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Future Looks Bright for Young Flyers Team

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers’ theme for the 2007-08 NHL season was “Back with a Vengeance.” For the playoffs, they declared “Why Not Us.”

Next season’s themes could be “Higher Expectations” and “Unfinished Business.”
My sense of the Flyers faithful is that they are disappointed about the way the season ended with the 6-0 pounding in Pittsburgh. But the fans also understand that the Flyers’ quick return to NHL respectability was an impressive turnaround.
“Any time you lose, it’s the thing that’s last in your memory,” head coach John Stevens said. “But it was such a great run. It was so exciting in the playoffs. I think you have to look at the year as whole, look at how far we’ve come. We’ve still got a long way to go, but there’s a lot of positive things we can take out of this year.”
The Flyers’ core group, as coaches like to say, is strong. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, R. J. Umberger and Braydon Coburn are young and talented. They all gained valuable playoff experience against Washington, Montreal and Pittsburgh. The playoffs also were a reputation-proving exam for goaltender Martin Biron.
If Simon Gagne returns to 100 percent health next season, the Flyers will be in even better shape. With Gagne missing 57 games this season with concussion symptoms, it’s possible to forget his productivity the previous two seasons: 88 goals and 147 points.
Mike Richards is part of a young core group that is poised to lead the Flyers for the foreseeable future. (Getty Images)

Steve Downie will be bidding for regular shifts next season as he puts behind him his game-altering turnovers in the Pittsburgh series. And general manager Paul Holmgren has said it will be difficult to keep Claude Giroux off of the Flyers’ roster. The right winger was the club’s top selection in the NHL Entry Draft two years ago. The 5’11’’, 180-pound Giroux was named the Most Valuable Player in the Quebec Major Junior League playoffs after collecting 17 goals and 34 assists in just 19 games.
Do the Flyers need reinforcements to compete with Pittsburgh and the other Eastern Conference contenders? Of course. The major area for strengthening is defense.  It’s uncertain whether Jason Smith will be back. Derian Hatcher, another veteran, also may not return. Both were hampered by injuries during this year’s playoff run. Coburn and Kimmo Timonen will anchor the Flyers defense.
More from Bill Fleischman...
Full speed ahead for Snider - May 6
Coburn develops at a rapid pace - April 7
No brotherly love for Crosby - March 12
Downie getting comfortable - Feb. 13
Howe is worthy of the hall - Feb. 2
McCrossin committed to his craft - Dec. 17
Fleischman archive

The Flyers are facing signing issues. Carter, Umberger and Jones are restricted free agents. Since Jones earned $525,000 last season, bumping him up to the $1 million area shouldn’t be that big a problem (hey, it’s not my money). Carter and Umberger will be seeking bigger bucks. Carter made $942,000 last season; Umberger collected $1.25 million. The Flyers may have to get creative to keep them all.
Another question for the Flyers is, is it time for Richards to be named captain? Everyone has said that Richards is captain material. In postseason interviews, Richards, 23, indicated that he’s not ready. He may be the only one who feels that way. With Smith still with the Flyers as he spoke, Richards may have been practicing diplomacy.
“Mike is a really good young leader,” Holmgren said. “Whether Jason is back or not, we’ll look at a lot of different things. Jason was an outstanding choice because he plays the game properly and he prepares properly. He played through a lot of stuff that a lot of guys wouldn’t play through.”
Holmgren supported Stevens through the Flyers’ ups-and-downs during the regular season. But when the Flyers lost 7-1 in Pittsburgh in mid-March and were in danger of not qualifying for the playoffs, Holmgren let it be known that the players and the coaching staff had to do a better job.
“The players know that he’s a man of integrity. He never calls them out in public. He’s big on building a team that way." - Paul Holmgren on John Stevens

“John is a smart hockey man,” Holmgren said. “He’s firm with his players, but he’s really fair. He’s always looking for input from his players. These players are paid a lot of money, and (a coach has) to be in their corner, but somebody’s got to lay the law down as well.

“The players know that he’s a man of integrity. He never calls them out in public. He’s big on building a team that way. I witnessed it with the Phantoms.”
When Timonen was recovering from a blood clot in his ankle, Stevens surprised the team by having the all-star defenseman read the starting lineup prior to Game 4 of the Pittsburgh series. Timonen by nature isn’t a rah-rah guy, but his presence helped inspire the Flyers as they gained their only victory over the Penguins.

“He’s one of our captains,” Stevens said. “He’s well respected on the team and I knew it was killing him, not being able to play. I asked him if he’d be willing to do it, and he didn’t bat an eye. He just told the guys to play hard and have fun.”
Holmgren said that assistant coach Jack McIlhargey jokingly told Timonen, “It’s a good thing you’re a (good) player, because you’re no Knute Rockne.”
The Flyers needed to play in all their games against Pittsburgh the way they did in Game 4. After the 4-2 Flyers victory, Penguins forward Max Talbot said, “You have to give them credit. They came at us hard. They played really, really desperate. When they play like that, they’re not an easy team to play against.”
Martin Biron (left), Derian Hatcher (center) and Braydon Coburn all played key roles in the Flyers advancing to the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals. (Getty Images)

Referring to the Flyers’ NHL-worst record in 2006-07, Holmgren said, “Last year was difficult for everybody. To bounce back and have some modest success is great for the team. It’s a young group that’s really hungry and can’t wait until next year. We feel we have something good going here. Now we have to build on it.”
As noted, expectations will be higher for next season.

“That’s a good thing,” Stevens said. “We’re going to want to do better.”

Warriors on the blue line

If Jason Smith has played his final game for the Flyers, he should be remembered as a inspirational one-year captain who helped stabilize a growing team. During the playoffs, Smith skated with both shoulders separated. After returning from a broken right ankle, Hatcher had to have fluids drained from his knee daily.

“(Smith) was an emotional leader on our team,” Stevens said. “He played with a lot of heart. It was incredible what he and Hatch went through to help us win.”

Following Philadelphia’s elimination by Pittsburgh, Holmgren told Philadelphia Daily News columnist Sam Donnellon, “I’ve been around the NHL for a long time now. I’ve never witnessed anything like what those two guys went through. They’re ultimate pros. And what they bring to a team, you can’t define it.”

Hatcher and Smith were warriors in the truest hockey tradition.

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 sports writer. 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.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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