Well, I haven't posted a Flyers off-season thoughts blog, yet, so I figured to combat my insomnia, I'd offer my two cents.
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Right now, in goal, things seem pretty much set. Martin Biron is the starter. I expect him to play as many as 60 games. Antero Niittymaki, coming off a brutal season, will be the back-up. Biron was a breath of fresh air, on and off the ice, after coming over at the deadline from Buffalo. He provides the Flyers something they have lacked since Ron Hextall returned in 1995-a quality NHL starter in his prime.
Defense is an area that will certainly have a different look. The only safe bets to have jobs are Lasse Kukkonen, Braydon Coburn and Derian Hatcher. Denis Gauthier is signed for next season, but he's injury prone and has mental lapses to go along with his thundering body checks. He's likely trade bait, because he sticks up for teammates and has a reasonable contract that is expiring.
Kukkonen is a perfect example of a guy that just does everything well-but nothing great. Smart and fearless, he's a steady guy on a team that needs it badly. Coburn is feeling his way, but he's a freakish physical talent. Huge body, great skater, plus shot, good passer. Could be more physical and have better focus, but he's progressing nicely. Hatcher was a very good presence when he stayed in his limits last year and played really well as Coburn's partner.
Joni Pitkanen, a huge enigma, is a restricted free agent and was reportedly shopped last year. Skill isn't the consideration with Pitkanen, it's desire and smarts-he takes vacations during important shifts and infuriates fans with vacant stares after horrible turnovers. Alexandre Picard is a talented young offensive defenseman, but struggles in his own end at times.
Personally, I'd pursue two free agent defensemen. Kimmo Timonen, Andrei Markov and Scott Hannan would be in my top tier with Tom Preissing, Janne Niinimaa, Cory Sarich, Tom Poti, Roman Hamrlik, Ossi Vaananen and Brent Sopel in my fall-back group. I'd be content with adding Timonen's overall puck moving and skating and Sarich's size and big right handed point shot. If I could add two defensemen via free agency, I'd seriously consider packaging Pitkanen and picks for a top line scoring winger in his mid to late 20's.
The biggest needs up front are a first line center and scoring winger. Following the trade of Peter Forsberg to Nashville, Simon Gagne really returned to his form as a very good all around forward. Mike Knuble battled injuries and still had a good season offensively. Scottie Upshall was a beast unleashed after arriving from Nashville. He seemed to have good chemistry with Jeff Carter, who was a disappointment.
Mike Richards continued to show he'll be a good future captain and possible second line center, despite a prolonged early goal drought. Sami Kapanen works hard and battles, but doesn't have 20 goal hands any longer. He's still a great penalty killer and can fly. RJ Umberger struggled with the mental aspect of the game, yet stilll managed respectable goal numbers. He is streaky, but is competent at all three forward spots. Ben Eager is a tough guy with some skill, but he needs to play smarter. I would be amazed if Geoff Sanderson isn't dealt at the entry draft.
Ryan Potulny is a good offensive player and RFA. The biggest issues are that he doesn't have a spot and that his defensive game is very, very raw. Dimitry Afansenkov was a waiver grab who was always a good defensive player. He got to Philly and suddenly grew a pair of hands. Now he wants second line money, which the Flyers are reluctant to give him. Mike York is a goner, as likely is Todd Fedoruk.
My top choices would be Scott Gomez and Daniel Briere. I think either would be a perfect fit to play with Gagne on the top line. Knuble could play with that pair, but I'd like to either swing a trade for a better fitting winger, or sign a free agent-or even dangle an offer sheet to a top flight young gun RFA-and drop Knuble to the third line to play with Richards. The second line could be a kid line of Upshall, Potulny and Carter. Kapanen could join Richards and Knuble on the third line, with Eager on the fourth line, maybe with Umberger at RW and a free agent or trade acquisition at C to win face-offs and help the PK.
Failing Gomez or Briere, Chris Drury would be another top choice. I'd also look long at Michael Nylander. Mike Comrie would be an interesting fall back, too.
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