Heading into the 2009-2010 NHL season, the Flyers were expected to not only challenge for Eastern Conference supremacy but to also threaten for the Stanley Cup. There were definitely question marks surrounding the team, but every team has question marks in October.
For the last year's Flyers, their question marks were throughout the lineup. They lost Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul, both 25-goal scorers the year before. They were hoping the unheralded trio of Ryan Parent, Danny Syvret, and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen could hold down the third pairing. And they were hoping that Ray Emery could return to the NHL and provide good enough goaltending to keep the Flyers in games.
It's amazing how plans fail and yet the team can still succeed. The story of the '09-'10 Flyers is -- pardon the cliché -- one of an up-and-down, roller-coaster season. They started off well, going 11-5-1 in their first 17 games. Then they went out west, lost Ray Emery to injury, fired John Stevens, and lost Brian Boucher to injury. They stumbled into the Christmas break going 4-13-1 with a date in the Winter Classic looming.
Michael Leighton comes in and saves the team from the brink, only to cede the starter's job to Ray Emery upon his return. This theme continued until the Flyers had dressed seven different goaltenders -- including one who could only play weekend games in the AHL because he still had homework to do -- and lost both Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter to broken feet.
Despite the goalie issues, the injury issues, the disappointing individual performances, the coaching change, and the lack of a third-defense pairing, the Flyers entered the 82nd and final game of the season needing a win to make it into the playoffs. Win or lose, jobs were going to be lost in the offseason. Wholesale changes needed to be made to a team that so spectacularly disappointed.
But then Brian Boucher stopped Olli Jokinen in the shootout. Dan Carcillo became a hero against New Jersey. The Flyers became only the fourth team in professional sports history to rally from a three games to none series deficit to come back and win. They easily dispatched the Montreal Canadiens in five games to win the East. And then they took the Stanley Cup Finals to a best of three. Suddenly, this team became what they were supposed to be all season. Abruptly, jobs were saved that were lost only nine weeks prior.
At this point, you're probably still asking yourself if that really happened. Yes, it did. Well, all of it except the jobs being saved. The Flyers still have major problems they need to address despite the fact that they played two good months of hockey. Heading into this offseason, the Flyers cannot act like a team that only needs a few minor tweaks in order to repeat as Eastern Conference champions. The good news is that GM Paul Holmgren seems to recognize this.
The problems the Flyers had all year still need to be addressed. They lack a top-six forward capable of playing right wing. Jeff Carter tried to fill that role after returning from his broken foot, but he was unsuccessful. Maybe he can fill that role when he's fully healthy, but he's previously said how much he dislikes playing wing. This is only part of the reason Carter has been in trade rumors lately, and he should be moved if the right package comes along.
While they just traded for Dan Hamhuis, they still need to sign him and fix their third defensive pairing. If they sign Hamhuis, they still need to sign Braydon Coburn or a suitable replacement. Getting both under contract would solve the problem, but they may not be able to afford both without shedding some salary first. Since most of their high-priced players have no-trade or no-movement clauses, Jeff Carter is once again mentioned in rumors since he does not have a clause. And most importantly, they still need to address their goaltending situation.
Currently, the team has Leighton, Arron Asham, Lukas Krajicek, Mika Pyorala, Syvret and Hamhuis as unrestricted free agents. They also have Carcillo, Darroll Powe, David Laliberte, and Coburn as restricted free agents. It is tough to tell who will be back next year, but the two most important players are Coburn and Hamhuis. If the team can get both of them under contract for reasonable prices -- a combined $6 million to $6.5 million cap hit -- the team has gone a long way toward solving their regular-season problems.
But that doesn't solve them all. Goaltending is still a problem, even with the much-improved defense. The team could conceivably enter the season with Boucher and Johan Backlund as their goalies (the only two currently signed), but they cannot enter the year without addressing the depth. The only other goalies signed to professional contracts have either just graduated college or are making their North American debuts.
Acquiring a young goalie should be a top priority for the team, whether it is one who will battle for an NHL job (such as Cory Schneider of the Canucks or Jhonas Enroth of the Sabres) or for one who can be slotted in for an NHL job (such as Steve Mason of the Blue Jackets, Michal Neuvirth of the Capitals, or Jonathan Bernier of the Kings). If the team is going to upgrade on Boucher and Backlund, it should be for a young, low-priced goalie.
So while Leighton came up big for the team in the playoffs, that doesn't mean he should be on the team next year. Despite having a great season - providing far more value than anyone could have possibly imagined - he isn't the answer in net. It may sound harsh, but Leighton had a career year this year. It is highly unlikely he repeats it and there is no evidence to show that he isn't the goalie who crumbled in the Cup Finals. Even if he can repeat his career year, he's a marginal upgrade at best over both Boucher and Backlund. If he demands anything more than $1.25 million, he'd be overpaid.
While trading Carter might not be appealing to a lot of people, he would likely bring back a package that solves multiple issues with the team including goaltending, forward depth, and cap space to sign the defensemen. Signing a few of the other free agents -- such as Pyorala, Carcillo, Powe, and Syvret -- would be a good idea, but not one of them should earn more than $1 million.
This past season can and probably should be looked at as two separate teams: the team that barely got into the playoffs in the 82nd game of the season and the team that barely missed winning the Stanley Cup. While this is probably the way fans should look at the season, management needs to look at the team as a whole, including all 105 games played. And those 105 games showed that this team has holes that need to be filled.
It is easy to look at the spectacular 23 game run the Flyers went on and say this team is great and should only require a few modifications to return to the Finals. But the truth is that this team almost stopped playing after 82 games and looked pretty bad doing it. Moves need to be made without the aura of the recent run clouding the judgment of management, players, and fans. The good news is that management already understands this. And that is why Dan Hamhuis is a welcome sight.