BT's 2008/09 NHL Season Preview: The Philadelphia Flyers

xx yySenior Writer ISeptember 25, 2008

Preface: This afternoon I watched an interview with Cito Gaston, the Toronto Blue Jays manager, sounds ridiculously akin to Morgan Freeman. I just thought you should know this.

Also, I'm so darn committed to this that instead of going back to London and checking out the exhibition game between the Islanders and the Flyers, I'm here, doing season previews for you.

I saw the game a few years ago though between Capitals and the Flyers, and I met Jeff Hackett though, so I guess this is kind of acceptable.

By the way, Jeff Hackett is a really nice guy. It's too bad his career ended during vertigo.

These are things I just think you should know.

The Flyers were “back with a vengeance” last season.

That was the tag-line last year, and the Flyers certainly were, accumulating a total of a ridiculous amount of games lost due to suspension? Methusela? Yeah...his age was no comparison to this number. (The original sentence just said: They lost 937 games to suspension, but Alan Bass didn't think people would get that joke...I want to go back to writing for The View.)

Word is their new motto is “Gunning for decapitation”….I guess Patrice Bergeron is going to have to watch out again.

Roster Additions: Steve Eminger-D (Trade/Sign), Ossi Vaananen-D (F.A.), Glen Metropolit-F (F.A.), Aaron Asham-F (F.A.), Dany Syvret-D (F.A.), Janne Niskala-D (Trade), Ned Lukacevic-F (Trade), Patrik Hersley-D (Trade)

Roster Subtractions:
Jason Smith-D (Free Agent), Patrick Thoresen-F (Europe), Jesse Boulerice-F (F.A.), Jim Dowd-F (F.A.), Jaroslav Modry-D (Europe), Keith Primeau-F (Retirement), Rory Fitzpatrick-D (F.A.), Vaclav Prospal-F (Trade/F.A.), R.J. Umberger-F (Trade), Triston Grant-F (Trade), Denis Gauthier-D (Trade)

How did 2007/08?
42-29-11, 95 points, 6th in conference, 5th in division, lost in Conference Finals (Eastern Conference)

2008/09 Goal:
Compete for first in division, return to Conference Finals

Let's break'er down...

The Philadelphia Flyers surprised a lot of people last season.

A year removed from one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the Flyers began their turnaround at the trade deadline and continued it into the season.

People thought that the Flyers would suffer last season, but they proved to have undergone one of the most-efficient reshapings in history, turning it around and making the playoffs in just one season.

Now they’re spunky, experienced, and fired-up.

If they stay off the suspension list, they’ll be exciting once again.

There’s a Lupul in my contract that keeps me from getting Downie when watching opera in the Metropolit…

Among Flyers’ forwards, the undoubted leader is newly-crowned captain Mike Richards. He’s one of the top five two-way players in the league, and has been called a reincarnation of Ron Francis. That’s a pretty hefty comparison.

He was a plus-14 last season, as well as two goals away from a 30-goal season, and he also finished with 40 more points than his previous career high. Although Richards offense may not get much higher than the 70-80 point range (maybe just above a point-per game average one day), he’s still going to be an integral part of the Flyers’ future, and success seems inevitable when the expectations are put on his shoulders.

Sidenote: Alan Bass will later say that Richards could be more of an 85-point producer over his career and I'm inclined to agree. I'm not exactly sure what I was thinking when I originally wrote that.

His tag-teaming, energetic young partner is Jeff Carter may be primed for a big season. Carter provides a 30 (maybe one day a 40) goal presence to the Flyers, and although his defense is a little has struggled a bit, Carter looks to be coming into his own in the NHL. If he can be paired with a few linemates who can help him develop his playmaking ability, then Carter may be able to develop into a very well-rounded top line option.

The most expensive man on this roster though, is Daniel Briere. Based on his two final seasons in Buffalo (153 points in 129 games) though, last year’s regular season was a letdown for the Gatineau native with 72 points in 79 games (although it was his second consecutive 30 goal season).

However, once the playoffs rolled around Briere looked like a completely different player—I actually remember watching him and thinking his spunk alone could have hurled the Flyers to the Cup finals. Briere logged 16 points in 17 games and looked like a completely different player.

As the preseason wraps up this year and the regular season begins, the Flyers could be a very dangerous team if Briere and another enigma on this roster have seasons like they’re used to.

