Flyers' season depends on the youth
My first article, so be gentle.
Many were quick to criticize the Flyers during this year’s free agency period, as they chose not to go after many big names and were strapped down by their attempts to sign Gagne. Not knowing how much Gagne is going to make yet limited their ability to sign highly-payed players. They instead signed defenseman Nolan Baumgartner, and wingers/centers Randy Robitaille and Mark Cullen. I say wingers/centers simply because Center is a position the Flyers are overloaded with right now, and these players will most likely be converted to the wing. They also signed 2000 unsigned draft pick Lars Jonsson, who spent recent years in the Swedish Elite League, but has yet to play an NHL game. Bob Clarke countered these seemingly small signings by claiming that they made their big moves last year, in obtaining Forsberg, Knuble, Hatcher and Rathje. This would be a fine answer if Rathje and Hatcher actually panned out, but apparently admitting mistakes isn’t something this franchise likes to do too often. But, all is not lost.
As the title says, the youth movement on the Flyers is going strong, and can only get better. The Flyers’ rookies last year, especially as the season went on, were outstanding. Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, R.J. Umberger, Freddy Meyer and Antero Niittymaki were all key parts to the Flyers’ 101 point season and near-miss Atlantic Division Title last year. When injuries ran rampant, these five stepped up and kept the train rolling. My only complaint was that the forwards were practical no-shows in the playoffs. But with an entire season under their belts, they can no doubt have breakout seasons next year. One only has to look at Eric Staal, who in his rookie year did decent at 11 goals and 20 assists in 81 games, but exploded in his second season, leading his team with 100 points and contributing strongly to the Canes’ Stanley Cup championship. I don’t expect everyone to get 100 points, but simply pointing out that one year can make a huge difference, and these guys have nowhere to go but up.
So what’s left as far as roster moves? The Flyer’s biggest holes are left wing and depth at defense. If Gagne can’t get signed (even though he’s most likely staying, or else he would’ve filed for arbitation) then we’re in even bigger trouble. Sami Kapanen is listed as a Right Wing but can play both sides. R.J. Umberger played LW with Jeff Carter, and hopefully will stay there as they had great success with Niko Dimitrakos after last season’s trade deadline. After that our wingers are scarce, as we’d most likely be relying on former Phantoms such as Ben Eager, or converted centers as discussed earlier. Handzus spent some time on wing with Nedved, so he could be called upon to will in a spot I necessary. It’s been rumored that newcomer and NCAA star Ryan Potulny will also be moved to wing.
As for depth on defense, if no more moves are made they’ll be looking at their youth again there. Many people point fingers at Rathje and Hatcher being too slow and unable to adapt to the new game. While I think this is a legit argument for Hatcher, I think this is unfair to Rathje. Everyone seems to forget he played pretty darn well in the first half of the season, but went on the decline after his injury. He definitely came back too soon and played hurt with a bad hip. I’m thinking that with his surgery out of the way and an offseason of recovery, he can still be effective. Freddy Meyer became more and more comfortable at the position last year as he gained more high-level experience and should make the main roster no problem. Lars Jonsson is a crapshoot. Alexandre Picard and Wade Skolney are Phantoms mainstays that will have a shot at the roster this year. But, what our defensive depth lacks is NHL experience. Every year someone gets injured, and it’s been a major problem every season, but a problem they seem to constantly ignore. They go in with a strong starting 6, but as soon as one guy goes down everything is in shambles. They need to go after another cheap, veteran defenseman. They don’t need a superstar, just someone who’s been around the block and can hold down his own end of the ice. It baffles me that hey don’t realize that injuries CAN be planned for, and can’t be constantly used as an excuse.
So after all that, how about the lineup? Few people realize that the Flyers also signed former NHLer and Flyer Marty Murray, who spent last season in Germany, before the draft. He’s the kind of guy who seemed like he could produce if he was just a little bigger, but with the new rules is the kind of player that could thrive. Another wildcard is Petr Nedved. I don’t see him having a place on the team next year. I’m hoping he can be traded for an experienced defenseman or a winger. Robert Esche is also most likely gone, as Niittymaki is the team’s future. The only question is, when will he go? If they wait until the season starts, his value is only going o go down, as he’s going to seem like they guy who lost the starting job. But if he’s traded soon, they could most likely get a good pick or another depth guy. Bottom line is, Esche needs to move on. Keith Primeau is currently in playing in Finland with Sami Kapanen, and his return is looking more and more likely. Finally, as everybody knows, Forsberg is out for a while, and a January return is still looking likely. So, here’s my prediction for the opening day lineup as it stand right now.
Gagne – Richards – Knuble
Umberger – Carter – Dimitrakos
Kapanen – Primeau – Handzus
Potulny – Murray – Robitaille
Rathje – Pitkanen
Hatcher – Meyer
Gauthier – Baumgartner
Maybe the Esche trade can bring in a back-up goalie, someone we KNOW will be back-up, so Niitty can be comfortable in the starting role.
So while many are dooming the Flyers only a week after free agency, everything isn’t all gloom on the horizon. No team ever looks the same at the end of the year as they do to start it, so I think with some key trades this team will still make the playoffs. But as the theme of the article says, it all depends on the youngsters. If these guys can deliver, and Niittymaki plays the way we saw him in the Olympics, then there should be no problem come April. We all like to think our team is better than they actually are, whether we admit it or not, but I think this is a realistic assessment. Thanks for reading.