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Cup-or-bust Flyers add another championship piece

by | Staff Writer

As if the Philadelphia Flyers had to get any deeper.

It wasn't enough being the Eastern Conference leader for almost the entire season and having a top-five offense and a top-10 defense. Getting double-digit production from more players than any team didn't suffice either, and neither did having the league's best set of top-six defensemen or two goalies who have done nothing but silence doubters all season.

Kris Versteeg, battling with ex-Flyer Simon Gagne, gives Philly even more flexibility up front. (AP)  
Kris Versteeg, battling with ex-Flyer Simon Gagne, gives Philly even more flexibility up front. (AP)  
None of that was enough to keep a team bent on winning it all this season sitting still, so this week the Flyers traded away their first-round draft pick in an effort to upgrade.

It's the third year in a row Philadelphia has moved what is generally considered a coveted asset, this time to Toronto for forward Kris Versteeg.

Thing is the 24-year-old forward isn't a difference maker. But he is someone who has won a Stanley Cup and can do a lot of things well, and by adding him the Flyers are telling you just how much their future is now.

"I think we really feel that we have something special; it's a different attitude than before," said Danny Briere, the Flyers scoring leader with 27 goals. "You know if you look at last year when were hanging on just to survive and make the playoffs, the mentality was different. We weren't seeing the big picture.

"This season is different. I think going to the Finals against Chicago and coming so close to winning, we realized a lot of things about our team, the way we fought and battled for each other. We think we can accomplish more, but we have to keep pushing all the time."

The Flyers should wish that would be the worst of their problems. Some of them were talking about it after they built up a three-goal lead and had to hang on beat the Panthers 4-2. Captain Mike Richards called the effort "maybe a bit lazy," while defenseman Sean O'Donnell suggested the team was fortunate to escape with a win against a bottom feeder. But as coach Peter Laviolette rationalized later, the Flyers were coming off an emotional statement win the night before against high-powered Tampa Bay, and still found a way to emerge with a victory.

"Sometimes you just have to take the two points and move on," Laviolette said.

Philadelphia has been doing a lot of that this season. The Flyers suffered a three-game losing streak a week into the season but have dropped two-in-a-row only once since then. Their 38 wins top the league, and they trail overall standing leader Vancouver by two points with a game in hand.

"I'm excited about it. I mean this is a team that can win the Stanley Cup," said an understated Versteeg. "You look at that roster and you go ‘wow' there's so much youth and skill, you could produce with anyone you played with.

"I think it's going to be just like Chicago, and I'm going to be a piece of the puzzle."

That could be worth more to the Flyers than the last pick of the first round if it helps them win the Stanley Cup. The 24-year-old Versteeg made an impact in his role last season with the Blackhawks as a versatile winger who was comfortable anywhere from the third to first lines or on special teams. It is a particular skill set that the Maple Leafs weren't ready for but should fit nicely on a Flyers team thinking about a long run.

"I see a lot of similarities here with Anaheim in terms of the pieces they have put together," said the 39-year-old O'Donnell, who won the 2007 Stanley Cup with the Ducks. "You look around this room and you see a lot of talent, a team that's built to win this year, not in two or three years.

"There's a Stanley Cup or bust mentality. We've been feeling it since training camp."

Actually it's been there since last June when the Flyers went down in six games to the Blackhawks in the Finals, although O'Donnell wouldn't know that because he only joined the team in the summer. General manager Paul Holmgren felt one reason Philadelphia lost was that its top four defensemen where overtaxed, so he added O'Donnell and Andrej Meszaros to the blue line.

Holmgren wanted to do something between the pipes as well, but ended up bringing back Michael Leighton, the journeyman who took the Flyers to the Finals last spring. Problem was Leighton had back issues and appeared in only one game, but in the meantime rookie Sergey Bobrovsky and veteran Brian Boucher have handled the job well enough to make any attempt to upgrade unnecessary.

In large part that's because there is so much balance through the lineup. Philadelphia has been getting consistent offense from all its lines with Briere, Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Scott Hartnell leading the way. With Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers can always have a shutdown defenseman on the ice, and the goaltending right now is as good as it has to be.

"You're always looking to see what's out there, but I like the roster we have now," Holmgren said.

He should.


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