VOORHEES, N.J. – The Flyers’ one-year transformation from the worst team in the NHL to one of the last four playing was quicker than expected.
The Flyers hope the leap from conference finalists to shaking the Stanley Cup in celebration moves just as fast. “It’s encouraging to see the point we’ve gotten to, but I think it’s also important to realize there’s a lot of work to be done to close the gap on the teams that are ahead of us,” Flyers coach John Stevens said.
General manager Paul Holmgren overhauled the Flyers in little more than a year, putting players like Martin Biron, Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen and Mike Richards in place for the franchise to enjoy long-term success. Holmgren needs to re-sign key free agents such as Jeff Carter and R.J. Umberger, beef up a brittle defence, and work on extensions for Biron and Stevens to help Philadelphia become a legitimate title contender.
Holmgren said Tuesday that he expected to accomplish those goals.
His first priority was re-signing Carter, a restricted free agent. A first-round pick in the 2003 entry draft, Carter had 29 goals and 53 points this season and ably filled in when Richards went down with a hamstring injury. Holmgren said that teams inquired about Carter almost every day around the trade deadline, meaning he could become a popular target if he reaches free agency and the Flyers are forced to match an offer.
“We’ll get him signed,” Holmgren said. “I have no doubt about that.”
Umberger, who scored eight goals against Montreal in the semifinals, and defenceman Randy Jones are the other top two restricted free agents.
“We will do what we can to get our guys signed, especially the guys that we feel we can move forward with,” Holmgren said.
The Flyers will move forward with Stevens behind the bench. The second-year coach was on the hot seat when a 10-game losing streak nearly bumped Philadelphia out of the playoffs. But a strong finish earned the Flyers the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, and they won series against No. 3 seed Washington and top-seeded Montreal.
Stevens’ contract expires at the end of the next season, but it’s unlikely he’ll be a lame duck. Holmgren hoped to work out a new deal with Stevens before training camp.
“I expect him to be here long term,” Holmgren said.
Another task for the Flyers is getting Biron better protection. Timonen and Braydon Coburn are set as the top defensive pairing. But team captain Jason Smith and veteran Derian Hatcher were both injury prone and are unlikely to return.
Holmgren revealed that Smith played with two separated shoulders in the post-season and Hatcher needed his knee drained almost every day. While Holmgren called their efforts “pretty inspirational,” they might not fit next year as the Flyers try to get younger and faster.
Trade deadline acquisition Vaclav Prospal went from stretch-run sensation to MIA in the playoffs. The unrestricted free agent also might not return.
Losing Prospal might not matter much if Simon Gagne is healthy and returns to his All-Star form. Gagne played in only 25 games this season because of lingering symptoms of a concussion. Holmgren said Gagne was working out and should be ready for the start of training camp.
“As bad as we were last year, we came to training camp with the idea that we wanted to win the Stanley Cup,” Holmgren said. “We had a nice run, and now the idea is to get better and improve on it next year. That is what we aim to do.”