how did I get here? (Thank you David Byrne)
Good question. But first we have to look at where we came from.
How bad were the Flyers last year? Let's just say, that on many nights the Delta Dental Ice Girls would have scored shorthanded. I know many of you know these figures, but for those who do not, here are some of the lowlights:
22 wins. Only 10 wins at home. 56 points. 3.6 goals against per game average while scoring only 2.6 goals per game average. Plus/minus of -38. Power play success at 14.1% Outscored 303 to 214.
The 2006/07 Flyers were the hockey equivalent of The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight - couldn't score enough meaningful goals, were horrid on the power play, weren't any better 5 on 5, took ridiculous penalties at inopportune times, goaltending that was as befuddling as it was painful to watch and injuries that forced the team to play the AHL Phantoms in NHL sweaters.
Yes, injuries played a part in the overall demise of the team; but, the real fact of the matter is that the Flyers were too old, too slow, with inconsistent goaltending and not have enough horses at the skill positions. Pretty sad state of affairs.
In comes Paul Holmgren, a supposed lockstep supporter of all things Bobby Clark. He (and Peter Luukko) shocked the world, stood tall, made bold moves - financially and roster-wise, and became the architects that would radically reshape the Flyers in a very short period of time.
First, Homer convinced the oft hobbled Peter Forsberg to rescind his no trade clause and allow himself to be traded to Nashville for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent and Nashville's 1st and 3rd round picks in 2007. Then Alexei Zhitnik was traded to Atlanta for Braydon Coburn, a 22 year old, first round selection in 2003 (8th overall). Not a bad couple of days and the forgettable season was starting to look as if it were to have a silver lining.
Because of their horrible record, the Flyers now had the 2nd pick in the draft and the 23rd pick from the Forsberg deal with Nashville. What happened next still remains a mystery and continues to make me wonder if Homer had pictures of David Poille - the Flyers traded Nashville's 23rd pick BACK to them for rights to negotiate with Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. So the Flyers got rid of Forsberg and got Upshall, Coburn, and the rights to Timonen and Hartnell from the Preds. That is unreal. Well both free agents signed and Homer scored a coup of unprecedented nerve by taking two players off the impending FA market before the season was over.
The Flyers took James VanRiemsdyk with the 2nd pick and the jury is out on whether he or Kyle Turris should have been the pick taken by the Orange and Black. One thing is for certain, JVR is a HUGE kid who will put the P in power forward when he fills out. He looked like a man among boys in Columbus in the post draft interviews and photo ops. This kid is a moose and was immediately compared to another American power forward who wore #10 - yes, Johnny Vermont. Mentioning John LeClaire and JVR in the same sentence is way too premature, but this young man has all the tools to be an impact player in the league. He will not even sniff the Flyers lineup for two to three years, but the future looks exciting for this skilled man-child.
On July 1st, the whole world knew that the Flyers were in a death struggle to land one of the top free agent centers. Many thought it would be Gomez, as I did, but one thing was for certain that the Flyboys were going to be burning up the phone lines. They landed the supremely talented Danny Briere for an 8 year (gulp) $52 million dollar deal. He scored 95 points last year in 81 games and should be a HUGE improvement over Foppa - who was good when playing but not in the skates enough during the season. Briere should center Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble - which I think will be one of the more explosive lines in the NHL next year. Gagne has to be excited about this and there is no reason that the Flyers number one scorer/point getter might not reach the elusive 50 goal mark this year. He could be on pace to top 80-85 points as I see it. I don't want to invoke Leach, Clarke and Barber yet, but this line could be fun to watch.
At the same time Flyers fans were learning who their #1 center would be, Homer announced another shocker. The oft maligned Joni (I am a minus waiting to happen) Pitkanen was traded - along with Geoff Sanderson and a 2009 3rd round draft pick - to Edmonton for Joffrey Lupul and long time Edmonton Oilers captain Jason Smith. Pitkanen had had the unfortunate albatross of having a .10 cent head to go with his million dollar talent. Lupul has talent, as he showed in his first year in Anaheim. He lost his touch when traded to the Oil - too much pressure playing for such a storied franchise? Who knows? What we do know is that this kid has the skills - a wicked wrist shot - and the willingness to go into the "dirty areas" to score goals. Put on the second line looking like Hartnell - Carter - Lupul might allow him to regain some of the magic of his Ducks season which he put up 28 g and 25 a for 53 points.
The fact that the Flyers got Jason Smith - nicknamed Gator - from Edmonton is staggering to me. He was that team's unquestioned leader, led by example, blocked shots, played through pain and was a huge hitter that was also defensively responsible. Though he is 33, I think he has many more years with this team and will solidify the Flyers' defensive corps with Timmo Kimonen in a way that was unthinkable a year ago. A gator and a Finn should make a nice #1 pairing and could be the yin and yang the Flyers have not had at defense since Mark Howe - one of the best ever not named Paul Coffey - patrolled the blueline in the mid 80s.
