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Stanley Cup or Bust: Previewing the 2009-2010 Philadelphia Flyers

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Today, in coordination with the rest of SBN Hockey, we bring you an in-depth preview of the 2009-2010 Philadelphia Flyers. If you've missed it over the last ten days, each hockey site on the network has provided a detailed look of their respective teams, while James Mirtle brings an objective perspective at his site, From The Rink. The series continues until Tuesday, but today it's our turn. We hope this preview gets you as excited for the season as writing it made us.

Expectations for the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers are extremely high, as evidenced by a poll of Broad Street Hockey readers earlier this week. Of 242 respondents, more than half said they expect the orange and black to hoist the Stanley Cup this season. Lofty expectations, to be sure. But the real question is are those expectations warranted? Can this crop of Flyers bring the Cup home for the first time in 40 years?

Because knowing your history is always important, let's take an in-depth look at the 2008-09 Flyers, their quest for the Cup, and the changes that took place after they ultimately failed. After the jump, if you'd oblige...

2009-09 Recap

After appearing in the Eastern Conference Finals just one year after finishing 30th in the NHL, the 08-09 Flyers were looking to make that final jump toward the Stanley Cup. Those hopes quickly turned to disgust as Philadelphia started the season 0-3-3, and fans started to see a similar trend occurring from the year before, when the Flyers went on two long losing streaks of six and ten games. There was a clear lack of urgency across the board that started with the coaching staff and the leadership group of players and trickled down to the entire roster.

The Flyers did start winning, of course, and as they climbed the standings throughout the season, we forgot the problems they exhibited early on in the year. Instead, we turned our concerns to the injuries on the team, and there were certainly a lot of them. At one point in January, the Flyers were only able to dress 18 skaters in Los Angeles against the Kings. Despite long term injuries to Danny Briere, Randy Jones, and slightly less serious injuries to guys like Kimmo Timonen and Simon Gagne, the team kept winning.

Jeff Carter was lighting the scoresheet on fire. Mike Richards, Scott Hartnell, and Joffrey Lupul looked good, too. Martin Biron was providing good goaltending and the Flyers were playing like the best team in the division, especially on home ice. They won eight straight games at home surrounding the New Year.

That same early-January night in LA, they passed the slumping Rangers for first place in the Atlantic. The Devils were also bit by the injury bug -- perhaps a little bit harder than the Flyers considering they lost their world-class goaltender Martin Brodeur -- but they were hanging around. The Penguins were 10 points behind the Flyers and looking like they could miss the playoffs. At the all-star break, the Flyers, Devils and Rangers were all within two points of each other with Pittsburgh severely behind.

Briere tried to return to the lineup several times around the all-star break, but ultimately would not return for good until mid-March. Until then, rookie Claude Giroux had been with the Flyers in his place, and he was damn impressive. After pushing hard for Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester at the trade deadline, Paul Holmgren and company made a slightly less significant deal when they traded fan favorite Scottie Upshall to Phoenix for tough guy Dan Carcillo. Most fans were displeased with the move immediately.

The Penguins started a resurgence after firing coach Michel Therrien, but the Flyers were not concerned. They were focused on catching the first place Devils, who had jumped out to a 10 point lead in the division. But when the pressure was on, the same problems that plagued the Flyers in the first six games of the season began to rear their ugly heads once again. They seemed incapable (or unwilling) of playing a full 60 minutes of hockey.

Despite this,Philadelphia clinched a playoff spot on April 7. On April 12, the final day of the regular season, they found out they would be playing the Penguins in the first round. All they needed was one point against the Rangers that day to clinch home ice. An abysmal third period, after an excellent first 40 minutes, allowed the Rangers to take the lead and the game, and thus the Flyers would board a plane for Pittsburgh.

The same old crap continued once they got there. It didn't matter that it was the playoffs now, either. The effort was invisible and it was flat out embarassing. The inability to stay out of the penalty box was even worse, but in game two, things were better. The penalties stopped, the effort was complete, but the result was ultimately the same. If it weren't for Marc-Andre Fleury's toe on a shot by Carter in the third period, the Flyers would've had a three goal lead. Instead, Pittsburgh kept themselves in it and wound up winning in overtime. You would call the game a moral victory in the regular season, but that's meaningless in the postseason, and we all returned to Philadelphia down 0-2.

In game three at home,  Giroux stepped up his game and made the Penguins his dinner. The entire team looked like the guys we knew they were the whole season, but the same concerns that they wouldn't play a disciplined 60 minutes of hockey were still lingered. Still, there was hope heading into game four, but Fleury and a little bit of bad luck would dash our hopes yet again. 3-1, Pens.

Game five was another display of the potential of Flyers hockey - dominant from start to finish, and on enemy territory nonetheless. We had confidence heading home. And then, everything blew up.

