Speed on defense is the only question mark.... Antero Niittymaki may unseat Robert Esche in goal by the playoffs.
MIKE RATHJE Eric Desjardins
DERIAN HATCHER Joni Pitkanen
* ALL CAPS denotes new player, Italic denotes rookie
Young, fast and ready to roll: The totally retooled Flyers are bound for the finals
Not long before the start of training camp Peter Forsberg, a brand-new Flyer, was standing with Keith Jones, a former Flyer, outside a restaurant in downtown Philadelphia. A group of dinner-goers stopped in its tracks. "That's Peter Forsberg!" one of the passersby exclaimed.
"The look on his face -- you'd have thought he had just seen the President," says Jones.
Hockey fans in Philadelphia will be doing a lot of double takes as their team skates back into the public eye. Even by the dizzying standards of the overhauled NHL, in which no roster has been left unturned, the Flyers' makeover is extreme. Only 11 players remain from a squad that came within a puck's bounce of the Stanley Cup finals in 2004. The remodeling has resulted in a deep, loaded team that is poised to return to the finals for the first time since being swept by the Red Wings in '97.
While the most conspicuous new bodies are the inimitable Forsberg (the 2002-03 Hart Trophy winner in Colorado) and bruising 6'5", 230-pound defenseman Derian Hatcher (the captain of Stanley Cup finalist Dallas in 1999 and '00), the most vital may be a passel of twentysomethings who have been educated beyond their years, even without having dampened a skate blade in an NHL game. "Our young players are going to have a major say in where we end up," says Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock. "And we feel like coming here is the natural step for them. We have guys who were prime-time players on a championship American [Hockey] League team. They know about pro hockey. And they've played a system that's much the same as what we use up here. That was no junior hockey they were in."
While most veteran Flyers went virtually untested by game action during the lockout, the youngest were leading the Philadelphia Phantoms through the AHL's Calder Cup playoffs -- a bone-bashing, four-round event that drew 20,103 fans to the Wachovia Center for the final game. For precocious 20-year-old forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards (both former first-round draft picks who averaged better than a point per Phantoms playoff game), playmaking center R.J. Umberger (also a former first-rounder) and tournament MVP goaltender Antero Niittymaki, all of whom are expected to have a significant impact on this year's Flyers, it was a crash course in big-time hockey. Said 23-year-old forward Patrick Sharp, who played in the NHL's '04 postseason as a Flyers rookie, then had 21 points in 21 games in the Phantoms' run to the title last spring, "It was just like the playoffs with the Flyers."
Well, not quite. To help his young core adjust to the demands of NHL life -- especially in a puck-savvy city thirsty for a Stanley Cup after a 30-year drought -- Hitchcock has developed a network of mentors. When assigning lockers he put Carter next to 16-year veteran defenseman Eric Desjardins; Richards next to playoff-tested center Keith Primeau; Umberger next to newly imported veteran defenseman Mike Rathje; Sharp beside Forsberg; and 22-year-old defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who also starred in the Phantoms' run, alongside Hatcher. "We have great veterans for bringing these guys along," says forward Simon Gagné, who broke in with the Flyers seven years ago. "I've gone through this here, so I can help them get comfortable too. But I'm telling you, they can be a force right away. These guys skate, they have skill, and they're sharp from having played a lot. They'll be our energy in the early season."
Gagné, 25, has been promoted this year into Hitchcock's Gang of Seven -- a leadership group of veteran players that meets weekly with the coaching staff and helps deliver the coaches' wants and demands to the team. That's another thing the new players will have to get accustomed to: satisfying the detail-oriented Hitchcock, a terrific hockey mind who says of his intense preparations for this season during the lockout, "I shuffled so many papers, I felt like I was working for NASA. It's fair to say I expect a similar commitment from my team."