Bob Ford: Trade deadline near for Flyers

Posted: February 23, 2009

The NHL trade deadline is next week and Flyers fans are shaking the team like a snow globe and wondering if there is enough inside to make a decent blizzard once the postseason arrives.

Does the team need to add a big defenseman to help evict the rebound and deflection snipers from the crease? Is there a goaltender on the team suitable for the long haul of the playoffs?

As for the latter question, Marty Biron did nothing to end the discussion Saturday when he made a poor decision at the end of the game against Pittsburgh and the Flyers took a 5-4 loss in front of the largest regular-season home crowd in team history.

The fans who went grumbling into the chilly South Philly afternoon could be forgiven for wondering what Biron had in mind when he strayed far from the net to stop a late Penguins rush but fumbled his attempt to poke away the puck. The result was essentially an empty-net goal for Sidney Crosby and zero points for the Flyers when they were less than three minutes from being assured of at least one.

"It was just one of those things. Marty has stolen a bunch of games for us in the past," captain Mike Richards said. "You move on and don't dwell on it too much."

Whether the front office will also accept the mistake with a shrug is another matter. If nothing else, Saturday's game ended the hope that Biron would grab the goalie's job and hold it tight through the rest of the regular season. It would be nice if someone did, and Antero Niittymaki will undoubtedly get another chance at Washington tomorrow night.

Team officials privately, and coach John Stevens publicly, say the trade deadline probably won't provide a big headline. There are salary-cap constraints and a limited number of available players who could make a big difference and, anyway, they like the team they have now.

"If the deadline comes and goes and the team that's here is the team that's here, I think we're pretty confident this group can compete with anybody," Stevens said. "I don't think we're looking for anybody to come in here and save the day. If we were to make any changes at all, I think it will be to complement what's already here and not to resurrect anything."

Although the attention often comes down to the goalie and whether he is Cup-capable, in recent years it has been the offense that really let down the Flyers. Last season, in the Eastern finals against the Pens, the Flyers scored just nine goals in five games, and two or fewer in four of those. That was hardly the fault of Biron, who was working with a decimated defense around him.

In the 2004 Eastern finals against Tampa Bay, Robert Esche didn't get the job done, either, but the offense provided just 19 goals in the seven games, and bunched 11 of those in two of the games. Same thing in 2003 with Roman Cechmanek, who did allow the occasional 60-footer, but nevertheless. The Flyers scored 10 goals in six games in the Eastern semis against Ottawa that year.

Go all the way back to the 1997 Cup finals against Detroit - the infamous "choking situation" series that proved Terry Murray's undoing - and you find that the Eric Lindros-fueled Flyers scored six goals in the four-game sweep. Ron Hextall might be the best goalie the team has had since Bernie Parent, but what was he going to do with that? As it turned out, not much.

The reality is that the Flyers are almost certainly going to war this season with either Biron or Niittymaki, but they are still in better position now to rewrite recent history. The team has a good, balanced offense, good special teams, and a very good defense, even if there aren't the monsters back there fans might like.

"Just because of the tradition here and the identity this organization has, people assume that's what's missing," Stevens said. "It's not as if we get pushed around in our own end or around our own net. The game has changed, and I think there's more than one way to win."

There has been only one way to be eliminated recently, however, regardless of the goaltender. Stop scoring goals and you lose. That doesn't seem as likely this time around.

Not only do the front office and coaching staff like this team, but the players like who they are, too. They chose to focus on coming back twice in the third period against Pittsburgh, rather than the fluky outcome.

"If every loss devastated you, it would be a crazy year, just like if you planned a parade after every win," said defenseman Braydon Coburn. "That's not the mentality of this team. That's not how we perceive things. We lost this game, made some mistakes, but we battled and that's the positive we take from it."

They look around, study the depth inside their globe, and have decided that when the time comes this team will be capable of creating quite a storm. Maybe this time they are right.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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