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January 15, 2015

For Flyers, Zepp's age is more than just a number

At 33, rookie's feel-good story a distraction from Flyers' woes

Flyers NHL

There's one thing about Flyers goaltender Rob Zepp that makes him special. And it's a number. Not a statistic. Not a complicated number or one that is hard to identify. 

33.

Just a number. They never lie. But they can be manipulated.

Despite how well he's played for the Orange and Black, that number might as well be pinned to his chest in scarlet. It follows him everywhere. You'll find it in every story, often listed first before any of his stats or any of the superlatives used to describe the way he played. 

33.

It's a duel-edged sword, used to simultaneously celebrate the uniqueness of what Zepp has accomplished this year while also tempering expectations about what he actually means to the franchise its future. 

Numbers, unwavering in value but not meaning, can be manipulated by writers, analysts, and even fans to mean something different depending on the narrative we want to inject into a story. 

  • ROB ZEPP'S CAREER PATH
  • '97-98: Newmarket - OPJHL
  • '98-01: Plymouth Whalers - OHL
  • '02-04: Lowell Lock Monsters - AHL
  • '01-05: Florida Everblades - ECHL 
  • '05-07: Saipa Lappeenranta - Finland
  • '07-14: Eisbaren Berlin - Germany
  • '14-15: L.V. Phantoms - AHL
  • '14-15: Philadelphia Flyers - NHL

Sometimes, the narrative writes itself, like when you have a 33-year-old rookie. It's what an editor of mine would call "low-hanging fruit." It's a much needed feel-good story crammed into the middle of a Flyers season that has otherwise been a total* disappointment, except for maybe the emergence of Jake Voracek as one of the league's best scorers.

*Flyers are 11 points out of a playoff spot, and just 10 points from having the conference's worst record.

Fans - even the most fervent Negadelphians - want to read that story. They want something to cling to in the darkness. Something to offer them hope.

Rob Zepp is not that. He is not that hope in the darkness. There's a reason he didn't see his first NHL action until after his 33rd birthday. And the fact that fans haven't been witness to that yet only feeds the narrative further.

After his first two starts, Zepp was nothing more than average in net for the Flyers, stopping 46 of 52 shots for an .885 save percentage. Despite allowing three goals in each contest (a 4-3 OT win over the Jets and a 7-3 win over the Lightning), Zepp was the big story. Not because he was the winning goalie, but because of his age-to-NHL-experience ratio.

33.

On Wednesday, Zepp had by far his best game* of the season, stopping 25 of 26 shots from the Capitals, including two at point-blank range in the final minutes of the game. Perhaps the best save of his NHL career came in the final minute of the second period when he made a ridiculous left-pad save. Unfortunately for Zepp, he wasn't able to get the win.

*I want to point out the fact that I am well aware of the incredibly small sample size here.

Averaging five-plus goals of support in his first two starts, Zepp got nothing in terms of help from his teammates, who couldn't figure out Caps goalie Braden Holtby all night. In the end, all Zepp had to show for his best NHL game to date was a loss.

And that's how it goes. Numbers, in the end, are meaningless without being placed in the right context.

33. 

At that age, Zepp is not a long term solution in net. He knows that. The Flyers know that. You - most likely know that. But that's not the narrative we're choosing to run with.

We're choosing to ignore the fact that when Steve Mason went down with an apparent knee injury, Zepp was recalled over 20-year-old prospect Anthony Stolarz. He may not be ready, and that's fine. He showed flashes during the preseason, but perhaps the Flyers aren't quite at a point where they're willing to give up on the current season in favor of taking a glimpse into what the future may hold.

The fact that Zepp has started the last two games over veteran backup Ray Emery Emery is more worrisome. Emery is 7-7-1 this season with a 3.21 GAA and a .889 save percentage, both the worst of his 11-year  career. The fact that Zepp has played the last two games over Emery could be a sign that the team has all but given up on him.

Instead of focusing on any of this, we've been obsessed with one thing.

33.

Sure, it makes for a good story, but like Zepp's 2-1 record, numbers don't tell the whole story. Sometimes, they distract us from the real story, like a shiny object of hope on the outskirts of our peripherals.

And in rare cases, they distort the truth, turning what would otherwise be an indictment of the Flyers farm system into an uplifting tale about never giving up on your dreams.

It all depends on whether or not you chose to buy into the narrative, no matter how good it feels.

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