Those same concerns came big time in Game 6, and with a three goal lead halfway through the hockey game, the Flyers gave Pittsburgh the series. A deciding game seven was in their grasp and they sat back and let it get away. Just as they did with home ice two weeks earlier. Just like they had done so many times throughout the season. They were a better team than the Penguins in so many ways, minus the one way that mattered most -- the effort.

It was a fitting, albeit heartbreaking, end to the season.

It's a frustrating loss, but in hockey more than any other sport, you need losses to make you a stronger team. You need to lose as a team before you win as a team, and the Philadelphia Flyers are still a very young hockey club -- much younger than the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They will continue to get better and that can be a consolation in the coming weeks. Right now, though, this hurts.

That's where we are now. It's the cusp of a new season, and we hope that the Flyers have learned those lessons from the past. There are plenty of lingering questions from last year, of course. Can the roster stay healthy? Are the inevitable injury call ups going to perform as well as last year? Will a new goaltending duo answer the call? Can the team exhibit some consistency? And maybe some good luck can shine our way?

We'll find out over the next few weeks and months. In the meantime, let's look at the steps the Flyers have taken to get over the proverbial hump.

A boring offseason (with a few highlights)

The offseason was pretty boring (it usually is by nature, of course), but there were a few events that stood out in the minds of Flyers fans. At 11 AM on June 10, the Flyers officially introduced Ray Emery to the Philadelphia media. They were clearly making a bold move in signing the enigmatic Emery, a player with a ton of talent but a history of attitude problems from his time in Ottawa. Still, the talent the guy has is clearly there considering his 2007 trip to the Finals with the Senators, and the hope is that "Razor" can get his behavior in check and be the world-class goalie the Flyers have needed for so long.

On June 26, the hockey world gathered in Montreal for the 2009 Entry Draft. Philadelphia had the 21st overall pick, but as we all know now, they didn't keep it. Instead, they made the biggest splash of the weekend when, just prior to the first overall pick, they acquired dominant Chris Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks for Lupul, Luca Sbisa, and that 21st overall pick. "The buzz was deafening," and while some fans were concerned that the Flyers gave up too much in acquiring Pronger, an overwhelming majority were ecstatic about the deal.

A day after being introduced to the media, Pronger signed a front-loaded $35 million contract extension that will keep him in Philadelphia until 2016. Similar deals were given to Marian Hossa and Roberto Luongo, among others, and the league decided that the structure of these deals could circumvent the collective bargaining agreement. The NHL decided to investigate, and it continues today.

A few other minor moves were made, but none had the same buzz as the Pronger deal. The Flyers added Ian Laperriere and backup goaltender Brian Boucher in free agency. Ole-Kristian Tollefsen is a nice player, sure, but he's no Chris Pronger. For all we know, he might not even be a Randy Jones. But he's a Flyer, and we'll see. Finnish forward Mika Pyorala signed in mid-July as well. Martin Biron signed on Long Island after nobody offered him the money he originally asked for from the Flyers. Antero Niittymaki signed in Tampa, and Mike Knuble ran off to Washington.

A good bit of movement occured, but the core is still certainly intact. A recap of the moves, please...

Who's In: Ray Emery, Brian Boucher, Ian Laperriere, Mika Pyorala, Chris Pronger and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen

Who's Out: Martin Biron (NYI), Antero Niittymaki (TBL), Joffrey Lupul (ANA) Mike Knuble (WSH), Andrew Alberts (CAR) and Luca Sbisa (ANA)

Rookies to Watch (aka Your Injury Callups): James van Riemsdyk, Danny Svyret, Patrick Maroon, David Laliberte

So now that we've got the personnel out of the way, let's look at the strengths and weaknesses of the 2009-10 Flyers.

Three Strengths

  1. Special Teams - The Flyers had the best special teams in the league last year, despite what the NHL numbers might tell you. Even if you do listen to those numbers, though, you get the picture -- the Flyers are dangerous on special teams. They scored about a million shorthanded goals last season, and their power play was second best in the league behind only Detroit. With both the PP and PK units still completely intact, and additions like Pronger thrown into the mix, the Flyers look to have just as special a season this year (terrible pun).
  2. Scoring Depth - There's no guarantee that the Flyers will have six 25-goal scorers as they did last year, but even with the departures of Lupul and Knuble, the possibility of repeating is certainly there. Giroux will be entering his first full NHL season, and with Briere hopefully going injury free, those two could replace the departed scoring depth. In addition, though, Carter will look to improve on his breakout 46 goal season. Richards, Hartnell, and Gagne should all have 25-plus goal seasons again as well.
  3. Defense - The defense that will take to the ice a week from today cannot be matched in the Eastern Conference. Timonen and Braydon Coburn are two of the best defensemen in the league, let alone on the team. Ryan Parent is an up-and-coming star on the blueline, while Matt Carle is an excellent compliment. Pronger pushes the unit over the top, though. He gives the Flyers the bruising, shutdown defenseman that they've needed for so long, and the Cup experience necessary to win again.

