Chris Pronger had 55 points in 82 regular season games for the Flyers last season and went on to post 18 in 23 post-season games. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
With two Stanley Cup rings already fitted for his well-weathered hands and more than 30 years of NHL experience as a player and manager, Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke knows a thing or three about winning.
So what does he think of his club’s chances following their run to the Stanley Cup final last season?
“I think we're way better than we were last year,” said the Flyers senior vice president. “I believe our defense is eight deep and probably the best defense in the league this year. And if your defense is really good, it instantly makes your goaltending really good.
“And we've got lots of scoring up front. Our young players are now 24 or 25, but they still have four or five years of experience and they should, for the next five or six years, be in their primes.”
While there’s little doubt the Flyers are one of the East’s elite - THN has them pegged at fourth in the conference - question marks still exist for a squad that snuck into the playoffs with a shootout win over the Rangers on the last day of the season.
“By all rights with the team we put together we should have never had that type of struggle to make the playoffs, but we did.” Clarke, 61, said.
The majority of concerns stem from the Flyers choice not to pursue a top-flight goalie (names like Tim Thomas, Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco were thrown around in the off-season), but once again, as they’ve done year after year to the fright of the Orange and Black fanbase, Philly will go with an unproven commodity.
The duo of Michael Leighton (16-5-2, 2.48 GAA, .918 SP with Philadelphia last season) and Brian Boucher (9-18-3, 2.76 GAA, .899 SP), both of whom played a big role in leading the Flyers to the final, will attempt to carry a team that arguably hasn’t had a bonafide No. 1 since late-80s Ron Hextall.
“I do not understand the thinking of these teams who spend all their money on goaltending and then don't make the playoffs or go out in the first round.” Clarke said. “Where did (Roberto) Luongo go out? The second round? Buffalo with the best goalie in hockey, out in the first round. (Martin) Brodeur, best goalie to ever play, out in the first round.”
The Flyers instead put their resources toward adding to their blueline depth, acquiring Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker out of Tampa and signing UFA vet Sean O’Donnell, and a reclamation project in 2003 fourth overall pick Nikolai Zherdev, who spent last season in the Kontinental League.
Their only significant loss, meanwhile, was longtime trooper Simon Gagne, whose scoring touch (32 goals pro-rated last season), the Flyers are betting, can be replaced or surpassed by Zherdev, the blooming James van Riemsdyk and playoff revelation Ville Leino.
All totaled, however, it’s the fact their ‘D’ is an A-plus that sits at the root of Clarke’s optimism.
“It's not that you don't need good goaltending,” Clarke said. “We had good goaltending; Leighton gave us great goaltending. But I think in today's game, if your defense isn't good, the opposing forwards are going to get into good position and they're going to score because they all shoot the puck so damn hard.
“Even the great goalies, if their defense can't keep the shooters out of the good area, they're going to get scored on. If you keep the shooters in bad areas, then your goaltending will be fine.”
Edward Fraser is the managing editor of The Hockey News. His blog appears regularly.
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