Voorhees, NJ – With the new captain established, and all of the summer additions settled into their new lockers, the Flyers opened their 40th year of existence on Friday morning with the first official practice in this 2006 version of Training Camp.
As always, the first day of camp brings a renewed sense of optimism as players get acquainted and re-acquainted with each other on and off the ice. For the players that were here last year, it offers a chance to forget the often ridiculous number of injuries the team suffered last season en route to a first-round playoff exit last May.
"We need to focus on this year now. Last year was another season and this year we've got some new guys and some new faces and we need to bring those guys into the team," said Simon Gagne. "I think we'll be a surprising team this year."
One of the more notable changes is the transition of Peter Forsberg to the captain's role. Forsberg was named the 15th captain in franchise history just one day earlier, as Keith Primeau was forced to retire due to his lingering post-concussion symptoms.
Forsberg's linemate, Mike Knuble, doesn't see that transition as being anything but positive for the Flyers' best player and was asked why he thinks he will make a good captain.
"I think first and foremost his credibility as a player, but the respect of the guys not only in our room but around the league and as far as opponents, guys who played with him and guys who played against him," said Knuble. "He's lost his spleen playing this game, so there's no doubt everyone has seen what he has done throughout the years."
Forsberg won't be alone in his leadership role, however, as Ken Hitchcock has made it a standard practice to put together a "leadership group" that is there to support the captain.
"It's not like we don't know what we're doing and just staring and looking at him for a reason or for guidance," said Knuble. "[Derian] Hatcher has been a captain in this league for a long time and Simon has been around a long time here and he certainly has the respect of his teammates and opponents. By no means is [Forsberg] out there all by himself."
Forsberg himself is also well aware of what has to be done as a captain, and of the support he has in the locker room from his veteran teammates.
"It's not only being the best guy on the ice, you have to be a good guy outside the rink and the leader in the dressing room," he said. "So it's a lot of things you have to think about, but we have so many older guys here and we have a good group so I don't think it's going be a problem."
Hitchcock Impressed With New Flyers
Immediately following the skate, the Flyers communications staff set up a photo-op for the six new players in the locker room – Mark Cullen, Nolan Baumgartner, Randy Robitaille, Kyle Calder, Marty Murray and Geoff Sanderson. It was the first time that Hitchcock got a chance to see them on the ice, and while he knew that they were added because of their speed, there was another aspect of their play he was happy to see.
"The number one thing that was impressive for me was, yeah, we added a lot of speed, but speed is useless unless there is grit with it. I thought a lot of the quick players that we added showed a lot of grit today," he said.
"That's the way you are going to have to win in this league. All of the speed in the world doesn't work if they are not gritty players, and I saw some players who had quickness but showed really good grit, which I think is going to help us down the line immensely here."
Calder was placed on a line with second year Flyers Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. While it is much too early to speculate that the trio could be together on opening night, it is something that Hitchcock wanted to experiment with after seeing the three play together at the World Championships in Lativa over the summer.
"We wanted to look at the combination of Calder, Carter and Richards early in camp. We know how good a center iceman Carter is, but we have to use [R.J.] Umberger in the right area."
Umberger and Carter had good chemistry together at the end of last season, but Hitchcock wanted to see Umberger back at his natural center position. Umberger skated with Sanderson and Petr Nedved.