Quest For The Stanley Cup: Philadelphia Flyers Season Preview

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Quest For The Stanley Cup: Philadelphia Flyers Season Preview
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With NHL training camps set to open up in the coming weeks, we're going to start off the preseason fun with a season preview of the Philadelphia Flyers.

2009-10: 41-35-6 (7th in East, Stanley Cup Finals appearance)
General Manager: Paul Holmgren (4th Season)
Head Coach: Peter Laviolette (1st Full Season)

Arrivals:

The Philadelphia Flyers have been one of the NHL's most aggressive teams in the offseason despite being strapped by the salary cap, as usual.

General Manager Paul Holmgren made it a point to build the best defense possible in front of goalie Michael Leighton, who re-signed for two years after earning the right to compete for the starting job, by acquiring blue liners Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker from Tampa Bay in separate trades.

Meszaros should add another defenseman with top-four potential with the ability to move the puck, and score from the point, but his best asset is his physical presence. In 81 games with the Lightning, the 6'2", 223 lbs. Meszaros led the team with 112 hits.

The 24-year-old also isn't afraid to block shots, an important part of the game that the Flyers stress in their defenseman as he blocked 108 offerings last year.

 

Enough about his defense, Meszaros is an excellent puck-moving defenseman with a big shot from the point. He will give coach Peter Laviolette another option to use on the power play.

In two seasons with the Bolts, Meszaros recorded 33 points (8 G, 25 A) in 133 games. If he can produce like he did with Ottawa (110 points in 246 games), the Flyers will be heavily rewarded with Meszaros as their fifth defense.

One thing is for certain, he's an upgrade over Ryan Parent, Oskars Bartulis, and Lukas Krajicek.

Walker, who was acquired in the Simon Gagne trade, figures to be the team's seventh defenseman if Holmgren decides not to bury his $1.7 million cap hit in the American Hockey League.

The 30-year-old Walker is stay-at-home defenseman with a right-handed shot and tremendous size, standing at 6'4", 215 lbs. Walker had 82 hits in 66 games last season to finish the season third on the Lightning.

Like his Tampa Bay teammate, Walker has shown that he's not afraid to block shots as he was tied with Mattias Ohlund on Tampa with 116 block shots in one fewer game than Ohlund.

In seven seasons in the NHL, Walker has four goals and 26 assists to his name in 306 games with the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and the Lightning.

Whether Walker is still on the roster come opening night is still up in air, he does provide some defensive depth to a team who's third pairing really hurt their chances in the Final against Chicago.

 

The Flyers also upgraded the defense via free agency when Sean O'Donnell signed a one-year, $1.3 million contract to play with his 2007 Cup winning teammate Chris Pronger, and provide a steady sixth defenseman for the Orange 'n' Black.

O'Donnell, 38, appeared in 78 games with the Los Angeles Kings in 2009-10, compiling 15 points (3G, 12 A) and 70 PIM with a plus/minus rating of +14.

A 15-year veteran, the Flyers will be O'Donnell's seventh team as he has suited up for the Kings, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins and the Ducks. He has made two Stanley Cup appearances; winning the Cup with Anaheim (2007) and with the Devils (2001).

O.D. should provide a solid sixth defenseman with some miles on the tank, which is a good thing. With good size (6'2'', 237 lbs.), O'Donnell is another stay-at-home defenseman willing to drop his gloves. He adds toughness to the bottom six, something Parent, Krajicek or Bartulis didn't bring to the table.

Defense wasn't the only thing on Holmgren's mind in the offseason as he has made a couple moves up front. Most notably was signing unrestricted free agent forward Nikolai Zherdev to a one-year deal.

Zherdev will add something lacking from the Flyers lineup for many years, pure offensive skill. The former No. 4 overall pick by Columbus, Zherdev is one of the most offensively gifted individuals in the world in terms of pure skill with blazing speed and outstanding stick handling.

He played in Russia last year and returns to North America to prove that he has matured.  Thought of as a lazy, selfish player, Zherdev has something to prove to his peers.

In 52 games with Atlant Moscow Oblast of the KHL, the 25-year-old winger recorded 13 goals and 26 assists. Playing for the New York Rangers, Zherdev tallied 58 points (23G, 35A) and 39 PIM.

If Zherdev pays off like the Flyers believe he will, Holmgren will be compensated for another low risk, high reward move. Zherdev will be playing on the team's first line, most likely with Mike Richards centering him and either Jeff Carter or Claude Giroux manning the other wing.

The Flyers added tough guy Jody Shelley to a three-year, $3.3 million contract. A very questionable move, Shelley will carry a $1.1 million cap hit to sit in the press box for a good portion of the season.

Shelley, 34, played in 57 games in the 2009-10 season with the San Jose Sharks and the Rangers, scoring only two goals and seven assists. His two goals came against the Flyers in the last two games of the season.

A good locker room presence, Shelley will play the role of protector on the Flyers while he may see a significant increase in ice time per game. He has never averaged over eight minutes per game in his career, but this may be his first season getting 10 minutes of ice time.

