THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com
What began as an offseason of tremendous excitement and Stanley Cup expectations has been replaced in Flyers land by a nagging feeling of uncertainty. That said, Philadelphia still boasts one of the deepest, most-talented lineups in the NHL.
In the post-lockout frenzy, general manager Bob Clarke moved swiftly and decisively to add key components such as Derian Hatcher, Peter Forsberg, Chris Therien and Mike Rathje, building speed and skill into his lineup in anticipation of a more open NHL without giving away the team's long-standing physical presence.
Offense: Forsberg, arguably the finest all-around player in the game when he's healthy, missed most of the preseason after ankle surgery. Sami Kapanen, a versatile forward who switched to defense during the Flyers' run to the Eastern Conference final in 2004, is gone for the first two months of the season with a shoulder injury. Philadelphia signed veteran Brian Savage as insurance, but all of a sudden a Flyers team that was the preseason lock to win the East and an early pick to win its first Stanley Cup since 1975 has come back to the pack in a hurry.
Defense: Like Forsberg, Hatcher (sprained knee) was out most of the preseason. Still, the Flyers have a terrific blend of youthful promise along the blue line with Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg. Those youngsters should mix in nicely with a solid corps of veterans, such as Eric Desjardins.
Goaltending: Of course, it wouldn't be Philadelphia without some question about goaltending, and incumbent Robert Esche will have to fight off a challenge from AHL playoff hero Antero Niittymaki.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES If we're wrong about Hatcher and Forsberg stays healthy and kids Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are as ready as the Flyers think they are, Philly is the new benchmark for NHL excellence.
If we're right about Hatcher, and the perpetual goaltending circus starts to affect on-ice play, the Flyers might find themselves falling from the top of the standings.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Mike Rathje. An unheralded free-agent signing from the San Jose Sharks, he is more than capable of picking up the defensive slack if Hatcher can't contribute. Look for him to be paired with Pitkanen.
The Flyers have one of the brightest coaching minds in Ken Hitchcock, who won't struggle adapting to new rules. Look for him to direct his team's talents to becoming an opportunistic transition team, forcing turnovers and turning them into odd-man rushes.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> PETER THE GREAT
Forsberg. There's a certain symmetry to Forsberg's return to Philadelphia, the team that drafted him with the sixth pick back in 1991 and, provided he can stay healthy, he's a potential MVP player.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> TOO RISKY
Hatcher. Yes, he won a Cup for Hitchcock in Dallas. But combine his brittleness and the new NHL rules, and Hatcher might become a very expensive liability.
Mark Recchi, LW
Now with the Penguins, Recchi had 26 goals and 49 assists in 2003-04.
Robert Esche, G
Now-ex-teammate Sean Burke had the better record, but Esche posted a 2.04 goals-against average.
“The first team that adjusts is going to
be the winner.”
— Ken Hitchcock's take on new rules