With the preseason now complete, Philadelphia Flyers coach Bill Barber is at the helm of what on paper figures to be a serious Cup threat. Even so, the team still has some question marks. Here’s a look at some of the major issues the team faces as opening day approaches and some notes on every player who dressed for the Flyers during the 2001-02 preseason.
New Faces Everywhere
The Flyers had a 100 point regular season last year before losing the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the playoffs. However, few, (either among outside observers or within the Flyers organization itself) believed that the team, as constituted this past spring, was a serious contender for the Stanley Cup.
In the offseason, Flyers general manager Bob Clarke solidified the team in its area of greatest positional weakness– center. With the additions of Jeremy Roenick and veteran Czech Extraleague stalwart Jiri Dopita to add to Keith Primeau, the team now boasts a very formidable trio of centermen. If they can all remain healthy, the Flyers have the makings of three productive offensive lines.
Clarke also added depth on the wings. Arguably, his biggest move was re-signing perennial all-star left winger John LeClair to a hefty long-term contract. The move was not without risk, as LeClair missed most of last season with a serious back injury and, at 32, is at the age where players who play his style (camping out down low in the offensive zone) produce annually diminishing returns. While LeClair will still play a vital role on the powerplay, however, the overall burden on him is not as heavy as it was in the days when the Flyers offense consisted of the Legion of Doom line plus Rod Brind’Amour. There should now be a balanced attack, which should help LeClair stay fresher over the course of the season. In addition to re-signing LeClair, the Flyers added Jan Hlavac and prospect Pavel Brendl in the Eric Lindros deal with the Rangers. Those two, plus talented sophomore winger Justin Williams, could go a long way toward giving the Flyers true offensive depth.
The Flyers other big problem area last year was the blueline. The team was forced to start at least one, and often two, among Chris McAllister, Andy Delmore, and Michal Sykora, all of whom (for different reasons) are marginal NHL players. The problems last year were compounded by the fact that team captain Eric Desjardins, long the team’s most reliable two-way defenseman, suffered through an off-year defensively. In short, something had to be done over the offseason.
Clarke’s offseason additions of veteran Eric Weinrich (free agent) and young veteran Kim Johnsson (Lindros trade) did not garner the same attention as his changes to the forward corps. Nevertheless, those two players will unquestionably be a significant upgrade over some of the starters from last season. There is still room to debate whether the Flyers have a true Stanley Cup-caliber blueline, but it would be tough to dispute that is now the Flyers best overall starting six since the 1995-96 season; possibly a little better. McAllister is now the seventh defenseman.
The challenge for Barber in the preseason has been to give all the new faces a chance to get used to one another and to start establish some chemistry in the forward and defensive lines. Defensively, they have still looked like strangers at time. Team D has been inconsistent. Offensively, the team has looked dangerous. Of particular note, especially in the September 28 game against the New Islanders, was the greatly improved puck movement. Last year, stringing together back-to-back passes on the tape was a major problem. This year, even in training camp, the passing has been much, much crisper.
The pros and cons of depth
Having what potentially amounts to three scoring lines presents Barber with several intriguing problems.
The first is distributing powerplay time– the only way offensive players can truly be productive is when they are seeing a lot of time on the man advantage. In particular, Dopita and Hlavac could wind up producing less offense than hoped for. Barber has repeatedly said that his main concern with the Dopita line is for them to play good defense and their offense will be secondary. That sounds nice, but the truth is that there are offensive expectations on both Dopita and Hlavac that exceed those on most NHL 3rd lines.
Adding offensive skill and finesse is a give-and-take proposition. Sometimes when you add those elements, you subtract grit, toughness, and defense. The former is not a concern. The Flyers roster should still have plenty of grit. The latter two issues are still of some concern, however.
Last season, team D was an ongoing problem for the Flyers. The team had to rely too often on goaltender Roman Cechmanek to bail them out of trouble. Of particular trouble was the Flyers penalty killing. The Flyers just didn’t have the horses up front to clamp down on the penalty kill; no Joel Ottos or Brind’Amours, or Shjon Podeins. While Kent Manderville is a good penalty killer, Paul Ranheim and the now-departed Jody Hull were decent on the PK, none are the defensive equals of Otto and Podein. In the mid to late 90s, Flyers fans were a bit spoiled in that regard. Last year, Barber often ended up using offensive line players like Primeau, Mark Recchi and Daymond Langkow (now with Phoenix) on the kill. That is rarely a good formula for a consistently reliable penalty kill.
