First in a series

THE FIRST order of business for Paul Holmgren this summer is determining which unit was more a cause of concern for the Flyers: the offense or the defense.

For me, it's a clear answer. Even if they remained completely healthy all season, the Flyers' biggest weakness remained on the back end, where they entered the season one or two solid pieces away from even being considered a true contender.

Yes, the Flyers scored nearly a half-goal less per game during the shortened season, but they also gave up more than they scored.

But that isn't to say the Flyers' offense doesn't deserve its fair share of blame.

"Other than Jake [Voracek], who else had a good season compared to their standards?" Danny Briere asked last month. "It was everybody at the same time, together. When everybody has an off year at the same time, it doesn't set up for success."

There are two ways to look at the Flyers' scoring shortfall. Either they didn't gather enough depth scoring or the top line did not produce enough of a threat to open up opportunities for the second and third lines.

The Flyers had four players finish with 10 or more goals. Montreal (eight), Boston (six), Pittsburgh (five), Toronto (five) and the Islanders (five) all had deeper scoring threats on their roster.

Most fans, instead, point to the dreaded "sophomore slump" as the reason the offense failed. That isn't entirely the case. Believe it or not, Matt Read (0.02 fewer points per game) nearly equaled his rookie scoring pace and Brayden Schenn (+0.22) vastly exceeded his rookie year and kept pace with his playoff performance. Even Sean Couturier (-0.02) barely experienced a drop-off.

None of those three players took the big leap forward that Holmgren and the Flyers' brass banked on.

Wayne Simmonds was on pace for a career year before he slowed in the second half. Other than him, the Flyers didn't receive any help from Max Talbot (five goals after 19 in 2011-12), Ruslan Fedotenko (four goals) or Briere (six goals). Simon Gagne (five goals) provided little tangible relief - especially in his first 20 games back as a Flyer.

Briere, 35, will not be back next season - the poster boy for a compliance buyout after the worst statistical year of his NHL career.

It's fair to wonder, though, whether Holmgren would consider moving one of those three sophomores this summer if he agrees the true weakness is on defense. You've got to give up talent in order to receive it in the NHL.

Read might be the easiest to part with, if he can be used in a haul to land an upper-echelon defender. He has a lot of value in the league as a multitooled player. At 26, he isn't even considered all that young by NHL standards, although he doesn't have a lot of wear and tear. Plus, Read will be due a sizable raise after this season.

The Flyers' scoring struggles lead me to believe it all starts with the top line. When your top line requires so much attention, it opens up holes for others to grow.

What if Hartnell netted just half of the 37 goals he posted the previous season? Yes, Hartnell did miss 16 games with a foot fracture, but even when he returned, he was half the force he was in 2011-12.

Hartnell left a gaping hole on the left side of Claude Giroux. If Holmgren can trade for a bona-fide top-line left winger (since the free-agent market is so barren), Hartnell can trickle down to the second line to provide pop.

The Flyers were fascinated by San Jose's 6-5 Brent Burns before the trade deadline. Burns transitioned from defense to forward and was nearly a point-per-game player on the Sharks' top line to finish the year. He figures to be available this summer. And the Flyers will have the cap space to fit him.

It's tough to finger Giroux for much of the blame. Without him, would Voracek have set career-high numbers for the second straight season? Yes, the Flyers missed Jaromir Jagr, but what they missed more than just his hands and personality was his size. As Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli pointed out this week, Jagr protects the puck so well with his body that he buys time and space for his linemates.

Voracek could only do so much digging. Hartnell, Read, Tye McGinn and even Zac Rinaldo shuffled through that left-wing slot without a true fit.

With a legitimate, first-line left winger, maybe - just maybe - whatever ailed the Flyers' offense can be quickly cured.

Tomorrow: Fixing the defense.