After making the playoffs on the strength of a shootout win in the last game of the regular season, the Philadelphia Flyers surprisingly reached the Stanley Cup Final and, even though they lost, didn't look at all out of place.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Flyers team that could be right back among the contenders next season.
The Flyers entered the season with great expectations, but a mediocre 13-11-1 start led them to change coaches, firing John Stevens and replacing him with Peter Laviolette.
Laviolette didn't have an immediate effect, as the Flyers' 28-24-5 record through the rest of the regular season was, by the slimmest of margins, just enough to get into the postseason.
At the same time, the Flyers' regular season struggles belied the talent on the team and when the Flyers suddenly started getting good goaltending -- from waiver pick-up Michael Leighton, then Brian Boucher early in the playoffs, then back to Leighton -- suddenly the Flyers were a team to be reckoned with.
While the playoff run was obviously an exciting development, it surely doesn't mean that the Flyers are now the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, but they can be in the discussion if they address a couple of needs, most notably their goaltending.
While Leighton played well to get the Flyers to Game Six of the Final, and Antti Niemi was hardly a household name before winning the Cup, the Flyers figure to improve their chances of getting back to the Final if they get a more proven puckstopper.
Otherwise, this is a strong roster, needing improved defensive depth, but one that is entirely capable of remaining among the contenders next season.
For his part, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren sees the heartbreaking loss to the Blackhawks in a positive -- motivating -- light.
"The guys are down about it, and I'm hoping that translates into doing the work in the summer and hitting the ground running, because next season is not going to be any easier than this one," Holmgren told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "That's just the nature of the game."
Rest assured, Holmgren knows that the players aren't the only ones that have work to do this summer.
Paul Holmgren/Peter Laviolette
Mike Richards is considered the heart and soul of the Flyers and the 25-year-old did score a career-high 31 goals last season, but his 62 points and minus-2 rating were his lowest marks in those categories since 2006-2007.
Scoring isn't Richards' only contribution, as he can play in any situation and is extremely competitive, playing bigger than he is. Even so, he's generally more valuable when he produces more offensively.
Jeff Carter saw his goal total dip from 46 in 2008-2009 to 33 last season and he struggled in the playoffs, but he came back quickly from two broken feet in order to play, so those postseason struggles shouldn't condemn him, though it does make him a popular target if the Flyers are contemplating a blockbuster trade to improve their goaltending.
There are only five players in the league who have scored more than Carter's 79 goals over the last two seasons (Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrick Marleau), and the 25-year-old is just hitting his prime.
Though he hasn't been especially productive in three seasons with the Flyers after signing a massive free agent contract, Danny Briere led all scorers in the playoffs, tallying 30 points in 23 games.
Certainly, if Briere can score like that against playoff teams when the games matter most, he can score more than the 53 points he put up in the regular season. In order to do that, he may need a regular slot at centre, where he was more effective.
Injuries cut into Simon Gagne's season as he missed 24 games thanks to a sports hernia and then returned well ahead of schedule from a broken foot in the playoffs. The 30-year-old is a four-time 30-goal scorer and going into the final year of his contract, who should be able to play a significant offensive role.
22-year-old Claude Giroux's regular season may not have been the quantum leap forward that was expected, but 47 points was respectable for his first full NHL season. However, Giroux raised the bar with 10 goals and 21 points in the playoffs, showing the kind of high-end skill that indicates 47 points is just the beginning.
Scott Hartnell enjoyed a strong playoff, including nine points in the final series against Chicago, to help compensate for a regular season that wasn't quite as productive as years past.
Hartnell's 14 goals represented his lowest total since 2002-2003 and his minus-6 rating was his worst since his rookie year (2000-2001). All that considered, Steve Downie was the only player in the league to register at least 140 penalty minutes and have more points than Hartnell's 44, so Hartnell brings a rare mix of talent and ability to irritate opponents.
Going into last season, expectations were high for Ville Leino in Detroit, with some considering him a Calder Trophy candidate. After seven points and a minus-10 rating in 42 games with the Red Wings, Leino was shipped to Philadelphia and, while he finished the regular season unremarkably, the 26-year-old Finn took off in the playoffs.
