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1:24 AM ET, 5/4/06
Flyers must build for 'New NHL'
Posted by Allan Muir
I've been waiting all day for my old buddy Tom Layberger to weigh in on Philadelphia's shameful dismissal from the playoffs Tuesday night. Like the Flyers, I guess he just didn't have the stomach for it.
It can't be easy being a Flyers fan today. Being eliminated by the Buffalo Sabres in six is one thing. But if it hadn't been for Peter Forsberg running amok in Games 3 and 4, this would have been a sweep. They would've been aces in 1995-96, but these Flyers simply didn't have the goaltending, the character, the speed or the leadership to compete with the Sabres, a team built for success in 2005-06.
Moving forward, the challenge for GM Bobby Clarke is simple. You've got the marvelous gift that is Peter Forsberg for one more year. When healthy, he can carry a franchise by himself. With him as a centerpiece, the Flyers have a chance to put this shameful performance behind them.
So what do you do to maximize that chance?
First, you pray that Keith Primeau can come back healthy in October. The hole left in the lineup by their concussed captain may have been the most glaring issue for the failing Flyers. His mix of carefully controlled aggression and grim determination sets the tone for the team, especially in the trenches of the postseason. They simply couldn't address his absence.
Second: rebuild the second defensive unit.
Moving up in the draft to steal Joni Pitkanen may have been Clarke's finest move as a GM, and the experience the rapidly maturing Finn gained this season will allow him to settle into the anchor role next year. Freddy Meyer struggled in the Buffalo series, but he emerged as a reliable-maybe the team's most reliable-defender down the stretch.
Bloated contracts and diminished performance tie Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje to the team, but both can be serviceable -- in reduced roles. Eric Desjardins and Kim Johnsson have to go. That means going against everything Clarke believes in and eschewing thuggish size in favor of speed and puck handling skill to create a second pairing capable of thriving in the 'New NHL.'
Finally, it's time to address the goaltending situation once and for all, and that may lead to problems with coach Ken Hitchcock. As he proved earlier in his career in Dallas, Hitch is a guy so enamored of veterans that he would almost rather play himself in net than a rookie. It was apparent early on that Robert Esche wasn't good enough to win -- a 4.20 GAA wouldn't cut it in the run-and-gun '80s -- but Hitch simply wouldn't trust the young and talented Antero Niittymaki to reverse the team's fortunes.
Considering how haphazard the Flyers' defensive zone coverage was, he might not have made a difference. But as the turnaround successes of Carolina and Anaheim behind young, unproven goalies demonstrated, he might have.
Esche shows no signs of being able to carry this team --check out his lackluster stats from the '03-04 playoffs for additional proof. It's time to turn over the reins to Niittymaki, the Olympic tournament MVP and the future of the franchise in net.
Of course, the roster will require a few more tweaks here and there, but the Flyers aren't that far from being a formidable contender. If Clarke can shed his outdated approach, they certainly won't have to suffer another failure like this spring.