Flyers hope promise finally fulfilled

The ever-potent Flyers hope they have all the ingredients this time around.

Originally Published: October 3, 2003
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

For a long time Eric Lindros was Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke's favorite whipping boy. Then when Lindros was finally run out of town, it was goaltender Roman Cechmanek.

In spite of posting goals against averages of 1.83, 2.05 and 2.01 and winning a Jennings Trophy, Cechmanek was duly run ridden out on a rail after the Flyers' second-round playoff loss to the Ottawa Senators last spring.

Who's next? Justin Williams? Jeff Hackett?

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH. . .
3rd
STRENGTH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The team, from top to bottom, follows closely one of the best defensive systems in the league. Strong veteran presence and talented youngsters at both forward and defensive positions.

WEAKNESS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
No elite goaltender in sight. Key players including Roenick, Amonte, Primeau have struggled in the playoffs. None own a Stanley Cup ring.

BEST OFFSEASON MOVE . . . . . . . . . . .
Kept the core of a fine hockey club together, including re-signing Radovan Somik, Justin Williams, Claude Lapointe and potential unrestricted free agent Eric Desjardins.

WORST OFFSEASON MOVE . . . . . . . . .
We really aren't picking on Jeff Hackett, who is by all accounts a fine human being and a solid netminder. But he is not a Stanley Cup goalie. Curtis Joseph has not won a Stanley Cup either, but which one would you want in Game 7? Enough said.

PLAYER TO WATCH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Joni Pitkanen. Voted best defenseman at the World Junior Championships a year ago, the world is expected of the big Finnish defenseman. From all accounts, the 19-year-old is prepared to deliver.

FANTASY FIX. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Hackett: The Flyers play a brand of cautious, defensive hockey that normally leads to fine play from a goaltender. Roman Cechmanek was a top-five fantasy goalie during the regular season last year. Now he's gone, and Hackett could be that 40-win guy who contends for the fantasy leaderboard in goals-against average and save percentage.
AT A GLANCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2003-04: Schedule | Roster
2002-03: Schedule/Results | Stats
How about Tony Amonte, whose goal production has fallen by more than 50 percent in the past four years?

How about the team's highest-paid player, John LeClair, who managed to play himself off the team's top line during training camp.

It's closing in on three decades since the Flyers last won a Stanley Cup, and no one can accuse the franchise of sitting still, of being happy with simply making the playoffs.

Each year Clarke and owner Ed Snyder assemble, on paper, as good a squad as there is in the Eastern Conference.

Each year something seems to be missing. Two years ago the players quit on coach Bill Barber. Before that, it was the oft-concussed Lindros who couldn't deliver the goods.

Coach Terry Murray aptly described his team as "choking" in the 1997 final and was fired. Last year the enigmatic Cechmanek collapsed in the second round.

This year begins with the same promise, the same high expectations.

The Flyers will ice a fast, strong and disciplined club with some youthful exuberance on defense and one of the best hockey minds in the game behind the bench in Ken Hitchcock.

When the fly will end up in the ointment, no one knows.

Offense

It looks like a misprint.

A lineup that included Mark Recchi, Jeremy Roenick, Michal Handzus, Keith Primeau, Sami Kapanen, Kim Johnsson, Eric Desjardins and later Tony Amonte, combined for only 211 goals last season, down from 234 the previous season.

No other team in the conference scored as few goals and still made the playoffs. Yet the Flyers still finished with 107 points, one behind division winner and Cup champion New Jersey.

In theory, after one season adjusting to Hitchcock's system and methods, those totals should jump dramatically. They'd better.

A handful of players are looking for redemption in the coming months. Simon Gagne, who dropped from 33 goals two years ago to nine in an injury-plagued campaign last year, seems to have put nagging groin problems behind him.

"He's four steps quicker," Hitchcock told reporters at the Flyers training camp.

Gagne will play with Williams, who was himself limited by injury to only 41 games. Handzus will complete what should be the team's speediest line and the most productive unit during training camp.

After that, Hitchcock has his hands full trying to juggle egos and styles. Roenick's self-described All-American line is short one Yank after Hitchcock moved LeClair off the unit that also includes Roenick's longtime pal Amonte.

Roenick was the Flyers' leading scorer even though he slumped to 59 points, well below a career average of 81. He and Amonte have a long history of success dating back to their days in Chicago.

Radovan Somik will likely get a shot as the honorary American while LeClair, desperate to end a slow decline to his career that saw him play only 35 games last year, will likely spend some time playing with Recchi.

Last year's sputtering offense can be chalked up to a period of acclimation to a new coach whose focus is on sound defense. Still, the power play finished 22nd and must improve if the Flyers are to make good on assertions they're as good as the Senators.

Defense

Hitchcock has a happy dilemma facing him at the start of the regular season -- what to do with all his defensive talent and veteran experience.

His happy dilemma will no doubt leave at least one veteran player feeling less than pleased as Hitchcock is expected to keep two promising young defensemen, Joni Pitkanen and Jim Vandermeer, in his top six.

A bold move for a coach coming off a season that saw his team tied with New Jersey for the fewest goals allowed in the NHL.

But pundits are already talking Calder Trophy for Pitkanen, the fourth pick overall in the 2002 draft, stolen from Tampa Bay for Ruslan Fedotenko. Although he underwent knee surgery last February, the young Finn was the talk of the Flyer camp.

Vandermeer averaged almost 14 minutes in 24 games with the Flyers, and Hitchcock had high praise for the undrafted Alberta native.

In less than a year, the Flyers will have a decidedly younger look along the blue line with the development of Kim Johnsson and Dennis Seidenberg. What better way for Hitchcock to implement his scheme than with young players that don't have to be untrained.

Eric Desjardins remains the elder statesman of the group after enjoying a renaissance last year.

To make room for the young blood, it's likely Eric Weinrich, Marcus Ragnarsson and/or Chris Therien who will spend considerable time in the press box. It's also possible the glut of defensemen will allow Clarke to move some bodies in a trade.

Does anyone have Ken Holland's number?

Goaltending

With all due respect to Hackett, it's hard to imagine Clarke didn't give a little Homer Simpson (Doh!) after he signed Hackett and named him the team's No. 1 goalie, only to learn Dominik Hasek was returning, making Curtis Joseph available.

Hackett's numbers are solid unless you think it's significant that he's never played more than 58 games, has never won a playoff series and in fact has won only three playoff games in his career.

Even Hitchcock waffled during training camp, suggesting Robert Esche would see plenty of action and that he didn't want to be painted into any corners by labeling one or the other the starter.

Yes, Cechmanek was unorthodox. Still, he outplayed Ed Belfour in the first round and allowed only seven goals in five games the year before. The bottom line is that the Flyers have given ground to their Eastern Conference foes at the most significant position.

Did anyone hear a fly buzzing around the crease?

Scott Burnside, a freelance writer based in Atlanta, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.