After scoring 21 points and a plus-10 rating in the postseason, expectations will be high once again for Leino going into next season.
The second overall pick in 2007, James van Riemsdyk hasn't been rushed into his role with the Flyers, playing two seasons at the University of New Hampshire before taking on a limited role with Philadelphia last season (getting under 13 minutes per game).
What van Riemsdyk showed as a rookie, was soft hands for a big man. With improved conditioning, more aggressiveness and more quality ice time, the 21-year-old could be a big-time scorer.
Blair Betts scored a career-high 18 points but, more importantly for the defensive specialist, he was a plus-7 despite minimal offensive production.
Though he tied a career-low with three goals, Ian Laperriere didn't disappoint in his first year with the Flyers, trying for second in the league with 25 fights and then coming back from a scary injury in the playoffs when he blocked a shot with his face; a great fit as a fourth-line character guy.
Enforcer Riley Cote only skated in 15 games last season and while there's no doubt about his willingness, his effectiveness in the role appears to have decreased and the Flyers have no shortage of others ready to take up the battles which makes Cote expendable.
There may not be a player in the league who aggravates the opposition in quite the way that Daniel Carcillo does. An agitator who has dropped the gloves 58 times over the last three seasons, Carcillo scored a dozen goals last year and can be an effective player; he just needs to get reeled in every so often when his combativeness goes over the line.
A blue-collar checker, Darroll Powe is an honest foot soldier who doesn't hurt the club in a checking role, putting up modest point totals but playing a relentless, physical style.
If the Flyers lose Arron Asham to free agency, that does create a vacancy for a depth forward spot but, overall, the Flyers are well-stocked up front.
The Flyers couldn't have asked for more from Chris Pronger in his first season in the Orange and Black. The 35-year-old put up 55 points and a plus-22 rating -- the third time in his career he's had at least 50 points and been a plus-20 in a season -- and he was a force in the playoffs, shutting down top forwards on a nightly basis.
Who knows how much longer Pronger is going to be this effective but, based on how well he played in 26 minutes per game last season, there's no immediate concern about Pronger's play sliding too far from an elite level.
Being partnered with Pronger sure helped Matt Carle, as the 25-year-old turned in the kind of season that was expected of him after his strong rookie year in 2006-2007.
A mobile blueliner who is a virtual pacifist (Carle's never had more than 30 penalty minutes in an NHL season), he's an effective complement to Pronger, who has slowed a step and hacks and whacks with the best of them.
Durable veteran Kimmo Timonen plays a well-rounded game, moving the puck well enough to work on the power play while checking well enough to handle top forwards when they aren't matched up against Pronger, and has missed only a dozen games in the last five seasons.
23-year-old Oskars Bartulis was given his first taste of NHL action last year, getting into 53 games, and he struggled early (minus-17 in his first 33 games) before settling down (plus-5 in the next 20). At this point, he's still a depth option.
Braydon Coburn has all the tools to be a top-notch defenceman, but his production has declined in each of the last two seasons (thanks in part to Pronger's arrival last year) and his playoff performance was uneven. There are few defencemen with Coburn's size, mobility and passing skills, so the 25-year-old can be much more than what he's shown lately.
While injuries have slowed the development of 23-year-old Ryan Parent, he was always considered safe and reliable defensively as a prospect and in his early appearances with the Flyers. After a minus-14 in just 48 games last season, however, Parent has some work to do if he's going to establish that he's worthy of a regular role on the Flyers' blueline.
Considering how little the Flyers' played their third defensive pairing as the playoffs progressed, that's a natural area to try and upgrade in free agency. Parent and Bartulis can be part of the mix, but bringing in a more proven defender to handle the No. 5 spot, at least, would provide insurance if an injury takes out one of the top four.
Free agents like Andy Sutton, Brett Clark, Mark Eaton or Jay McKee would add a veteran defensive presence.
Brian Boucher struggled in the regular season, starred in the first round win over New Jersey, then his performance was slipping against Boston before he got hurt.
The 33-year-old is a capable veteran backup who, under ideal circumstances, may have fewer than the 26 starts he had last season.
