Philadelphia Flyers season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:29 PM ET
ESPN.com

Philadelphia Flyers

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

A year ago, folks were lining up on the eve of training camp to award the Flyers their first Stanley Cup since 1975. They had Peter Forsberg and Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje and Keith Primeau. But in the end, the Flyers had a team built for an NHL that no longer existed. Forsberg was injury-prone and Primeau was lost for most of the season with a concussion that ultimately forced his retirement on the eve of this year's training camp. Rathje and Hatcher looked like oversized (did anyone say overpaid?) pylons as the speedy Buffalo Sabres routed the Flyers in six games in the first round of the playoffs. In the aftermath of a disappointing end of the season was the question of how a perennial contender can hope to remain in that elite club while having to remake itself in midstream.

Offense: The Flyers were eighth overall in goals scored. That's pretty good, and there's no reason to think they won't pour more goals in this year with the addition of Kyle Calder and the continued development of last year's highly touted rookies Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Carter was the more productive of the two, scoring 23 times to Richards' 11. Both should get more opportunities this year to polish their assets. Another rookie, R.J. Umberger, also acquitted himself well with 20 goals, although he was on the receiving end of the biggest hit of the season when he was laid out by the Sabres' Brian Campbell. Simon Gagne missed 10 games to injury but still led the team with 79 points and assumed a leadership role in Primeau's absence. He recently signed a long-term deal. The real wild card, of course, is the health of Peter Forsberg, who was named captain after Primeau's retirement. Still one of the game's finest players, Forsberg had 75 points in just 60 games. But in his absence, the Flyers' power play floundered, finishing an astounding 27th. The uncertainty over Forsberg's durability will continue to dog the Flyers after offseason surgery on ligaments in his ankle. It was originally thought Forsberg might miss the first two months of the season, but he returned to the ice in mid-September and expects to be ready for opening night. How long he sticks around will say much about the Flyers' ability to get back in the Cup hunt.

Defense: The Flyers ranked middle of the pack in goals-against (17th to be exact), and there isn't a whole lot to suggest they'll be much better this season. Hatcher and Rathje may both be smart hockey players, but their foot speed was revealed as sorely lacking, and it's up to coach Ken Hitchcock to find partners for them who can compensate for that. In the absence of Kim Johnsson, who bolted to Minnesota, Freddy Meyer revealed good puck-moving skills, and Joni Pitkanen (46 points, plus-22) showed flashes of becoming an elite blueliner as he excelled at both ends of the rink. Hitchcock has suggested he may drop the versatile Sami Kapanen back to the blue line brigade to improve the team's defensive mobility. Denis Gauthier was acquired at the trade deadline and should feel more comfortable producing mayhem on the back end. The Flyers allowed 97 power-play goals, eighth most in the league, an element of team defense that will have to be addressed.

Goaltending: There really wasn't much to differentiate the Flyers' goaltending, as Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki turned in identical 2.97 goals-against averages. Their save percentages were similar as well, .897 for Esche and .895 for Niittymaki. And therein lies the problem for Hitchcock. Goaltending has been a sore point for the Flyers since Ron Hextall was in his prime, and having a defined No. 1 starter would go a long way toward producing a stable dressing-room environment. Will one of these netminders step forward and seize that role this year? Niittymaki looks to have the best combination of mental toughness and skills, but history says this is a hard town in which to play goal. Stay tuned.

Coaching: Hitchcock is one of the best in the business, but his reputation will be on the line this season as the Flyers try to regroup from an embarrassing playoff loss that included two blowouts at the hands of the Sabres and an unfortunate, profanity-laced tirade by the coach. Hitchcock recently signed a contract extension, and there should be few distractions in terms of player contracts and the like, so there seem to be no excuses this time around.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
8th The competition in the Atlantic has never been keener with the emergence of the Rangers. Watch for the Flyers to drop to third in the division but earn the East's last playoff berth.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Even
Stock even. Philadelphia is a hockey town and expectations will always run high. Even with Peter Forsberg likely returning earlier than expected, this isn't a team in decline as much as a team stuck in neutral.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Injuries killed the Flyers down the stretch last season. Still, Philadelphia's overall success demonstrates the potential reward in taking chances on these types, and Peter Forsberg or Simon Gagne should be elite fantasy options even if they might each miss 10-15 games. It's Joni Pitkanen's time to shine as the power-play quarterback, and the team would prefer Antero Niittymaki to win the goalie job early. Robert Esche's presence limits both players' value, but Nittymaki could be the bargain pick. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Flyers:
1. Steve Downie, 19, RW, Peterborough (OHL)
Statline: 34 GP, 16 G, 34 A, 109 PIM
2. Stefan Ruzicka, 21, RW, Philly (AHL)
Statline: 73 GP, 16 G, 32 A, 88 PIM
3. Ryan Potulny, 22, C, Minnesota (WCHA)
Statline: 41 GP, 38 G, 25 A, 31 PIM
4. Alexandre Picard, 21, D, Philly (AHL)
Statline: 75 GP, 7 G, 26 A, 82 PIM
5. Rejean Beauchemin, 21, G, Trenton (ECHL)
Statline: 9-18-4 record, 2.97 GAA, .914 SV%
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Philadelphia Flyers
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record45-26-11 (101 points)
DivisionFinished second in Atlantic
ConferenceFinished fifth in East
PlayoffsFirst round: Lost 4-2 to Buffalo

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Peter Forsberg
If he goes, the Flyers go. If he goes down, which is the more likely scenario, then the Flyers are a different, far less imposing team.
Winger: Jeff Carter
Carter may not have had the rookie numbers people expected (he was 11th in rookie scoring), but he is poised to become an impact player.
Winger: Kyle Calder
Kyle Calder led a bad Chicago team in scoring with 59 points. What does he do on a team that fancies itself a Stanley Cup contender?
Goalie: Antero Niittymaki
The unflappable Finn was the goalie of the tournament in Torino and turned in stretches of impeccable play for the Flyers. He's got the tools to be the man in Philly.

Key Moves
The addition of veteran scorer Geoff Sanderson helps flesh out a deep, talented offensive squad. The departure of puck-moving defenseman Kim Johnsson to the Wild wasn't adequately addressed, leaving the Flyers counting on youngsters to be able to move the puck and free up the offense.

SportsNation
Rating the Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers finished fifth in the Eastern Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Flyers in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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