The Philadelphia Flyers were the most penalized team in the National Hockey League last year. So what did GM Paul Holmgren do in the off-season? Of course, he went out and acquired two of the grittiest---dare we say, dirtiest---players in the game in Chris Pronger and Ian Laperriere. Plus, he also added a feisty battler between the pipes with the signing of goaltender Ray Emery.
This Flyers team is going to be an absolute bitch to play against this year, adding Pronger and Laperriere to the rugged and abrasive group that consists of Daniel Carcillo, Scott Hartnell, Riley Cote, Arron Asham, and Braydon Coburn.
But like the Broad Street Bully Flyers of the mid-'70's, this group is not just filthy. They are filthy good.
The team toughness is there in spades. However, so is the explosive offensive talent.
Last year, the Flyers had the fifth most potent offense in the NHL, featuring four 30+ goal scorers on the roster, and six players who netted 25 or more. Though two of those players---forwards Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul---are no longer with the club, there is still plenty of offensive skill on this Flyers' squad.
Jeff Carter is emerging as one of the true superstars in the league. The 24 year-old exploded last season with career-high numbers across the board---46 goals, 38 assists, and 84 points---and surrounded by so much skill and muscle up front, he should be able to continue to meet and exceed those numbers again.
Captain Mike Richards is a powerful offensive force, as well, as his 30-50-80 numbers indicate. Plus he plays with an edge that belies his smallish (5'11", 195 pound) frame. He is the quintessential Philadephia Flyers player, cut right from the Bobby Clarke mold.
Richards did have off-season surgery on both shoulders, which raises some concern heading into training camp. But all in all, this crop of forwards---led by Carter and Richards, and assisted by Danny Briere, Simon Gagne, and the youthful pair of Claude Giroux and Darroll Powe---is as deep as any in the entire league.
And in my opinion, the Flyers made a quietly smart move that winning teams make the other day when they invited penalty killer extraordinaire Blair Betts to their training camp. Betts, who led the Rangers league-best penalty kill a year ago, is coming off a concussion in last spring's playoffs, but he is a tremendously hard-working player who is well respected by his peers. Teams with championship aspirations---like the Flyers---go out and add character players like Betts, and Laperriere.
If there is an achilles heel for Philly, as it has been for years and years, it is in goal where Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki have been replaced by Emery and Brian Boucher. Is that really an upgrade over last season?
Emery is the X Factor here. He has shown in flashes what he is capable of in the NHL, like when he helped lead the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 2007. But Emery has also proven to be a difficult talent who has had several run-ins with coaches and teammates, and who last year played in the KHL in Russia to reestablish himself.
He should be quite motivated to prove that he belongs in the best hockey league in the world. And he will benefit from a strong corps of defensemen playing in front of him, led by Pronger, who even at age 35, is a threat to win the Norris Trophy.
This could be a special year for Philadelphia. It is true that they still play in a tough division that features the Stanley Cup champs in the Penguins and the perenially good Devils, who won the division last year. But these Flyers seem poised to improve upon a 99-point regular season and first-round playoff ouster at the hands of the Penguins a year ago.
They look to be scary good.
Make that filthy good.