If you have told me that the Flyers would be in the Eastern Conference Finals just one year removed from being the worst team in the NHL, I would probably have tried to buy a quantity of whatever it was you were smoking or taking. To go from a team that couldn't get out of it's own way to advance in the playoffs to the final 4 in the NHL was beyond the expectations of the most stepford of Flyers fans.
But as great as the turnaround was, if you look at the big picture, it still appears as if there is a talent gap between what the Flyers have now and what the two teams going to the Finals have on their rosters.
First and foremost, they need to find a way to build some depth along the blue line. When Timonen and Coburn went down, the Flyers' defense was woefully inadequate for a run at the Cup. Now, not a lot of teams would be well equipped to lose their top two defensemen, but the mobility and talent gap between their top two defensemen and their bottom 4 defensmen was exposed for all to see. Not every player has to be Kimmo Timonen (although that would be great), but you'd like your defensemen to be mobile and good passers such that they can move the puck to the forward moving with speed, rather than the forward standing around and waiting to receive a puck bounced off of the boards with no real purpose.
Secondly, the Flyers need to find out who can play with Danny Briere. Early in the year, Briere and Simon Gagne developed some good chemistry. When Gagne became enmeshed with his concussion issues, Briere struggled with various linemates until the Flyers acquired Vinny Prospal the day before the deadline. The Flyers cannot afford to have a guy like Briere, in whom a ton of money is invested, struggling to find linemates for long stretches of 5-on-5 play. The assumption is that Gagne will come back and be the same player, but after what we've seen after Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau got laid up with concussions, that is not a great assumption.
Finally, I would be more comfortable going forward with this team if they developed a more systemic identity with respect to how they play. Think about it....what is the identity of the Flyers? If you believe the National media and uninformed trolls on message boards, the Flyers are a bunch of untalented goons. While Flyer observers know that is incorrect, what is apparent is that the Flyers don't have an identity they can look to when things aren't going so well in order to baseline their play. Are the Flyers a forechecking attacking team? Are they a trapping team? Are they a counterpunching team? They've been all of those things at certain points of last season and I'm not certain they are good at any one of them such that they could lean on that particular style to get them over in difficult situations.
Breaking down the roster observations by position.....
- Mike Richards is going to be the captain of this team next year whether Jason Smith is here or not (which he probably won't be). Richards made a huge leap as a player and his work in the playoffs only served to further raise his profile. He is to this team what Chase Utley is to the Phillies.
- Jeff Carter will get a big raise as a restricted free agent and probably cemented it with a stretch of dominant games that he had when Mike Richards was out just before the playoff run.
- If Simon Gagne can come back, that would be great, but it would behoove Paul Holmgren to have a plan B in case Gagne gets scatterbrained. Before the playoffs, I was very much in favor of resigning Prospal as that Plan B. Unless the words "surgery" and "Vinny Prospal" appear in the same sentence this week, he will not be getting any faster this offseason, and his lack of speed is probably why he disappeared for long stretches in the playoffs.
- A lot of people believe that RJ Umberger is going to be a big time player, especially after the Montreal series. While I appreciate what Umberger did, I'd be VERY careful if I were Paul Holmgren to not break the bank for this guy. For one thing, he just turned 26; he's not some young kid just out of junior hockey. He doesn't really have a line to call home and I don't see him getting much better than he is right now. He scored 12 goals during the regular season last year; 6 against the Pens alone. If they can keep Umberger for a year or two for a reasonable number that won't kill their cap, I'd be happy with that. But if Umberger holds out for money befitting a top 6 forward, that will be a problem. If that is the case, maybe you think about shopping Umberger, whose value may never be higher.
- Another player who could be moved is Mike Knuble. He is going to be another year older and another year slower. They would be wise to make sure they can replace Knuble's power play prowess, however, before they consider moving him. Sami Kapanen, while slowing down some, can still be a valuable 4th liner and solid soldier in the lockerroom. I suspect the Flyers will leave it up to Kapanen to see if he has another year left. He may just retire and return to Finland as he has threatened to do in the past.
- Whatever problems John Stevens has with Scottie Upshall (healthy scratch at time during the season), hopefully Upshall's playoff performance has swung the coach. More Upshall in the lineup, please.
