We're barreling down the stretch now with our season previews as camps are establishing their rosters. Jobs will be won, hearts will be broken, and some interesting developments can occur out of injury and necessity. Before you know it, the puck will drop on regular season hockey and we'll see how close to the mark (or how far off) we were with our predictions.
And now, the Philadelphia Flyers
Team M.O.: The Broad Street Bullies still use a formula of toughness to go with a balanced attack that is fortified by sound forwards, excellent defenders, and, well, some somewhat-average goalies. It was a semi-successful formula for them last season...
Last Season: They made the playoffs as a Seventh seed in the Eastern Conference thanks to a shootout, but they parlayed that into an Eastern Conference Championship before losing the Stanley Cup Finals to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. Many said better goaltending could have won the series, but the Flyers, for some reason, are content with what they have.
Offense: Not many teams have the kind of offensive depth to allow them to roll three scoring lines the way the Flyers do. The Flyers couldn't have asked for more when they drafted Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in 2003. Richards has become a solid all-around forward an leader while Carter's been a boon to their offensive production. Daniel Briere remained healthy for most of last season and really dominated come playoff time; he might be small but he can definitely score. Scott Hartnell saw his production drop a bit last season but he still provides the team with a legitimate power forward who can fight and generate points. Ville Leino came alive for the Flyers last season after a subpar campaign with the Detroit Red Wings; Flyers fans will hope they see the guy they met during the playoffs and not the guy Detroit knew as an inconsistent goal-scorer with defensive issues. James van Riemsdyk started off strong but started to run out of gas at the end of the season; this is not uncommon with young players and it was better for him to have his funk then instead of going into this season with the "sophomore slump." Nikolai Zherdev comes back from Russia and will look to return with his top-end offensive skills to go with an overall-improved attitude towards playing in North America; that could be the sleeper signing of the off-season. Claude Giroux also took some big steps forward last season and gives the team with a solid playmaker who knows who to get the puck to score. It would be interesting to see who ends up tabbed with the Number 9 duties. Bill Guerin was brought over on a tryout-contract and will realistically win the job if Darroll Powe or even David Laliberte can't win the job in camp.
That fourth line's gonna be super-nasty, though. Ian Laperriere and Dan Carcillo are both solid checkers who can rile up the opposition; the difference being that Laperriere provides leadership and can pick his spots better. Jody Shelley was brought over to act as the team's resident enforcer while Blair Betts gives the team a solid checking center. Andreas Nodl and Jonathon Kalinski will also be battling for depth spots at camp.
There's nothing they could do to improve this setup; they've got the best group of offensive forwards in the Eastern Conference if not the league.
Defense: Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen remain their big-money defensemen and for great reason: Chris Pronger can dominate the game in a variety of ways while Timonen is a solid point-producing defender who excels on the power play. Matt Carle enjoyed his best season since his rookie year in San Jose and the Flyers will hope they can help revive the career of Andrej Meszaros, who was traded for after two disastrous season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Braydon Coburn may not be a big point producer but is valuable in a defensive role while Sean O'Donnell was signed as a free agent to provide toughness and leadership. Matt Walker and Oskars Bartulis will battle for the depth spot in camp.
It would be hard to realistically make this defensive corps better and I put them amongst the best defensive corps in the league.
Goaltending: Well, with such an impressive group of forwards and defensemen you knew it had to get somewhat thin elsewhere. I will give Michael Leighton credit though, he took significant steps forward for the team both during the regular season and the playoffs. Yet even with this in consideration, he should be a guy who gets in roughly 30-40 games with someone to share starting duties with. While Brian Boucher showed some flashes of brilliance during the post-season, he hasn't necessarily been a solid option for the Flyers and might do better to be sent to the minors instead of remaining with the big squad. Johan Backlund also factors into the goaltending battle at camp and while he has the experience at a minor and European level, his individual numbers have never been in the elite category, so there's the question as to how well he'd do for the club after the preseason's over.
You can bet that these guys will be watching the waiver wire for an available goaltender (read: Thomas Greiss from the San Jose Sharks.) If they can't find one over waivers and neither Boucher or Backlund are up to task to platoon with Leighton, then maybe a veteran like Jose Theodore would take a small, short contract just to get back in the league again.
Management: Despite Paul Holmgren's battle to work with the salary cap (which will only be magnified once Carter goes RFA), he's erased the memories of the team's crushingly disappointing 2006-07 season by making the moves necessary to get the team back to being Cup Contenders. Peter Laviolette was hired last off-season as the head coach and while he may have preached an anti-fighting game with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Flyers looked like their usual selves without the amount of penalties a team like the Anaheim Ducks incurs. As long as the right players keep coming up through the system and the team keeps winning, these two can do whatever they need to.
Prediction: Second in the Atlantic Division and in the playoffs.
The New Jersey Devils are better because their team's a bit more balanced but the Flyers are still as every bit competitive as any other team in the league. They'll need to push hard come playoff time, though, because after this season, they may be faced with a mass exodus of players similar to what the Chicago Blackhawks had to suffer through after they won the championship last season.