I’ll admit it, I doubted the Flyers when they were down 3-0 to Boston. Can you blame me? The odds weren’t good that a team that made it into the NHL playoffs by the skin of their teeth (with an overtime shootout win) would come back from the most daunting of all deficits versus a pretty disciplined Bruins team. But guess what? They did, and now are pounding the Habs quite nicely in the Eastern Conference Finals. Of the 258 teams facing a 3-0 series deficit in a seven game series, only four had come back. Down 3-0 in Game 7 didn’t give me much hope, either. But never say never, because a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals is looking pretty likely despite the Canadiens’ renowned ability to bounce back.
So looking at a chance to win Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time since 1975, this well coached, newly invigorated and clearly inspired Flyers team faces some unique challenges both now and into the future. With the star power of players like Mike Richards, Danny Briere and Claude Giroux up the middle shining during the playoffs, the question begs: what do the Flyers do with Jeff Carter? He’s got size. He’s scored 48 goals in the NHL. He’s signed, but unlike Richards and Briere, the Flyers can actually trade him if they wanted to. I am not sure that they do want to move the young gun however. Daniel Briere, while being a team player, has shown that he really doesn’t do as well as a winger when asked to play that role. In Game Four of the Montreal series, Jeff Carter returned from foot surgery to play wing and the team performed fantastically. Coach Peter Laviolette could be crazy to break up his second line centered by Briere, as they are red hot and welcoming back last year’s 48 goal scorer only makes the team better.
The Flyers’ team window is wide open right now just as formerly dominant, championship teams like New Jersey and Detroit are going through transitions. Who could have predicted that Richards and Carter would be outright stars in such short order? You could say Bobby Clarke and Paul Holmgren, but at the same time they also signed Briere, so they weren’t 100 percent sold that both would end up being star players. Adding more fuel to the debate is the emergence of youngster Claude Giroux, who has proven that he is the “Real Deal Holyfield,” complete with filthy skills and the ability to score in the playoffs. He regular season numbers were low (as was his cap hit) because he doesn’t get the premium playing time that Carter, Richards and Briere get on the top lines. Don’t worry, though, Giroux will get his ice time and a pay raise as every team in the NHL has come calling for him at the trade deadline… or at least they should have.
Going forward in the Playoffs and into next year, the Jeff Carter-as-a-winger experiment is going to be key to predict the future success of the franchise. If Carter can stick on the wing, the Flyers have their youth movement all up on the big squad and getting deep playoff experience. Who cares who is playing in Adirondack when you have van Reimsdyk, Giroux, Coburn, Richards and Carter all up on the big squad and making an impact in the Eastern Conference Finals? At the same time, in order to get swift skating and bone-crunching defenseman Chris Pronger last offseason from Anaheim, it did cost the Flyers Joffrey Lupul, who was a former 30 goal scorer. That move impacted Scott Hartnell’s performance notably. It also cost the Flyers a pick in what promises to be one of the better drafts in recent history. Hartnell is going nowhere next year because of his no-trade clause and the Flyers – without a first round pick in the upcoming draft – are becoming a very “now” team.
So what are the Flyers to do going forward?
First of all – their team challenges don’t change if they win the Stanley Cup. They are playing well with the House’s money and are loaded with talent. Chicago, up 3-0 versus San Jose, is another young team configured much like the Flyers (also with an unproven goalie, a solid defense and very skilled, young forwards). Could the Flyers win the Stanley Cup versus Chicago? Absolutely yes, but even if they don’t, their issue is that of finding wingers to a) complement their talented, young centers and b) that fit in under the salary cap. The losses of Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul last off season paired with Hartnell’s lousy regular season performance put too much pressure on the likes of rookie van Reimsdyk. Expect number 21 to have a significant bounce in his numbers in year two now that he knows the ropes a little better. He might not pull a Stamkos in his second year, but with enough playing time on a top line – he will be a 60 to 65 point winger next season.
Beyond JVR’s predicted rise in production comes the Carter question. If he can play wing – he’s set. If he can’t, he should be moved for a high pick in this year’s draft and/or an impact player coming back to the team right now. There are plenty of teams that could use him and I was shocked not to see Atlanta make a stronger run at him at the deadline when shopping Kovalchuk. Lastly, with the Flyers as a young team they have some moderately priced and seasoned options out there in free agency. Remember, Mike Rathje’s nearly $4,500,000 is coming off the books finally thus there might be room for a Whitney or Selanne on a one-year contract to make this team even more well balanced. Philly always has been a destination location for veteran NHL players but with the youth movement up and playing now it’s even more attractive to a veteran looking to try to win one more Cup.
Regarding the sore topic of goaltending, Holmgren and Clarke are steadfast in that they believe the goalie is a representation of the team/system that is played in front of him. With 17 shots faced, Michael Leighton’s 3-0 shutout was helped by the solid play of the Flyers’ fine defense. Every team could use an extra stud defenseman but the Flyers likely will not have the cap room especially after they give RFA Braydon Coburn a little raise. Leighton will get resigned and with a Chris Pronger led battleship in front of him, he will be asked to be Philly’s version Chris Osgood. Boucher will be back while Ray Emery might not ever make it back. Don’t be surprised to see Holmgren and Clark find him a place to rehab and even possibly a position with the organization if his comeback doesn’t work out. While fans in Montreal might boo top players like Chris Pronger every time he touches the puck – NHL players know that the Flyers are a top-notch franchise that treat their former players like gold. The question is can Holmgren and Clarke take it over-the-top for their first Cup win since 1975 because if they do it might be the first of many as this team’s window is just opening.