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By Matt Canamucio, NHL Editor

(Sports Network) - The Flyers were preseason Stanley Cup favorites entering the 2005-06 season after making huge splashes with the signings of Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje.

A year later, Ken Hitchcock's club is hoping to rebound from a first-round exit at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres. Peter Forsberg is recovering from offseason ankle surgery and many wonder if Hatcher and Rathje fit into this whole "new NHL" thing.

Instead of Cup favorites, it now appears as if the Flyers are in the lump of Eastern Conference clubs chasing the Carolina Hurricanes. Maybe they can finish first or maybe they can miss the playoffs for the first time since 1994.

It was a relatively quite summer for Philly general manager Bob Clarke. A lack of cap space and the need to re-sign several young pieces kept the Flyers out of the running for the big-time names that were available. In addition captain Keith Primeau was forced to retire due to lingering concussion symptoms.

On defense the team's only significant addition was that of former Canuck Nolan Baumgartner, who emerged as a bona fied offensive blueliner with Vancouver last season. At the same time, though, Kim Johnsson was allowed to flee for Minnesota and steady hand Eric Desjardins retired.

Up front, veteran sniper Geoff Sanderson headlines the Flyers' additions. Sanderson, 34, posted 25 goals with Phoenix and Columbus last season.

The Flyers have gone out in the first round of the playoffs five times in the past eight seasons. For the first time in some time, however, their biggest chore might be making it to the postseason, period. There is that much parity in the East.

FORWARDS - Heading into the summer thoughts were that the Flyers would be without Forsberg until after the new year due to him having surgery on both ankles to correct a chronic condition. However, following the first surgery the good news came that the superstar Swede only needed the one procedure and he should be back for the start of the campaign.

In 2005-06, Forsberg tallied 19 goals and 56 assists in 60 games. He was limited due to a few battles with groin injuries, but when he was on the ice the Flyers were a different club. And this was also while battling his foot and ankle issues. It remains to be seen just how Forsberg will fare after having the problems corrected,

The player who benefited most from Forsberg's presence was winger Simon Gagne, who developed an immediate chemistry with his new centerman. Gagne, who had never managed more than 33 goals in a season, erupted with 47 in 72 games. Mike Knuble, who provided the size on the top line, came through with a career-high 34 markers from the right side. It's obvious that the Flyers' offensive success begins with this unit, so it will be worth keeping an eye on Forsberg's health status throughout the season.

The next key trio for the Flyers, whether they play together or not, is the sophomore group of Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and R.J. Umberger. They combined for 114 points as rookies, led by Carter's 23 goals and 19 assists after a slow start. And all this was while getting their skates wet, so it wouldn't be a stretch to expect significant improvement in 06-07.

Aside from Sanderson, the Flyers also brought in forwards Kyle Calder and Randy Robitaille this summer. Calder, whom the club acquired for center Michal Handzus, is the type of small and shifty guy the team needs more of. He tallied 26 goals for a bad Chicago club last season.

DEFENSE - One thing was evident for the Flyers last season, and it was a lack of speed and spark on the blueline. Hatcher and Rathje both played through injuries and often looked like skating statues, especially come playoff time. The team obtained hard-hitting Denis Gauthier at the trade deadline, but he did little to help with the speed deficiency.

Furthermore, the losses of Johnsson and Desjardins took away two players who would have surely helped in this "new NHL."

Joni Pitkanen, however, is back for his third NHL season and seems on his way to upper echelon status. The smooth-skating Finn tallied 13 goals and 33 assists and was a plus-22. This kid thrives on the attack, but will likely have to take an increased role in all situations.

Baumgartner was signed as an answer to those crying for more offense from the defense corps. Previously a minor leaguer, the 30-year-old found his niche in the new game, tallying five goals and 29 assists for the Canucks last season. He gives the club another viable power-play QB.

As for Hatcher and Rathje, the Flyers faithful are hoping that their less than spectacular play was an aberration. Both players received hefty contracts last summer and contributed to the team's cap issues this year. If they continue to play below an acceptable level, they will truly hurt Philadelphia in more ways than one.

GOALTENDING - The Flyers' goaltending situation is still not the clearest, as both Antero Niittymaki and Robert Esche remain on the roster. Although Niittymaki will miss the start of the season with a torn labrum in his left hip. Esche received the nod last postseason against Buffalo, but Niittymaki showed his capabilities during a sizzling stretch of 17 straight starts last December. The latter player also anchored Finland to the silver medal at the Olympics in Torino.

So far the netminding platoon hasn't openly erupted into a controversy, but that was during the course of only one season. Both players believe they are starters, and both have proven capable of handling a No. 1's workload. Many believed that Esche would be traded this summer, but that didn't happen.

http://146.145.120.3/default.asp?c=hockeynews&page=nhl/news/adn4042358.htm
 
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