A shockingly rapid turnaround in Philadelphia has created a sense of optimism around the Flyers.
Off-Season Game Plan takes a look at a young team on the rise that should be among the Eastern Conference contenders for the next several seasons.
General Manager Paul Holmgren did a terrific job, starting last season, rebuilding the Flyers roster, setting the stage for such a dramatic turnaround.
This summer, though, Holmgren is at the risk of being a victim of his own success.
A significant reason for the Flyers' success has been the rapid development of their young players and some of those players are going to be restricted free agents this summer. With the Flyers having spent sizeable chunks to bring in free agents last summer, not to mention signing Mike Richards to a monster extension, there isn't as much room under the cap as the Flyers would like.
That means restricted free agents like Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger and Randy Jones are those that could be plucked away from Philadelphia with the right offer.
Now, the Flyers don't have to lose them and, even if they do, they will get compensation, but the more important factor is that the organization has the depth to handle any losses this summer and replenish with more young talent.
"Our young players have emerged as star NHL players, we have veteran guys that are the leaders on our team," head coach John Stevens told the Philadelpiha Inquirer. "There are a lot of good things that are in place now and a lot of guys that have the ability to win and an opportunity to be together for a long time. And that bodes well for the future."
Given where this team was a year ago, who would have imagined that kind of optimism?
Paul Holmgren/John Stevens
Top Prospects: James van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux, Andreas Nodl
Mike Richards emerged, in his third season, as a bona fide star, showing surprising offensive flair. Richards is the consummate character player and the Flyers are obviously comfortable with him as a team leader, signing him to a 12-year contract extension. He's tailor-made to be the team captain.
One of last summer's marquee signings, Daniel Briere, scored 72 points, but his team-worst minus-22 suggests there is room for improvement. Nevertheless, with Briere and Richards down the middle the Flyers are set.
Though injuries limited him to 46 games, Joffrey Lupul had a nice bounceback season after leaving Edmonton. He has a natural knack around the net which should make him a 30-goal scorer in the future.
Simon Gagne's season was ruined by concussions, though his career-worst minus-8 rating in only 25 games can't just be attributed to concussions. Presuming that Gagne is healthy, he and Briere can turn up the speed to put opposing defenders on their collective heels.
The last five years have been very productive for power winger Mike Knuble, scoring 138 goals, while often riding shotgun for his team's best offensive talents. Knuble has been especially valuable on the power play in Philadelphia, notching 38 goals with the man advantage over three seasons.
While the Flyers may be overpaying for Scott Hartnell's mix of toughness and talent, he went through some exceptionally hot streaks that make it tempting to project him as a 30-goal scorer, thereby validating the risk. With seven NHL seasons under his belt, he's still only 26, so there is enough room for that kind of improvement.
Scottie Upshall finally landed a spot as an NHL regular (almost). He was scratched at times, but the high energy winger still managed a career-best 30 points.
After drawing a pre-season suspension, Steve Downie entered the NHL with a lot of notoriety and he had a brief stretch during which he racked up penalties and chipped in offensively, but his contribution was minimized as he season went on. If Downie can play with a measure of discipline, he has the qualities to be the Flyers' version of Sean Avery, an agitator with enough skill to knock in a few goals.
A Russian winger, by way of the Western Hockey League, Denis Tolpeko brought some hustle to his fourth-line role while splitting time between the Flyers and Phantoms of the AHL. Tolpeko doesn't appear to have great upside, but could have earned a regular job if not for his decision to sign in Russia.
While Jeff Carter may be an attractive commodity for an offer sheet on the restrictred free agent market -- especially considering the money that the Flyers have already committed to centres Richards and Briere -- and he earned that interest with a 29-goal season, taking on a more significant leadership role when Richards was injured.
After a solid enough regular season, R.J. Umberger raised the stakes in the postseason, leading the Flyers with ten goals in 17 games. Umberger's talent and versatility makes him a nice complementary player to the Flyers' offensive stars but, like Carter, a lucrative offer could be tough to match.
Scooped off waivers from Edmonton, Patrick Thoresen was an adequate fill-in, but with eight points and a minus-10 in 38 games, he's a fringe NHLer.
While the Flyers would surely like to get top prospect James van Riemsdyk into the pro game, another year at the University of New Hampshire should have him primed to be an impact player when his 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds hits the NHL.
On the other hand, if the Flyers want to add a dash of youth, they can look to Claude Giroux, the 2006 first-round pick who recorded three straight 100-point seasons in the QMJHL.
Top Prospects: Mike Ratchuk, Kevin Marshall, Oskars Bartulis
Trading Alexei Zhitnik to Atlanta last season for Braydon Coburn started the rebuilding of the Flyers defence and, with Coburn's rapid development, the deal has proven to be a one-sided win for Philadelphia. Coburn has size, speed, puckhandling ability and the 23-year-old is poised to be a workhorse defenceman for years to come.
The Flyers made a bold move to acquire the rights to Kimmo Timonen before the free agency signing period started last summer and the move paid off. While Timonen doesn't come cheaply, he's extremely durable, handled the tough assingments and played more than 23 minutes per game.
By all rights an aging warhorse like Derian Hatcher shouldn't be a good fit in a speed-based NHL, but Hatcher played well when he was healthy in 2007-2008. Expecting him to do it again, for more than 21 minutes a night, is unrealistic, but there's nothing wrong with having his size and toughness as part of the defensive unit.
Lasse Kukkonen was in and out of the lineup, but he remains a decent depth defenceman with some ability to move the puck and a willingness to block shots.
21-year-old Ryan Parent is the top up-and-coming defenceman and he generally acquitted himself well in limited action with the Flyers. A regular role should be part of next season's plans.
Veterans Mike Rathje and Denis Gauthier are under contract, but those contracts aren't going to count against the cap because Rathje hasn't been healthy enough to pass his physical and Gauthier is ticketed for the American Hockey League.
Randy Jones isn't flashy, but just keeps improving. His puck-handling ability makes him an asset on the power play so Jones should be part of the Flyers' future.
Team captain Jason Smith is an unrestricted free agent and will have suitors if he reaches the open market, making it challenging, at best, for the Flyers to fit him under the cap.
If the Flyers are going to build on their success, they could use one more quality defenceman. Since they don't have a lot of cap room, the best option may be to make a trade, offering one or more of the team's young forwards for an established blueliner.
Top Prospect: Scott Munroe
After a couple of seasons as a backup in Buffalo, Martin Biron took hold of the number one job in Philadelphia and performed well, playing in the second-most games of his career. It's reasonable to question, however, whether or not Biron has enough potential to take a team to a championship or if he is merely a good starting goaltender.
Antero Niittymaki recovered from hip surgery and was decent in a backup role, playing particularly well early in the season before tailing off late.
Should this pairing return, the Flyers have an adequate pair between the pipes. Is that enough for this team's expectations?
27th - Jake Gardiner, Aaron Ness, Tyler Cuma
The Flyers have approximately $56-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top four defenceman
What I said the Flyers needed last year: First line centre, top six winger, top pair defenceman, top four defenceman
Who did they add? Daniel Briere, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul, Jim Dowd, Kimmo Timonen, Jason Smith
Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger, Scottie Upshall, Lasse Kukkonen, Antero Niittymaki
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com