The Philadelphia Flyers started their year 0-3-3 because they couldn't figure out how to function as a team. The top line of Danny Briere, Mike Richards, and Simon Gagne were the only ones who knew how to put the puck in the net, but even those gifted players struggled to provide support to their goaltender.
Speaking of goaltenders, neither Martin Biron nor Antero Niittymaki looked sharp. And the defense corps, riddled with holes due to the injuries to Ryan Parent and Randy Jones, appeared roughshod and soft.
So John Stevens shuffled the lines, returning Briere to his natural position at center between Gagne and Mike Knuble. Mike Richards shifted back to his line with Scott Hartnell and Joffrey Lupul—and suddenly the Orange and Black discovered secondary scoring. The defense rallied around Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, and even the netminders collected themselves to put up solid performances against New Jersey and Atlanta. The pieces were falling into place quickly.
Then it happened—Danny Briere suffered a torn abdominal muscle, which would sideline him for three to four weeks. Glen Metropolit, a defensive center who normally belongs on a third or fourth line, was elevated to the top line with Gagne and Knuble. Admittedly, they have contributed numerous goals for the Philadelphia Flyers over the past several games, mostly coming from some combination of Metropolit and Knuble.
And therein lies the problem. Simon Gagne and Danny Briere were absolutely on fire to start the 2007-08 season—a chemistry which collapsed when Gagne suffered a concussion after a hit from Florida Panther Jay Bouwmeester. Gagne never returned fully healthy last season, and so he never had an opportunity to rekindle the on-ice relationship with his teammate from La Belle Province. Many in Philadelphia were excited to see what a renewed Gagne and returning Briere could accomplish during the 2008-09 season.
Once again, one member of what is supposed to be a dynamic duo is injured. Briere suffered the second abdominal tear of his NHL career, and the doctor who performed the surgery discovered an additional tear when he actually went in to repair the muscle. Considering that Briere has a long-term deal in Philadelphia with a no-trade clause, I find his re-injury more than a little worrisome.
Gagne, meanwhile, looks lost on his line with Knuble and Metropolit. Where Gagne brings smooth skating, silky hands, and a creative touch to the line, Knuble and Metropolit are straight-forward bruisers who play no-nonsense hockey. They bang and crash and grind most of the time. Watch the games, and you'll note the number of times Gagne attempts a pass that is surprising and smart, only to have a startled Metropolit fumble the puck.
As for scoring, two of Gagne's four goals since Briere went down came on special teams when Gagne was paired with Richards—one power-play goal and one short-handed. On that third goal, Glen Metropolit had the secondary assist; the primary assist was a point shot from Luca Sbisa, which Gagne deflected past Kari Lehtonen. The fourth saw Knuble get the primary Metropolit the secondary.
Simon Gagne needs Danny Briere to return. This Philadelphia Flyers team requires a functional, successful playing relationship between those two players if they want to threaten for the Stanley Cup. And frankly, that can't happen while Briere sits on the sidelines.