This is how important the next few months are for the Flyers: appearing on the “Daily News Live” show on Comcast SportsNet, Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said it will be “the Super Bowl of summers” for the club.
Later, Holmgren expanded on his “Super Bowl” remark, saying, “We hope to have some opportunities to really strengthen ourselves and put us in a better position than we were in at the end of the year. We’ve got people in place that are young. Now, we need to add some more experienced players. We lost a lot of close games, probably because we were just too young. We didn’t know how to win.”
During the disappointing regular season, Holmgren started rebuilding by bringing in goaltender Martin Biron, winger Scottie Upshall, and defensemen Lasse Kukkonen and Braydon Coburn
. But Holmgren and Head Coach John Stevens know more work is needed. Almost everyone agrees that the Flyers need another quality center and defenseman. The team has the money to spend on top free agents.
“We have some holes to fill,” Stevens said. “We put some young guys in positions this year where we asked a lot of them. When the team struggled like it did earlier, the pressure mounts, especially on young players. They got more than a year’s worth of experience, based on what they went through. We feel they’re going to be a lot mentally tougher next year.
“We cleared out our roster at the (trade) deadline and brought a lot of young guys on board. We felt we were a competitive team. We’re optimistic about the people we have in place. We feel we can become a (winning) team pretty quickly.”
The Flyers’ core group includes Simon Gagne, Mike Knuble, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, R.J. Umberger and Sami Kapanen.
Should Joni Pitkanen be on the list? Many fans and hockey writers have lost patience with Pitkanen, who now has three full seasons in the NHL. Holmgren and Stevens are not among those who prefer to see Pitkanen, 23, move on.
Holmgren still believes that Pitkanen can be the “best player” in the NHL. “From a physical capability standpoint, I have a hard time finding (another) guy that age (that talented),” Holmgren said. “He’s unhappy with the year we went through. He doesn’t want to see it happen again.”
Stevens thinks it would be a mistake to give up on Pitkanen.
“Sometimes we think a couple years is all it takes (to be an established NHL player),” Stevens said. “But I can think of 10 guys around the league that we kind of rushed to judgment on. They’re all impact players now. Not that long ago, everyone was scratching their heads, wondering why they aren’t better than they were.
“Joni needs to be better, to be more consistent. I think Joni would admit that. But he has skills that you can’t teach. He’s a big guy (6-3, 213) that can skate. He has a real offensive mind for the game. He has shown ability to be a good defensive player, but now it’s a matter of mentally putting it all together on a consistent basis.”
Starting the season with Kukkonen as his blue-line partner should be good for Pitkanen. They grew up in the same neighborhood in Oulu, Finland.
Stevens suspects that Pitkanen found it difficult to improve with the Flyers losing as much as they did.
“If the team does better, it might take a little pressure off Joni,” Stevens said. “He’ll feel more comfortable. With young players, confidence is a big thing. If we can get his confidence back up to a high level, I think he’ll be a much better player.”
While Holmgren is figuring out how to spend big bucks to sign free agents, he isn’t lying awake nights worrying about his coach. Stevens was thrust into a difficult position when Ken Hitchcock was fired. Stevens, a former defenseman, was in his first season as a Flyers assistant after guiding the Phantoms to the Calder Cup championship in 2005.
In Holmgren’s view, Stevens is the right coach for the Flyers now. A more experienced NHL coach perhaps wouldn’t be as understanding about the Flyers’ development path.
“(Stevens) is an excellent communicator and a problem solver,” Holmgren said. “If John approaches a problem from one angle and can’t solve it, he’s pretty quick to look from another angle. I think he’s a tremendous young coach that has gotten better under fire and is going to get (even) better.
“The players know that he has integrity and he’s never going to hang them out and embarrass them in public. Behind closed doors though, he’s more vocal. He says what’s on his mind to them either face-to-face or in a group setting.”
Said Stevens: “I’m a better coach today than I was yesterday. I’m very detail-oriented: I’m always looking for ways to get better. I’m excited to get going next year and make this thing right.”
One issue that Stevens and his assistants need to address at training camp is the captain’s issue. After Peter Forsberg was traded to Nashville, the Flyers purposely left the captain’s position vacant.
Among the candidates are Knuble, Kapanen, Gagne and Derian Hatcher. Writing in the Philadelphia Daily News, Sam Donnellon nominated Gagne: “Homegrown, weaned on the Flyers’ way of doing things, Gagne’s counsel has been sought by the newcomers and younger players in ways he said never has occurred before. He also has more input in team affairs.”
In his seventh season with the Flyers, Gagne led the team in scoring with 68 points. His 41 goals were the second highest of his career.
Following Forsberg’s departure, Gagne successfully changed his playing style. Forsberg is a playmaker who prefers to pass the puck rather than shoot it. “Once he was gone,” Gagne said, “I had to find another way. I kept finding different ways to score goals.”
According to Holmgren, Gagne has the ability to be “the best two-way left winger” in the NHL. Stevens also is a Gagne booster.
“I don’t think we realize how good he is,” Stevens said. “On a team that really struggled offensively, that was really without Forsberg most of the year, he still ended up with 41 goals. I can remember long stretches where he was getting four or five really quality chances (per game). He and Knuble ended up being plus hockey players on our team, which to me is remarkable when you look at the amount of goals we gave up.
“He’s a very good player at both ends of the rink. He’s a pure goal scorer. He’s got that tremendous release. He can get (the puck) away in traffic.
“He’s been part of the World Cup and Olympic teams. He’s much more mature. I think we saw that when Forsberg left. He stepped up and was able to take more responsibility. Those are things you want in your leaders.”
Stevens said the decision on a new captain will be a group effort.
“We try to get a feel from the players on who’s respected on the hockey team,” he explained. “We had a leadership group in place this year that was the right group. As tough a year as it was, these guys are certainly respected by their peers.
“We, as a staff, along with management will have a discussion. We’ll collectively come up with a guy that we think is best suited to do the job.”
The Flyers are fortunate that they have several good candidates to wear the “C”. A few more wise personnel moves by Holmgren and the next captain should have a winning team to lead.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.