Voorhees, NJ – Sure, it's only the end of May.
But with the devastating injuries that the Flyers sustained throughout the 2005-06 season, seeing a team that was so ravaged by injuries of all types improving after the many surgeries it had to endure is an encouraging sign for Ken Hitchcock, who has remained in the area since the season ended.
"I'm getting excited because I see the obvious physical potential of players who everyone realizes played under the bar and not by their own doing," said Hitchcock.
"Being here at the Skate Zone, watching these players' improvement, it's so dramatic to see where a player who walked in the next day after surgery, and two weeks later where he is now," he continued. "There's a real opportunity here for a lot of the nagging stuff to get completely healed up, especially in the groin pull or hamstring area because of all of the labrum tears. We have a chance, other than Peter [Forsberg], to be very healthy and very fit [for the start of the season]."
It has been well documented just how many of the team's players were hurt when the Buffalo Sabres ended Philadelphia's season earlier this month. We'll refrain from going through the list, but it is more than safe to say that the situation had a direct effect on the Flyers failing to advance past the first round of the playoffs.
"I think everybody is starting to see now that it was a very difficult time in the second half of the season in just getting the lineup put together," said Hitchcock. "You can only go so long on hopes and prayers. You have to be reasonably healthy to compete in the NHL, and you're seeing teams at the end now who are relatively healthy and who are able to compete at a high level because of it."
Hitchcock credits the Flyers' medical team as well as the organization as a whole for taking care of these injury problems as soon as possible to ensure the healthiest possible lineup when training camp begins in mid-September.
"The silver lining is that the Flyers took a very proactive approach in solving the injury crisis," said Hitchcock. "There's two ways to look at it. The first way is to fix it and deal with the pain and discomfort, but know that there's going to be healthy players into July and very healthy in September. Or, you can take a chance and see if either rehab or rest could heal it. The players, training staff and management took the proactive approach."
Of course, one key contributor to the team will not be ready in time for training camp, as Forsberg recovers from his ankle surgeries. Hitchcock does not dwell on the fact that Forsberg will be out until the turn of the New Year, rather, he looks at the fact that someone playing at "three-quarters" speed was second on the team in scoring last season and could be even better when his ankles are fixed.
"Peter is a special player and a special person. He is an athlete that really believes that if he feels good physically, that he's able to perform at a high level. I think the feeling that Peter has is that he was only able to perform at probably three-quarters speed from the normal speed that he's able to play at. I think Peter just got tired of feeling tired and not being able to use his legs on an everyday basis like he is used to," said Hitchcock.
"Even in saying that, his ability to pass the puck and see the ice at three-quarters speed was still very, very impressive. I think he feels like he doesn't want to go through that every day. He wants to feel like he can contribute his full potential to help the team win."
When he finally does return to the lineup, quite possibly healthier than ever before, there is still just one goal for the Swedish center, according to his head coach.
"Peter is at the stage in his career where there's one focus, and that's winning championships. He's at an age where you've won before, and that becomes your only focus. How much you make, or how long you play is irrelevant. It's all about winning championships."