Flyers ready to soar

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

The Flyers weren't as good as their finish last season, which was one step shy of the Stanley Cup finals after a 39-point rebound from the 2006-07 season.

This is not intended to be harsh criticism of an otherwise impressive turnaround. Instead, it echoes the sentiments of general manager Paul Holmgren, who reminded his team after watching division-rival Pittsburgh march to the Stanley Cup finals that Philadelphia won nothing last season.

Holmgren looked at his roster, weighed it against the challenges of pushing the salary cap ceiling and continued to reshape a team that misinterpreted how the new NHL would look like in 2005. But now the Flyers have found a way back into title contention.

Like the Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars and New York Rangers, the Flyers are getting younger on the fly. That slow and plodding defense that came out of the NHL lockout is transformed to a puck-moving, mobile unit. The future up front is led by young veterans Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Scottie Upshall. And the always unsettled goaltending situation in Philly suddenly wasn't the reason for a postseason letdown, as late-blooming Martin Biron took hold of the No. 1 job last season and wouldn’t let go.

But maybe the biggest reason for optimism, in addition to momentum the Flyers bring into the new season, is the expected return of high-scoring left wing Simon Gagne.

The 28-year-old was limited to only 25 games early last season as concussion issues plagued the team's most dynamic offensive performer. Gagne figures to give Philadelphia a shot in the arm if he can return for a full season. He scored a career-high 47 goals in 2005-06 and added 41 the following season.

Gagne figures to pair on the first line with veteran center Daniel Briere, who struggled during his first regular season in Philadelphia after a big-money signing but was clutch in the deep postseason run.

The Flyers could have a formidable attack considering they're adding Gagne to a group that produced seven 20-goal scorers last season. They might be the only team in the division that can match Pittsburgh's arsenal, yet Philly might be able to play with more grit.

Last season's conference finals should serve as only a prelude to more intense battles between these two teams this season.

Last season: 42-29-11, 95 points, fourth place Atlantic Division, sixth place Eastern Conference. A great bounce-back season for the Flyers, who finished dead last (56 points) in the league the year before. Philly's run didn't end until the conference championship. Philadelphia beat Washington in overtime of Game 7 on the road in the opening round, upset top-seeded Montreal in just five games in the second round, and lost to intra-state rival Pittsburgh in five games of the third round.

Imports: D Steve Eminger (2007-08 team: Washington Capitals), C Glen Metropolit (Boston Bruins), D Bryan Berard (New York Islanders), RW Arron Asham (New Jersey Devils), G Jean-Sebastien Aubin (Anaheim Ducks), D Ossi Vaananen (Sweden), D Sean Curry (Boston Bruins), D Danny Syvret (Edmonton Oilers), D Janne Niskala (Nashville Predators), D Tim Ramholt (Calgary Flames), D Patrik Hersley (Los Angeles Kings), LW Ned Lukacevic (Los Angeles Kings).

Exports: D Jason Smith (Ottawa Senators), RW Sami Kapanen (retired), C R.J. Umberger (Columbus Blue Jackets), LW Vaclav Prospal (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Jaroslav Modry (Europe), D Denis Gauthier (Los Angeles Kings), C Patrick Thoresen (Europe), C Ryan Potulny (Edmonton Oilers), LW Triston Grant (Nashville Predators), LW Kyle Greentree (Calgary Flames).

Three keys to the season: First, the Flyers have to continue to hone in on effective first passes. The defense continues to evolve, and they cut the goals-against by 70 from 2006-07 to last season. Jason Smith brought leadership and a competitive edge to the room in his one and only season, but he's gone. Cagey veteran Derian Hatcher may have run out of time. His knees aren't allowing him to even start training camp. He was placed in injured reserve and there is concern if Hatcher will play again. That means the keys now on defense are Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Randy Jones, Ossi Vaananen, Steve Eminger, Lasse Kukkonen and maybe even Bryan Berard, who is in camp on a tryout basis.

Second, Biron has to prove last season was no fluke. After seizing the No. 1 spot in goal and appearing in more games than in any of his nine NHL seasons, Biron wants to be more consistent. Antero Niittymaki appears OK with falling back to a secondary role. The combination could work well for Philadelphia, but an injury or slump at this position could leave the team exposed because there's no one on the horizon ready for promotion.

Third, those mid-level scorers need to fill their assigned roles. We're talking about Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul, newcomer Glen Metropolit and even the tough guys who can play on the edge – Riley Cote and Steve Downie. Philadelphia doesn't need huge years from any of these players, just consistent, disciplined performances that fit into coach John Stevens' successful system.

On the hot seat: Mike Richards suddenly has a lot on his plate this season. The 23-year-old, who was selected 24th overall in 2003 with just three years in the league, signed a 12-year extension in December and was bestowed the designation as team captain days before the opening of training camp. Richards nearly tripled his best goal output for a season with 28 last year, and he finished at better than a point-a-game player (75 points in 73 games). He'll likely play second-line center but will see plenty of special teams' minutes as well. A big season from Richards could have a trickle-down effect throughout the roster.

Poised to blossom: Keep an eye on rookie winger Claude Giroux. He's a bit undersized at 5-foot-10 and 180 lbs., but that kind of player has a place in the new NHL, especially when he has blazing speed, great visibility, playmaking skills and is willing to go into dirty areas to make a play. Wouldn't it be an interesting fit if Stevens could put Gagne-Briere-Giroux together? Oh, how the Montreal Canadiens would be jealous.

Analysis and prediction: Holmgren and Stevens have the proper vision, and they're executing their goals despite salary cap constraints. Look for Philly to stabilize this season, play more consistent and rise to the top of the Atlantic Division based on their balanced scoring, blend of skill, and grit and rejuvenated play in goal.

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