2008-09 Team Preview: Philadelphia Flyers
Chris Gardner/US Presswire
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunThere was hardly a better story in hockey last season than the Flyers; but, unfortunately for them, they happen to share a state with the Stanley Cup finalist Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers went from dead last in the NHL in 2006-07 to a trip to the conference finals one year later. Gigantic steps for a young and talented team that's only getting better. "Last year, our goal was to move forward, and I remember [GM] Paul Holmgren saying we needed to play meaningful games in March and April," Flyers center Daniel Briere told ESPN.com. "We did. We got to the final four. This year, the expectations are a lot higher. We gained a lot of experience last year and confidence. We came together as a team after having lots of guys come from other organizations.
"But we didn't accomplish anything last year, and that's why I'm hoping the guys will be just as hungry as a year ago."
The Flyers will miss Umberger's two-way play and grit, but Holmgren tried to cover that with the additions of Arron Asham and Glen Metropolit. Otherwise, it's still a potent offensive lineup led by Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Joffrey Lupul, Scott Hartnell, Mike Knuble and, of course, Briere.
And the offense will get an added spark if former 40-goal man Simon Gagne can return with a healthy season after missing most of last season with a concussion. Briere views him almost like a splashy offseason signing.
"For us, he's like our key addition," said Briere. "It's like one of the best pickups this summer of any team. You add a player of his caliber to the lineup, it's a big positive."
Also keep an eye on Claude Giroux. The prospect had a huge season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2007-08, and while he may begin the year with the AHL's Phantoms, don't be surprised if he's on the big club by the end of the season.
The injuries to Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn in the Eastern Conference finals and subsequent quick exit against Pittsburgh signaled to Holmgren he needed to add more depth on his blue line. While the Flyers lost Smith, they did add Steve Eminger and Ossi Vaananen to a group that includes Ryan Parent, Randy Jones, Lasse Kukkonen and veteran Derian Hatcher.
The Flyers made huge strides defensively last season but still want to get better after finishing 18th in goals-against (2.77 per game). Look for Holmgren to take a good look at how his blue-line corps plays in the first half; if he's not satisfied, he'll make another move before the trade deadline.
In Buffalo, Martin Biron played behind Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller. In Biron's first full season with the Flyers, he silenced those who wondered whether he had the goods to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. Biron won 30 games while posting a 2.59 GAA and .918 save percentage. But his strongest play came in the playoffs, when he outdueled Washington's Cristobal Huet and Montreal's Carey Price in a pair of series victories.
The Flyers have good depth in goal with Antero Niittymaki as Biron's backup. A silver medalist with Finland's 2006 Olympic team, Niittymaki could eventually push Biron hard this season and make him earn his starts. But the Finn begins the season behind the 8-ball; he missed all of training camp after having minor surgery on his left hip.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterFlyers GM Paul Holmgren knows that talented young players generally get better with age and experience. The biggest improvement in Philly this season is the fact that stud defenseman Braydon Coburn, leading scorer and new captain Mike Richards, and tough, two-way center Jeff Carter will each turn 24, while last season's trade acquisitions, Joffrey Lupul, Scottie Upshall and Scott Hartnell, will turn 25, 26 and 27, respectively, over the next season. (Anyone know the age at which Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards won their first Stanley Cup? That's right, 24!)
The one issue that could cause Holmer to lose sleep will be the health of his squad, starting with backup goalie Antero Niittymaki. Starter Martin Biron silenced a lot of doubters last season; however, the nature of the beast in the NHL is "What have you done for me lately?" Marty must not only pick up where he left off, but he must also shoulder an even greater burden until Niittymaki gets healthy or a suitable backup emerges. Offseason acquisitions Ossi Vaananen and Steve Eminger, plus hot prospect Ryan Parent, will help add depth on the back end.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from the 2001-02 season until resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 42-29-11
• Division: Fourth in the Atlantic
• Conference: Sixth in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in East finals vs. PIT
• The Flyers play eight of 10 games on the road from Dec. 18 to Jan. 6 with stops in Montreal, New Jersey, Chicago, Columbus, Vancouver, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Washington.
Experience: 2 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• John Stevens got a two-year contract extension this summer, well-deserved after coaching the Flyers to a 39-point improvement in the standings from 2006-07 and a stunning trip to the conference finals.
His young core has bought into his system and is becoming a team that's equally effective at both ends of the ice. Stevens is understated and doesn't grab headlines like other NHL coaches, but his measured approach is working.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Simon Gagne
• Entering his ninth season with Philly. Can he return to the 40-goal form that made him the most dangerous offensive weapon on this team?
F -- Mike Richards
• Entering his fourth season with Philly. The 23-year-old leader of the Flyers broke through with a 75-point campaign last year. The best is yet to come.
F -- Daniel Briere
• Entering his second season with Philly. The early look in pre-season had him playing wing. Nice looking line.
D -- Kimmo Timonen
• Entering his second season with Philly. Long underrated and overlooked in Nashville, he showed last season why he's one of the best all-around blueliners in the NHL.
D -- Braydon Coburn
• Entering his second season with Philly. This guy is just scratching the surface. He's going to be a stud on the Flyers' blue line for years to come.
Answer: "I think so," goalie Martin Biron told ESPN.com. "I think everybody talks about last year being an amazing year. But, as a whole, there's some things that we need to clean up. To get into the playoffs in the second-to-last game is something you can never be too comfortable with.
"There were some really good positives to take from last year, but also some lessons about consistency and what it takes to do it for a whole year."
Bust: Martin Biron, G: A 30-win, five-shutout season represented a pretty nice 2007-08 season for Biron, but it's about the best we can expect from him in a typical year. Remember his days back in Buffalo?
Outlook: With a solid, deep nucleus of forwards, including Briere, sniper Jeff Carter, breakout 2007-08 center Richards and an on-the-mend Gagne, this team stands a good chance at improving upon its 2.99 goals-per-game rate -- good for sixth in the league -- of last season. You might not find a better team that's more well-rounded in the forward ranks; there's oodles of scoring, power-play and penalty-minute potential here. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft