SI.com hockey writer Darren Eliot will analyze each NHL team prior to the start of the season. Here's his take on the Philadelphia Flyers.
In Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki, the Flyers have two goaltenders who have continued to improve over the last three seasons. Esche played exceedingly well in the 2004 playoffs, and has built on that with valuable international experience with Team USA. Niittymaki backstopped the Philadelphia Phantoms (AHL) to the Calder Cup and proved his durability and consistency. The two should push each other to even greater improvement under the fine tutelage of goaltending coach Reggie Lemelin.
BOTTOM LINE: No longer is the question of goaltending one for debate in Philly. The Flyers have stabilized this position for the first time in many, many years.
On the blue line, the Flyers have exactly what you want: size and experience. With the additions of Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje via free agency, and the return of Chris Therrien from the Stars, the Flyers have three defensemen who measure at least 6-foot-5. Veterans Eric Desjardins and Kim Johnsson provide proven puck handling and passing skills, as well as the necessary mobility to excel in the new NHL. Even youngsters Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg have a year of NHL experience and both had stellar seasons for the Phantoms, hastening their development.
BOTTOM LINE: A great mix, with the only question mark being Hatcher's ability to stay healthy, and how the new standard on calling hooking, holding, interference and crosschecking might reduce his effectiveness.
This is where the Flyers have impressively retooled. Gone are big names Jeremy Roenick, Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Tony Amonte. In is Peter Forsberg and some seasoned vets in Turner Stevenson, Mike Knuble, Brian Savage and journeyman Jon Sim, who at 27 found his game at the professional level last season scoring 35 goals for the Phantoms. Add in 2003 first-round picks Mike Richards and Jeff Carter -- both of whom joined the Phantoms for the playoffs after their OHL season concluded and had a major impact on the Phantoms' title, with Carter leading the league in playoff scoring -- and the Flyers have the makings of the deepest and most well-rounded group of forwards in the league.
BOTTOM LINE: Sami Kapanen's shoulder injury is a concern because he is a versatile player and losing him for three months takes away some of the Flyers' flexibility up front. Still, this group has size (think Keith Primeau)and speed (Simon Gagne comes to mind) and the rare capability to get scoring from all four lines.
Ken Hitchcock is one of the best in the business. He is a tireless tactician as well as being creative with his in-game match ups. The make up of this team suits him perfectly: size, grit, speed and scoring by committee.
BOTTOM LINE: Hitchcock always wants his best players to be equally conscientious on both sides of the puck. This team has that characteristic throughout, meaning he'll have to spend less time selling and reselling the merits of his mindset.
I have to admit it. Philly looks like the hands down winner this year and I truly dread having to see the Flyers in the post season again.
Hitch is a tactical genius and I hope Esche can play as well as he did the last year.
The only thing I think will hurt this team are injuries (it is inevitable in today's league) and the lack of holding and pinning that Hatcher and Therien are so used to playing with. Although Philly has some terrific young players coming up.