With the leave of longtime Flyer Simon Gagne and the addition of so many new faces, many in the Philadelphia area are questioning the judgment of Flyers’ brass.
The Flyers were one fluke goal away from a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, they say, and so little needs to be changed. The way they look at it, this apparent overhaul is unnecessary, uncalled for, and can only lead the team down the wrong path.
Well this “overhaul” is in reality a series of very minor changes that don’t change the team as a whole. Looking up and down the lineup, all of the same pieces are there. Instead of Simon Gagne, we see a bit more of a “bargain bin” replacement in Nikolai Zherdev.
Zherdev, according to much of the media, is too risky to take on. The Flyers are no stranger to this, having signed hothead Ray Emery in the previous off season. Had he not suffered a career-ending injury, that gamble would have been looked at as a success.
In this case, the only dangers involved with Zherdev are his history of conflict with coaches and also of taking plays off when on defense. Both of these of factors can be attributed to one thing: ego.
In a locker room such as the one the Flyers have built, ego is nothing to be concerned with.
In New York, Zherdev was the leading scorer. In Columbus, he was once again among the top offensive talent of the team. The Flyers are different. Their depth of scoring talent will leave Zherdev as just another one of the bunch.
Should being just another player on the ice, not heads and shoulders above teammates in terms of skill not keep him in check, the likes of Chris Pronger – one of the most dominant presences in the league both on and off the ice – will.
Now we’re looking at a team that hasn’t lost or gained much in the way of offense, right? Wrong. It’s not the addition of new players that will bring this offense to another level, it’s the maturing of its components and growth of skill shown in such young players as Claude Giroux, Ville Leino, and James van Riemsdyk.
If three reliable sets of scorers and one of the top shutdown energy forward lines not make for a talented enough roster, I’ll ask that you set your sights on the vastly improved defense.
With Chris Pronger obviously still its anchor, the defensive ship should have no problem keeping steady in the roughest of waters. But he’s aging, and with age comes rust. A rusting anchor can only stay steady itself if it has a solid link of chains holding it on.
Last season, those supporting defensive links were anything but solid.
After Chris Pronger and Matt Carle – who showed an array of offensive skills from the final games of the season throughout the playoffs – Kimmo Timonen led the second line of defense alongside his partner Braydon Coburn. Coburn played the best hockey of his career until this point during the Flyers’ playoff run, and looks to find that level on a more regular basis going forward.
Andrej Meszaros is one of the key additions to strengthen up this defensive corps. A star with the Ottawa Senators in his first few years in the league, Meszaros struggled to live up to being a top defenseman in Tampa Bay. Not burdened with that pressure here in Philadelphia, he will surely bloom into a quality contributor on the ice.
The remaining new faces, Matt Walker and Sean O’Donnell are not top line defenseman by any stretch, but are certainly terrific depth players to solidify the third pair that was so often taken advantage of last season.
The final question of goaltending is one that needn’t be fretted over for long. Michael Leighton, while not capable of the most spectacular plays, is sound positionally and can be relied on to stop the puck whenever he’s given a fair chance at it.
With a solid third pairing, the defensive collapses in front of him are sure to be fewer and farther in between. With this, Leighton is going to find continued success as a Flyer, and should give his team a chance to win every night.
So with their solid, potentially increased scoring depth coupled with an undoubtedly improved defense, the Flyers are shaping up to be even more competitive throughout the season than last year. And as we’ve seen before, once the playoffs roll around, anything can happen.