This question was recently asked on the Flyers Forum and, admittedly, it caught me off guard. For all of the knee-jerk reactions we are accustomed to giving as fans of Philadelphia sports teams, I had a hard time saying no to this question.
I wanted to lash out about how management backed themselves into a corner with the cap and it forced them to trade the beloved Simon Gagne for garbage, or about the illogical acquisition of overpaid defender, Andrej Meszaros, while plenty of good free agent defenders were available. I had a million reasons to complain about how I would have armchair-GM’ed this offseason but the truth of the matter was, although Flyers GM, Paul Holmgren, could have made better — and arguably smarter — moves, he still improved the team from its final ’10 iteration.
Prior to last season, Holmgren made an off-the-cuff remark about how many defensemen you need to win a Stanley Cup. I believe the number he said was 12. I took it as an adage, something said in passing. As it turns out, it may have been the overarching theme of his master plan. Since taking the reigns in Philadelphia, Paul Holmgren has amassed an army of defenders, including 8 current NHL-caliber players and a deep pool of prospects, some of whom may be on the cusp of making into the NHL at some point in this upcoming season.
It has been suggested that Philadelphia may have the best defense in the league. It’s possible but there are question marks. Matt Carle needs to keep progressing forward. Braydon Coburn must rebound from two consecutive subpar seasons. Meszaros and Matt Walker have to get their careers back on track. There is a list of significant variables but, if even half of those things happen, Philadelphia’s defensive core will be a significant upgrade over last season.
In addition to controversially trading away longtime Philadelphia staple, Simon Gagne, the Flyers also lost Arron Asham. Asham hit his second-highest goal mark since the lockout and tied the second-highest offensive output of his career. The question is, was soft-handed grinder reborn in Philadelphia or was he just benefiting from an offensive core that allowed him play on a line with the likes of Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk? It may be a little bit of both. While I think Asham grew into his role and found chemistry with his teammates, it’s likely that the Flyers already had his replacement in the system.
Dan Carcillo will likely fit in better on the third line than he did on the first and has not reached his full potential yet. Playing alongside a gifted playmaker like Giroux, don’t be surprised to see him hit the 15 goal, 30 point mark this season. Carcillo will be motivated to play hard this season, as he’s in a contract year and prospects like Stefan Legein and Mike Testwuide will try to battle for that spot right out of camp.
Nikolai Zherdev, whose signing foreshadowed the demise of Gagne, may not be the two-way player that Gagne was but his health is not as big of a factor and it is reasonable to assume he should put up about 55-60 points this season. As long as Zherdev does not become a locker room cancer, he should be an offensive upgrade over Gagne.
Albeit a nebulous move outside of his cap hit, Jody Shelley brings a more well-rounded game than Riley Cote, who may not be on the roster by the start of the season.
Any other improvements to the Flyers offense will be internal. Jeff Carter and Scott Hartnell both had off years. They should rebound. JvR will be more consistent now that he has a full NHL season under his belt. Giroux will continue to develop. Ville Leino showed glimpses of his skill in the playoffs and the potential exists for him to build on that next season. Essentially, if the players do what they are expected to do, the team will be better off.
To some, a tandem of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher sounds ideal. To the rest of us, it leaves a lot to be desired. Behind Philadelphia’s deep defense, they will provide passable netminding as long as the team does not take the night off. On the other hand, they won’t really steal many games for us when the skaters need them to do so. Personally, I would feel more comfortable with Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki or a healthy Ray Emery, but there is still a possibility the team could trade for a goaltender or sign Turco as cheaply as possible. I’m not holding my breath, though.
If Leighton and Boucher can’t cut it this season, the Flyers might consider trading a spare part on defense for a better backstop. This would prove to be ideal if Meszaros finds his game and one of our prospects is ready to make the next step — perhaps Kevin Marshall, Marc-Andre Bourdon, or Joonas Lehtivuouri, who inexplicably flies under the radar.
While I may not be personally comfortable with the Flyers goaltending as it stands, it’s a familiar feeling and the goalies haven’t changed since last season. So, it’s a wash.
As the roster currently stands, there are some uncertainties at each position. The first line is still missing a winger. The age-old Flyers goaltending issue persists. The defense is loaded with overpaid, error-prone, underachievers. A heart-and-soul, integral player was replaced with a lazy forward known for taking shifts off. The cap issues continue and bigger cap crises loom on the horizon.Some of the acquisitions would not have been my personal choices. From this side of my monitor, though, I would be remiss to complain. This is a team that, for all their shortcomings and deficiencies, made it to the Cup Finals, the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Quarterfinals in the last three seasons and, when pushed for an answer, I have to say that they are currently a better team than they were last season.