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Flyers aim to show playoff run was for real

by Adam Kimelman
A Hollywood filmmaker couldn't have scripted the Philadelphia Flyers' 2009-10 season. From dealing with a boatload of injuries and rumors of a divided locker room to a coaching change, sitting in 29th place in the League standings in December, making the playoffs in a shootout on the last day of the season, coming back from a 3-0 series deficit and going to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, it was one long, wild ride.

So how do the Flyers top all that drama? How about a nice, quiet, successful season?

It certainly wasn't a quiet summer, as GM Paul Holmgren passed on expensive options in goal to stick with Michael Leighton, who was outstanding in the regular season but faltered at times in the Stanley Cup Final. Instead, he spent his available cap dollars on an already-solid defense that he hopes will lighten the load on Leighton.

Holmgren also is banking on a few of his high-end forwards who didn't play to their full potential -- Scott Hartnell, Jeff Carter and Danny Briere among them -- will bounce back. Hartnell and Briere especially are hoping their playoff performances carry over to this season. Hartnell, who slumped from 30 goals to 14, had 17 points in 23 playoff games and finished the season with a pair of goals in Game 6 of the Final against Chicago. Briere had a League-best 30 points in the playoffs after scoring just 53 in 75 regular-season games.

Mike Richards, whose leadership was called into question during the team's tailspin, also will be looked to for more. The first half of his season was marred by his controversial hit on Florida's David Booth and the firing of coach John Stevens, with whom Richards was extremely close. During the Olympics, however, Richards' relationship with Chris Pronger became better developed and any locker-room rifts disappeared, helping the team come within two wins of its ultimate goal.

So will there be a Stanley Cup sequel for this group of Flyers? At the least, it should be interesting to watch.

After 10 seasons in black and orange, Simon Gagne was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning last month for the sole purpose of getting under the salary cap.

"Anytime you're talking about a young man that has brought as much to the organization that Simon has, it's very difficult," Holmgren said of dealing Gagne.

In 10 seasons, Gagne ranks among the all-time franchise leaders with 259 goals and 524 points in 664 games. He played in three Eastern Conference Finals and last season's Stanley Cup Final. He also has three of the biggest postseason goals in team history -- an overtime goal against Tampa Bay in Game 6 of the '04 Eastern Conference Finals; the overtime goal in Game 4 of the last spring's conference semifinal against Boston that started the Flyers' historic comeback, and the game-winning goal in Game 7 of that series to cap a four-goal rally.

Gagne also was an excellent two-way player and played in all situations. He won't be an easy one to replace.

Injuries dogged Gagne over the last few seasons -- including 2009-10, when he played just 56 games. He also missed time in the playoffs with a broken toe. When healthy, though, he remains an elite scorer with four 30-goal seasons and two 40-goal campaigns under his belt.

Also gone is feisty right wing Arron Asham, who had 10 goals in a solid third-line role and was a physical presence for youngsters Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk.

Defenseman Lukas Krajicek, picked up late in the season when Tampa Bay waived him, played mostly on the third pairing and saw his ice diminish greatly in the postseason.

Many thought the Flyers' biggest need was in goal, and despite the availability of experienced veterans such as Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco, the Flyers opted to spend their money everywhere else.

On the first day of free agency, the Flyers sent a 2012 second-round pick to the Lightning for Andrej Meszaros, with the hope he could return to being the player who started his NHL career with three straight 30-point seasons. In the last two seasons with Tampa Bay, however, Meszaros has totaled just 23 points.

That same day, they signed veteran blueliner Sean O'Donnell. One of Holmgren's offseason goals was to improve his depth on defense to take some of the burden off veterans Pronger and Kimmo Timonen. O'Donnell also brings a level of toughness that was lacking on the blue line beyond Pronger.

The same can be said of Matt Walker, who came from the Lightning in the Gagne deal. Walker had 5 points and 90 penalty minutes last season with the Lightning, and will compete with O'Donnell and second-year player Oskars Bartulis for the sixth and seventh defense spots.

To replace Gagne up front, the Flyers repatriated Nikolai Zherdev after a one-year sojourn in the KHL. Zherdev last played in the NHL with the New York Rangers in 2008-09, when he led the team with 58 points and was second with 23 goals.

Zherdev doesn't have Gagne's all-zone skills, but he is a goal-scorer, and that's something the Flyers certainly could use, especially at a lower price -- Zherdev's one-year deal reportedly will pay him $2 million compared to the $5.25 million Gagne was owed.

The Flyers look to be a better team than they showed in the regular season, but are they as good as their trip to the Stanley Cup Final might indicate?

With some off-ice issues settled, it's fair to expect bounce-back seasons from Briere and Hartnell. Briere looked far more comfortable back at center than he ever did on the wing, and his line with Hartnell and Ville Leino was by far the team's best in the postseason. The hope is their success -- they combined for 11 goals and 30 points against the Blackhawks in the Final -- was just a start, not a short run.

Zherdev, who likely will play on the top line with Richards and Carter, will be needed to supply the kind of 20-goal touch he showed in Columbus and New York, and Giroux and van Riemsdyk will need to build off the rigors of last season -- especially van Riemsdyk, a rookie who tired noticeably during the playoffs.

With a top four of Pronger, Matt Carle, Timonen and Braydon Coburn, as well as the additions of Meszaros, O'Donnell and Walker, the Flyers look set on defense.

That leaves the last line of defense -- goaltending -- as the biggest question facing the Flyers. Leighton was a savior when he arrived in December, and was even better in helping close out Boston and dominate Montreal in the conference finals. But in the Final he was pulled twice and allowed a stoppable Patrick Kane shot to get under his pads from a sharp angle in overtime in Game 6 to hand the Hawks the Cup.

Leighton will go into the season as the No. 1 goalie for the first time in his NHL career. If he plays like a No. 1 Philadelphia should be in good shape. But if his Cup Final hangover drags into the new season, their story could have a very unhappy ending.

Contact Adam Kimelman at

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