Barber has said that he hopes Dopita will be able to assist on the penalty kill this year. At the very least, he should help out in the faceoff department. There is also hope that Weinrich and Johnsson will be able to add support on the backline. That should help some, but it is fair to say that the penalty kill remains on of the Flyers biggest question marks entering the season. Indeed, the Flyers continued to struggle in this area during the preseason.
The other issue of concern is team toughness. While there are numerous players throughout the lineup who won’t let themselves get pushed around, there still must be an enforcer. Either Todd Fedoruk or Jesse Boulerice will make the team as the enforcer, but to start either one of them on the fourth line would leave the team with only 2/3 of a true checking line that can shut down an opponent’s top line; also, starting one of them will mean that a more complete player– likely either Ruslan Fedotenko or veteran Rick Tocchet– or a skilled offensive player– Brendl or Williams– ends up on the outside looking in.
Barber still has to figure out how to solve the numbers crunch on the wings. Six players–Tocchet, Williams, Brendl, Fedotenko, Fedoruk, and Boulerice are competing for three available starting spots. Up for grabs are 2nd line right wing (alongside Roenick and LeClair), 3rd line right wing (with Dopita and Hlavac) and 4th line left/right wing (with Manderville and swing man Ranheim). As of now, it looks like one of the enforcers will definitely end up starting the year with the Phantoms. The roles for the other players still have yet to be defined.
The roster competition can roughly be broken down into three mini-competitions: 1) The battle of the young snipers (Brendl vs. Williams), 2) The enforcer battle (Fedoruk vs. Boulerice), 3) The Grizzled Veteran vs. the Youngters (Tocchet vs. Brendl, Williams, and Fedotenko). The complexion of the support corps of the 2001-02 Flyers team will largely by how these battles play out. Moreover, the battles will be ongoing once the season begins. That is not a bad thing. Job competition often spurs better performance.
Individual Player reviews
John LeClair— LeClair has been healthy and productive the entire preseason; displaying his pre-injury form. The Flyers can only hope that his health holds up.
Jeremy Roenick — Roenick has shown his trademark combination of offense and aggression (24 penalty minutes, including 2 fights). He has also made a couple of costly turnovers on ill-advised cross-ice passes in his own zone, but that is a risk you take with players like Roenick who love to push the envelope. Roenick is clearly ready to combine with Primeau to give the Flyers two first-line-caliber centers.
Keith Primeau — Primeau, coming off a late-season knee injury, has done what he’s needed to do in the preseason. He’s tested himself physically and provided an offensive spark (4 goals, 7 points in 6 games).
Mark Recchi — With a proven player like Recchi, the pre-season is only for getting his legs and game-day timing ready for the season. Recchi will continue to be the Flyers most creative playmaker and a go-to player when the game is on the line.
Simon Gagne — Gagne, who is coming off left shoulder surgery and struggled late last season after suffering a subluxation of the shoulder, has had a poor preseason. Barber has said that the player is fine physically but has been far too tentative about getting involving again physically. Gagne was pulled off the top line in the last few games of the preseason. He closed out the preseason with a pair of improved efforts, including the game-winning goal in the last game against New Jersey.
Justin Williams — The talented sophomore winger added some much-needed muscle over the summer and has had a solid preseason. It remains to be seen which line he will play on, but it will be with the Flyers, not the Phantoms.
Jiri Dopita — Although he is a first year NHL player, Dopita is a well-respected veteran of European and international hockey. Coming off an elbow injury and just starting to get used to the smaller rink and the English language (Dopita is still speaking to the English speaking media via translation from Czech teammates), Dopita may take a little time to get fully adjusted to the NHL and his role with the Flyers. He closed out the preseason with 3 points in his final two games, including a goal and a primary assist in the final game. As advertised, he is very hard to take off the puck and his hockey sense is immediately apparent.
Jan Hlavac — Hlavac, a streaky goal scorer, has been snakebitten throughout the preseason. He’s had plenty of scoring chances but just has not buried them. He finally tallied a goal in the preseason closer; quickly one-timing a Dopita pass past Martin Brodeur. Despite his unimpressive point totals, Hlavac’s speed and skill with the puck have been apparent, to varying extents, in most of the preseason games he has played.
Ruslan Fedotenko — Through no fault of his own, Fedotenko, who is coming off a nice rookie season, finds himself pushed to the margins of the Flyers roster. If Brendl faulters, Fedotenko could find himself on the Dopita line. For now, it looks like he’ll hang onto a spot in the starting lineup, relegated to the 4th line, possibly in place of Ranheim (if the 3rd forward on the 4th line will be one of the enforcers). He closed the preseason with a goal and an assist in the final weekend set.
Rick Tocchet — Gritty veteran Tocchet was penciled in to start on the Roenick line, but Williams/Brendl may have taken the job from him. Right now, he is having some problems with his left knee, so the numbers game is temporarily solved. Once he returns, it seems unlikely that Tocchet will be a healthy scratch. The question is– will he wind up on the 2nd line, the 3rd line, or the 4th line? That remains to be seen. The only thing that is certain is that the younger players will have no room to slack off with Tocchet around. Tocchet may not have much offense left to contribute, but he still has plenty of toughness and leadership to offer.
Pavel Brendl –Brendl got off to a great start in the preseason, playing on the Roenick line. He had less success, but still some good moments, playing on the Dopita line. He has demonstrated his scoring instincts, soft hands around the net, and a fabulous passing touch. His skating isn’t great and although he has worked hard to show that he isn’t a defensive liability, he still has work to do. Brendl will now probably start the season with the big club. Whether he stays there is up to him. He has the talent to be an offensive force, but he can’t get “comfortable” and allow himself to be a non-factor. So far, so good but the real test will be over a longer period of time.
Kent Manderville — Manderville is the Flyers best defensive forward. He’s coming off a good preseason test against the New York Islanders, where he was matched up against Alexei Yashin and did a good job of containing his counterpart. At the offensive end of the ice, Manderville actually does not have bad instincts but, sadly, he lacks any semblance of a finishing touch. He’s a good forechecker and an above-average skater. It would be helpful, though, if he could bump his faceoff winning percentage this season up to at least the 50% mark.
Paul Ranheim — The veteran checking liner could potentially be bumped out of the lineup at some point this year, but for now, he figures to line up alongside Manderville. He’s had a typical “veteran’s” preseason; meaning that he’s primarily worked on getting his game-day conditioning ready to start the season.
Todd Fedoruk — Fedoruk is locked in a battle with Jesse Boulerice for the enforcer job with the big team. Although Barber does not shy away from having guys who like the rough stuff in his starting lineup, it remains to be seen how much playing time would be available to either Fedoruk or Boulerice, given the current numbers crunch higher on the overall depth chart. Fedoruk, nicknamed “The Fridge,” has worked hard the last two seasons to improve as a player and would get my vote over Boulerice. However, because Boulerice would apparently have to pass through waivers to be sent back to the Phantoms (he is a 4th pro who has yet to play an NHL game), the Flyers announced on September 29 that Boulerice will start the season with the big club. That leaves Fedoruk’s status cloudy. He can still be sent down to the AHL without being placed on waivers, so he may be the odd man out.
Jesse Boulerice — Boulerice, who was widely acknowledged to be the player who arrived at training camp in the best physical condition, is an unquestionably good fighter, but his overall game, which four years ago was compared by Flyers scouts to that of a young Rick Tocchet, has been slow in coming around as anything other than a bruiser. Boulerice may dress for some games with the big club in games that figure to get rough but I can’t see him as a full time starter in the NHL.
Tomas Divisek — Divisek, who can play both center and wing, is close to being NHL ready, but there simply isn’t room for him on the big club right now. He’s a favorite of Barber, however, and if the big team is hit with injuries, he could work his way into the mix at some point.
Marty Murray — The speedy, dimunutive Murray figures to be a key cog in the Phantoms offense and a fill-in with the big team. He tallied a pair of goals and added a helper in four preseason outings for the Flyers.
Petr Hubacek — Hubacek, the big surprise of the 2000 preseason, was an afterthought this year. He has a lot to prove with the Phantoms before he’ll get another sniff with the big team.
Vaclav Pletka — Pletka, the Phantoms rookie of the year in 2000-01, reportedly considered going back to the Czech Republic because he didn’t think he’d get much of a chance to make the big team this year– and that was before the additions of Hlavac and Brendl. Truth be told, he still isn’t NHL ready, but his quest for the NHL has gotten a little harder for him to attain, at least in Philadelphia. So it will be up to Pletka to improve further and force the team’s hand and make it impossible for them to keep him at the AHL level– that’s what Vaclav Prospal did in 1995-96 and he’s still in the NHL.
Mike Watt — Watt, acquired from Nashville for Mikhail Chernov, figured to a Phantoms regular and Flyers injury call-up. He suffered a shoulder injury in the opening game of the preseason that will knock him out of action for a couple of months.
