Observers at the Flyers' training camp in Peterborough, Ont.,
were struck by the team's fitness. Right wing Mark Recchi was
fully recovered from the concussion he sustained last season,
defenseman Chris Therien had shed 10 pounds, and, despite back
troubles that would hinder them during the preseason, John
LeClair and Eric Lindros were skating with the team. From the
goal nets to the front office, the message seemed clear: If the
Flyers don't shape up this season, owner Ed Snider could be
shipping many of them--including Lindros and general manager Bob
Clarke--out. "We all feel that this has to be our year," says
goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck.
The Flyers also entered last season with a lot to prove, and
they quickly dispelled most concerns with an Eastern Conference
best 28-10-11 start. Then Lindros's lung collapsed when he fell
on his stick during an April 1 game, and the team buckled
without him. Arguably more disheartened than disabled by the
absence of their captain, the Flyers scored only 13 goals in
their final seven regular-season games before being ousted from
the playoffs in the first round by the Maple Leafs. The series
ended in Game 6 when Toronto scored a power-play goal in the
last minute after LeClair was called for elbowing, a penalty
that left Snider so incensed that he was fined $50,000 by the
league for his public outburst.
Despite an off-season marked by the lingering disappointment
over that early playoff exit, the retirement of onetime
goaltending star Ron Hextall and the death of rookie defenseman
Dmitri Tertyshny in a boating accident, Philadelphia's attitude
is positive. "This is the best team I've had since 1994," says
Clarke, who re-signed standout defender Eric Desjardins, as well
as free-agent forwards Recchi, Keith Jones, Mikael Renberg and
Valeri Zelepukin. This older group will also be counted on to
usher in a new generation of Flyers. The most promising young
prospects include defenseman Mark Eaton, a 1998 free-agent
signee from Notre Dame, and 19-year-old center Simon Gagne, a
first-round pick in '98 with superior skills. Last season the
6-foot, 165-pound Gagne scored 120 points in the Quebec Major
Junior Hockey League.
Despite the new talent that waits in the wings, for this year,
at least, the Flyers hope that experience takes them over the top.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Expect big changes if Lindros and Philly fail again.
The Flyers topped the league with 2,967 face-off wins last
season, led by Rod Brind'Amour's 1,001. Philly also led the
league in percentage of face-offs won (55.35).
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
OFFENSE 7 Recchi makes life easier for Lindros and
DEFENSE 8 Solid core, enhanced by a good system
GOALTENDING 12 More consistency needed from Vanbiesbrouck
SPECIAL TEAMS 10 Desjardins has to step up as power-play
COACHING 7 Neilson needs to motivate this talented group