Wednesday, September 23, 2009

2009-2010 Philadelphia Flyers Season Preview

by Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

OVERVIEW - For all that went right during the Flyers' surprise run to the conference finals two seasons ago, that's how much went wrong for the Orange and Black last season.

Head coach John Stevens had to learn some hard lessons along the way, in a year which saw personnel problems and salary-cap issues linger from the preseason forward, bafflingly inconsistent play from top forwards and defensemen, the general manager's public questions about the level of commitment from his players, and a stultifying first-round playoff collapse to a bitter rival.

If there's one buzzword for the upcoming season which can be twisted into a corporate slogan and pressed into brightly-colored tee shirts, it has to be "passion."

With the infusion of some bona-fide nastiness and the release of talent who was pegged as caring more about off-ice issues, the Flyers are seeking another quick turnaround by harnessing the spirit of the Broad Street Bullies once again.

Wasting a three-goal lead at home in an elimination playoff game with some uninspired play does have a tendency to overshadow most of what the Flyers actually accomplished and cast into doubt what they have yet to achieve. It doesn't change the fact that a solid, young core has produced despite a steep learning curve.

Mike Richards continues to blossom into a leader in the Bob Clarke mold, emerging as a shorthanded threat while breaking team and NHL records in the process. Jeff Carter needs a little more prodding but has the potential to become a sniper the club hasn't seen since Ilkka Sinisalo. Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and Ryan Parent showed flashes of potential and Claude Giroux was a revelation late in the year.

As always, the man behind the bench remains a wild card. This is Stevens' fourth year and third full turn as head man. He will be expected to repay the patience of his bosses but it may be his biggest challenge yet, having been given a mandate in the summer to rethink his entire game plan at both ends of the ice.

FORWARDS - Offense wasn't a problem last year, the Flyers having a league-high six players scoring 20-or-more goals, including four cashing in at least 30 times. They punctured the opposition 264 times in 2008-09, tied with Pittsburgh for third most in the East.

Carter was at the head of the pack, posting career highs in goals (46), assists (38) and points (84). His 46 tallies ranked second in the NHL to Alex Ovechkin, the first time a Flyer has ranked so high in a full season since Tim Kerr's 58 scores was second to Wayne Gretzky's 62 in 1987.

Simon Gagne (34), Mike Richards and Scott Hartnell (30), Joffrey Lupul (27) and Mike Knuble (25) rounded out the barrage.

This time around, subtract Lupul who has gone back to Anaheim via trade and wave goodbye to Knuble who left as a free agent to Washington. If a healthy Danny Briere (11 goals in 29 games) and his flashy fellow Quebecois Giroux (27 points in 42 games) step in to their full potential, the front lines will be every bit as potent as they have been for the last four seasons.

The club's second-overall choice in 2007, James vanRiemsdyk, has been handed a golden chance to crack the lineup and a lot will ride on his preseason performance. Even if he doesn't get a spot right away, he's expected to land in the AHL for some fine tuning before a call-up.

The bottom two lines, which were the anchors of the club's resurgence two years back, went through a state of total flux last year with almost a dozen skaters providing support in six slots.

At the very least, bringing in veteran firebrand Ian Laperriere from Colorado should provide more guidance and stability. It will benefit guys like Arron Asham, Darroll Powe, Dan Carcillo and Riley Cote -- players who need a steady hand and the wisdom to know when to bring down the hammer and when to provide scoring support. Castoffs such as Mark Bell, Krys Kolanos and Blair Betts may also be in the mix, competing to be this year's feel-good reclamation project in the Glen Metropolit or Jim Dowd mold.

DEFENSE - It wasn't so much a paper-thin defense as it was a case of total mental letdown plus lack of physicality which capped that crushing Game 6 loss to the Penguins, but by trading for All-Star, former MVP and nasty SOB Chris Pronger the Flyers aren't going to let anyone get away clean -- not even themselves.

Nothing hurt the club more than having the presence of Derian Hatcher removed due to a career-ending knee injury as well as Jason Smith's departure to Ottawa, so bringing in Pronger is the strongest sign yet that clearing space in the middle of the ice is priority number one and learning how to maintain composure under pressure is a close second.

Along with consummate vet Kimmo Timonen, he'll have his hands full trying to shepherd a defense which has yet to mature or gel. A little bit of tough love is warranted for an inexperienced corps which includes the speedy Carle, punishing Coburn, traffic-cone substitute Randy Jones and Parent.

Depth and toughness issues were further addressed when the club elected not to bring back the often-hesitant Andrew Alberts, lured Ole-Kristian Tollefsen back from Europe and retained Ossi Vaananen. Danny Syvret and Michael Ratchuk are next in line to prove themselves in the final spot that Luca Sbisa occupied last season.

How all the pieces fall together and if they manage to pick up an offense which goes through yearly mid-season slumps should be a prime indicator of how strongly the club can finish.

GOALTENDING - It's the same old song year after year, that the situation in the Flyers crease is always unsettled at the outset and works itself out far too late.

Martin Biron's two-plus season run as the starter was pretty good but not great, and Antero Niittymaki emerged as the scourge of the Atlanta Thrashers but little else.

The never-ending search to find a successor in the Parent-Lindbergh-Hextall line wound up plucking Ray Emery, the disgraced ex-Ottawa Senator, all the way from Russia's KHL.

Apparently, the front office believes that it can tame Emery's wild side and refocus his energies into becoming the netminder who helped the Sens to the 2007 Finals. He went 33-16-6 with five shutouts and a 2.47 GAA that year, his only full one as an NHL starter, and displayed a fiery streak that old-time hockey fans latched onto.

Spelling Emery will be Brian Boucher, back for a third term with the club. The one-time wunderkind must once again prove himself worthy of an NHL roster on a full-time basis after a solid campaign backing up Evgeni Nabokov in San Jose.

PREDICTION - There's been an interesting trend with Flyers clubs over the last 25 years.

In the first season of a new regime pulled from the ashes, the club exceeds all expectations, then in the second year, takes a big step backwards only to find the balance in a long playoff run in year three. It happened under Mike Keenan from 1984-87, then again with Terry Murray in charge from 1995-97. If there's any logic and justice in the hockey world, Stevens and the revamped roster should give the city of Philadelphia quite a thrill come spring.

The cycle seems to depend upon the continued maturation of top players into team leaders, and that points squarely to Richards, Carter, Coburn and Gagne along with a huge assist from Pronger. They've done well so far but need that extra kick in the pants to reach their full potential.

What will be a better indicator of where the team is headed will be the maturation of Stevens. He needs to be able to demonstrably shake off the label of an unemotional, unimaginative bench boss and kick up his hockey IQ several points in order to avoid falling into the same traps that defined stretches over the last three seasons.

Nonetheless, if everything fails to come together right away, the Flyers are not going to disappoint if they post their usual 40-win, 90-point, middle-of- the-pack playoff seed campaign.

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