Michael Leighton had started 26 games for three different teams since the lockout before the Flyers picked him up on waivers and Leighton was impressive in 26 regular-season starts with Philadelphia. Even though Leighton struggled at times in the Cup Final, he was very good in the postseason for the Flyers, coming back from a high ankle sprain just as Brian Boucher got hurt against Boston.
While the popular decision might be for the Flyers to sign the 29-year-old journeyman to a contract extension, it's possible that Leighton will be the fall-back option if Philadelphia can't secure more proven goaltending either through trade or free agency.
Free agents like Evgeni Nabokov, Marty Turco, Chris Mason and Dan Ellis would seem to be considerations, while there have been rumours of interest in Florida's Tomas Vokoun, who is costly but signed for only one season, as the Flyers look to shore up their last line of defence.
Ray Emery didn't play poorly on his return to the NHL after a year in KHL exile, but a hip injury limited the 27-year-old to 29 games and leaves his future in doubt; not that Emery is not capable of starting in the NHL, just whether or not teams (including the Flyers) are going to be willing to invest in him for anything more than a year.
||2-7-9,-8, 75 GP
||18-28-46,-11, 66 GP
||14-20-34,-10, 65 GP
||10-18-28,-8, 69 GP
||5-18-23,-7, 66 GP
||11-33-44,-15, 67 GP
||Northern Michigan (CCHA)
||3-29-32,+14, 39 GP
||2-17-19,-9, 61 GP
||26-11-37,-19, 77 GP
||36-58-94,+39, 67 GP
There wasn't a lot of point production in his first pro season, but Kevin Marshall impressed with his aggressiveness and defensive play. The 21-year-old may need another season or two on the farm before he's ready to challenge for a spot in Philadelphia.
While David Laliberte scored in his first two NHL games when he got called up last season, the 24-year-old is more along the lines of a solid, two-way winger. He has size and some skill, but maybe not enough to unseat anyone in Philadelphia right now.
23-year-old Austrian Andreas Nodl has already played 48 NHL games over the past couple of seasons, but has only managed one goal and five points. He showed more offensive potential in college than he's displayed in two pro campaigns.
Checking forward Jonathon Kalinski has five points in 22 NHL games over the last two years, but points aren't a big part of his package; his hustle and determination could earn the 23-year-old a look in a fourth-line role.
Undersized Finnish blueliner Joonas Lehtivuori is coming off his first season in North America and the 21-year-old has the skills to climb the ladder, though he'll have to become more aggressive if he's going to make it in Philadelphia.
Patrick Maroon is a big winger with skill, though he disappointed with 11 goals last season. A strong AHL season next year could springboard the 22-year-old to greater consideration, whereas a down season could drop him off the prospect radar.
Another smallish defenceman, Erik Gustafsson was signed after three productive years at the Northern Michigan and chipped in seven points in five AHL games at the end of the year. If he can handle the defensive side of the pro game, the 21-year-old could be an intriguing addition.
20-year-old Marc-Andre Bourdon definitely has abundant offensive skills, but the 20-year-old could use some time to get acclimated to the demands of the pro game.
Disillusioned with hockey to the point that he walked away, 21-year-old Stefan Legein got his career back on track last season, scoring 26 goals, though his minus-19 rating suggests that there is work to be done on his play without the puck, particularly considering his likely role in the NHL (if he gets there) is that of an energy winger.
A gifted offensive talent who played for four OHL teams in five seasons, Luke Pither will get a chance to show that he's on the right path to making the most of his skills.
The Flyers also have some prospects across the pond. 21-year-old Russian winger Andrei Popov scored 15 goals in the KHL last season, while goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has a .923 save percentage in two KHL seasons. 20-year-old Swedish goaltender Joacim Eriksson has also shown promise.
No first-round pick.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Flyers have approximately $48.6 M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 16 players.
Needs: Two defencemen, starting goaltender.
What I said the Flyers needed last year: Depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman, two goaltenders.
Who did they add? James van Riemsdyk, Ian Laperriere, Mika Pyorala, Chris Pronger, Ray Emery, Brian Boucher.
TRADE MARKET Jeff Carter, Brian Boucher.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.