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Fleischman: Ready to Fly

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
Mention to Danny Briere the high expectations that Flyers fans have for this season and he smiles and says, “That’s a good thing. I’d rather be on that side than on the other side when nobody’s expecting anything out of your team. It was like that last year (but) we didn’t live up to the expectations.”

Briere remembers the abrupt ending to last season when the Flyers led Pittsburgh 3-0 in the sixth game of NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Briere scored the third goal. However, the Flyers then gave up five consecutive goals in a disheartening 5-3 loss.

“We have a better team now,” Briere said. “Everybody’s a little more experienced. At this time of the season a lot of teams believe they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. We’re not any different: that’s the goal.”

Briere is one of the keys to the Flyers season. Injuries limited him to 29 games last season when he scored 11 goals and collected 14 assists. The Flyers need Briere to return to his previous productivity. In his first season with the Flyers he scored 31 goals and added 41 assists. Prior to signing a big-bucks contract with Philadelphia, Briere’s two-season cumulative stats for Buffalo were 57 goals and 96 assists. He is expected to start the season on the right wing on a potent line with Jeff Carter and Scott Hartnell.

Briere is a familiar face in orange and black. Two prominent newcomers are Ray Emery and Chris Pronger.
Ray Emery had a strong preseason in his return to the NHL after a year in Russia. (photo by Jack Cassidy)

Following last season, general manager Paul Holmgren and coach John Stevens decided that the Flyers goaltending and defense needed strengthening. Enter Emery and Pronger.

Holmgren rolled the dice and signed Emery, who had been exiled to Russia. Emery helped the Ottawa Senators reach the Stanley Cup finals in 2007. But behavior and conditioning problems prompted the Senators to point Emery toward the exit roads from Ottawa after the 2007-08 season.

During Emery’s introductory summer press conference with the Flyers he said all the right things about being grateful for another chance in the NHL. Emery, 27, knows if he causes headaches for the Flyers, he probably won’t be wearing an NHL uniform again.

“I know he’s had some issues,” Stevens said, “but I feel really good about Ray. He wasn’t blaming anybody but himself for what happened (in Ottawa). Young people go through experiences and they learn from them. His were a little more documented because he was in the public eye. He’s a good teammate.”

Said Holmgren: “I haven’t talked to anyone who played with Ray at any level who doesn’t like him. He’s an engaging young man.”

While veteran Brian Boucher, scheduled to be the Flyers No. 2 goaltender, recovers from a “lower body injury” sustained in a preseason game, untested Johan Backlund will serve as Emery’s backup.

* * *

Adding Pronger came at a huge price, both in personnel and cash. To obtain Pronger from Anaheim, the Flyers parted with veteran Joffrey Lupul, the promising Luca Sbisa and two first-round draft selections. Then, Holmgren signed Pronger to a seven-year, $34.5 million contract.

Pronger, 34, is a force on the ice. He is big (6-6, 230 pounds) and mean, with proven offensive skills. With Pronger on the ice, very few opponents will be comfortable loitering around the Flyers’ net.

“He’s a big-minute guy who plays in all situations,” Stevens said. “He plays hard all the time (and) practices hard. He’s a consummate pro. His presence here has a big impact on everybody else here.”

As expected, the other Flyers defensemen welcome Pronger’s addition to the team. “He’s an intimidating guy,” Braydon Coburn said. “He’s a smart player: he controls the game. He’s definitely someone younger teammates can learn from.”

Another new face is van Riemsdyk. The second overall choice in the 2007 Entry Draft may have played his way onto the team after spending two seasons at the University of New Hampshire. If he isn’t on one of the Flyers’ top three lines, he’ll be starting the season with the AHL Adirondack Phantoms.

“He’s a two-way player who creates opportunities,” Stevens said.

Late in training camp Holmgren said, “He’s gotten better every game. His skating looks good and he’s very competitive. He can make plays that a lot of people can’t.”
Danny Briere is healthy again after an injury-plagued 2008-09 season. (photo by Jack Cassidy)

Replacing the 52 goals scored by Mike Knuble (now with Washington) and Lupul last season will be a challenge for the Flyers. Briere, normally as congenial as anyone in the Flyers locker room, bristled when asked about the missing 52 goals.

“I don’t know why everybody’s asking about that,” he said. “I didn’t play (much) last year. (James) van Riemsdyk and (Claude) Giroux didn’t play (a full season) last year, and we didn’t have a defenseman like (Chris) Pronger. If we cut our goals by 20, we don’t need 52 anymore.”
Carter and Mike Richards anchor the Flyers’ top forward lines. Last season, Carter blossomed into one of the NHL’s most dangerous goal scorers with 46, second only to Alexander Ovechkin in the NHL. Richards is a gritty two-way player and a quality captain. Did we mention his seven shorthanded goals led the league last season?

The Flyers know the road to the Stanley Cup goes through Pittsburgh with its towers of talent, Sidney Crosby and Evegni Malkin. The Penguins lost two quality defensemen in Rob Scuderi (now with Los Angeles) and Hal Gill (Montreal), but they are still a championship-caliber team. Mention the Penguins to the Flyers now and they’ll tell you it’s too early to even think about whom they’ll face in the playoffs.

“There’s 15 good teams in our conference,” Holmgren said. “Someone said last year’s you have to play 82 playoff games to get into the playoffs. Our goal is to make the playoffs, and we’ll go from there. Last year, I thought we played (Pittsburgh) pretty tight.”

The Flyers plan is to get off to a good start and finish strong.

“We like the direction we’re going here,” Stevens said. “We think our defense got better. Our young players in Carter, Richards and Coburn have another year of experience. We’re a team that can play four lines more with a better back end. We think we can compete with Pittsburgh.”

It’s a positive that the Flyers think they are better. But they know they’ll have to prove it on the ice. Are the Flyers Stanley Cup contenders? If Emery returns to the shot-stopping form he displayed in 2006-07 the Flyers can be one of the NHL’s elite teams. We’ll find out in the spring of 2010.

Right now, the journey looks intriguing.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.
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