Three Weaknesses

  1. Inconsistency and Penalties - It was the theme of last season, but until they prove otherwise, the problem persists. The Flyers need to learn how to stop taking dumb penalties, plain and simple. When they don't put in 100 percent effort, they get in bad position and they take dumb penalties that hurt the team. It's not a difficult process to understand, but it's a terrible habit to break. Even the best penalty killers get overworked, and the Flyers as a whole have to stop the out-of-control penalties. If they put in 100 percent effort from when the puck drops until when the horn sounds, the dumb penalties should stop and the wins should come easier. If this department doesn't improve, though, it could be John Stevens' head.
  2. Goaltending - It's not saying that Emery is a bad goaltender to call the position a weakness. At this point, he is a virtual unknown to us. We simply don't know how he's going to perform, so by default, it's a weakness. But with a renewed lease on his career, Emery is out to gain our trust. Let's hope it happens.
  3. Reputation - It's almost a stigma these days to wear Flyers orange. Ever since the NHL laid the hammer down on the orange and black with five seperate suspensions for what were deemed dirty hits, the hockey community has painted the Flyers as a dirty hockey team. They were the most penalized team in the league last year, and some say that's due more to this reputation than anything else. While that assessment may or may not be accurate, it's 110 percent true that the reputation is there. The acquisitions of Carcillo, Pronger, Laperriere, and even Emery do nothing but to bolster that image. TSN called the Flyers "The New Broad Street Bullies" in their preview of this years team, and it's no secret that the Flyers expect to play a physical game this upcoming season. There's nothing wrong with playing physical hockey, but when the entire hockey world thinks you're a dirty team, you need to reign in that reputation before it hurts you more than it already has.

Achieving the Goal

The goal for this team is clear -- win the Stanley Cup. How does that happen? Well, for starters, the inconsistency and the lack of discipline stops. Beyond that, the relentless offensive attack that the Flyers had a year ago continues. The losses of Lupul and Knuble can't phase anybody, and Giroux and Briere step right in and take their place. Carter will continue his success from last season and Richards will have to emerge as even more of a leader. Stevens will have to hold his players accountable when they do something wrong instead of making excuses.

Emery will have to return to 2006-07 form, but the defense is strong enough where he won't necessarily have to be lights out. The special teams success will have to continue, and the team will have to get better in the faceoff department. Other than that, though, the same things that brought the Flyers success last year are still applicable in 2009-10. All the pieces are here and in place for a parade down Broad Street in June. If this team wants it bad enough, the Stanley Cup is there for the taking.

Predictions

The Flyers were awesome and will continue to be awesome.  I firmly believe they had everything they needed to win a Stanley Cup last year except luck, and this year they should be good enough to not need luck.  I'm biased, of course, but there is nobody better in the league.  As long as the Flyers can keep their minor penalties average to single digits per game, I think they'll sweep the Blackhawks in the finals.  Plan the parade.

>> Ben Rothenberg

Last year, the team had plenty of offense and very little defense.  So they traded Lupul for Pronger, which should take care of that.  Letting Biron and Niittymaki go might have hurt, but Biron took them to exactly as many Conference Finals as their once and current backup did.  At least we know Emery can get to the Stanley Cup Finals, and this team should be better than his old Senators team.  Whether they can get past the Bruins, Capitals, and Penguins though, will be determined.  Realistically, I'm expecting to get to the Conference Finals - AGAIN - and only hoping to get to the Stanley Cup Finals.  But please, oh please, anybody but Pittsburgh!

>> Geoff Detweiler

The team, on paper, is one of the best the Flyers have had in a very long time and they should be the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference. Of course, it all comes down to how that paper translates to the ice, and the major question continues to be the work ethic of the team. Chris Pronger will be an added leader in the locker room, and Paul Holmgren says John Stevens has to lay down the law a little more with his players. If that doesn't happen, he could be out.

But it's not going to come to that. This team learned their lesson last year in that final game of the playoffs. They know that the "it's just one loss" excuses aren't going to work anymore. The pedal is going to be on the floor from start to finish each and every night, Emery is going to prove to all of us that he's the elite goaltender he once promised to be, and Pronger is going to break down the Penguins like a knife through butter. The rest of the teams' toughness will wear down opponents night after night while Carter, Gagne, Briere, and Giroux put the puck in the back of the net at will.

The Flyers will finally get by the Penguins, and every other team in the East, en route to the Stanley Cup Finals. From there, anything is possible.

>> Travis Hughes