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High Hopes

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
High expectations is a major theme for the Flyers this season.

Ordinarily, after a team finishes with the worst record in a league, whether it’s the NHL, AHL or NFL, just improving is a goal.

Not the Flyers. The additions of Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul have the Flyers and their fans thinking Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Referring to the expectations, Flyers Head Coach John Stevens said, “We look at that as a real positive. The question keeps coming up: is there more pressure? Yes, there’s always more pressure. That’s what you want. We’re very happy with the attitude (of the players), and there’s good gains in their fitness levels.”

Blending in the new players with the holdovers isn’t a problem. Hockey players tend to fit in quickly with new teams.

“A lot of these guys had friendships in place long before they came here,” Stevens said. “Some of the new guys like Timonen, Briere and Smith are seasoned veterans. They’re very comfortable in any setting. They’ve fit right in from day one, and they’ve had a strong voice in our team from day one.”
Simon Gagne (left) and Jason Smith are two of the veteran voices in the locker room this season. (Jack Cassidy)

One of the strongest voices is Jason Smith. He was selected as the Flyers’ new captain over several worthy candidates, including Timonen, Briere, Simon Gagne, Mike Knuble and Derian Hatcher. The three newcomers were team captains: Smith with Edmonton, Timonen in Nashville and Briere in Buffalo.

While Gagne is OK with not being named captain, he was interested in the duty. “It doesn’t matter if it’s not me,” he recently told Philadelphia Daily News hockey writer Ed Moran. “The last two years, I’ve kind of found myself and what I want to be in this league. I’m more capable (of being captain) than I was two years ago.”

At the time, after Keith Primeau sustained a career-ending injury, then-coach Ken Hitchcock chose Gagne as the Flyers’ captain. Gagne politely declined, saying he wasn’t ready for it.

Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren doesn’t think Gagne will brood about the selection of Smith as captain. “(Gagne’s) the kind of guy that could handle it,” Holmgren said. “He (won’t) feel slighted if it’s not him. Simon is a top player in the league. Whoever the captain is, Simon’s going to continue to be a top player in the league.”

Said Stevens: “Regardless of who wears the ‘C,’ there’s going to be a group of players that we’re going to lean on heavily for leadership. They’re all such team guys, whether it’s Simon or one of the other guys, I don’t think it’s going to matter to them. That’s why they’ve all been such great players and considered leaders where they’ve been.”

The newcomers are providing much needed depth for the Flyers. During last season’s nightmare, too many players with little NHL experience were taking regular shifts. It’s all right to have a couple such players, but last season the Flyers were relying on too many young players.

Briere is expected to center a line with Gagne and Knuble. Gagne (41G, 68 points) and Knuble (24G, 54 points) were the Flyers’ top two scorers a year ago.

Hartnell (22G, 17A with Nashville) is an imposing 6’2’’, 210-pound winger expected to play on the Flyers’ second line. Lupul (16G, 12A with Edmonton; 28 goals two seasons ago with Anaheim), Scottie Upshall (8G, 8A in 32 games with the Flyers last season), Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, R. J. Umberger and Sami Kapanen give the Flyers depth up front. Upshall will start the season on the injured list with a fractured left wrist.

While considerable attention is focused on the new additions, several players who have worn the orange and black need to make significant contributions.
Kimmo Timonen will play a vital role on the blue line for the Flyers this season. (Getty Images)

Said Holmgren: “Hartnell, Richards, Carter, Umberger, Lupul and Upshall are very key players for us. The second tier of forwards need to produce.”

The Flyers will open the season with experienced goaltending and more talent and depth on defense. Martin Biron was acquired from Buffalo last season to be a goalie who can lead the Flyers into the playoffs. Biron immediately seemed comfortable in his role. If Biron plays as well as the Flyers believe he can, the goaltending is in good shape.

Antero Niittymaki faltered last season, as the entire team did. But two years ago, Niittymaki won 23 games for the Flyers. Those 23 wins were the most by a Flyers rookie since Ron Hextall won 37 games during the 1986-87 season. Niittymaki has 101 games of NHL experience.

“Marty is an experienced guy, and he’s very composed,” Stevens said. “We still think the world of ‘Nitty’. We’re going to ask him to win some games for us.”

A defense corps built around Timonen, Smith, Hatcher, Lasse Kukkonen, Braydon Coburn, Randy Jones and Alexandre Picard should match up with any in the NHL Eastern Conference.

“We’ve found you always need depth at the blueline position,” Stevens said. “We certainly increased experience back there with the addition of Timonen and Smith, and our mobility with Coburn and Kukkonen coming on board last year. We’ve got experienced guys to play big minutes in big situations. There’s competition to play well and earn ice time.”
While the Flyers appear to be a playoff contender, if they finish among the Eastern Conference’s top eight, some established playoff team has to step aside. The two most vulnerable teams appear to be New Jersey and Buffalo. Run that theory by Holmgren though and he strongly disagrees.

“New Jersey, because they’re the Devils and they have Martin Brodeur, they’re always going to be a strong team,” he said. “Even though Buffalo lost two top players (Briere and Chris Drury, signed by the Rangers), they have tremendous depth in their organization.

“A lot of teams have improved in our conference. Pittsburgh was a great team last year. Now, their young players are a year older and a year better.

“Parity in the NHL is upon us. You have to be ready to take on each game. The old saying is, games in October are as important as games in March.”

Stevens agrees that edging into the top eight will be a challenge.

“Our goal is to finish in the top eight and get in the playoffs,” he said. “The East is extremely competitive. A lot of teams that were out of the playoffs last year have improved. The teams that were in are just as good as they were.”

Stevens also knows that the high expectations include his performance. Last season, circumstances placed him in a difficult position. After guiding the AHL’s Phantoms to the Calder Cup in 2005, he was in his first season as a Flyers assistant coach. When Hitchcock was dismissed early in the season, Stevens was promoted to head coach.

“I feel much more comfortable just having experience in the league,” Stevens said. “(As time goes by) as a coach, you get better, you’re more prepared, you’re a little wiser. We’ve had a whole offseason to get ourselves ready and plan.”

The Flyers will find out soon if all the planning and acquisitions are what the team needs to return to respectability. Holmgren, the person who made the decisions to reshape the Flyers, is optimistic.

“We’ve seen lots of good things (in preseason),” he said. “We’ve (also) seen some things that we need to do better, but we have a fair amount of new guys. We felt, coming into training camp, (it would take a while) for all these players to get to know each other. I’m extremely excited and looking forward (to the season).”

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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