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Defense, goaltending top priorities for Flyers

Saturday, 08.22.2009 / 3:00 AM / 30 in 30

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

This is the 22nd installment of our 30 Teams in 30 Days feature, focusing on the Philadelphia Flyers franchise. In it, we look at the franchise as a whole in the State of the Union section, focus on the team's up-and-coming reinforcements in the Prospect Roundup section and recap this season's selections in the Draft Recap section. NHL Network also gets in on the fun with a block of Flyers programming Saturday night from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

STATE OF THE UNION


The Philadelphia Flyers had clearly defined goals going into the summer -- solve their goaltending situation, shore up their defense and clean up their salary-cap issues.

They managed to accomplish all three, but a fair share of questions remains regarding just how much the Flyers improved heading into the 2009-10 season.

Acquiring veteran defenseman Chris Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks certainly helped their defense. The price was high -- forward Joffrey Lupul, promising young defenseman Luca Sbisa, a 2009 first-round pick and a conditional pick in 2010 or 2011. The Flyers signed Pronger -- who has one year left on his current contract -- to a seven-year, $35 million extension that will carry the six-time NHL All-Star through his 42nd birthday.

"Chris brings a lot of things to any team he's on," Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said. "He's a proven winner and obviously he brings size. He can pass the puck as well as anybody and he brings a nice, physical presence both in stature and the way he plays."

Pronger is 6-foot-6 and 214 pounds and carries a mean streak to match. He'll provide Philadelphia the intimidating defensive-zone presence it has lacked since Derian Hatcher left the lineup.

As good a defense that includes Pronger, All-Star Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and Ryan Parent is, the key to the season could be how the last line of defense performs.

To that end, the Flyers let go of last season's netminders, Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki, and are gambling on the NHL return of Ray Emery.

After leading Ottawa to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, Emery went through a disastrous 2007-08 season which included numerous on- and off-ice issues, culminating with him being bought out of his three-year contract after one season. Things were so sour for Emery the best job he could find was in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

"Where there is perceived risk in business, a lot of times there is a great opportunity for the organization -- and for Ray," Flyers President Peter Luukko said. "Ray had a bump in the road ... (but) that bump is a great opportunity for the Flyers and for Ray."

"Chris brings a lot of things to any team he's on. He's a proven winner and obviously he brings size. He can pass the puck as well as anybody and he brings a nice, physical presence both in stature and the way he plays."
-- Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren

At $1.5 million for one season, Emery was a judicious pick-up for a team bumping against the upper limits of the salary cap. The Flyers also spent lightly on backup netminder Brian Boucher (two years, $1.8 million). The discount approach to goaltending was a necessary gamble for Holmgren, but one the GM feels comfortable with.

"I'm happy with our goaltending situation right now," Holmgren said. "We have two motivated guys. Both work hard and both feel like they have something to prove."

The discount approach also cost them power forward Mike Knuble, who left for Washington. His loss will most be felt on the power play, where he had 11 goals and helped the Flyers rank sixth in the League at 22.5 percent last season.

"We may have to rework things a little bit with personnel," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "For the most part, the ingredients to a successful power play don't change."

The Flyers remain deep at forward, where they return all four of their 30-goal scorers from last season -- Jeff Carter (46), Simon Gagne (34), Mike Richards (30) and Scott Hartnell (30). Plus, they'll add two players who already were under contract. Danny Briere, who played just 29 games due to groin and abdominal muscle injuries, should return healthy. And Claude Giroux, who tied for the team lead in playoff scoring, will get a full season with the big club.

The Flyers are still pressed near the upper limits of the salary cap, but they were able to get tougher by signing Ian Laperriere, who had 19 points and 163 penalty minutes last season with Colorado. He gives the Flyers four players who had at least 150 penalty minutes last season, joining Daniel Carcillo (League-high 254), Riley Cote (174) and Arron Asham (155).

"I think the fans in Philadelphia are going to love (Laperriere's) style of play and his enthusiasm and effervescent game," said Holmgren.

How long that love-fest lasts will be determined by how well the Flyers reached their summer goals.

PROSPECT ROUNDUP

The Flyers were pilloried in some corners for trading Sbisa as part of the Pronger deal, but they could afford to move the promising defenseman because of the rich crop of prospects they've cultivated over the last few years.

Forwards Andreas Nodl, Giroux and Darroll Powe all made impacts last season, and there's certainly more talent to come.

