The days are getting shorter, the school buses are freshly cleaned of last year's spitballs and awaiting a new crop of young troublemakers...umm...students, and another Flyers season is but mere weeks away. The near miraculous transformation from worst in the league to potential playoff spot is almost complete. The depth and breadth of the changes that occurred at the end of last year and into the UFA season have been matched and mirrored only by the increasing march of time towards Labor Day and the death of a summer. Time is not linear any more. It seems just yesterday that my little man was taking swim lessons and now he is heading into pre-school today. My nine year old is heading into 4th grade and I feel like she is one step away from asking me for the keys and walking down the aisle. Life is amazing and truly moves by, as only The Boss can describe it, "in the wink of a young girl's eye." The Orange and Black's special teams changed in a blink as well.
That leads me to try to answer two questions that have been rattling around in that part of my brain that is dedicated to hockey. They are, "how will the radical changes that occurred in the off season affect the special teams play?" and "what will the power play and penalty kill squads look like?"
In 2006-2007, the Flyers went on the powerplay 376 times and scored 53 power play goals, while giving up 14 short handed goals. The 53 pp goals was good for a 14.1% efficiency and tied Edmonton for the third worst total last year. No one would have confused last year's Orange and Black for Edmonton Oilers of 1984-85. However, the 14 shorthanded goals are far more troubling in that they tied the Washington Caps for second most futile in preventing other teams from scoring against you on your own man advantage. Not good. In fact, in the 40 years since the Flyers joined the NHL, only one other time did they have that many short handed goals against - that was in 1993-94.
What does this mean? It means the powerplay has to be more sure handed with the puck, needs to gets the puck on the net and force other teams to react instead of allowing the opposing PK to dictate the play. In order to do this, you will need a mixture of old and new and scoring spread amongst the two units. My PP1 and PP2 teams would look like this:
Gagne - Upshall - Lupul
Timonen - Briere
Hartnell - Carter - Knuble
Kapanen - Picard
The PP1 group I just cannot wait to see on the ice. They could be deadly. Timonen's ability to put a point shot on net combined with Briere's ability to receive the pass and either shoot it or move in looking for an opportunity is just frightening. Gagne should score a ton of PP goals this year. Upshall gives you grit, energy and scoring potential and Lupul the opportunity to get some dirty goals. I love this PP unit.
PP2 gives you the sandpaper of Hartnell, the leadership and hands of Knuble and Kapanen, the shiftiness of Carter and the offfensive potential of Picard. Carter needs to step up here and make his talent shine. He has all the skills to be dominant on the PP and needs to harness them. Picard gives you a hard shot and someone who is not afraid to bring it. He had 5 assists versus New Jersey last year and has proven he has offensive ability.
Perhaps the most important thing, in my mind, is that these PP teams allow you to score in more than one way. You can score from a point shot, from a "dirty" goal on a rebound, from improvisation and from slick passing. I feel that the PP should improve dramatically and get up in the high 60's/low 70s for PP goals. If they do this, then they will win some games they lost last year.
The other part of this special teams equation is the penalty kill. The Flyers were much better at the penalty kill than they were not getting scored on short handed. Funny, eh? The Orange and Black were short 420 times last year - you have to go back 1995-96 to find a Flyers team with that many times in the sin bin. That being said, they only had 65 goals scored against them. That was good for 9th best in the league or 84.5 PK efficiency. Considering the number of Flyers players injured and the number of Phantoms that were on the ice masquerading as Flyers - to be 9th in the league is astounding. The other interesting fact is that the Flyers scored 15 shorthanded goals last year. One of the reasons that the PK was so effective last year was the combination of Sami Kapanen and Derian Hatcher. Kapanen is solid, hardworking, intelligent PK player who knows what to do at the proper time. You will never see him out of position or doing something stupid that ends up with the puck in your net. For as maligned as Derian Hatcher is five on five, he is a monster on the PK. His mobility requirement is lessened, his ability to use his body and his reach are increased and he plays hard/borderline dirty.
Here are my PK1 and PK2 units. I would only make a few changes, since what worked last year worked last year. They would look as follows:
Richards - Kapanen
Hatcher - Coburn
Smith - Kukkonen
Gagne - Hartnell
The first unit I really like. The addition of Coburn's 6'5" frame and reach coupled with his 220 pounds of fluid skating stride and penchant for hitting make him a natural addition to this PK unit. Richards and Kapanen give you great hands and competitiveness and the threat to score shorthanded - as Mike had four shorties to lead the team and Sami had two. The PK2 has Kukkonen - solid defender who is never out of position - and Gator who has a world of experience to go with his shot blocking PdD. Hartnell will bring a huge amount of hard work and sandpaper to the PK as well as some serious shorthanded skill. Gagne is an add for me over Umberger, who will likely not be on the opening roster. Gagne has speed, skill and heart and is a serious two way threat. On the PK he has the ability to break the game open on any errant pass or bobble at the boards. With both units, you have defensive presence and offensive opportunity. You have grit/nastiness and you have the ability to put your skate on the neck of your opponent.
Much like getting used to the first falling leaf or seeing those @&#^*@&#$ school buses, all of this looks good on paper and these new teammates will require some time to gel. That is a given. However, due to the mix of new members of the Orange and Black and old, seasoned veteran and talented youngster - I feel that the learning curve will not be as steep as one might think. I am excited to see how the new offensive weapons click and how the vastly improved defense give Marty Biron a chance to become that franchise goalie that we all hope him to be. Yes, summer is in its last gasps and is quickly fading, but the fall is here and that means hockey. God do I love it so. Glory Days...