2007-08 Team Preview: Philadelphia Flyers
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideGiven the Philadelphia Flyers' historical reliance on size and physicality, one might have predicted they would struggle in the new NHL. But few could have predicted the precipitous fall the Flyers experienced last season as they tumbled to dead last. The reasons were myriad -- the retirement of Keith Primeau, which left a leadership vacuum; a power play that ranked 28th and team defense and goaltending that ranked 30th; and the worst home record in the league and the third-worst road record. But that was then and this is now as the Flyers have retooled from top to bottom. GM Paul Holmgren is firmly in charge and has made bold moves, starting late last season with the acquisition of Ryan Parent from Nashville and netminder Martin Biron from Buffalo. Kimmo Timonen, Scottie Hartnell, Daniel Briere, Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul all joined the ranks in the offseason. The talent is there; the question is whether coach John Stevens can put it all together and get the Flyers back into the postseason. OFFENSE
There's really no need to look at last season's results as this edition will bear little resemblance to that offensively impoverished squad. The spotlight will be squarely on Briere as he comes over after a career-best 95 points in Buffalo. Briere also led the Sabres in postseason scoring with 15 points in 16 games. He likely will center top scorer Simon Gagne, who managed 41 goals on a bad team, and veteran sniper Mike Knuble. However Stevens decides to work out his lines, he'll want to get more out of super-prospects Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, who combined for just 24 goals last season and a minus-29. It will be interesting to see how Stevens uses Lupul, who arrived in Edmonton amid much fanfare a year ago and promptly laid a giant egg with just 16 goals and a minus-29 showing. He had 28 goals two seasons ago in Anaheim, and Stevens will have to get him back on that track. The offense will miss Joni Pitkanen, dealt to Edmonton in the Lupul/Jason Smith trade, but his 43 points will be more than offset with the arrival of smooth-skating Nashville captain Timonen. Timonen had 55 points and a team-high 21:50 in average ice time in Nashville. He should go a long way toward rectifying the Flyers' power-play problems. DEFENSE
The Flyers remain an immovable force on defense, with only one player, Timonen, under 6 feet in height. That might have been favorable in the old NHL, where defensemen were expected to wrestle opponents into submission. Now, defensemen have to play with their brains and feet as well as their brawn. The Flyers, in general, failed to do that last season, when they gave up a league-worst 303 goals. Timonen is as smart with the puck as they come (think of him as a Finnish Nicklas Lidstrom). Another Finn, Lasse Kukkonen, will get a chance to prove he can handle the puck, too. Braydon Coburn, the eighth overall pick in the 2003 draft, has size (6-foot-5) and can skate, but he has yet to show he fully understands the NHL game. He played well after coming over from Atlanta in the Alexei Zhitnik deal, and this stands as a make-or-break campaign for him. Denis Gauthier is in the mix but hasn't shown much since coming to Philadelphia from Phoenix. GOALTENDING
The Flyers have pinned their goaltending hopes on the slender shoulders of Biron, the effervescent former Sabre acquired at the trade deadline. Biron has played more than 54 NHL games in a season just once in his career, so he'll have to prove he can shoulder a starter's workload. Biron has shown, in stretches, that he's a terrific netminder -- he won 13 consecutive games in relief of Ryan Miller early in the 2005-06 season. But that's a different place mentally than being "the guy" for 65-70 games. In a 16-game dress rehearsal for the Flyers last season, Biron was an ordinary 6-8-2 with a 3.02 GAA and .908 save percentage. Philly fans are not known for their patience, and after last season's debacle, Biron had best get off to a good start. Backup Antero Niittymaki has gone from the best goalie at the 2006 Olympics to an afterthought in Philadelphia. If Biron falters, this might be Niittymaki's last shot at becoming an NHL starter. COACHING
Stevens didn't have much to work with when he took over a Flyers team well on its way to implosion last season. Fair or not, the blame rests with Ken Hitchcock and Bob Clarke. Now the safety net is gone and Stevens has oodles more resources, he'd better get it right and in a hurry. He has some help in the form of assistant coaches Terry Murray, the Flyers' coach once upon a time, Jack McIlhargey and Joe Mullen. The challenges for Stevens are in finding the right combinations and roles for a collection of young players who have tremendous upside but who have been slow to develop. If he can get them on track, the Flyers should be in the mix for a playoff berth. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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• Record: 22-48-12
• Division: Fifth in Atlantic
• Conference: Last (15th) in East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
PLAYERS TO WATCH
This is the chance Biron has been waiting for his whole career. Does he have the goods to deliver? Defenseman: Braydon Coburn
The Thrashers gave up on the big kid from Western Canada, but if he can develop some confidence to go with his size, he could be a keeper and the deal will go down as a major steal for the Flyers. Forward: Daniel Briere
The talented center shared leadership duties with Chris Drury in Buffalo the past couple of seasons. Now, he'll be expected to spearhead the turnaround of the worst team in the NHL. Now that's a challenge.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
Just wondering, but does coach John Stevens have a terrific coaching staff or three guys who might be called on to take his job? Where Flyers Will Finish
The Flyers will finish fourth in the Atlantic Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the Philadelphia Flyers will finish this time around? Who will lead the Flyers in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!