That other enigma is Simon Gagne. Like another former Flyer in Eric Lindros, Gagne had terrible concussion problems last season. Unlike former Flyer Eric Lindros though, Gagne is sticking it out with the Flyers and not being…well…a head case. After 57 games missed due to head troubles, Gagne seems primed to try and launch himself back into that 40-goal range that he lived in before his injury troubles. If he can do that and keep his solid two-way game going, then the Flyers will be in great shape when it comes to goal scoring.

Scott Hartnell could also be in line for a bit of a jump in his numbers. Hartnell is a big, strong guy who isn’t afraid to play physical when the situation calls for it. At 26, he looks to be getting ready to hit his prime, and if Hartnell can stay healthy, then he could net more than 50 points for the first time in his career. He’s been a consistent 20-goal scorer the last three seasons, and could see some extra space on the ice if Gagne bounces back and takes some attention away from the rest of the team.

Joffrey Lupul could also benefit from the defense being stretched out a bit by the return of Simon Gagne. After a solid 58 campaign in 2005 with the Ducks, Lupul saw a season in which his stock dropped monumentally with Edmonton following a 28-point season.

After the Oilers sold low though (or at least low when you compare it to what Joni Pitkanen did for the Oilers), Lupul came back with the Flyers like Al Pacino came back with Righteous Kill after 88 Minutes—it was good, and the wheels were turning a bit, but he wasn’t at full tilt.

Now there’s a big difference here: Lupul is only 25 and will be just hitting his peak in the next few years, and should have one or two thirty-goal seasons ahead of him. Al Pacino is old, and according to Righteous Kill, he’s dead now. Which sucks.

While all of these guys are nearing their prime, I think that Mike Knuble might be nearing the end of the road. Granted he’s been very productive goal-scoring wise for his Flyers career (34, 24, 29 goals), Knuble’s legs may not be as nimble as they once were. Granted he’s still good for about 23 goals this season and a little bit of a hot streak here or there, but I don’t know if he’ll be as successful for the full extent of a season this year.

The depth is going to be there this season with guys like Glen Metropolit, Boyd Kane, and super-pest Steve Downie is going to be back and causing all of his normal problems, with Arron Asham offering 20-25 points this season, leaving minimal room for the young'uns.

Claude Giroux will be one of the top prospects battling for time with the Flyers this season. Giroux is a three-time 100-point scorer in the QMJHL. He's got silky-smooth moves and the mind of a sniper (the hockey kind, not the one with the gun). In the next few years, the Flyers will have one of the most exciting combinations of young talent in the Eastern conference.

James van Reimsdyk could become a very steady rookie presence this season, with some strong playmaking attributes. The kid has size (6’3, 200lbs) and he has the right kind of mentality to play in a city like Philadelphia.

Patrick Maroon is a young player who could one day make an impact. He can score and he can be a playmaker, but the big thing with this kid is his drive. Maroon is one of those players who you need to be able to keep motivated every single shift, or he’ll Randy Moss-it and start taking shifts off and loafing around the ice.

Niitymaki is still Ant’earing his hip muscle…how’s it going J.S. Aubin?

Last season, Martin Biron had an outstanding season.

After being pushed to the back-burner behind Ryan Miller in Buffalo, Brion got his second chance in Philadelphia, and certainly made the Flyers proud.

His 2.59 GAA was his lowest since 2003/04 in Buffalo. His .918 save percentage was his highest in his NHL career. His 30 wins was his first 30-win season since 2001. The only really “low” statistic for him was his 62 games played, but then he was splitting time with Antero Niitymaki.

Well now that Niitymaki has fallen once again to a hip ailment, former-Leafs Jean-Sebastien Aubin comes in to provide a little depth. What this means however, is that Biron is going to have to step his game up over a longer period of time because:

A)    Who’s going to trust J.S. Aubin over 20 games?

B)    Is anyone going to be comfortable trusting Niitymaki to not fall apart physically?

Granted Niitymaki had a solid season last year (12-9, 2.91 GAA, and .907 save percentage), but this isn’t the first time he’s had hip problems, so this could be his asterisk every time he enters a game.

The fact is Biron hasn’t really played a ton in the past few seasons. The last time he played 50 games was prior to the lockout, and he hasn’t played in 70 games since his 72 in 2001 and looking at the situation right now, he may need to prove that he can play at least 65 games.

I’m Kukkonen for solid Parent(ing) plans that ensure your kids are always on Timmonen

As far as defense goes for the Flyers, there are some very interesting names on the back end.

