Injuries and trades have drastically altered the look of the Flyers over the past six weeks, but the latest developments left coach Ken Hitchcock nearly breathless. On Feb. 9 Philadelphia acquired goaltender Sean Burke and wing Branko Radivojevic from the Coyotes in the Flyers' third major trade in 20 days. Then last Thursday top centers Jeremy Roenick and Keith Primeau staggered off the ice with injuries 32 seconds apart in a 2-1 road win over the Rangers. Hitchcock spent Friday monitoring the condition of his forwards, summoning a replacement from the minors and cobbling together new line combinations. "It's been a little hectic around here," says Hitchcock.
Yet after completing a home-and-home sweep of the Rangers with a 6-2 win on Saturday-Burke was in net for both games, and 22-year-old rookie Patrick Sharp scored two goals in the rematch—the Flyers were still comfortably atop the Atlantic Division and were tied with the Avalanche for the NHL lead in points (78).
The extended absence of Roenick will test Philadelphia's resolve. The team's second-leading scorer (45 points), Roenick suffered a broken jaw and the ninth concussion of his career when he was hit in the face by a slap shot. It's doubtful he'll return before the end of the regular season—if at all. Over the weekend Roenick said this latest head injury could force him to retire. Primeau suffered a mild concussion after a collision with Bobby Holik and was expected to be back in the lineup this week.
The Flyers might have been better able to absorb the blow of losing Roenick had G.M. Bobby Clarke not parted with another talented center, Mike Comrie, to get Burke. Clarke made that move because Philadelphia's regular netminder, first-year starter Robert Esche, is out until early March with a sprained left knee, and his backup, Jeff Hackett, retired last week with chronic vertigo.
Just last month Clarke had to make deals for defensemen Danny Markov (from the Hurricanes) and Manias Timander (Islanders) to replace the injured Eric Desjardins (fractured right forearm; expected to be back by late March) and Dennis Seidenberg (broken left leg; could return for the playoffs). Those deals—not to mention the December trade that brought Comrie from the Oilers for prized prospect Jeff Woywitka—cost the Flyers much of their young talent.
That means an additional trade to fill the need at center is unlikely, and it will fall to Burke, 37, and rookie backup Antero Niittymaki (3-0 in his first three NHL starts) to keep the team above water until the club gets healthy. With Phoenix this season Burke was 10-15-5 and had a 2.81 goals-against average, but if there's one aspect of his team that Hitchcock now feels comfortable with, it's goaltending. "Sean is a damn good goalie," says Hitchcock, who is aware that Philadelphia fans remember Burke's dismal stint in 1997-98, when the Flyers were eliminated in five games by the Sabres in the first-round of the playoffs.