The Philadelphia Flyers had just shut out the New Jersey Devils on a Saturday night when Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren spotted Jaromir Jagr in a room across from the locker room. The 39-year-old was doing postgame sit-ups and push-ups, but that's not what impressed Holmgren. The impressive thing was that he had recruited a bunch of the younger players to join him.
When Holmgren signed Jagr to a one-year, $3.3 million deal this summer, he knew he was getting a world class talent. He didn't know he was getting this.
"That's an encouraging sign when you have a future Hall of Famer who has accomplished what he has accomplished in the league and he's doing extra," Holmgren said. "Plus he's recruiting young guys to do extra. I didn't know that part of him. You see him play, but some of the things you don't know about him off-ice and how hard he trains and how hard he prepares. I didn't know anything about that."
Jagr and the Flyers have started the season 3-0-1 and play the Ottawa Senators tonight, trying to get points in five consecutive games to open the season for the first time since 2002-03, when they started 3-0-2. Considering the massive overhaul in Philadelphia that included the addition of Jagr, a new starting goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov, a new captain in Chris Pronger and a wave of bigger, younger forwards, we would have forgiven a slow start. It takes time to mesh this much personality and talent.
But the opposite has happened. With the division rival New York Rangers starting slowly and the Pittsburgh Penguins severely hobbled by injuries, the Flyers are establishing themselves as the class of the division and have a chance to create some space between themselves and those two teams.
We see all the changes the Flyers have made, but Holmgren credits the fast start to the opposite: stability. Lost in the stunning offseason trades is that the Flyers never touched their depth on defense, arguably their greatest asset. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter may be gone, but Pronger, Andrej Meszaros, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn all returned.
Bryzgalov is the beneficiary of the stability on defense and has capitalized with a 3-0-1 start, a 1.99 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage.
"If your defense and goaltending is stable, you can afford to have some younger forwards," Holmgren said. "And they have all done a good job."
Especially Claude Giroux. The Flyers certainly noticed that Giroux produced when the games were at their toughest during the playoffs. There was his breakout performance during the 2010 playoffs in which he had 10 goals and 11 assists in 23 games. Last spring, he had 12 points in 11 games, more than Richards and Carter combined.
It was also noted that opposing playoff teams sent their best defenders on the ice to slow Giroux, which is a pretty good indication as to who they feared the most on the Flyers' roster. So while outsiders may have wondered if Giroux could handle an expanded role and more responsibility, that was never a concern on the inside.
He has three goals in four games and has established early chemistry with Jagr, with each creating offense from the other's great vision.
"I wasn't worried about Claude, he gets it," Holmgren said. "He's in great shape, he's a great player and he knows how to take care of his body."
Holmgren's calculated gamble is paying off early in Philadelphia, but he knows better than to get too excited about October success.
"It's four games," he said. "We've only got 78 games left."
• Jagr is still looking for his first goal of the season but has three assists, not surprisingly all on the power play. He's averaging 15:10 of ice time per game, and the natural question is whether or not he can keep it up over the course of a long, grinding regular season. It's not a question that can be answered in October, but Holmgren is optimistic after witnessing Jagr's work ethic up close. "He's been a really good role model," Holmgren said. "He means business, he's here to help us win. He's going to do everything he can do."
• Another team that made massive changes in the offseason and looks strong in early going is the Florida Panthers. Last night, they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 7-4, showing off a highly upgraded power play. They outscored their NFL counterpart Miami Dolphins 7-6. The biggest beneficiary of the talent upgrade in Florida is Stephen Weiss, who had two goals and two assists in the win. Weiss was a player who struggled at times last season with the trade rumors that surrounded him at the deadline. He wanted to stay in Florida, and it looks like his patience and perseverance with the franchise will pay off. He should easily eclipse the 49 points he put up last season.
• The Washington Capitals are 4-0 for the first time since 1997-98, when they advanced to the Stanley Cup finals and have a chance to go 5-0-0 for the first time in franchise history when they host the Panthers tonight. They've done it without goal production from Alex Ovechkin, who has just one goal. His fewest goals in the first five games of the season was two during the 2008-09 season. The good news for Caps fans is that he led the league with 56 goals that season. Tarik El-Bashir explored Ovechkin's slow start, one that could be the combination of an inaccurate shot, decreased ice time and an inability to adjust to how teams are defending him.
• It's the sixth game of the season and the Columbus Blue Jackets are already talking about a must-win. That's not good. Jeff Carter is banged up, the team is still a week away from getting James Wisniewski back from a suspension, and the power play is useless. They host the red-hot Dallas Stars, who are winning behind goalie Kari Lehtonen. Lehtonen is 4-0-0 with a 1.25 GAA and .953 save percentage. He also started last season 4-0-0 and then went 1-4-0 in his next five games, so there's hope for Columbus.
• San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan preached a fast start for the Sharks from the moment last season ended, stressing a strong regular season during exit interviews. It hasn't happened yet for the retooled Sharks. They dropped to 1-3 with a 3-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks last night. McLellan blamed dumb mistakes for the latest loss and is already sounding frustrated with his team. The Sharks now hit the road on a six-game trip that starts in New Jersey on Friday and concludes on Halloween against the Rangers. An extended road trip may be the answer for a team still looking to mesh. Newcomer Brent Burns has two goals so far, but San Jose is still waiting for the first goals of the season from Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Logan Couture and Joe Thornton.