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Flyers get big reception as camp opens

by Adam Kimelman /
VOORHEES, N.J. -- Bill Guerin is getting ready for his 19th NHL season, meaning he's been to lot of NHL training camps. But the crowd of close to 2,000 people that crammed into Flyers Skate Zone here Saturday morning for the first day of training camp was overwhelming even for him.

"To me it was great," Guerin said after the first on-ice workouts of training camp. "A lot of people, a lot of orange. It felt good. Everybody's excited to get back out there. It's not every day you have a thousand people or whatever at a practice. Its no secret Flyers have great fans. They don't have any trouble selling out games. Why should practice be any different?"

Coach Peter Laviolette, conducting his first training camp as Flyers' coach, called it "awesome."

"It was packed. It was great," he said. "There's a good buzz right now. We need to get on the ball here and get some work done so we're ready for when the season starts. They're ready for the season to start. The fans certainly are ready."

What the fans saw were new faces and some popular holdovers. While the lines were mixed and matched quite frequently by Laviolette, the groups that seemed to stay together the longest were Jeff Carter between newcomer Nikolai Zherdev and James van Riemsdyk; Mike Richards centering Claude Giroux and Daniel Carcillo; Danny Briere with Guerin and Scott Hartnell; and Darroll Powe with Ian Laperriere and newcomer Jody Shelley.

Defensively, where the Flyers added a number of new pieces, the only pairing featuring players from last season was Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle. Kimmo Timonen was with Andrej Meszaros; Sean O'Donnell was paired with Oskars Bartulis; and Matt Walker and Dan Jancevski were together.

Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher manned the nets, and while it wasn't the same team that fell at home to the Blackhawks, it looked and skated in pretty similar fashion.

"I thought there was good speed out there," Laviolette said. "Looked like we were skating well. The execution with the puck needs to be a little bit better, we were missing some passes and overskating them. It's also the first day, and when the tempo gets pushed like that, that can happen. I would rather the pace stay high and the pucks sills and stick skills will come."

So the fans will have more to watch and more to look forward to.

"It was great," Carter said. "I've been here for a while, so you know what to expect and every year they show up the first day and they're ready to go, just like us."

Not all there -- The Flyers have three key players working their way back from injuries in camp.

Left wing Ville Leino had offseason hip surgery and center Blair Betts had summer shoulder surgery. Both skated Saturday, but neither was cleared for contact.

Defenseman Chris Pronger, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last month, skated early in the morning and then worked out off the ice. His return at any point in the preseason remains questionable, although the hope remains he'll be ready for the regular-season opener Oct. 7 in Pittsburgh.

Leino, who tied an NHL rookie playoff scoring record with 21 points last spring, said he's hoping to get cleared for contact next week and get into a preseason game or two.

"I've been skating every couple days, but I've been needing rest to recover from it," he said. "I felt good today, almost normal, and we'll see how it feels (Sunday)."

Leino took part in both on-ice sessions Saturday, and while he was disappointed he had to leave the ice early, he understands the precautions being taken are in his best interest.

"I was really exited to be out there today, and I wanted to stay for the contact (drills), but our trainer said to come off," said Leino. "I've just got to take it easy and don't get hurt, don't do anything stupid. I'm really excited. Hopefully I'll be out there fast."

Guerin enjoying his surroundings – Bill Guerin is in camp with the Flyers with lots of hope and expectations. The 39-year-old forward is hoping to showcase himself enough in camp here that he can earn a contract for his 19th NHL season.

"I feel great," he said. "I try to take care of myself now in my older years. I feel great. There's a lot of young guys around to keep me thinking young and feeling young."

Feeling young again -- It's Bill Guerin's playful attitude -- not to mention his goal-scoring prowess -- that makes the veteran forward such an attractive player for the Flyers.

Guerin signed a tryout contract with the Flyers earlier this month after spending the last few weeks skating with the team. If Guerin makes the Flyers, they'll be his ninth NHL team.

"He's a character," said Jeff Carter, whose dressing stall is next to Guerin's. "He's always got something to say. Seems like a good guy. He's been around for a while. He's got a lot of wisdom. It's just nice having him here."

Guerin said he's not trying to approach this year's camp any differently just because he doesn't have a contract.

"I'm trying not to because sometimes when you put too much pressure on yourself it can backfire on you," he said. "I'm trying to approach it as normal as possible and have confidence in myself and my abilities that I can still contribute to this team and make it."

It won't be easy, as the Flyers have 13 forwards on one-way contracts. But Guerin picked Philadelphia because he sees something special with this organization.

"With the experience that guys got last year going to the Final, especially at a young age, it's something they'll never forget," he said. "That only help them in the long run, and it'll help them work towards getting a ring. That's one of the reasons I'm excited for being here."

A good kind of depth -- Peter Laviolette looks at his depth chart, sees a lot of names -- there are 65 players in camp -- and only can smile.

"I hope players get pushed," he said. "We do have good depth at defense, we have some depth at goaltending now. Up front we've added some players, so there's players looking to make this team, players looking for more ice time. All that is a good situation."

Among the players competing for ice time and looking to make an impression is Nikolai Zherdev. The Ukrainian-born forward spent last season playing in Russia and is trying to find his North American hockey legs after signing with Philadelphia during the summer. Laviolette, for one, is excited to see how it goes.

"You get a guy who comes in with some offensive flair, I think that's a good thing," he said. "We've got to get him to fit into what we're doing here. I thought it was good to get him out there with the guys and stat practicing. It's Day 1, but you start building something, you start building chemistry, you start building trust with your teammates, start building where you want to go in the end."

He also has to see where Bill Guerin, in camp on a tryout contract, fits with the team. He also has to see who plays together on defense in Chris Pronger's absence, and the club is high on a number of talented young goaltenders who could challenge Brian Boucher for the backup spot behind Michael Leighton.

He'll have a few more days of practices to watch, and then the first preseason game is Sept. 21.

"We've got three days of practice, which is good," Laviolette said. "I'd rather see games. I'd rather play in some games to evaluate young players and see where we're at. That's a good thing. The three days of practice allows us to work on the game in parts. It's hard to come in and have everything under your belt. It takes a while. You have to do it in pieces, piece by piece throughout the course of training camp. We'll get there."

And if too many players get to where he wants them? Well, making the hard calls is part of the job.

"If those decisions have to come later on, I guess it's a good thing to have to make those tough decisions," Laviolette said.

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