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Winter Classic: Flyers, Rangers develop youth in quest for Cup
PHILADELPHIA — Broad Street and Broadway have been known as big-money places for hockey with the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers historically unafraid to spend to win. Printing money thanks to television revenue and decades of tradition, both teams are among the richest in the NHL.
And while the Flyers and Rangers still spend up to the salary cap in the hopes of winning a Stanley Cup, the methodology has changed. The keys to both franchises have been turned over to the kid, with youth movements fueling success by Philadelphia and New York this season going into Monday’s Winter Classic.
“We’ve kind of grown up through training camps and development camps and things like that and we know each other really well. I think that’s a huge help just to get to know your teammates better,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. “If you’re switching a bunch of guys out every year, it kind of gets harder to build that chemistry every training camp. Having familiar faces every year coming in just make it easier to play and makes it a lot more fun, too.”
Fun is a prerequisite for the Flyers, too, as they’ve relied heavily on 23-year-old star Claude Giroux (45 points) and gotten big contributions up front from Jakub Voracek, 22, Matt Read, 25, and Wayne Simmonds, 23. On defense, Braydon Coburn, 26, has grown into his prime in the absence of captain Chris Pronger.
“When you have young, enthusiastic guys who are given a big role and a bigger role than maybe they expected this early in their career and they’re able to field the load to this point, it’s exciting for everyone,” Flyers forward Jody Shelley said. “You see a guy like Claude Giroux — and we knew at the end of last year what he could do and his character. And even [James van Riemsdyk] — you see what they do as far as in the room and for the team and how they carry themselves. It’s their team.”
Carrying themselves in a professional manner doesn’t mean being businesslike all the time, either.
“One of the main things that we have this year is a lot of guys that have a lot of things in common. Everybody’s pretty happy to come to the rink, and it’s not really work for us,” Giroux said. “It’s more like a pastime. It’s just great to have some guys that can joke around, and they can take it as much as they give it away.”
The Flyers are two points back of the first-place Rangers in the Atlantic Division, as New York has overcome Staal’s post-concussion syndrome and other problems to roll along with plenty of youth. The Rangers are the seventh-youngest team and are led by captain Ryan Callahan, 26, and a blue line whose oldest player is 27.
Naturally, both teams feature graybeards and some veterans playing big roles, notably Jaromir Jagr and Kimmo Timonen for the Flyers and Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik for the Rangers. But both teams are trying to do what the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks did: grow a young core together en route to a Cup.
“I think a big part of that is just guys playing with the same guys for a lot of years,” said Rangers forward Erik Christensen, who came up through Pittsburgh’s organization. “And the more you know a guy or how well you know someone, you tend to build better chemistry.”
Flyers players talked not only about common interests and dinner together in big groups at home and on the road but about how a young locker room changes everything. They have 19 players under age 30.
“You get a lot of guys like that together on one team it almost helps them improve and get better as a group,” left wing Scott Hartnell said. “When there’s six or seven of them and they get together chirping and all that kind of stuff, it’s really funny. It’s not like they chirp the old guys like us — they chirp each other. It adds a different element to the dressing room and something we haven’t had for a couple years.”
Neither team has had success in more than a couple of years. Hockey’s ultimate prize has evaded the Flyers since 1975 and the Rangers since 1994. But this generation of players isn’t worried about failures of the distant past.
And though these teams are young, recent playoff exits and tribulations could only serve to help them through oncoming growing pains.
“We’ve learned a lot the last few years — ups and downs — and it’s paid off a little bit more this year,” New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “I feel like we’re a more mature team than in past years and expect more from ourselves and our teammates.”
It also doesn’t hurt that they’re going through it together.
“We have some close friendships that go beyond hockey,” Rangers forward Brian Boyle said. “I think that’s the stuff that really helps and you can build a team with just the loyalties and the understanding what it really means to be a team. That goes a long way.”
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