At 7 o’clock tonight in Raleigh, North Carolina the Philadelphia Flyers take their first steps on what many hope will be their journey to a championship. The Hockey News and many other “experts” and publications have pegged the orange and black as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. Since their second consecutive playoff defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins the Flyers decided that their defense was just not good enough to seriously compete come crunch time. General Manager Paul Holmgren has overhauled his defense corps and goaltending and in doing so has sent a clear message across the state and the league that this year will be different.
In: Ray Emery, Brian Boucher, Johan Backlund and goalie coach Jeff Reese
Out: Martin Biron, Antero Nittymaki and goalie coach Reggie Lemelin.
Inconsistency between the pipes for the Flyers was a big reason why they were made to scramble for a playoff spot in the final days of the regular season in 09. Rebound control and puck handling were just two of the many problems that plagued starter Martin Biron during the course of the year. An unrestricted free agent in June, Biron viewed himself as a top level goalie and wanted to be paid accordingly. His reported asking price was over 5 million dollars per season. Not surprisingly the Flyers passed as did every other team in the NHL when it came to rewarding Marty with such a lofty contract. Such a drastic miscalculation of value by Biron and his agent netted him just a 1 year deal for under $1.5 million dollars with the New York Islanders in late July, a $2 million dollar paycut of what he was making with Flyers the last two years. Going to the Island, Biron currently sits behind veteran Dwayne Roloson and injured incumbent Rick Dipietro.
The Flyers took a much more creative approach in acquiring their netminders this offseason. They reached across the Atlantic to lure Ray Emery back to North America from his one year stay in Russia and before that the Flyers plucked veteran Johan Backlund away from the Swedish Elite League. Joining those two but currently on injured reserve is veteran backup and former Flyers first rounder Brian Boucher who comes back to Philly after a two year stint in San Jose. The club also released long time goalie coach Reggie Lemelin who was criticised for the long streak of goalies who always seemed to have their play deteriorate the longer they stayed in Philadelphia. Replacing Lemelin is Jeff Reese., formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning where he won a Stanley Cup in 04. Reese is a young coach at only 43 but he is a veteran of 13 NHL seasons between the pipes and holds the league record for most points and assists in a game for a goalie with 3. Reese’s biggest job will be keeping the athletic Emery within a sound technical structure and not allowing the netminder to rely just on his natural ability.
Emery brings size, speed, and fire with him to Philadelphia. He may be the most physically talented keeper the club has had in 20 years. With Emery it’s all about whether he can keep his head on straight and not let his competitive nature overshadow the goal at hand which is obviously to just win hockey games. He is on a 1 year “show me” contract and a strong season will lead to a big pay day for the 27-year-old Ontario native. Nicknamed Razor, he dazzled in the preseason to the tune of a 1.68 gaa and an outstanding 94.0 save pct. in parts of 6 games played.
In: Chris Pronger, Ole-Kristian Tollefson, Danny Syvret
Out: Randy Jones, Luca Sbisa, Andrew Alberts
Tough, smart and nasty are just a couple of the terms you can use to describe veteran defenseman Chris Pronger. A Stanley Cup champion in Anaheim in ’07, Pronger brings his skill and leadership to a Flyers locker room and blue line that at times appeared to lose focus for stretches during last season. Paired with returning all star Kimmo Timonen, and youngsters Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle the Flyers boast arguably the best group of defensemen in the Eastern conference. Besides adding the 6’6 anchor to the group, the Flyers also replaced the depth on the final pairing aswell as some youngesters to the mix with the Phantoms.
Gone from the organization are veteran depth man Andrew Alberts and 19-year-old prospect Luca Sbisa. Replacing them are 4th year pro Danny Syvret and the gritty former Blue Jacket Ole-Kristian Tollefson. Syvret was one of the top defenseman in the AHL last year for the Phantoms and had a strong camp where he beat out incumbent Randy Jones for a spot on the 3rd pairing with fellow former Phantom Ryan Parent. A former 3nd round pick by Edmonton, Syvret has an impressive offensive game with good vision and strong puck skills. He also possesses a strong and accurate shot from the blue line which could lead to some contributions on the 2nd unit power play as the season progresses. Syvret was a teammate of Braydon Coburn, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards on the 2005 Canadian World Junior team, where he notched the winning goal in the gold medal game over Russia to win the tournament for his country.
In: Ian Laperierre, James Van Riemsdyk, Mika Pyorala, Blair Betts
Out: Joffrey Lupul, Mike Knuble
On the surface you would think that losing two players who both scored over 25 goals would be something that most teams would have a hard time recovering from in a short time frame. While the departure of Joffrey Lupul and especially Mike Knuble may sting, their production should be matched by not only talented youngster Claude Giroux but also the resurgent Danny Briere who is back healthy and with the explosion in his legs that he lacked when he returned from his groin strain late in the stretch run last year.
Briere could be the key to the Flyers offense as he is now being used exclusively on the right wing. He will be flanking 46 goal scorer Jeff Carter and 30 goal left winger Scott Hartnell on the Flyers most talented offensive line to start the season.
Surprising many, Flyers ’07 first rounder James Van Riemsdyk made the final roster to open the season and will be starting out at left wing on the Flyers third line. The line will be centered by second year sensation Claude Giroux and more than likely grinder Darroll Powe on the right side. Van Riemsdyk is a big kid who many project to have similar skills to that of Columbus captain Rick Nash but obviously the comparison holds little weight considering tonight will be James’ first real NHL experience. However he was impressive early on in the preseason and appeared to develop really good chemistry with Giroux in the final 2 games.
As big a shock as JVR has been, the real surprise of camp is 28-year-old Finnish forward Mika Pyorala coming out of nowhere to earn a spot on the top line. Coach John Stevens stated this week that Pyorala, a strong two-way veteran of the Finnish and Swedish elite leagues will start the year on the right side of Flyers captain Mike Richards and opposite all-star left wing Simon Gagne. A very smart defensive player, Pyorala has also shown some ability to put the puck in the net during the preseason which he will need to have carry over if he plans on keeping his spot next to two of the games elite forwards.
Vet’s Ian Laperierre and Blair Betts will take a lot of the defensive workload from Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Both are good on face-offs as well as being solid penalty killers. Laperierre’s hands also tend to find themselves being hurled at opposition players who happen to cause any trouble with his teammates. Him along with developing forward Dan Carcillo and grinders Aaron Asham and Riley Cote will give the Flyers plenty of firepower on the 4th line should anyone decide to try and take liberties with anyone dressed in orange.
Projecting is always tough, but even being as objective as possible (which is even harder to do) there are no glaring holes on this roster. If the goaltending can hold up and if the Flyers can avoid the annual rash of defensive injuries there is no reason to think that this team could not have us all see what a parade in the middle of June feels like. The first step is tonight…