Friday, September 09, 2005

Team Preview: Philadelphia Flyers

Key additions: Peter Forsberg, C/LW (FA - COL); Derian Hatcher, D (FA - DET); Mike Rathje, D (FA - SJS); Mike Knuble, RW/LW (FA - BOS); Chris Therien, D (FA - DAL); Brian Savage, RW (FA - PHX); Turner Stevenson, RW (FA - NJ); Jon Sim, LW/RW (FA - PHX); Eric Chouinard, LW/RW (FA - MIN); Jamie Storr, G (FA - TB); Pat Kavanagh, RW (FA - OTT); Jeff Carter, C (D - 2003, 1/11); Mike Richards, C (D - 2003, 1/24)

Key losses: Jeremy Roenick, C (T - LA); Mark Recchi, RW (FA - PIT); Alexei Zhamnov, C (FA - BOS); Tony Amonte, LW/RW (FA - CGY); John LeClair, LW (FA - PIT); Sean Burke, G (FA - TB); Todd Fedoruk, LW (T - ANA); Vladimir Malakhov, D (FA - NJ); Daniil Markov, D (T - NSH); Marcus Ragnarsson, D (FA - Europe); Claude Lapointe, C/LW (FA); Mattias Timander, D (FA - Europe); Radovan Somik, RW/LW (FA - Europe); Jeff Hackett, G (Retired); Neil Little, G (FA - Europe); Boyd Kane, LW (FA - WSH)

Key players unsigned: None

Forwards: When Bobby Clarke acquired Peter Forsberg in early August, Philly fans were no doubt postponing any plans they'd made for June 2006 in anticipation of another deep playoff run. Forsberg has two Stanley Cup rings, an Olympic gold, a Calder Trophy, a Hart Trophy, perhaps the best vision in the game, and a mean streak that makes him one of the most complete players in the League. The downside to Forsberg's physical play is that it has taken a toll on his 32-year-old body. In the past three NHL seasons, the Swedish center has played in less than half of his team's regular season games. Of course, when he has played, he's been remarkable, scoring at better than 1.4 points per game and registering a plus-68 rating in 114 games over that stretch. With a healthy Forsberg, the Flyers may have the League's best depth at center, with Michal Handzus and playoff hero Keith Primeau anchoring the second and third lines. Rookie pivots Richards and Carter are so promising that one or both may force Forsberg to left wing. Carter may also play some on the right wing. Some combination of Carter, Simon Gagne, Knuble, Patrick Sharp and Sami Kapanen will be the primary beneficiaries of Forsberg's super-human playmaking ability, while the others will have plenty of scoring opportunities of their own. Stevenson and Donald Brashear will provide additional muscle up front. The Flyers were eighth in the NHL in goals scored in 2003-04 and have lost an awful lot of talent up front (including five of their top seven scorers), but if Forsberg stays healthy and the kids can actually play, the offense won't lose too much.

Defensemen: One-to-six, the Flyers have the deepest defense in hockey. New additions Hatcher, Rathje, and Therien are all physical defensemen who will pair nicely with Philly's puck-movers Kim Johnsson, Joni Pitkanen, and Eric Desjardins. Johnsson is a smart, skilled and responsible power play quarterback, and though Desjardins is clearly winding down his NHL career, the evolution of Pitkanen into an elite defenseman will be a joy (albeit with its frustrations) for Flyer fans to watch over the next several years. The three new Flyer blueliners (actually Therien's an old Flyer, but a new old Flyer... nevermind) are big and slow and may have trouble with the speedier forwards around the League, especially if the game is called as tight as indicated. Regardless, Philly can roll three pairings of defensemen that can dish out punishment and passes, making theirs the deepest blueline in hockey. Dennis Seidenberg will also see some time on the Flyers blueline.

Goaltenders: 2003-04 was Robert Esche's coming out party, culminating in a brilliant playoff run. Esche was 21-11-7 and had a sparkling 2.04 goals against average and a .915 save percentage in 40 regular season games before coming up one game short of taking the Flyers to the Finals. But can he play at that level for an entire NHL season and still have gas in the tank come playoff time? He battled a few minor injuries throughout 2003-04 and has not played more than last season's 40 games since 1998-99 when he was in the AHL. Esche's career numbers are not great at any level, and he never was a highly regarded prospect. At 27, is Esche a late bloomer or a flash in the pan? For now, we'll stick with the former, but the situation bears watching, especially as he has raised expectations considerably. Esche will be backed up by Antero Niitymaki, who has already posted some jaw-dropping numbers in his young career. The 25-year-old Finn has a 2.19 GAA and a .918 SV% over his AHL career, and posted a sizzling 1.75 GAA and .943 SV% in leading the Philadelphia Phantoms to last year's Calder Cup (including a ridiculous 0.91 GAA and a .971 SV% in the Finals). He had a brief cup of coffee with the Flyers in 2003-04, going 3-0 with a 1.00 GAA and a .961 SV%. There's no question that Niitymaki is the goaltender of the future in Philly, the only question is, when does that future begin?

Bottom line: Since their 2003-04 season ended in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in Tampa Bay, the Flyers have pretty much cast off a playoff-contending team worth of talent (seriously, look at their "key losses" above). With the players they've brought in and promoted, Philly has gotten bigger, tougher and a little younger. But with all of the shuffling of players, the Flyers are one Forsberg injury away from being an average team offensively and are still somewhat unproven in goal. Philly should coast through the regular season towards the top of the Eastern Conference, and, after that, we'll all see just how smart Bobby Clarke really is.

Update (9/9): And so it begins. According to the Philly Inquirer, Flyer defenseman Derian Hatcher "returned to Philadelphia late Wednesday night from the U.S. team's Olympic training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., a day early after suffering a pulled hamstring and tweaking his left knee." is also reporting that Forsberg is hurt. Each is expected to miss two to three weeks.

Update (9/15): The Flyers have signed winger Brian Savage. Savage will fill the hole left by Sami Kapanen, who needs surgery on his shoulder and will be out for 10 weeks. This should work out well for the Flyers, as Savage will either be ice cold or injured by the time Kapanen is ready to return.

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