Sunday, October 02, 2005

Flyers: Reasons for optimism

The preliminaries are done. Let's get ready to drop the puck!
There's a lot of optimism (a rare quality in Philadelphia sports, to be sure) about the Flyers.
I gotta tell you this -- I'm optimistic about this team. Can't pick 'em as my favourite to win the Stanley Cup, though... I think Ottawa gets that spot out of the East after adding Dany Heatley in the Hossa trade. To me, Heatley gives them the skilled grit they've lacked in the past. He -- more so than Dominik Hasek -- is the reason Ottawa should be the East favourite.
Still, I like the Flyers' chances. A lot.
The Flyers were one of the few teams that pretty much knew in advance what their roster would be going into camp. But there's been one big, big surprise... Jon Sim. I had figured him as a spare part kind of guy, a minor leaguer who could fill in for injured players with some competence.
Sim scored 8 preseason goals playing with rookie centreman Mike Richards (who, by the way, is a future all-star - and the future might be now) and veteran winger Mike Knuble. That's the Flyers' second line right now.
The first line hasn't played together yet, thanks to injuries. But Simon Gagne had a very strong preseason, Jeff Carter is a future star, and Peter Forsberg is, well, Peter Forsberg... simply the best.
I don't think coach Ken Hitchcock has settled on the third and fourth lines. Keith Primeau will and Michal Handzus will be the centres, and it's a mix-and-match with Turner Stevenson, Patrick Sharp, Branko Radivojevic, Donald Brashear and late pickup Brian Savage battling for the four winger spots until Sami Kapanen (shoulder injury) returns in December.
And the youngster I figured would make a positive preseason impression -- centre R.J. Umberger -- did make a good impression. He's NHL-ready, but not likely to start the season with the Flyers unless Trader Bob Clarke makes a deal.
The defence should be quite good. Derian Hatcher looked very good in his preseason appearances, a lot better than I expected after his Detroit debacle. Mike Rathje has been, as advertised, rock-solid and a nice complement for offence-minded Joni Pitkanen. Eric Desjardins is still a quality d-man, if not quite an all-star anymore. That's OK, though, because Kim Johnsson should get all-star looks on merit. The sixth defenceman will be Dennis Seidenberg some nights, Chris Therien other nights. Randy Jones is the likely call-up guy from the Phantoms; he's played reasonably well in preseason.
The goalies are quality. Robert Esche will be No. 1 to start, but Antero Niittymaki will push him. Hard.
And who's a better active coach than Ken Hitchcock?
I'm looking forward to Wednesday night's orgy of ice play... every NHL team will be in action. I'll get to go to and listen to all kinds of play-by-play guys (for my money, I'll take Peter Maher in Calgary - great voice, quick to the action - and Tim Saunders in Philly... but sometime this season I'll get around to listening to everyone and categorize 'em for your listening pleasure or displeasure).
Welcome back, NHL!