Mark Greig — Greig, a veteran call-up player who has been a serviceable fill-in for several years, may not be getting many more callups to the big team, given the improved depth. He’ll still be a top regular with the Phantoms, playing in all game situations.
Guillaume Lefebvre — Lefebvre will be a rookie with the Phantoms this year. He got into a pair of preseason games with the big team.
Eric Desjardins — Desjardins seems a little more relaxed this year than last year, perhaps because there aren’t so many microphones in his face this year and he can just focus on getting ready for the season. He had an okay preseason, nothing special, nothing awful. As with most established veterans, Desjardins’ preseason performance is little to get excited or worried about.
Chris Therien — Therien, who has been plagued by chronic inconsistency throughout his NHL career, is coming off his best overall season since 1996-97. He needs Barber’s constant vigilance to keep him working hard.
Dan McGillis — The hard-checking McGillis had a breakthrough two-way season last year, ending Desjardins’ run of six straight Barry Ashbee Awards as the Flyers best defenseman before suffering through a rough postseason. McGillis looks ready to go for the season.
Luke Richardson — Richardson, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, came to camp in his usual physical good condition. Like the other vets, getting him through the preseason healthy was the main goal. He’s entering the season with some preseason bumps and bruises (a sore hand and a bruised thigh) but he’ll be ready to assume his usual role.
Eric Weinrich — Weinrich is a new face in Philadelphia, but a proven NHL veteran. The same applies for him as with the other veteran D. The preseason was just for getting his conditioning and timing together. He scored a goal in the final game against New Jersey.
Kim Johnsson — Johnsson has impressed with his speed and passing during the preseason. He’ll help.
Chris McAllister— Now relegated to the 7th defenseman role. He’ll fight and he’ll hit but he simply isn’t a very good hockey player. He dressed in four preseason tilts.
Bruno St. Jacques— St. Jacques has a lot of people in the organization buzzing. He’s shown his trademark poise and combination of mobility and willingness to get involved physically. Barber rewarded him by keeping him with the big team the entire preseason and starting him next to Desjardins in both of the last two games. St. Jacques looks close to being an NHL ready defenseman. Actually, in recent years, a similar camp performance may well have won St. Jacques an opening night roster spot.
Francis Lessard — In the scrimmages before the exhibition season began, several of Lessard’s teammates commented that they couldn’t wait for the games to actually start, so that Lessard would start pounding people on the other side instead of his teammates. The hyper-aggressive defenseman managed to get himself kicked out of the game during the first period of a game in which McAllister had already been given a game misconduct. That apparently draw Lessard a reminder from his coaches that having to play with just four defensemen for 40-plus minutes is not a desirable situation for the club, especially when one of the defensemen (Weinrich) is an older veteran in his first preseason game of the year. Lessard has the strong work ethic to improve as an all-around player and Barber loves his fearlessness, but Lessard simply must learn to pick his spots more intelligently.
Joe DiPenta — DiPenta will return to the Phantoms for his sophomore pro season. He did not look out of place in the two games he suited up with the big team.
John Slaney — Slaney could probably be a 6th or 7th D with some of the lower echalon teams in the NHL and is one of the top blueliners in the AHL.
Brad Tiley — Another good AHL defenseman who is a marginal NHLer. Tiley got into one game with the Flyers this preseason.
Jim Vandermeer — Signed as a rookie free agent after an outstanding season with Red Deer, Vandermeer will debut with the Phantoms this season. He dressed in one game with the big team during the preseason.
Roman Cechmanek — Cechmanek, the Vezina Trophy runner up last year and 4th place finisher in the Hart Trophy voting, proved his mettle last season as a 29 year old first year NHLer. In short, he was the main reason the Flyers were a 100 point team, despite an inconsistent offense that only had one productive line and so-so team defense. Cechmanek was mortal– not awful– in the playoffs. He had an ok preseason; nothing stellar, but nothing disastrous, either. Despite the carping of some critics, the team and coaching staff has full faith in Cechmanek.
Brian Boucher — After a disastrous second NHL season last year, Boucher has tried to restore his confidence this preseason. He has played well and come up with some big stops, but the real test will come during the regular season.
Maxime Ouellet : Ouellet, the highly regarded goaltending prospect, started last season with the big club. This year, he will be the Phantoms starter. He got into half of one preseason game with the Flyers,splitting the game with Neil Little.
Neil Little — Little, who has dressed as a back up with the big club on numerous occassions but has never played a minute of NHL action, will back up Ouellet with the Phantoms this year. In his lone preseason game with the big team, Little was the victim of some loose play in front of him in the 35 minutes he played in relief of Ouellet.