The biggest hit to the Philadelphia Flyers' playoff hopes happened before they even stepped onto the ice for training camp. Veteran defenceman Kimmo Timonen was diagnosed with potentially life-threatening blood clots over the summer in Finland and will be lost for the first three months of the season and likely the entire year.
"I don't think anybody can replace Kimmo," captain Claude Giroux said recently before suffering a lower-body injury early in training camp. "It's going to hurt the team."
The Flyers will have to try to replace Timonen's 20-plus minutes and 28 shifts a game, spread out over all situations. For years he has been their power-play quarterback and one of their most reliable penalty-killers.
For a blue-line that has been maligned as the Flyers' biggest weakness, the responsibilities will be spread around to Andrew MacDonald, Braydon Coburn, Mark Streit, Luke Schenn, Nicklas Grossmann and free-agent additions Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto.
Del Zotto, who could be in the lineup against the Toronto Maple Leafs in pre-season action Tuesday night, signed a US$1.3-million, one-year deal the day Timonen's health problems were announced. New general manager Ron Hextall said Philadelphia had been looking at 24-year-old throughout the off-season.
Given Timonen's status, there's pressure on the inconsistent yet intriguing Del Zotto to deliver and not just be a bottom-pairing defenceman.
"It's a great opportunity for a guy like Michael Del Zotto to step in and play a lot of minutes for us and move the puck," Giroux said.
A first-round pick in 2008, Del Zotto played big minutes early in his NHL career under coach John Tortorella before the New York Rangers traded him last season to the Nashville Predators. Nashville didn't give him a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent for most of the summer.
Beyond Del Zotto, MacDonald — acquired from the New York Islanders before the 2013-14 trade deadline and then signed to a $30-million, six-year extension — will be called on to shoulder the load. The 28-year-old is the Flyers' de-facto No. 1 defenceman now, and Coburn isn't far behind.
Up front, Philadelphia has another prominent player to replace in left-winger Scott Hartnell. In his first shake-up on the job as GM, Hextall traded the popular but penalty-prone power forward to the Columbus Blue Jackets for R.J. Umberger.
"I was shocked. It was a sad day," Giroux said. "Me and Scott are really good friends and been playing (together) for six, seven years now. At the same time it's the business side of it. You can't control it. You've just got to roll with it and you've got to respect it."
With Umberger expected to fill a bottom-six-forward role, the Flyers now must find a new winger to go with Giroux (once healthy) and Jake Voracek on the first line. Giroux already has a few ideas.
"A guy like Michael Raffl or Brayden Schenn or even Vinny Lecavalier can step in there and start playing with me and Jake if the chemistry's good," the 26-year-old centre said. "I guess 82 games is a lot of games, a lot of things can happen."
On the power play, big winger Wayne Simmonds could fill Hartnell's spot in front of the net. And Simmonds thinks there are other players who can make up for the trade.
"I think when you take Hartsy out of the lineup, we have players who can move up in the lineup," Simmonds said. "We're a pretty well-balanced lineup with forward lines."
Trusting just four defenceman hurt then-coach Peter Laviolette and the Flyers in the 2010 Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks, but Craig Berube found balance there last year.
And while Timonen's absence will be noticeable this season, the organization and its players have said all along his life is more important than his presence on the ice.
"You just want to make sure that he's healthy to live a good life for himself and his family outside of hockey," Simmonds said. "If he can come back and play, that's awesome. But you just want to make sure that he's all right."
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