After helping Jeremy Roenick tug on his new Flyers sweater at a
July press conference announcing the signing of the free-agent
center to a five-year, $37.5 million contract, owner Ed Snider
was about to take his seat when the irrepressible Roenick
commanded, "Hold on. Come here and give me a hug." Roenick then
grabbed Snider and gave his boss a crushing bear hug, Snider's
eyes widening in surprise and amusement. "You'd give him a hug,
too," Roenick told reporters later, "if he gave you that kind of
Imagine, hugging in Philadelphia. Next: hand-holding, campfire
songs and a berth in the Stanley Cup finals.
The poisoned atmosphere around the Flyers, for whom bellicosity
was as prevalent off the ice as on it, has dissipated with the
trade of Eric Lindros, the former franchise player whose noxious
relationship with general manager Bob Clarke bedeviled the
franchise. Philadelphia made several significant moves in the
summer--re-signing leftwinger John LeClair to a five-year, $45
million contract, adding steady free-agent defenseman Eric
Weinrich and landing the rights to elusive Czech center Jiri
Dopita in a trade with the Panthers--but none had the power to
heal like dealing a once-in-a-generation talent such as Lindros
to the rival Rangers for defenseman Kim Johnsson, winger Jan
Hlavac and forward prospect Pavel Brendl. The Roenick signing was
the blockbuster. By acquiring another marquee center, Clarke sent
an unmistakable message to the Lindros family and the league that
any Lindros trade would be on Philadelphia's terms.
These Flyers are still disparate pieces--their goalie has never
won a playoff series, their defense is skilled but not
overwhelming--but the talent level is markedly superior to the
100-point team rookie coach Bill Barber pushed into the playoffs
last year. "I haven't been in a locker room this talented since
I was [on the 1992 Cup winner] in Pittsburgh," says 37-year-old
Rick Tocchet, who will miss the first month with a knee injury.
When he gets back, he'll compete with second-year pro Justin
Williams for a spot next to Roenick and LeClair on a formidable
Indeed, the Flyers' first line of center Keith Primeau, right
wing Mark Recchi and left wing Simon Gagne was invited en masse
to Canada's Olympic orientation camp last month. The unknown is
the 6'4", 220-pound Dopita, 32, whose rights have bounced around
the league since the Bruins drafted him in 1992. Until now he
had been content playing in Europe. He succumbed to the Flyers'
blandishments, in part because Dopita is best friends with
Philly goalie Roman Cechmanek. Dopita understands there will be
an adjustment to NHL life. When asked by a Czech reporter how
good his English was, he replied, in Czech, "Perfect. I don't
speak a word."
Cechmanek had a Sesame Street vocabulary when he arrived, at 29,
in the NHL last season, but his play spoke volumes. Despite
starting the season in the minors, he wound up as a finalist for
the Vezina Trophy with 35 wins, a 2.01 goals-against average and
a .921 save percentage. Then Cechmanek, the backup on the Czech
Republic's 1998 Olympic gold medal team, and the Flyers ran into
Czech goaltending hero Dominik Hasek and the Sabres in the first
playoff round. Cechmanek was part of the problem, not part of the
solution, in a six-game meltdown in which the Flyers were drubbed
8-0 in the finale.
Cechmanek has something to prove, and look for Eric Desjardins to
help out by reaffirming his place among the NHL's top defensemen,
a task made easier because he doesn't have to carry young
partners this season. The additions of Johnsson, a mobile puck
mover, and Weinrich, who excels in any role, give Philadelphia
its deepest defense in a decade.
Now that the Flyers have knocked the chip off their own
shoulders, it's time to knock off the defending Eastern
Conference champion Devils.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Signing Roenick, an impact player, shoots the Flyers to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Roman Cechmanek's 10 shutouts last season made him the first
Flyers goalie to hit double digits in that category since Bernie
Parent had 12 in 1974-75.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 4 Terrific balance, especially with a healthy
DEFENSE 5 Addition of steady Weinrich makes a big
GOALTENDING 11 Can Cechmanek repeat last season's success?
SPECIAL TEAMS 4 Dynamic Roenick will strengthen power play
MANAGEMENT 6 G.M. Clarke has team that should contend for