Philadelphia Flyers Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
The first year of the Ken Hitchcock era was significantly better than the last year under Bill Barber.
While that isn't saying much, the Flyers are at least heading in the right direction. But their Stanley Cup winning head coach is clearly in a hurry to get where they are going.
The Flyers won a thrilling seven-game series over the Maple Leafs in the first round before bowing to the Senators in six in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Philadelphia's expectations will be significantly higher this season, and the Flyers are hoping to take another step in the East.
"We made some great strides last year, but there's another level out there," Hitchcock said. "I think it's a group effort to get to the next level. We don't need one thing from one player, we just need a little bit more from every player. We are capable of taking the next step as a group, but it's just a little bit more from every player."
The Flyers had a relatively quiet offseason outside of dealing Roman Cechmanek to the Kings and signing Jeff Hackett from the Bruins as his replacement. While Cechmanek put up incredible numbers in the regular season for the third straight year, his annual dropoff in the playoffs was a worrisome trend. Philadelphia is hoping that a veteran like Hackett can bring stability to the team (and the locker room), while grooming backup Robert Esche to someday take over the No. 1 role. Hackett's best days likely are behind him, but the duo should be more than adequate, especially with veteran blueliners Eric Desjardins, Kim Johnson, Marcus Ragnarsson, Chris Therien and Eric Weinrich playing in front of them.
"We're very confident that we have a real good team, and we are really confident that we can compete and beat anybody in this conference," Hitchcock said. "But we also are fully aware that the Stanley Cup champion is one hour and 15 minutes down the road from us, and the team that won the Presidents' Trophy [Ottawa] ended our season in the playoffs. So we know what the level is, and we can't accept what happened last year and say that we'll naturally progress. We are going to have to push ourselves individually and collectively."
The Devils and Seantors should provide a good measuring stick to see how just how much improvement the Flyers have made.
Keith Primeau, C -- Primeau has been criticized for underachieving during his 13-year NHL career, as many people think he should be able to better make use of his size to put up big offensive numbers. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Flyers captain isn't a 60-point player anymore, but he has turned into a shutdown defender who Hitchcock likes to play against the opposition's top line.
"I think J.R. [Jeremy Roenick] is still the focal point from an offensive standpoint, but Primeau is the focal point from the way we want our team to act and behave," Hitchcock said. "I think Simon Gagne can grow into the go-to guy, but that's a pretty big role right now. I think it always flows through your captain. And Keith really moved up his level of committment and play from a team standpoint, and I think he's the guy who we want to follow."
Primeau picked up his play in the second half of the season and ended up having a solid postseason. Philadelphia was pleased that he raised his competitive spirit and influenced the team's younger players with his all-out effort. Primeau's selfless play and willingness to do the dirty work have made him a fan favorite in the City of Brotherly Love, where the fans are always on the lookout for a player who would've fit in well with the Broad Street Bullies.
While Primeau isn't as apt to toss down the mittens as he was early in his career, the physical presence he brings to the game helps intimidate skill players and makes his teammates better.
Staying healthy -- The Flyers have enough horses to compete with the Devils and Sens, however they have several injury-prone star players who need to stay off injured reserve to give Philadelphia a chance at the Prince of Wales Trophy, let alone the Stanley Cup.
Williams is healthy again, and the only injury concern still lingering as camp nears is Radovan Somik's knee, which was scoped in mid-August. He should be back on skates right around the opening of camp.
LeClair's shoulder is about 90 percent, and the Flyers aren't looking to trade him despite rumors earlier this summer that they might try to unload his $9 million salary. Philly would like to reduce his salary, but a trade appears unlikely.
"If John is healthy like he was for the first 20 games or so last year, then we know we have a great player," Hitchcock said. "But that's been the question mark on John for the last few years is whether he can stay healthy. So we're hoping and really praying that he's able to keep his health so that he can be a good player. If he's healthy he's going to be an impact player. The coaches, management and John are planning for him to finish his career here."
