During an intrasquad scrimmage in training camp, rookie
defenseman Joni Pitkanen motored up the ice with the puck,
weaved through traffic and scored. The veterans were impressed
by Pitkanen's moves and took hope that the No. 4 pick in the
2002 draft, though only 20, will give the lineup a much-needed
injection of youth.
After watching the fresh-faced and more sprightly Senators bounce
his Flyers out of the playoffs in the second round last spring,
coach Ken Hitchcock believes young, energetic talent is the key
to getting Philadelphia into the Eastern Conference finals for
the first time since 1999-2000. "You can't expect 34-year-olds to
score like 26-year-olds," Hitchcock says. "Those guys have other
roles that are as important, but we have to get more from other
people who are capable."
That means increased ice time for right wing Justin Williams, 22,
left wing Simon Gagne, 23, center Michal Handzus, 26, and right
wing Radovan Somik, 26. Pitkanen, a 6'3", 200-pound puck-moving
playmaker who was named the best defenseman at the World Junior
Championships last year, will energize a blue line corps that
already ranks as one of the league's deepest. "He takes risks,"
says Hitchcock, "and he gets away with them."
The coaching staff doesn't want to burden Pitkanen, but they
expect him to also boost an underachieving power-play unit. Even
with snipers Tony Amonte, 33, and Jeremy Roenick, 33, and
bruisers John LeClair, 34, and Keith Primeau, 31, up front,
Philly scored on just 14.3% of its power plays, 10th in the
league. This season the Flyers will sink or swim with one
approach--traffic around the crease, a ton of shots on net.
Another point of frustration was addressed in the off-season:
Erratic goalie Roman Cechmanek was traded to the Kings, and
35-year-old free agent Jeff Hackett (15-17-2, 2.86 GAA) was
signed to compete with last year's backup, Robert Esche, 25, for
the No. 1 job. Philadelphia wants a rock in net. Then, if the
young players in the lineup can provide the excitement, the
Flyers will contend for the Cup. --S.C.
COLOR PHOTO: NICK WASS/AP JONI PITKANEN
( 1 Best - 30 Worst )
POWER PLAY 13
PENALTY KILLING 6
G.M. AND COACH 10
The Flyers, with outstanding size, good speed and tremendous
balance, are becoming more like the Devils--a hard-nosed,
difficult team to play against.... If injury-plagued F's Simon
Gagne, John LeClair and Justin Williams stay healthy, Philly will
be a Cup contender.... New G Jeff Hackett should prove that he's
far better than observers have ever given him credit for. This is
the first time he'll be playing with a talented team.... Having F
Tony Amonte for a full season will help, especially on the PP.