- Steve Downie needs to work on his skating as well as his self-discipline. He will also need the benefit of the doubt from Stevens to some extent; Downie will not improve by sitting in the press box.
- Will Claude Giroux (QMJHL MVP) make the team out of camp next year? Alot of folks are assuming this without figuring out where, exactly, he would play. You can't put this guy on the 4th line. A little time on the Phantoms wouldn't hurt.
- It was amazing to watch the development of Braydon Coburn over the course of the year. He has truly developed into a top notch NHL defenseman.
- I've written this before, but Kimmo Timonen is an absolute beast. He is better than was advertised when the Flyers signed him.
- Randy Jones probably made himself some money with a really solid playoff. He is a restricted free agent and I have no problem with the Flyers bringing him back in a role no better than the 4 or 5 defenseman.
- Don't be surprised to see Lasse Kukkonen traded. I just don't think Stevens likes him.
- Youngster Ryan Parent, obtained in the Peter Forsberg deal, probably earned himself a spot on the team starting out of camp with a stellar effort under fire in the playoffs. I still don't understand, though, how a guy that skates as well as Parent has absolutely no discernible offensive skills.
- Now this is where things get a little tougher. Jason Smith was the perfect captain for this team, but his injuries (from what I read today, BOTH shoulders were seperated) and lack of foot speed kept him from performing optimally. Derian Hatcher practically had his knee drained every day and is fighting age (he's 35) and lack of foot speed. I think the Flyers can afford to have one of these slower, more physical defensemen back, but NOT both.
The thing to be aware of is that you can't simply jettison both of these guys without replacing their physicality. Both can fight and both are a bitch to go up against in the corners and along the boards. There were rumors about Smith wanting to go back to New Jersey (where he originally was drafted) for reasons I cannot possibly fathom (who would want to live in North Jersey?). Hatcher? He may retire or get bought out (he makes about $3.5 million). Regardless of the outcome of the situation with these two similar defensemen, the Flyers will need to replace those skills that they did bring to the table.
- Young Flyers defensemen to look for next year? "Nasty" Nate Guenin could supply toughness from the blueline next year (146 PIMs for the Phantoms last year). Guenin is probably the first call-up in case of injury. Oskars Bartulis is a rangy, smooth skating defensemen with offensive skills. Michael Ratchuk is an offensive minded defenseman that played with the Phantoms in the Calder Cup playoffs for 5 games and should be a big time player on the Phantoms next year.
- Martin Biron is the undisputed starting goaltending on this team right now. Whether it was the right thing to do or not to shuffle him in and out of the lineup during the regular season, this is Biron's team now.
- Antero Niittymaki will probably be back. He will be under contract in the coming year, but at what point do you actually start grooming a young(er) successor to Marty Biron? Biron is 30 and is not the biggest guy in the world. Biron cannot play as many games as say, Martin Brodeur. Niitty will suffice next year as a safety net, but I wouldn't give Niitty another contract, unless it is understood that he is the backup.
- Dovetailing off of the previous point, the Flyers definitely need to identify a young, up and coming goaltender to foster in their system in the next year or two. Phantoms goalies Scott Munroe, Martin Houle, and Michael Teslak are middling prospects at best.
- There is a big movement to give John Stevens a long term extension. Not so fast, in my opinion. Stevens is a good, young coach, but I worry about his ability to shape the identity of this team. He was almost fired back in March and was publicly called out by Paul Holmgren to step up. I would wait until December, to see how the team comes out of the gate before I start awarding Stevens with a long term deal. Stevens might be the right guy now, in that he is a young, player-empathetic coach, but this team may need more of a task master to get to the next level.
Available Free Agents Who Could Help
- The cap will go up a bit, and barring some huge move to free up a ton of cap space, I'm not sure the Flyers will be huge players in the free agent, unlike last year where they scored Briere, Timonen, and Hartnell.
The obvious free agent who would help immediately is Brian Campbell, former Sabre defenseman. There are other, cheaper options for a puck rushing/moving defenseman. Namely, Colorado's John Michael-Liles, Ottawa's Wade Redden, and Montreal's Mark Streit.