September 22, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester (see also Flyers eulogy): Sixth in the Eastern Conference (42-29-11, 95 points). Eliminated the Washington Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals.
Obscured by the stories of Rocky statue desecration and the team's reputation for the rough stuff was the fact that the Philadelphia Flyers suddenly had a foundation of hard-working, timely scoring forwards that you build a championship team on.
Forgetting Mike Richards and Danny Briere for a moment, it's guys like Joffrey Lupul, Scottie Upshall, Mike Knuble, Scott Hartnell and the grittier fourth-line guys that made the difference throughout the postseason.
Well, along with a playoff newbie in goal that, for the first time in franchise history since Hextall left the roster, was better than advertised in the playoffs.
Other than say some difficult goodbyes to a few veterans from that run, the Flyers didn't do much this summer. Their roster is filled with homegrown talent, free agents that fit the plan and burgeoning young stars.
So repeating the question asked in every dive bar, cheese steak stand and call-in show on WIP in Philly: Is this the year for the Flyers?
Homecoming King (Top Player): Make no mistake that Mike Richards is the team's best player. But we'll get to him in a moment.
Yet all he did was score 17 points in his last 15 regular season games, and then 16 points in 17 postseason games, including three game-winning goals.
It was a year to work out the jitters, to accept the weight of the contract. This season, Briere will likely score over 30 goals and get his point totals closer to the 93 he had two years ago than the 72 he had last season.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): He's 23 years old and the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. Now here's the real question: Will Mike Richards crack the 90-point mark this season?
His numbers for creating offense when it's five-on-five are outstanding, and he had 31 power-play points and five shorthanded goals last season. The sky would appear to be the limit for Richards; the question now becomes which linemates he'll play with this year.
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): I don't believe the Flyers really wanted to bid farewell to many of the players who left the team during the summer; outside of perhaps Patrick Thoresen, whose contractual demands were rather eccentric, but who deserves an eternal break for taking a puck to the beans.
But such is life in a capped league. Vaclav Prospal was a rental returning back to the Lightning. Defenseman Jaroslav Modry left for Europe. Perhaps the most frustrating loss was that of R.J. Umberger, a blue-collar center with some upside whose RFA demands become too high and who was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He'll be missed.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): It was a quiet off-season for the Flyers, especially in comparison to the previous off-season's reshaping of the roster. Most of the additions were necessities (goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin), small tweaks to the lower lines (Arron Asham) or a swing of the butterfly net in the hopes that a few defensemen get caught (Ossi Vaananen, Patrik Hersley, Danny Syvret, Steve Eminger).
One name to note: Glen Metropolit, an extraordinarily hard-working center who is a quintessential sparkplug player in the NHL.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Uncharacteristically, the Flyers dropped the gloves a few times last season. (/sarcasm)
Like 63 times, to be exact.
Riley Cote, he of the off-season MMA training, led the way with 24 fights; Scott Hartnell, Steve Downie and even Mike Richards added a few of their own. Arron Asham was a fighter and a fourth-line checker for the Devils. But when gloves must be dropped, Cote will be the one to drop them more often than not:
As far as pest go, Downie is a pain in the rump when he's playing his game. And as Sidney Crosby can attest, Richards has the ability to leap under one's skin.
Teacher of the Year: John Stevens went from being a coach in job jeopardy to The Hockey News coach of the year, earning a two-year contract extension in the process. GM Paul Holmgren deserves most of the credit for the team's turnaround, rebuilding the roster on the fly over the last two seasons, but Stevens juggled lineups through injuries and coached a good game in the postseason. Perhaps most stunning of all: Stevens and the Flyers were able to put behind them the seemingly inescapable reputation from earlier in the season of a thuggish team out of control.
The Custodians (Goalies): Martin Biron hadn't started 59 games in a season since 2002 with the Buffalo Sabres. His first full season in Philadelphia started quite strongly but had its bouts of inconsistency. His 2.98 GAA in the postseason included a 6-0 elimination game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Goaltending has traditionally been the first concern with any Flyers team that appears as though it can contend. Biron helped calm those fears with his performance last season, but he simply cannot regress. But he's playing for a contract, so the chances of that are slim.
With Antero Niittymaki on the shelf for over a month after hip surgery, Jean-Sebastien Aubin will be the backup at the start of the season.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): The news that Derian Hatcher was placed on injured reserve grabbed some headlines, but he was a pylon last season who played just 44 games and saw his ice time decrease. He's a loss in name only.
Much more important is the loss of defenseman Jason Smith, who took his leadership and physical game to the Ottawa Senators. Losing both Hatcher and Smith takes away some vital muscle from the blueline.
They'll miss Smith's leadership, but the Flyers have one of the best defensive leaders in the conference in Kimmo Timonen. Great in the room and a commander on the ice, calls for him to ascend to the captaincy were legit.
Braydon Coburn is a very good, very versatile two-way defenseman. Randy Jones is a steady defenseman when he's not screwing the Bruins' season. Ossi Vaananen, Danny Syvret, Steve Eminger and Lasse Kukkonen fill out the ranks, with Bryan Berard on outside contender for a roster spot in camp. Defenseman Ryan Parent can't mature fast enough for the Flyers; they could use him this season.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Three thoughts ...
First, it always gives us pause when a player with two games and two shots on goal (and a minus-2, no less) in the NHL is being touted as a potential Calder Trophy winner. So Claude Giroux, you're on notice.
Second, we'd like nothing more than for Simon Gagne to return to action healthy and stay in the lineup. But concussions and the Flyers have had a long, nasty relationship, so we'll believe it when we see it.
Third ... well, let's just say our faith in Steve Downie after last postseason has never been lower. And that's counting the suspension.
AV Club (Media): The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News cover the heck out of the team, as does Anthony Sanfilippo of the Delco Times and the staff at PhillyBurbs. Non-MSM Flyers blogs we read include The 700 Level, Flyers Fan Central, eager to go psycho, Flyers Goal Scored By ..., and Flyers Femme.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Beyond concerns that the goaltending could go the way Flyers goaltending usually goes, the offensive balance on this team needs some fine-tuning. There's been talk that Stevens may opt for a monster line of Gagne-Richards-Briere. That's awfully tantalizing, especially with the way a star-studded top line like Ottawa's has carried that team. But would Hartnell-Carter-Knuble put a scare in anyone like having Richards or Briere centering them would?
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B+
Prom Theme: "Livin' on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi, which used to be a Central Jersey band before its lead singer adopted Philadelphia through an arena football fetish. The "prayer" is, of course, that this collection of homegrown standouts and big-ticket acquisitions is finally the right mix to bring another Stanley Cup home to Philly ... for the first time since "All in the Family" was the No. 1 show on television.
Expected Graduation: I stared at the Atlantic Division standing for quite a while. I thought about the Devils' defense turning into a pumpkin. I thought about the Rangers failing another chemistry test. I thought about the Penguins taking the traditional step back for a Stanley Cup finals bridesmaid.
And I was left with the Philadelphia Flyers as division champions.
Maybe the impression this hard-working group made in last year's playoffs has stayed with me, but they're my choice to take the banner. The defense isn't perfect and they would still use a little something more on the wings. But they look like a team that will never give you a night off, and that seems primed for an outstanding season.