With the NHL preseason only a few weeks away, it’s only a matter of time before NHL analysts and enthusiasts across Canada and the United States start making their predictions about the 2010-11 season and playoffs. And if the Philadelphia Flyers’ 09-10 campaign taught us anything, it is that we probably shouldn’t bother making predictions at all.
No matter how extensive your hockey knowledge may be, you could not have predicted the elements of the season and playoffs that took the Flyers within two wins of hoisting the Cup.
Maybe you predicted that Ray Emery wasn’t the answer to the Flyers’ goaltending woes. Admittedly, you were right. But you didn’t predict the apparent answer would be Michael Leighton, with a backup cast that featured Brian Boucher starting in the playoffs, playing time for Johan Backlund and Jeremy Duchesne, and a roster appearance by Sebastian Caron.
Maybe you predicted the Flyers would make the playoffs. Again, that came true. But you didn’t predict they would eek their way into the seventh spot on the last day of the season, in a shootout against one of the league’s better shootout goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist, in a game of winner-go-big, loser-go-home.
Hey, maybe you even predicted the Flyers would make the Stanley Cup Finals. A number of analysts made that prediction at the start of the season. But did you stick by that prediction when the team lost all four games to the Atlanta Thrashers over the course of the season? What about when the Flyers were in fourteenth place in the Eastern Conference? Or when the team was down three games to zero against the Boston Bruins (or three goals to zero in Game Seven of that same series)?
The 2009-10 season was filled with the unpredictable for Philadelphia Flyers’ fans. We learned never to assume, and to expect the unexpected (incidentally, that is exactly why we all believed that Patrick Kane was mistaken about scoring in overtime of Game Six, and the puck was simply lost in Leighton’s equipment, right?). We learned that you cannot predict what will happen in a season.
But October 7th is still more than a month away. So let’s predict anyway.
Prediction No. 1: Nikolai Zherdev will not be Simon Gagne. This is good news and bad news. The good news is, Zherdev will be able to play more than 58 games in the regular season because he doesn’t have Gagne’s history of concussions and lower body injuries. The bad news: 58 games with Simon Gagne is infinitely greater than 82 with Nik Zherdev. The Flyers lost a major goal scorer in Gagne, and brought in an adequate-at-best, aggravating-at-worst replacement on the left wing for Mike Richards’ top line.
Of course, part of the move was financial; Gagne’s $5.25 million cap hit freed up room for the Flyers to make some offseason acquisitions.
Unfortunately, those acquisitions turned out to include Zherdev at $2 million, Jody Shelley at $1.1 million (or $550k per goal scored), Sean O’Donnell at $1 million (to either play the 6th defensive position, or ride the bench), and Matt Walker at $1.7 million (to do the job O’Donnell doesn’t). Altogether, the team spent $5.8 million to acquire four players who likely won’t provide half the production that Gagne would have at $5.25 million.
So, let me alter my first prediction from “Zherdev will not be Gagne” to “Zherdev, Shelley, O’Donnell, and Walker will not be Gagne.”
Prediction No. 2: Goaltending will keep fans nervous all season. Again.
The Flyers probably have a generic template they use before each season when asked about goaltending. It would read something like this:
Despite the high-priced goalies available during the offseason, the Philadelphia Flyers are confident that __________ is the right goaltender to take this team to the Stanley Cup Finals. _____________ has shown excellent potential, and is certainly the permanent solution to the goaltending problem of years past. Seriously, it’s going to be different this year. We promise.
Every single season, the Flyers seem competitive but fans have to worry about what will happen with their starting netminder. Recent failed experiments have included Ray Emery, Martin Biron, Antero Niittymaki, Robert Esche, Roman Cechmanek—never mind, this is too frustrating to talk about.
Change of plans.
New Prediction No. 2: Michael Leighton is a reliable net presence and by spending a full year with the team, he develops the ability to be a stellar goaltender.
It’s more comforting to believe that than to assume he’s another piece of the Emery-Biron-Niittymaki-etc. boogeyman that has terrorized Flyers fans since the days of Hextall. Right?
Prediction No. 3: The Flyers defensive core proves to be one of the best in the league.
The Flyers had a terrific defense for most of last year, and they have only improved it. Braydon Coburn struggled early, and perhaps most fans would like for him to develop more quickly, but he’s proven to fit in well as a No. 3 or No. 4 defenseman.
Matt Carle made huge strides last season as Chris Pronger’s partner, and if he continues to perform well, the Flyers’ top four defensemen (Carle, Coburn, Pronger, and Kimmo Timonen) are the most balanced top four in the league, capable of scoring, blocking shots, and shutting down superstars.
Having Andrej Meszaros in the mix makes the force even more impressive, as Meszaros is capable of being a No. 2, No. 3, or No. 4 defenseman if other players struggle. Finally, the Flyers have three choices for the sixth spot: young Oskars Bartulis, who saw playing time last season; veteran Sean O’Donnell, and big man Matt Walker.
Despite the fact that the Flyers could be wasting as much as $2.8 million on defensive scratches, there is no arguing with that kind of depth at the defensive position.
Prediction No. 4: The Flyers will get consistent scoring from at least three lines. Except when no one is scoring.
Despite the absence of Gagne, the Flyers are still loaded on the top three lines. If Scott Hartnell and/or Ville Leino and/or Danny Briere continue to perform the way they did in the playoffs, their line will put up significant numbers as long as they play together. The Flyers should expect to see plenty of production at the center position, with Briere, Richards, Jeff Carter, and Claude Giroux spending time as the centers of the top three lines (one, likely Carter, may see more time on the wing).
James van Riemsdyk remains a bit of a question mark, but the sophomore showed some flashes of brilliance in 2009-10, and the No. 2 pick from 2007 should continue to improve and play well. Besides, he had to watch the No. 1 pick from that same draft end his season, so is it too optimistic to expect him to come into 10-11 with a chip on his shoulder?
Caveat: Every now and then in 09-10, the Flyers just stopped scoring, particularly against teams like Edmonton and Minnesota. Unless Nik Zherdev has brought a magic hockey stick with him, Flyers fans may need to prepare themselves for similar slumps again this year. But hey, those slumps got us to the Stanley Cup Finals! Right?
Prediction No. 5 will have to wait a minute while we recap:
The Flyers have strength on defense, maybe too much strength. The offense is capable of scoring at any point in the game, not just when the No. 1 line is on the ice…or, it’s incapable of scoring altogether. The longest tenured Flyer of 09-10 is now in Tampa Bay and has been replaced by a whiny, ostracized former Ranger, a tough non-scoring former Ranger, and two pricey No. 6 and No. 7 defensemen. And the goaltender, for the umpteenth consecutive year, is a question mark.
So naturally, prediction No. 5 is: Stanley Cup Champions, baby!
Why not? Last year’s team climbed out of the basement of the Eastern Conference to punch a ticket to the playoffs in game 82, lulled the Bruins into a false sense of security before coming back from 3-0 twice in a series, played the Conference Finals on home ice as a No. 7 seed, and came an overtime goal away from playing a Game Seven for the Stanley Cup. Who says they can’t do it again?
The NHL season and playoffs are entirely unpredictable. Stars rise out of nowhere, pivotal players suffer injuries, teams go into unexplained slumps, every game counts, and yet sometimes only one game truly matters. So since we really are incapable of predicting what will happen between now and June, it only makes sense to believe this is the year.
What’s the point of watching on October 7th if it isn’t?