In a matter of months, Homer had acquired three former team Captains - Briere, Kimonen and Smith. Set up his defense for years to come by getting Ryan Parent and Braydon Coburn and his offense by Hartnell, Upshall and Lupul. Not bad work for an INTEREM-GM who was supposed to be a Clarkie-clone. I would suggest he has the inside track for GM of the year without the puck ever hitting the ice - yes I know the season is not begun and yes there is that team up I-95 that had a few nice signings of their own.
As Axel Rose and his fellow musicians, often feeling no pain, were want to scream, "Where do we go now?"
Indeed, where? Well, up is one way to put it. When you are dead last and the worst in the league, you would hope to be better. But how much better? Middle of the road better? Or perhaps - dare I even think it after only 22 wins - a playoff berth? IMHO the Flyers have a better than average shot at making the playoffs this year. I would love to say that they are a mortal lock, but with the vagaries of team chemistry and injuries nothing is certain.
That being said, I do like them on paper. I think they will be better in goal with Marty Biron - who has to show that the immense talent he possesses can be realized over a full season in Philadelphia. Antero Niittymaki has to show he can be a capable, team player as a backup and remain focused enough to win the majority of games he starts during the dog days of a very long season. I think the defense will certainly be better. I love the potential that guys like Lupul, Hartnell and Upshall bring to the offense - but at the end of the day the Flyers might only be as successful as Carter and Richards allow them to be. Those two players - far more than any others - will likely determine the success or failure of this team. The first line will score with the best of them in the NHL. In order for the team to have real success, the second and third lines must produce and that all begins with the pivot. One line teams can and have been beaten - Legion of Doom, anyone? Look no further than the successes of Buffalo and Anaheim as to the necessity to show balanced scoring from all lines.
Forward lines looking like:
Gagne - Briere - Knuble (firepower and should be up there with the best in hockey)
Hartnell - Carter - Lupul (huge untapped potential might score a ton of goals)
Kapanen - Richards - Upshall (great energy line that could be rough to play against)
I have had heard and thought of many line combos but think the above make the most sense. Largely Joffrey Lupul will determine where he plays - he could be a 1st or 3rd line winger depending on if and when he regains the scoring touch and physical play he had. I would not mind him playing 1st line RW at all, but I believe Knuble will start the season as the RW with Gagne and Briere.
K.Timonen - Smith
Hatcher - Coburn
Gauthier - Kukkonen - (some question as to whether Goat will remain a Flyer)
Picard - Jones - Parent (to a lesser extent J.Timonen & Jonsson)
The defense just has to be better. With the addition of the first pairing, the power play will be better, the hitting and positional play will be better and the goalie will finally have a chance to make some saves. In addition, one added benefit is that Hatcher will be allowed to just play and not worry about anything else. He was a great PK player last year and his reduced, but no less important role on the team, should reap benefits. I am intrigued by Coburn, as he was taken before young stud Dion Phaneuf. Coburn is 6'5" at 220lbs with good skating and decent offensive potential. The book on him is that he needs to play like he is 6'5" and 220 and with Hatcher’s guidance on the finer and nastier parts of the game, perhaps that will happen. Gauthier - or Goat - is the poster child for keeping your head up in the corners. If your head is down, you might have it handed to you. He is not afraid to put the butt end up under your chin but also might put himself way out of position to do so - therein lay his biggest fault besides not being healthy. Kukkonen is a solid defender who is rarely spectacular but also rarely out of position - the Flyers need more like him. Jones, Picard and Parent could all see time at the 3rd paring. As with Coburn, Parent is very curious as he is a solid stay at home defenseman with a good head on his shoulders who is not afraid to get up ice and hit. He is not going to score a ton but if he measures out to what is said about his game, he will be a welcomed addition to both the Phantoms and the Flyers.
The endgame to this War and Peace-like opus (my apologies for those already not asleep) is that IF Carter and Richards play to their much heralded potential, IF Marty Biron/Antero Niittymaki is a serious upgrade over last year's Niity/Esche combo, IF Lupul finds his game and can score on a potent second line and IF the young Flyers D can minimize costly mistakes and allow the offense to win a game or two, then I see the Flyers as a 7 or 8 seed. If not, then it could be another rebuilding year, but MUCH better off and father along on the road to respectability than they were at the end of the '07 season.
Kudos to Homer and Peter Luukko. What they accomplished to retool this team in record time is simply unheard of.
My hope is great for an interesting and fun Flyers' season. The Atlantic is going to be a war zone with the Ranger and Pens loaded for bear, the Devils still having that guy named Brodeur and the new look Isles with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Man, I cannot wait for the puck to drop.
water flowing underground....(doing best Talking Heads impression)