If LeClair and Williams are 100 percent, the Flyers' second line looks very solid. And while an entirely healthy roster is a pipe dream, fewer injuries to key players would be a welcome change in Philadelphia.
Will Philadelphia's 2003 deals pay off in 2003-04?
The Flyers realized at the All-Star break that they need to make some moves to upgrade their wings with LeClair and Williams on the shelf. So general manager Bob Clarke acquired Sami Kapanen from Carolina on Feb. 7 and Tony Amonte from Phoenix on March 11. The two deals met with mixed results, but Philadelphia is confident that the duo will be key contributors in 2003-04.
Amonte had 15 points and a plus-12 rating in 13 games with the Flyers after coming over at the trade deadline. That helped him forgot his awful stint in Phoenix (36 points and a minus-12 in 59 games). Playing with good buddy Roenick helped Amonte find his offensive game, and the Flyers are counting on a full season of that tandem producing some big numbers.
"I don't think we can evaluate Tony until he gets through this year," Hitchcock said. "I think it's really difficult to come in and change into a team and expect to get everything emotionally out of that player. I think having a summer to think about it and knowing that he's going to be here for probably the balance of his career, now we'll see the true Tony Amonte. We expect him to have a heck of a year, and I think he has the same high expectations."
Kapanen only managed to tally 13 points in 28 games, but he picked up his play in the postseason with seven points in 13 games. The Flyers likely will play him in a checking role again this season alongside Primeau to take advantage of Kapanen's excellent skating ability and burgeoning two-way game. He will give them a nice counterattacking ability and make an excellent complement to the burly Primeau.
"He put a lot of pressure on himself last year when Carolina started making those changes," Hitchcock said. "He just kept adding to the pile there and he put too much pressure on himself to try to do everything. He came here and after awhile he just played his game and was very, very effective for us."
Kapanen might not approach the career-high 69 points he had with the Hurricanes in 2001-02, but the Flyers would be thrilled if he chips in 40-50 points while playing great defense against the opponent's top line.
Joni Pitkanen, D, 6-3, 195 pounds
Many observers thought the Flyers fleeced the Lightning when they dealt Ruslan Fedotenko to Tampa Bay on the eve of the 2002 draft for the fourth pick. Clarke had his eye on Pitkanan, knowing that Rick Nash, Kari Lehtonen and Jay Bouwmeester were going to go 1-2-3. While Fedotenko is a nice second- or third-line winger for the Lightning, Pitkanen has the potential to be a No. 1 defenseman for at least a decade.
Pitkanen scored five goals and 15 assists in 35 games for Karpat Oulu in Finland last season, but his career highlights thus far have come in international competitions. He posted six points in seven games at the 2003 World Junior Championships to help Finland take the bronze medal for the second consecutive year. Pitkanen was selected as the tournament's best defenseman and many observers have felt he has been the best blueliner in the world not playing in the NHL for the past two seasons, despite his tender age.
"He's real impressive," Hitchcock said. "His skill level and his skating level are incredible. I think that he's a special player, but I don't think there is much extra pressure on him right now. I think right now he's able to find his own level because we are competent back there. We have good players back there so he's going to be able to develop at the proper pace. But when you have a player who is that strong, everybody gets excited. And I think we are all feeling like this is a terrific opportunity for him and the franchise."
The biggest knock against him has been injuries, as he has battled shoulder and knee ailments in the past three years. But when healthy, Pitkanen has been nothing short of spectacular.
Pitkanen and fellow rookie Jeff Woywitka will be competing with Jim Vandermeer and Dennis Seidenberg for the sixth and seventh spots on the blueline. Vandermeer and Seidenberg have a leg up in that competition after playing key minutes in Philadelphia last year, but nothing will be settled among the rearguards until late in training camp. The Flyers expect that each member of this young quartet will see time with the big club at some point this season, but the two who don't make the Flyers out of training camp will be sent across the street to the AHL Phantoms.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.