On Saturday 11 of 15 former captains in Flyers history will return to the Wachovia Spectrum to commemorate the arena which will be bulldozed and replaced next season. These players represent Flyers hockey with unmatched passion and grit. And yet the captains not showing may be most telling of the Flyers future.
First, Jason Smith who captained the team just last season has his own team affairs to attend to in Nashvillewhere his Columbus Blue Jackets will play the Predators. With Smith’s departure came the blue-line additions of Steve Eminger and Ossi Vaananen as well as more ice time for up-and-coming Ryan Parent.
These personnel changes represent the Flyers bulldozing foray forward into the new NHL. It’s a quicker and faster game where the young and speedy Emingers, Vaananens, and Parents of the NHL will fair much better than the grittier, but tougher Jason Smiths.
These adjustments and additions along the blue-line indicate the Flyers understand their most glaring weakness from last season, when they fell seven wins short of hoisting the Stanley Cup. With the top three pairings in training camp of Kimmo Timonen-Braydon Coburn, Randy Jones-Eminger, and Parent-Vaananen the Flyers defensive corps appears sleeker and improved. They will need to gel, but by season’s end the hope is this extremely young blue-line will have grown up fast.
Maybe the most notable former captain not in attendance this Saturday is Eric Lindros. The dark history between the Flyers and Lindros is no secret to any Flyers fan old enough to watch the team in the 90s.
But for the first time since the departure of Lindros, the Flyers are extremely strong up the middle. They boast so many good centers that Daniel Briere has been shifted to wing to reduce the negative effect of his defensive inefficiencies.
Even with the move the Flyers still have new captain Mike Richards manning the first line and rising star Jeff Carter taking care of second line face-off duties. Beyond that the Flyers have the solid, if unspectacular, Glen Metropolit, the Boston Bruins second line center last season; Claude Giroux, a young kid just up from the AHL and expected to do great things in the NHL; and Jim Dowd, a wily veteran brought back to provide depth against injuries or struggles.
The Flyers lines in preseason have been as follows:
Simon Gagne-Mike Richards-Daniel Briere
Scottie Upshall-Jeff Carter-Mike Knuble
Scott Hartnell-Glen Metropolit-Joffrey Lupul
Riley Cote-Jim Dowd-Arron Asham
Jonathan Kalinski-Claude Giroux-Steve Downie
The Flyers once again will be sending out three strong scoring lines as even the third line has two players that eclipsed the 20 goal mark in Lupul and Hartnell. More importantly, the Flyers no longer have to wonder if they have a clear cut number one line that can always take on the opposing teams’ best.
The combination of Gagne, Richards, and Briere is one of the most dangerous offensively and in spite of Briere, still strong defensively. Now that Briere is hidden on the wing and supported by a couple of the best two-way players in the game, this number one line appears poised to succeed against the other best lines in the league. Their only concern may be the health of Simon Gagne who struggled with concussions all last season.
However, the Flyers have many young players ready to step up and fill in, given the opportunity. Although they lost 50 point scorer R.J. Umberger due to salary constraints, the Flyers are still loaded on the wing. This is a team returning six 20+ goal scorers along with the aforementioned Gagne.
Additionally, the Flyers coaches have finally gotten through to the talented, but unfocused Steve Downie. They convinced him to adhere to a stricter diet and work harder in the off season than he ever has. The result is a 15-lbs. trimmer and more in-shape Downie.
Beyond Downie the Flyers are hoping for good things from 2006 first-round draft pick Claude Giroux who looked great in the OHL last season and just barely missed making the ultra-competitive Team Canada. Although Giroux has been playing center throughout the preseason, his brightest future in the NHL appears to be on the wing due to his limited size and strength.
Moving from offense back to defense, Flyers goalie Marty Biron will again stand between the pipes again this season. Biron played outstanding during the playoffs and has solidified himself as the number one guy.
If Biron plays the way he did late last year, these Flyers could fly swiftly forward beyond their gritty past and hoist their first Stanley Cup since 1975. Even Eric Lindros might wish he were on the ice for that one.