Here's a look at five top prospects in the Flyers' system:

James Van Riemsdyk -- The second pick of the 2007 Entry Draft made his pro debut last season with the club's AHL affiliate, and at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds and with great touch around the net, he'll have a chance to replace Mike Knuble as a net presence on the power play and earn a spot as a top-six forward.

"He's a big, gangly kid, and he needs to grow into his body," Flyers Director of Player Development Don Luce told NHL.com. "He's going to get bigger and stronger, and he needs to learn to the pro game. He's a kid that's willing to work at his game and he has a lot of raw, natural talent."

Kevin Marshall -- The Flyers drafted the 6-1, 191-pound defenseman in the second round in 2007 (No. 41) because they liked his grit and defensive-zone play, but he's developed an offensive element that saw him score 35 and 38 points in his last two QMJHL seasons. Marshall could compete for a sixth or seventh defenseman role this season, but likely will start the season in the AHL.

Marc-Andre Bourdon -- The 2008 third-round pick (No. 67) had a breakout offensive season, finishing third among QMJHL defensemen with 18 goals and fourth with 60 points, and also showed a willingness to throw around his 6-foot, 206-pound frame.

"He showed us he's a much more competitive, physical player than I thought," Luce said. "He's shown he has a physical side to his game and he likes to compete." Luce said

Bourdon likely will start the season in the AHL.

Patrick Maroon -- Conditioning always has been an issue for the 2007 sixth-round pick, but now 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Maroon finished his first AHL season with a team-best 11 power-play goals. His size and skills could have him in the mix for an NHL job this season.

"He's got great hands," Luce said. "He can do things with the puck that not too many people can do."

Oskars Bartulis -- The Flyers were happy with how the Russian defenseman developed in his second AHL season.

"His game came along, not so much in the numbers aspect, but he was stronger on the ice and in front of the net and in the corners," Luce said. "I think his game came along really well. ... He's got good size (6-2, 184) and strength and he can skate well. He's a kid that can be on the edge of knocking on that (NHL) door."

DRAFT RECAP

The Flyers got a defenseman with their first pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, the same as they did a year ago. Only, this defenseman came equipped with a Hall-of-Fame resume.

On the first night of the '09 Entry Draft, the Flyers sent their first pick, Lupul, Sbisa, and a conditional pick in 2010 or 2011 to the Anaheim Ducks for Pronger, a six-time All-Star and Hart and Norris trophy winner.

"It was a lot to get him," said Holmgren. "Joffrey is a fine young man and Luca Sbisa is going to be a good player."

Also without their second-round pick -- sent to Tampa Bay last season for forward Vaclav Prospal -- the Flyers used their six remaining selections to take a pair of players from each spot on the ice -- a pair of goaltenders, two Scandinavian defensemen and two forwards.

Here is a quick look at the six selections the Flyers made:

Adam Morrison -- With their first pick -- No. 81, in the third round -- the Flyers picked the 6-foot-3 goaltender from Saskatoon of the WHL. As a WHL rookie he 9-1-1 with a 2.47 goals-against average in 13 games.

Simon Bertilsson -- Six picks after selecting Morrison, they picked the 6-foot, 185-pound defenseman. Bertilsson had 1 assist in 21 games with Brynas in the Swedish Elite League, but had 31 points in 30 games with Brynas' junior team, and a plus-5 rating for Sweden at the World Under-18 Championship.

Nicola Riopel -- The Flyers took another goaltender with their lone fifth-round pick (No. 142). One of the oldest players in the draft, Riopel could be a late-bloomer. Playing with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he went 43-15-0 with a 2.01 GAA and .931 save percentage to win the league MVP.

Dave Labrecque -- In the sixth round (No. 153), the Flyers drafted a center who had 61 points and a plus-23 rating while helping the Shawinigan Cataractes reach the QMJHL final.

Eric Wellwood -- With their second sixth-round pick (No. 172), the club picked a 5-11, 179-pound left wing who had 10 goals and 21 points in 20 OHL playoff games with the Windsor Spitfires, after scoring just 34 points in 61 regular-season games.

Oliver Lauridsen -- With their final pick, in the seventh round (No. 196), the Flyers drafted their first-ever Danish-born player. The 6-6, 220-pound defenseman had 1 assist and 38 penalty minutes as a freshman last season at St. Cloud State University. With Linkopings HC in the top Swedish junior league in 2007-08, he had 5 goals and 159 penalty minutes in 35 games.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.


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