Monday, April 09, 2007

Flyers Season in Review

By Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

Record: 22-48-12, 56 points

Place: 5th, Atlantic Division, 30th in NHL

Where it all went wrong: If you want to take the long view, back in Summer 2005, when Bob Clarke signed Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher, and Mike Rathje, and in October of that year when Keith Primeau was felled with an eventual career-ending concussion.

In all fairness, it began this past off-season where many huge missteps were made. Keeping Petr Nedved and Niko Dimitrakos, but releasing Donald Brashear. Trading Michal Handzus to Chicago for Kyle Calder. Signing Marty Murray, Nolan Baumgartner, Mark Cullen and the enigmatic Lars Jonsson. The disastrous offer sheet for Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler which drew the condemnation of the entire NHL. Follies continued in-season with the Randy Robitaille-Mike York and Freddy Meyer-Alexei Zhitnik trades.

Let’s not forget Bloody Sunday, the October 22nd “reorganization,” which blew out General Manager Bob Clarke and head coach Ken Hitchcock in favor of Paul Holmgren and John Stevens. The team began the season a franchise-worst 1-6-1, including an horrific 9-1 loss in Buffalo on October 17th which acted as catalyst for the upheaval. Revelations followed of Clarke’s lingering dispassion for the job and Hitch’s constant grating on and friction with the young talent.

New head coach John Stevens won his first game behind the bench, a 3-2 shootout victory at home over Atlanta, then promptly went 1-7 in his next eight games. Stevens also endured losing streaks of 10 games (12/2-28) and nine games (1/4-28) as injuries and plain disorganized play continued to pile up.

Once you talk about the on-ice product, things don’t get any better. Future stars Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Joni Pitkanen spent the majority of the season in arrested development. Nedved played like he wanted to cash his check and go home. Antero Niittymaki’s holes in his catching glove and Robert Esche’s inability to stop a shot beyond 25 feet created a quagmire in the crease. Mike York did his best imitation of the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, Todd Fedoruk had both sides of his face caved in, and Mike Knuble looked like he was back at Michigan wearing a full cage after the collision in New York, and virtually the entire roster missed time with some sort of injury.

Telltale Signs: First-ever season sweeps at the hands of Washington and Florida, an eight-game sweep by division-rival Pittsburgh, seven losses to New Jersey, a franchise-worst 10 home wins, 49 players used in one regular season, an 11-point differential between them and the second-worst team in the NHL (Phoenix).

Oddities: A four-game sweep over playoff-bound Atlanta, two wins at Madison Square Garden, two wins over defending Cup champion Carolina, more wins and better overall play on the road than at the Wachovia Center. Statistically, they scored 214 goals, which is three more than the 2002-2003 club did finishing second behind the Devils. Their 303 goals against were the most surrendered since giving up 314 in 1993-94, a non-playoff season. Scottie Upshall, a little used third-line player in Nashville, scored 13 points in 18 games after his acquisition.

Where it all went right: Simon Gagne battled through groin problems and Forsberg’s injuries and trade to top the 40-goal mark for the second consecutive season. Geoff Sanderson’s speed and skill at age 35. Upshall, Dmitri Afanasenkov, and Alex Picard all showed flashes of offensive brilliance and defensive ability. Despite a mediocre 6-8-2 record and a 3.01 GAA, Martin Biron made a strong case to be a long-term starting goaltender after coming over at the trade deadline. Big wins over the Ducks in Anaheim (7-4), and beating Detroit and Carolina by a combined 11-2 score.

Reasons to Believe: Even though the season could have gotten worse if it weren’t for the spark of several players acquired late in the season plus the injury situation clearing up – things can only get better.

There’s no reason to think Gagne can’t score 40 again with either Forsberg, Chris Drury, or another center at his disposal. If the Flyers are able to snag Drury, they get a durable winger/center in his prime and a potential captain to boot. An injury-free Mike Knuble will come close to 30 goals once more. R.J. Umberger, the most consistent of the Calder Cup-winning crop of former Phantoms, will emerge to create his own buzz like the ones that already surround Carter and Richards. With Hatcher’s departure and Rathje’s retirement, there will be at least one younger, healthier, and speedier veteran on the back line to foster Pitkanen, Lasse Kukkonen, Jussi Timmonen, Braydon Coburn, Randy Jones and Picard. Sami Kapanen’s contract extension gives the team a solid two-way veteran player.

Niittymaki will have a whole spring and summer to figure out how to improve his mechanics and his hand/eye coordination, and while he learns how to be an effective back-up, while Biron will have a whole season to justify the February trade which brought him here and the contract the team signed him to.

The NHL’s penalty-minutes leader, Ben Eager, took home the Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy this season as the club’s most improved player.

Looking Forward:
With any luck, the Flyers will be serious playoff contenders in 2007-2008, and another season beyond that away from Stanley Cup contention. On July 1st, a good chunk of the first-generation contracts signed after the cancelled season are complete, leading to a huge pool of potential free agents which the team would be wise to dip into for the reloading process.

Although it is very tempting to wildly predict an unprecedented worst-to-first script come October, this team has a completely green defensive corps and serious questions of production from a potential second line. Biron must also prove himself, and do it right from the drop of the puck in the postseason as a goaltender worthy of the starting job. A wiser man than I once said that patience is a virtue - so, be virtuous when sizing up the team heading into next season.
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