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Which team was the real Flyers?

by John McGourty
VOORHEES, N.J. -- Which was the real Philadelphia Flyers' team this season? The one that had to win a shootout in Game 82 of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs -- or the team that took the Chicago Blackhawks to overtime in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final?

The question was obvious as the Flyers packed up their belongings and headed off for a summer of regret mixed with pride. It's certainly being discussed in the front office as the Flyers make plans for next season's team.

"It was a real roller-coaster ride, getting into the playoffs they way we did," General Manager Paul Holmgren said. "And then the playoff ride -- I hope that's our team."

"The last month I thought was really good," said center Danny Briere, who led the all scorers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 30 points -- including 12 in the Final. "There were too many ups and downs during the regular season that I'd like us be a little more consistent. There's still a lot of work to be done. One of the reasons I signed here was to win the Stanley Cup."

The Flyers were among the preseason favorites to win the Eastern Conference, but their 13-11-1 start cost coach John Stevens his job on Dec. 4, when Holmgren replaced
him with Peter Laviolette. The team then went 3-7 under Laviolette to fall into 29th place in the NHL.

Holmgren picked up goalie Michael Leighton off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes and he helped the Flyers turn around in mid-December. Early-season starter Ray Emery underwent abdominal surgery in early December and returned as the No. 1 goalie in mid-January but soon developed season-ending hip problems. Brian Boucher became the starter until he went down with a crushed finger on Dec. 17. Leighton stepped in and excelled until mid-March when he suffered a high ankle sprain, giving Boucher the No. 1 job again.

The team struggled at first in front of Boucher, but got it together in the last six games and beat the New York Rangers in the season finale when he stopped Olli Jokinen in a shootout. Boucher played well until he got hurt in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal against the Boston Bruins. Leighton returned and carried the Flyers to Game 6 of the Final. Several Flyers cited Boucher's shootout save as the season's highlight -- that and the historic rally from a 3-0 series deficit against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinal.

But battered goaltenders weren't the Flyers' only injury problems. Fourth-line center Blair Betts, a top penalty-killer, missed 19 games with a dislocated shoulder that will require offseason surgery. Linemate Ian Laperriere stopped two shots with his face this season, missing time after each.

Left wing Simon Gagne played eight games and then required double-hernia surgery. He said Friday that he didn't get into a groove until early March -- then he broke his foot during the first round of the playoffs. Gagne underwent an unusual operation that let him return to the lineup in half the expected time. But he was minus-8 in the Final and said he was playing in the most pain he's endured in his career.

Jeff Carter broke one foot in March, then broke a bone in the other one when he stopped a shot shortly after his return. He made it back but wasn't the same -- Carter was minus-6 in the Final and rarely looked like the team-leading goal-scorer he was before the injuries.

"The last month I thought was really good. There were too many ups and downs during the regular season that I'd like us be a little more consistent. There's still a lot of work to be done. One of the reasons I signed here was to win the Stanley Cup."
-- Danny Briere

Defenseman Ryan Parent hurt his back in midseason, played into March and then had surgery. Holmgren said he never returned to his best form.

Holmgren praised Laviolette on several occasions Friday for the way he used his personnel, and Richards voiced strong support for Laviolette, calling him "the emotional leader of our team."

With better health and a firmer belief in themselves resulting from the long playoff run, Holmgren believes the Flyers can be one of the NHL's strongest teams next season -- but the team that takes the ice in October won't be the same one that nearly won the Cup in June.

"Is it going to be the same team next year?" Holmgren said. "It's highly unlikely, whether it be for salary cap or other reasons."

Richards was reminded that several past Stanley Cup champions have endured painful losses in the years just before their championships. He was asked if going through this playoff run made him understand how that hardened those teams.

"You have to learn from it because if you don't, it will probably keep happening again," Richards said. "The way we felt, you're angry, you're upset, you have all these emotions. I took a glimpse out on the ice after the game and saw how happy they were, tears of joy and all that kind of stuff. It will fuel our fire."

Forward Scott Hartnell had a subpar regular season but he caught fire in the playoffs while playing on a line with Briere and Ville Leino, a brilliant February pickup from the Detroit Red Wings by Holmgren. Leino tied Dino Ciccarelli's Stanley Cup Playoff rookie scoring record with 21 points -- 7 goals and 14 assists. Hartnell had 8 goals and 17 points in the playoffs, and said he wants to be part of the Flyers' future.

"I have three more years left (on his contract) and I love Philly," he said. "The fans are great and I have a nice setup in Olde City. I definitely do not want to go anywhere. ... I want to work hard in the offseason and get ready to play, come back focused and hungry."

Boucher, who said he expects to be with the Flyers next season, is the only goalie signed for 2010-11, although Holmgren said he recently worked out a two-year deal for Adirondack (AHL) goalie Johan Backlund who is scheduled for hip surgery this summer. Holmgren said Emery won't know until late summer if his hip surgery will allow him to play next season.

That leaves the question of whether to resign Leighton, who said he wants to return to the Flyers and is willing to fight for a job. Leighton was terrific during the regular season and very good in the playoffs until the Final, when he had a 3.96 goals-against average and .876 save percentage.

"I think we have to be careful how we view him. I think Michael did an outstanding job for our team," Holmgren said, adding that the final goal shouldn't overshadow all the good that Leighton did. "It's unfair to view Michael in that light. I think he did some very good things for us."

One thing is for sure: Goaltending will cost the Flyers a lot more next season. They paid Emery $1.5 million for a one-year contract. Boucher made $925,000.

"Michael Leighton cost the Flyers $142,000," Holmgren said. "He was making $600,000 so we got him for $300,000 and paid him a portion of that. Our goalies next year will cost considerably more."

Holmgren said that he and his staff, including Laviolette, will be making decisions in the next 19 days on which players they want to sign. Third-pair defenseman Lukas Krajicek and third-line forward Arron Asham are unrestricted free agents. Defensemen Braydon Coburn and Parent and forwards Darroll Powe and Daniel Carcillo are restricted free agents.

The Flyers will have a little more room, as the $3.5 million cap hit from Mike Rathje's long-term contract has expired. Rathje hasn't played since the 2006-07 season.

Holmgren also announced that the Flyers will be getting back the conditional third-round draft pick they sent to the Anaheim Ducks last summer in the trade for Pronger. The condition was that the Flyers win the Stanley Cup. That pick will be the Flyers' first in the 2010 Entry Draft.

"As of now," Holmgren said with a grin, hinting that he's in the market for a pre-draft trade.

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