Lasse Kukkonen is a very serviceable defenseman who skates well and can move the puck effectively out of the zone. He plays a straightforward game and has proved to be fairly effective in his own end.

Randy Jones produced another fairly solid season with 31 points, and he even began to tighten up his play in his own end. Jones is a big boy, and at 27 he’s another Flyer who’ll be coming into his own as well fairly soon. However, it’s Jones who will determine how high “his own” will take him, as it’s up to him to continuously use his size effectively.

During the playoffs last year, Kimo Timonen was one of the key guys that the Flyers lost to injury against the Penguins. So long as he can stay healthy this year (which he’s done a very good job of throughout his career) Timonen should be even stronger spending his second year in the Flyers’ system, perhaps broaching the 50-point barrier once again.

Despite Derian Hatchers’ big body missing for the foreseeable future, the Flyers do have a solution. Although Ryan Partent didn’t register a point in 22 games and posted a -4 last season, Parent will bring in a solid, young, defensive body, who may have some offensive upside to provide.

Remember when Braydon Coburn was acquired for Alexei Zhitnik? Yea, how well did that turn out for the Flyers? Dump an aging, past his prime offensive defenseman for a big kid who can post somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 points a game, has a huge frame, and still has a huge future ahead of him (he’s only 23). This’ll be a huge year for Coburn.

Over the offseason, the Flyers acquired Dany Syvret and Steve Eminger. Syvret is a smaller defenseman out of London of the OHL who can be a dynamic offensive force in one of the back end pairings. If he can tighten up his defensive game a bit, Syvret may get some extended time in the NHL.

Eminger meanwhile, needs to find a home where he can utilize his offensive game. He had two years of adequate assist numbers in Washington, but to really stick in Philadelphia, Eminger may want to score a few goals. Perhaps matching his career total of six would be a good start.

There’s also a bit of depth on the blueline this season with the addition of Ossi Vaananen (returning from the Swedish Elite league), Bryan Berard, and Brad Brown. Both Vaananen and Berard could add a defensive and offensive presence respectively to the Philly defense, while Brown will do a bit to strengthen the depth down in the AHL. All of them will come in handy with the career of Derian Hatcher in jeopardy, which we'll get to in a moment.

Guys like Luca Sbisa, Tim Ramholt, Patrik Hersley, and Michael Ratchuk are all younger guys who might see time later in the season, but unless they really blow the socks off of the coaching staff in camp, they’ll have to wait their turn.

So what's it all mean?

Although the injury to Derian Hatcher can be seen as devastating, the Flyers are a team used to dealing with adversity.

They’ll fill the hole left by the hulking Hatcher with other players specializing in different facets of the game and move on.

Aside from size (which the Flyers can work around) the biggest loss when it comes to Hatcher is his experience and leadership. Hopefully the Flyers can fill that from within.

Are they in a position to challenge for the top spot in the Atlantic? Of course they are, because really everyone except the Islanders can. What they’ll have to do though, is out-grit the top teams. They have some skill, but they have to be tougher than the Penguins and Rangers.

The biggest concern lies with whoever is backing up Martin Biron. Aside from that, the core is returning and one year wiser for the Flyers.

3rd in Atlantic

And now, for his long overdue Community Leader's View from the Pressbox is Alan Bass. Alan, take it away!

Mike Richards, the biggest surprise of last year, and the captain for this coming year and most likely the next 15 years, is still not the best player on the team.  He had a brilliant year in 2007-08, and had more points that Danny Briere.  However, he needs to have one more year leading the Flyers in points for us to know he was not just a one-year wonder.

I personally believe that Richards’ great season was not, in fact, a fluke.  He is truly a talented player, and as long as John Stevens can find a great place for him on a line, he will surpass 80 points almost every year for years to come.  He could possibly be the next Bobby Clarke—and many Flyers’ fans are hoping that will mean a Stanley Cup coming back to Philadelphia.

The team was not changed too much, and I like that, because you really don't want to change a team that went to the third round the year before, especially when most of the team is still maturing and growing to their full potential.

The Flyers are just as good as they were last year, and they are a year older, making the majority of their team a bit better.  Unfortunately, they will fall victim to the Atlantic Division and fail to win it.

They will make the playoffs again, and perhaps get to the second round, but I don’t see anything more than that happening to Philadelphia this year.

And before we leave (and before I forget) you can check out the rest of the Atlantic division with the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders.

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. You can get in contact with Bryan through his profile, and you can check out all of his previous work in his archives.


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