness of fans who feel they have waited long enough for the Flyers' much-anticipated future to arrive.
Lindblom, just 21, said he feels their angst.