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Inside the Flyers: Flyers need an upgrade

The Flyers, relentless to the finish, had a scintillating postseason run that ended with a jaw-dropping Game 6 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Michael Leighton's future with the Flyers is one of the questions facing the team in the upcoming weeks. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
Michael Leighton's future with the Flyers is one of the questions facing the team in the upcoming weeks. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)Read more

The Flyers, relentless to the finish, had a scintillating postseason run that ended with a jaw-dropping Game 6 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals.

But now that it's over and the franchise is still without a Cup since 1975, here's the sobering reality: The Flyers were fortunate to bypass Pittsburgh and Washington in this year's playoffs, and they need to upgrade their roster to get past those teams and return to the Finals.

They don't need a major overhaul. They need to improve the third defensive pairing - general manager Paul Holmgren thinks that will happen after Ryan Parent, a playoff disappointment, gets a few more months to recover from Jan. 25 back surgery - and add some speed in case they face the fleet Blackhawks again next year.

Most important, they need to land a Cup-worthy goalie.

Since expansion in 1967-68, just two of the 42 teams that lost in the Finals - Edmonton in 1983 and Pittsburgh in 2008 - won the Cup the next season.

That shows there are no guarantees for progression. The Flyers talked optimistically Friday about how this was a learning season, a building season, and how they're ready to take the next step.

History tells us otherwise.

And it almost assuredly won't happen if this team stands pat in the coming months.

This space has been a big Michael Leighton supporter all season. His regular-season numbers with the Flyers (2.48 goals-against average, .918 save percentage) were as good, if not better, than most of the goalies that are available in the off-season. If you add his Carolina numbers from this season, he finished with an overall 2.83 GAA and .905 save percentage.

Leighton, a waiver-wire wonder, was clutch in the last 2½ games of the miracle comeback against Boston, and was lights-out in the conference finals against Montreal, collecting three shutouts and a 1.41 goals-against average.

But . . . .

In the glare of hockey's biggest spotlight, the Finals, Leighton played like a journeyman. He became the first goalie pulled from two Finals games since 1991. He had a 3.96 goals-against average and .876 save percentage, and he surrendered bad game-winning goals to Ben Eager in Game 2 and Patrick Kane in Game 6.

Holmgren is in a quandary. Does he re-sign Leighton - who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 - or go after a more-proven goaltender?

My two cents: Do both.

Re-sign Leighton, but not as the starter. From here, Leighton is better insurance than the still-capable Brian Boucher if the No. 1 goalie - for now, we'll call him Mr. X - is injured.

After a season in which they dressed seven goalies because of injuries, no one knows better than the Flyers that depth is critical at that position.

Boucher is signed for next year, but the Flyers can try to push him through waivers and send him to the AHL Phantoms. Boosh is a good soldier and, in a perfect world, does not deserve such a fate.

But there will be some hurt feelings along the way as the Flyers try to get back to the Finals in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1975 and 1976.

It says here they won't win a Cup until they get a legitimate No. 1 goalie.

The good news is that teams don't need to have a goalie of Bernie Parent's ilk to win a Cup.

For proof, look at the Blackhawks' Antti Niemi, who was very pedestrian in this year's Finals, compiling a 3.41 goals-against average and an .882 save percentage.

But Niemi deserves props for making the biggest save of the series. He was sprawled to the ice when he knocked down Jeff Carter's shot with the game tied at 3-3 and 1 minute, 29 seconds left in regulation in Game 6.

If Niemi doesn't make that save - or if Carter lifts the shot a few inches higher - there's no telling how the deflated Blackhawks would have performed in a winner-take-all Game 7.

Carter's name will be bandied about in trade talks in the coming weeks. He has averaged about 40 goals over the last two seasons and, based on the playoffs, it's clear he requires space and needs to play center. It's also clear Danny Briere - who probably would have won the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Flyers had captured the Cup - and Claude Giroux also need to play center, along with Mike Richards. That's four top-notch centers for the top three lines.

Do the Flyers trade Carter for a promising young goalie - Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier, whose team's front office has connections with the Flyers, are attractive choices - and perhaps a draft pick who will give them some speed? (Bernier, 21, looks like a future franchise goalie.)

Do they make a bid to acquire Cory Schneider, an ultra-promising young goalie who is stuck behind Roberto Luongo in defensemen-seeking Vancouver?

Do they ask Briere to waive his no-movement clause and send him - or perhaps left winger Simon Gagne, who has a no-trade clause - to Montreal for Carey Price?

I'm not a huge Price fan. Yes, he is just 22 and has an upside. But he has not been a big-game performer, so there are doubts.

The Flyers can play it safe (and smart?) and go after Nashville's Dan Ellis, a potential free agent who has lost the No. 1 job to Pekka Rinne.

Ellis, who will turn 30 on Saturday, had regular-season numbers (2.69 GAA, .909 save percentage) similar to Leighton's. A few years ago, however, Ellis was regarded as one of the game's top young goalies. He went 23-10-3 with six shutouts and a 2.34 GAA and .924 save percentage in 2007-08, and in six playoff games that season, he had a 2.52 goals-against average and an off-the-charts .938 save percentage.

He made $2 million this season, so his salary shouldn't be a deal-breaker for a Flyers team that is nearly $9 million under the cap. He will be much cheaper than some of the big-name free-agent goalies, such as Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco.

Holmgren and his brain trust will huddle and form a plan before the June 25-26 draft, which is usually when major deals are consummated. Dealing for one of the young goalies or signing Ellis look like his best options.

The Flyers' future, which went from cloudy to mostly sunny in a remarkable two-month playoff drive, hangs in the balance.