The orange and black are back

By Shane Evans
October 13, 2006

It was a long and painful off season for the Philadelphia Flyers.

The 2005-06 season didn’t go the way they had planned, and an early exit in the first round of the playoffs was evidence of that.

Before last season began, the Flyers were predicted by many to capture their third Stanley Cup title and their first since 1975, an agonizing stretch of 31 years. They signed arguably the best player in the world, Peter Forsberg before the season. The defense was revamped with the addition of bruising back-liners Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje. It was all in place for a rise to the pinnacle of the National Hockey League.

What happened instead, was a monumental collapse.

Granted, the Flyers played well. Extremely well in fact during the first quarter of the season. They ranked #1 in the league during that span. But as the year wore on, the traditionally bigger team was slowed by a staggering 388 man games to injury and by the “new NHL system” which hardly suited the slow-footed Flyers. Not even “Peter the Great” could save the Flyers from first round futility.

Going against a much younger, much faster and arguably less-talented Buffalo Sabres team, the Flyers looked terribly over-matched and slow as the fresh-legged New Yorkers ran circles around them in six games to take the series.

That kind of failure doesn’t fly in Philadelphia. Especially with the hockey-crazed Ed Snider as the owner of the team since it’s inception in 1967.

In the off-season, the Flyers made a host of changes to improve their team, and help it acclimatize to the new system the NHL had adopted following the lockout of 2004-05 season.

Gone are the slow feet of ancient defender Eric Dejardins, centers Keith Primeau and Michael Handzus, and in is the quickness of Kyle Calder, Randy Robitaille Geoff Sanderson.

With those three swift additions, and the emergence of their young nucleus of rookies from last season, centers Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and R.J. Umberger and defensemen Freddy Meyer, the Flyers have drastically changed their team from what they were a year ago at this point.

They will have one year under the new system, and the younger players will have had a chance to evolve into much better players from what they were in there brief and fluctuating roles of their last campaign.

Despite the improvement and more importantly, adjustment, that has been made, there are still questions about the team as they progress through the beginning of the 2006 season.

Who will be the goalie? (it appears to be Robert Esche, at least until second-year keeper Antero Niittymaki returns to full health) Is the defense too young? Can the team stay healthy?

All are very valid questions. It wouldn’t be an NHL season if the Flyers didn’t have some sort of goaltending issues. Niittymaki seemed to be primed to take Esche’s spot between the pipes, before he suffered a hip injury only days before the start of the season and will be sidelined for an undefined amount of time. Now, Esche mans the net and Niittymaki will take cortisone shots to quell the pain, keeping him below 100%, but able to play.

The defense is young, without question. Led by Hatcher and Rathje, the rest of the Flyers blue-liners are an average of 26 years old and have very little fulltime experience in the league. But last year, stepping in for injured players, the young defensemen played very well and it remains to be seen if they can keep that up this season.

Finally, health has been an issue for the Flyers in their last few seasons. The main player the Flyers have been biting their nails over is center iceman Peter Forsberg who is recovering from serious surgery to his ankles over the summer and returned much quicker than people thought. If he stays healthy, the Flyers are as dangerous as any team in the league, if not, there will be few times who are frightened by the orange and black.

This season could either be a season where the Flyers contend and show the league they are back after a lackluster 2005 season or it could be one that signals it’s time for general manager and team president Bobby Clarke to start a long and agonizing rebuilding process which could take more years than this hockey-loving town would want to endure.

Either way, the Flyers have the talent to make things happen, its just whether they are able to do it, and with Stanley Cup champion coach Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, anything is possible as he is regarded as one of the best in the business.

So come May and June, we could be preparing for the playoff push of this franchise entering its 40th season or, we could just be waiting for the 41st season, lets just hope it’s the prior.

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Shane Evans

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