 

In simple words, the Flyers have replaced the low paid Riley Cote, who sat in the press box almost every night, for a million dollar spectator for half the games.

Departures:

As much as Holmgren wanted to build the best defense he possibly could, it came at a cost.

A major blow to the team, and the fan base.

The Flyers traded away their longest tenured player in Simon Gagne in what basically was a salary dump. Despite acquiring Walker from the Lightning along with a fourth round draft pick, Philadelphia didn't receive fair value for Gagne.

Gagne is ninth in goals (259), 10th in points (524),sixth the in game-winning goals (47) and tied first with Eric Lindros in overtime goals (5) in Flyers franchise history.

Losing Gagne is a tough pill to swallow, but it's something that the Flyers had no other choice. By signing Zherdev, and committing $8.4 million to O'Donnell, Zherdev, Shelley and Meszaros, everyone knew someone was going to fall casualty to the cap.

It was either Jeff Carter or Gagne, and the latter's time was up.

For the Flyers, Gagne was the only significant loss as Arron Asham and Krajicek were not retained; Asham signed with the Penguins while Krajicek remains a free agent, and Parent was traded to Nashville.

 

Biggest Question:

It's all about the goalie.

Michael Leighton was spectacular for the Flyers during the regular season, posting a 16-5-2 record with a 2.48 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. Taking over for the injured Ray Emery, Leighton shocked the hockey world by showing that may be more than the journeyman he had been.

In the playoffs, Leighton was good. Coming in relief of an injured Brian Boucher, Leights had a 1.33 GAA against the Boston Bruins, helping the Flyers comeback from a 3-0 series deficit to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Against the Montreal Canadiens, Leighton was superb as he blanked the Canadiens three times in five games. At the end of the day, 29-year-old allowed seven goals on 140 shots faced (1.41 GAA, .950 SV%).

Then came the Finals where Leighton struggled big time. In six games against the Chicago Blackhawks, Leighton allowed 20 goals on 161 shots faced (3.96 GAA, .876 SV%). He was pulled twice in the series, both times in Chicago.

The Flyers lost in six games to the Blackhawks, and their Stanley Cup drought goes on. It has been 35 years since Philadelphia last hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup.

While Leighton was terrible versus Chicago, it wasn't all his fault. The Blackhawks physically and mentally dominated the Flyers in all their victories. And in their losses, they still put up a good challenge.

 

Philly's defense was a non-factor against the Hawks, the biggest reason why they reached the Final in the first place. Leighton was good against the Habs, but it was due to the defense absolutely shutting Montreal out every night.

The Flyers had no third pair to use against Chicago, and had to overuse Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle. Their third pair consisted of two of the following: Ryan Parent, Oskars Bartulis and Lukas Krajicek.

That will be different in 2010-11 as Holmgren has significantly upgraded the Flyers defense with the additions of Meszaros, O'Donnell and Walker. By doing so, Holmgren has put all the burden on Leighton's shoulder for the coming season.

There's no more excuses for Leighton.

Leighton has to continue to improve as an NHL goalie; he earned the right to be Philadelphia's No. 1 goalie with his play in the regular season and playoffs.

It's all on you, Leighton.

Rookies to Watch in 2010-11:

The good news for the Flyers is that they will not be relying on rookies to contribute to the team this season as they have their opening night roster pretty much locked up.

 

The bad news is Kevin Marshall will have to wait another year for his shot at the NHL.

Marshall, 21, is ready to make the jump to the NHL, however there's no room for him on the Flyers' blue line. Marshall is a hard-working, stay-at-home defenseman who moves the puck efficiently and skates very well according to scouting reports.

Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2007 NHL Draft, Marshall turned heads in last year's training camp but disappointed the Flyers front office by not playing very well with the Adirondack Phantoms.

In 75 games with the Phantoms, the 6'1", 207 lbs. Marshall posted nine points (2G, 7A) and 80 PIM.

Besides Marshall, the Flyers do not have many players who have a chance of making the team out of training camp. One other possibility is Mike Testwuide, who is a power forward right winger with good size (6'3", 216 lbs.).

Testwuide is a good skater, and has a good scoring touch. The chances of him beating out Darroll Powe, Dan Carcillo, Shelley or any other Flyers forward in camp are slim to none.

Prediction:

As hard as it is for team who lose in the Stanley Cup to make it back to the Finals in the following year, I believe the Flyers have as good as a chance as anyone to get back to playing hockey in June.

The Flyers are not built for the regular season so don't expect them to finish in the top-three of the Eastern Conference, however expect them to make it back to postseason.

In the playoffs, the Flyers have the defense and the scoring to repeat as Conference Champions, but it's up to the goaltending to bring home the team's first Stanley Cup since 1975.

Visit the Broad Street Scoop for more Philadelphia Flyers coverage. Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_Dougherty. E-mail him at: todougherty@gmail.com

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