The 2009-10 NHL season has kicked off and is in full swing. After three weeks of much anticipated hockey, the Flyers find themselves at the bottom of the pack in the Atlantic Division. Despite being in arguably the most competitive division in the league, Philadelphia faithful don't want to see the Flyers in fourth place in the Atlantic division or eighth place in the Eastern Conference as they now are.
After steamrolling Carolina and New Jersey and battling tooth and nail for a win over an improved Washington team, the Flyers were living up to all the hype created over the summer from their now-infamous off-season roster moves.
Pittsburgh was the next challenge. Since the Flyers acquired Chris Pronger their fans have been counting the days leading up to October 8th—the first time the two teams would meet since last season's playoff elimination. Despite an exciting matchup, it did not deliver what Flyers fans wanted.
The Flyers went on to lose a nail-biter against Anaheim via a shootout. Next, the Flyers were outplayed by the Florida Panthers and lost 4-2. Looking back at the past six games, what can be said about the much-anticipated Broad Street Bullies of the new millennium? The answer: a lot.
First off, a hockey game lasts for 60 minutes, meaning you need to play for 60 minutes to win. The loss to Florida is proof that no matter how many future hall-of-fame defensemen you sign, who is in net, and how many 25+ goal scorers are on your roster, you have to play every minute of every game to win. The Flyers were outplayed by Florida late in the game and they lost because of it.
The Flyers' losses to Pittsburgh and Anaheim were "acceptable" meaning that they played for the entire game, against Cup-caliber teams nonetheless. Additionally, they lost by only one goal. Add to that the fact that the Flyers lost their first six games last season and there are a lot of things to consider moving forward:
1.) The Flyers slump—The team has earned a reputation for getting off to a slow season and/or slumping after the all-star break. When the Flyers slump, they really slump. So far, the team has competed (for the most part) in every game and is keeping a .500 pace in what has historically been a very slow stretch of their season.
If the Flyers win only half their games while playing at their worst they will cruise into the playoffs. That's not to say that the Flyers can take a laid-back approach, it just points to the fact that Flyers have improved dramatically in opening season play. If the Flyers play at .500 when they are slumping then the rest of the league is in for a wake-up call when they come around and start playing in sixth gear.
2.) Goaltending—There must be two sets of Flyers games broadcasted because in and around the Philadelphia area, Ray Emery has looked top-notch. However, many people outside of Flyerdom are still doubting his abilities in net and criticizing his play thus far. Did Emery come out and look like Martin Brodeur? No, but he wasn't supposed to. He has played consistently every night (including games against the three best scorers in the league). He is above a .900 save percentage and has already posted a shutout. Emery looks solid in net and he is expected to improve as the Flyers defensemen become more comfortable with their pairings.
Unless Emery completely self-destructs (picks up a gun and starts shooting people), expect great things from this guy. If the defense comes together and the Flyers get on a roll for an extended stretch or two during the season, Emery could net forty wins by June.
3.) Offense—No Lupol, no Knuble, no problem. Giroux and Van Riemsdyk have looked fantastic and will combine for an impressive number of points this season. If Briere stays healthy he will be a point per game player—and not just points, but big points in big situations because he can be a clutch player with the best of them. All three players have looked great thus far and collectively will net more goals than Briere, Lupol and Knuble did last year.
Barring any injuries Richards should outperform his outing last season. So far this season he is playing like a man possessed. He looks healthy, dangerous (in every way possible) and most importantly he looks hungry. Call it a little friendly competition with the other No. 1 young gun Jeff Carter, or just call it sheer anger resulting from being cheated out of the Selke Trophy; he is on the hunt. On the ice, Richards is Bobby Clarke incarnate.
Jeff Carter, once the red-headed stepchild of the team a few seasons ago, is proving that with big minutes he can put up big numbers. The first six games have been good for Carter who has scored goals and assists in a pair of fours totaling eight points. expect him to net a few game-winners and to top 40 goals for the season (if Ovechkin scores 60+, Carter can net 50 with improved passing from his blueliners).
All in all the offense has improved in the best way—not from trade acquisitions or free agency, but from the development of young players and veterans playing healthy.
3.) Defense—what can be said about the defense so far this season? Not a whole lot, and it is still unclear if that is a good or bad thing. Nothing fantastic or horrendous has come out of the Flyers blueliners. In six games the Flyers have given up 19 goals—a little over three goals per game on average. Three goals per game isn't horrible, but there is room for tightening this up a bit. Keep in mind that 10 of these goals (more than half of the goals they allowed so far) were against Washington and Pittsburgh—two of the most potently offensive teams in the NHL (and the two teams that contain the three leading scorers in the NHL).
Emery's decent save percentage and the Flyers' generally negative plus/minus rating among their players indicates that there is a breakdown in some aspect of the game, and all signs point to defense. Keep in mind that the actual defensemen aren't the only ones to blame for poor defensive efforts. Briere is expected to have a negative rating by season's end, but Richards, Carter and Gagne are usually very good to great in their own end and should all be well into the positive end of the plus/minus spectrum. As of right now, the three combine for a rating of zero.
In summary, it is clear the Flyers have a lot on their plates and they are working their way through issues typical to their team. Line juggling, a slow start to the season, and establishing solid goaltending have been themes of recent Flyers teams. It appears that every one gets along (including Emery) and that the players compliment each other with their respective styles of play. Line pairings this year (again, barring any possible injuries) should work out well for the Flyers. Yet there is still a lot of work to be done.
The Flyers have to adjust to the presence of Pronger and Lapperie in the dressing room and on the ice. The power play has to adjust to what Pronger brings to the table. The skaters have to get used to defensively maintaining a lead and trusting Emery in net.
Whether or not playing around on the beach with sailboats and fishing rods (disguised as "team building exercises") helps team chemistry is up for debate. What is not up for debate is that three distinct things were evident in the past six games. 1.) The roster that was desired last season; 2.) Everything fans expected this season; and 3.) The one thing from last season that fans did not want to see this season.
That one thing is what can happen when the Flyers are outplayed. If you are a Flyers fan you shouldn't sweat the losses to Pittsburgh or Anaheim. You should be angry (not concerned) at the loss to Florida. This loss was simply the result of a lesser team outworking a better team.
Now of course, all teams have an off-night. Maybe this was an off-night for the Flyers, maybe not. But, the Flyers have shown that they possess many potent weapons and are capable of playing at an extremely high level of play. If I were asked to give a very un-qualified prediction for the Flyers this year based on what we have seen so far, I would have to say that the Flyers will pick things up as the season goes on and become red-hot before/during the holidays. The Olympic break will pose a challenge for them (as for many other teams), but will again become one of the toughest teams to beat in the latter part of the season.
As far as playoff berth? If the Flyers can stray from tradition and do well in the first 20 games and again in the first 10 games following the Olympic break then I see Emery piling up 40 wins and the Flyers making a strong stand for first, second or third place in the East.