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New Guys in Town

Monday, 03.26.2007 / 12:00 AM ET / News
By Bill Fleischman  - philadelphiaflyers.com
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New Guys in Town
Until Martin Biron, Scottie Upshall, Lasse Kukkonen and Braydon Coburn were traded to the Flyers, they had nothing in common except hockey. Biron stopped shots for Buffalo, Upshall played for Nashville, Kukkonen for Chicago and Coburn for Atlanta.

Now, they share a locker room and are part of a nucleus that the Flyers think will propel them, perhaps as early as next season, back into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

A recent tour around the Flyers locker room produced a unanimous opinion: the newest Flyers believe the orange and black are headed in the right direction. Sometimes an experienced reporter can tell from an athlete's eyes or body language if they are uncomfortable with their answers. Sometimes they try to say the "right thing," but you can tell they don't really mean it.

In separate interviews the four new Flyers agreed that the fans should be hopeful.

"I know it's been a long year," Upshall said, "but since the (trade) deadline the team has made some good moves. With the salary cap [room], we're going to get better. We have some great young forwards and defensemen."

Biron agrees with Upshall that the Flyers have a solid nucleus.

"I definitely see this organization and team going in the right direction," Biron said. "The last few weeks (we've) been a team that battles really hard. We've been playing with some of our main guys hurt, but everybody is working toward finishing the season strong.

"By lowering (the age for) free agency, the turnaround of players is going to be a lot quicker than it used to be. By the time they are 27 they can be unrestricted free agents. It could (only) take a couple years to turn it around and get back (to the playoffs).

"You really have to make the right decisions (though). A lot of it comes from scouting. Look at Buffalo: they have a lot of young players. Anaheim's the same thing. Even Detroit: they have a lot of veterans, but they have a lot of young guys that are popping out of nowhere. This organization has a lot of (talented) young guys."

Both Biron and Upshall were traded from successful teams. However, Biron was backing up Ryan Miller in Buffalo and Upshall wasn't playing on the top lines in Nashville.

"It's nice putting pucks in the net again," a smiling Upshall said. "You can get a chance to make plays. If you make a mistake, you're not going to be punished to the point where you may not get on the ice again. Here, I really found a good fit. Getting to play with `Carts' (Jeff Carter) and Simon Gagne for 10 games was awesome. I thought we had good chemistry and good speed.

"I knew I was coming to a team that had some good veteran guys and a lot of good young players. There was an opportunity to fit in as a good young player. It was an opportunity that wasn't there for me in Nashville. Year after year (the Predators) were really strong. Every summer they picked up one or two good veteran wingers. It was tough: I didn't have the experience most of them did."

Like the others, Kukkonen, 25, is settling in with the Flyers.

"When I first heard about the trade, I was a little confused about what was going to happen," he said. "But, at the same time, I was pretty excited about getting a chance to play here.

"(The Flyers) have had a rough year, but they have really good players here and we are going in the right direction. After the first couple games, you could tell that everybody wants to get better."

A major appeal of the trade for Kukkonen was being paired on the blue line with longtime friend Joni Pitkanen. Not only are they from the same city in Finland, Oulu, they are from the same neighborhood. Kukkonen said they've known each other about 15 years. (Oulu is the sixth largest city in Finland – population 130,000 – on the northwest coast of the country).

Coburn also senses the reorganized Flyers are rejuvenated.

"When I got here," the 6'5'' defenseman said, "our place in the standings didn't matter any more. We're playing for each other. We just want to try becoming a better team. We've got a good bunch and a good team work habit."

No one appreciates the infusion of young talent more than John Stevens. The first-year Flyers coach has kept the team focused on improving while keeping an eye on future.

"We've got a really young team and we're competitive against the best teams in the league," Stevens said. "We've gotten younger and faster. When we shore up some areas over the summer, we can be a competitive team (for the playoffs) right away."

Upshall, 23, is an example of a young player taking advantage of more ice time.

"Scottie is a really good player that was behind a lot of depth in Nashville," Stevens said. "Here, he has the ability to play in a lot of the situations that we put him in. We view him as a top-six forward (on the team)."

When healthy, the Flyers top-six forwards are quality NHLers. Biron can be a bonafide No. 1 NHL goaltender. The defense corps is promising. Having veterans Derian Hatcher and Denis Gauthier providing leadership for the young defensemen is another plus.

With a few more talented additions, the Flyers could be a playoff team again next season.

All in the Families

For his first few weeks as a Flyer, Martin Biron's family was still in Buffalo. Recently, he brought his wife Anne Marie to Philadelphia so she could get familiar with the area. If she likes it here, it should be a factor in whether Biron signs a multi-year contract with the Flyers.

"Everybody (on the Flyers) loves the area," Biron said, "but you want to discover it on your own. Sometimes you take a drive for two-three hours. You get lost a couple times, but you find your way back."

During the interview with Scottie Upshall, I wondered how his family settled in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Fort McMurray is an oil outpost, 470 miles north of Calgary.

"My parents are from Newfoundland," Upshall explained. "They're both from large families. Both of their families came out West. Most settled just outside of Toronto. A few came to Edmonton and Fort McMurray for work. Both of my parents are still there, with my 21-year-old brother."

His father is in the oil-extraction business.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers'' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.

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