Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Great Atlantic Preview – Philadelphia Flyers







What Happened Last Year

2009-2010 Record: 41-35-6

3rd in Atlantic Division

7th in Eastern Conference

It took the wildly up-and-down Philadelphia Flyers up until not only the final game against the New York Rangers, but a shootout in said final game to make it into the playoffs as the seventh seed.  Before the season started, it was an absolute expectation that the Flyers would make the playoffs easily—after all, it was The Hockey News that picked them to win it all this past season.

GM Paul Holmgren looked to potentially solidify the goaltending position by signing Ray Emery to a one year deal, and to anchor the defense by acquiring the gargantuan Chris Pronger by sending Luca Sbisa, Joffrey Lupul and two first round picks to Anaheim.

The Orange and Black started off their season rather well. Returning coach John Stevens seemed to have the team under control and playing a bit more of an uptempo game than before.  But then the team took an absolute tailspin in December. Mike Richards’ leadership qualities were tested and scrutinized, and every goaltender under the sun for the Flyers became injured.

After falling to 14th in the Eastern Conference, and becoming the team that was the easiest to beat in the entire NHL for two weeks, Holmgren pulled the trigger on replacing John Stevens with Peter Laviolette. Laviolette’s promised a different Flyers team, but for the first few weeks, that seemed like a statement full of hot air. Something was seriously wrong.

Holmgren decided to take a real stab in the dark, to bring in a journeyman to become a stopgap at goal: Michael Leighton. The Flyers turned their season around with a strong performance by Leighton in Tampa Bay, defeating the Lightning 5-2.  It felt like their first win in forever.  Suddenly, Leighton was stopping so many pucks, the Flyers were actually able to win games consecutively.

They became the hottest team in the NHL, climbing to as high as 5th in the East around the Olympic break. That break took the Flyers down a notch, becoming a .500 team until the end. But it was that fated shootout, and “the save by [Brian] Boucher” that propelled the team into the playoffs.

The Flyers rolled over Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils in five games in the first round. It seemed like there was no contest, and the team was playing at their best, even when losing Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne in the span of one game.

They then proceeded to stun the hockey world by making history against the Boston Bruins.  The O&B fell to 3-0 in the series, but never gave up. Boucher won game four, and Leighton came back after a freak injury to Boucher to win games five, six and eventually seven, after being 3-0 down in game seven alone.  You knew then that this team was special.

The Flyers proceeded to roll over the Cinderella Story Montreal Canadiens in five games, capturing the Prince of Wales Trophy, and the title of Eastern Conference Champions.

However, a tough Stanley Cup Finals for Richards and the Flyers ended in defeat against the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. Michael Leighton ran out of magic, Chris Pronger tired out after playing 30 minutes every game, Carter and Gagne couldn’t regain their scoring touches coming back from injury, and Daniel Briere’s historic 30-point performance in the playoffs came to an astounding halt.

Eastern Conference Champions, as well as a bitter aftertaste of the season was all the Flyers could take from this past season.

Checking In (Acquisitions)

RW Nikolai Zherdev

LW Jody Shelley

D Andrej Meszaros

D Sean O’Donnell

D Matt Walker

Checking Out (Departures)

LW Simon Gagne

D Lukas Krajicek

LW Riley Cote

The Season Ahead

Largely untouched, other for the fact that longtime winger Simon Gagne has moved on, the Eastern Conference Champions build is mostly the exact same. The center core of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, Claude Giroux and Blair Betts are still there. While a few may have to move to wing to accommodate the backup at the center position, it’s certainly a good problem to have.

The Flyers can build on becoming a more consistent team that can play at a high level, like they did in the playoffs. Laviolette’s uptempo system worked very well for the forecheck-heavy Flyers, and a full season under his direction will only set the Flyers in a better direction than the slacking one that John Stevens had the team under.

The Flyers’ acquisitions on D were clearly to make sure that Chris Pronger would not play 30 minutes a night and become absolutely worn out when he was clearly needed at the end of the road. He certainly did a commendable job in that position, but it showed he was out of gas entirely.

Two big questions come to mind with this team: was Michael Leighton’s last season a fluke? And what will the ever-enigmatic Nikolai Zherdev do in terms of production for this year’s Flyers team?

Otherwise, smooth sailing for the Orange and Black this year…we hope. Anything is smooth sailing compared to last year! Who to Watch














C Daniel Briere

We never got the best dose of Danny Briere until this past playoff run. In his first season in the City of Brotherly Love, he put up 72 points (apparently that sucked by fan standards), missed most of his second year, and in his third, he ended up with 53 points, partially blamed to bad linemates and personal issues. But did he ever pick it up for the Flyers in the playoffs.  Mr. Playoffs, affectionately dubbed, put up 12 goals, 18 assists for 30 points and a plus-9 while working alongside wingers Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino. If Briere can not only find a way to play center for the entire year, as he is more comfortable there, and rekindle his chemistry with Hartnell and Leino, look out Eastern Conference, he will easily put up 90+ points.












RW Nikolai Zherdev

There’s not much to say about this enigmatic winger for the Flyers. He has big shoes to fill, filling in as Simon Gagne’s replacement. But the dude has some serious puckhandling skills. He could be a key cog in the powerplay or the shootout. If he can put it together, Zherdev will look like one of Holmgren’s more genius moves.











C Claude Giroux

This player is on the cusp of greatness…as well as on the cusp of a Restricted Free Agency year. The 22-year-old forward from Hearst, Ontario didn’t exactly dazzle in this past year with the expectations put on him, ending up with 47 points. He showed those occasional flashes of greatness—sickening dekes and unbelievable passes—but not all the time. It seemed like in the playoffs, he started to put the pieces together. He ended up anchoring the third line all year, but he made his linemates Arron Asham and James van Riemsdyk very productive in the process. Giroux ended with 21 points (10 G, 11 A) in 23 playoff games. We’ll never forget the goal in game 3 that gave us Flyers fans hope. 610 WIP’s Tim Saunders’ excitement when that moment happened will always be one of those moments that brings a smile to my face. Anyway, Giroux is on the verge of greatness—is this the year he puts it together?

PKLC Prediction

Division Rank – 2nd in Atlantic

Conference Rank – 4th in East

Playoffs – Stanley Cup Champions (yeah, that’s right)

Final Word

The Flyers have the pieces in place, and the bad taste in their mouths to know what it takes to win. If Leighton can become more consistent and not buckle under the extreme pressure, the Flyers have the offensive and defensive weapons to make it happen in the playoffs. They can easily challenge Washington or Pittsburgh, should they show up in their path.



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