September 21, 2011
It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
After losing the 2010 Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, the Philadelphia Flyers rebounded by storming out to a 33-12-5 record by the All-Star break, looking primed for another late-spring run.
But it didn't turn out that way. The Flyers stumbled through the second half of the season; winning just 14 of their final 32 games, losing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and edging out the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Atlantic Division crown. Finishing second in the East with a 47-23-12 (106 points) record, the Flyers fought back down 3-2 to the Buffalo Sabres in Round 1 to win the series in seven games, earning a rematch with the Boston Bruins.
By Round 2, the Flyers were gassed and the memories of their historic comeback against Boston in 2010 inspired a 4-game sweep by Boston.
Despite a phenomenal rookie season, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky(notes) struggled in the playoffs and lost the starting job to Brian Boucher(notes). The annual goalie questions led GM Paul Holmgren to trade for the negotiating rights to Ilya Bryzgalov(notes). That move, and his eventual signing, led to Jeff Carter(notes) being sent to the Columbus Blue Jackets. About a half hour after that deal broke, captain Mike Richards(notes) was sent to Los Angeles in a stunning move just a day before the Draft in June.
It wasn't much of an "overhaul" of the roster as some have pegged it, but it was more of a changing of the guard/mixing up the chemistry in the room that could define Holmgren's June deals. Philadelphia also got bigger and younger.
Now that Philadelphia has their goaltender, did the off-season changes make the Flyers better or worse?
Gone are the captain, Mike Richards, and his wingman, Jeff Carter. In trading away 59 goals and 132 points from last season, Holmgren did receive a pretty decent haul in return. Wayne Simmonds(notes) (30 points) will bring toughness; Brayden Schenn(notes), the best young player not playing in the NHL in many minds, scored 22 goals in 29 games in junior last season; and Jakub Voracek(notes) is streaky, but still just 22 years old and looking to rebound from ending last season on a 13-game points drought. Toss in one of the three draft picks acquired in the deals that turned into Sean Couturier(notes) at No. 8 and there's a ton of upside in the return.
Cap restrictions (and a bucket full of money) helped Ville Leino(notes) take one of the big contracts thrown by the Buffalo Sabres and sign a 6-year, $27 million deal. Kris Versteeg(notes) was another cap casualty has his $3.083 million hit was sent to Florida in their quest to reach the floor.
In one of July 1's soap operas, Jaromir Jagr(notes) chose the Flyers over the Detroit Red Wings and his former club, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to sign a 1-year, $3.3 million deal. Jagr met with the media on Saturday and explained why he decided against a return to the Penguins:
"First of all, when I was making the decision, I never thought that Pittsburgh fans would want me back. Every time I played there, they were booing me every time I touched the puck. I didn't think it would be such a big deal [to not play in Pittsburgh]."
As if Penguins fans weren't already angry with the Flyers, 2009 Stanley Cup hero Max Talbot(notes) spurned an offer from GM Ray Shero and went across the state with a 5-year, $9 million deal from the Flyers. He'll provide a boost to a 15th-ranked penalty kill.
Andreas Lilja(notes) played 52 games for the Anaheim Ducks last season coming back from a concussion and his signing didn't get as much ink as the ex-Penguins coming aboard did. A big Flyers blue line gets even bigger with the addition of the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Swede.
At forward ... Scoring wasn't a problem for the Flyers last season. With seven players potting 20 goals or more, there was a healthy balance up and down the lineup for the NHL's third-ranked offense (3.12 goals/game). The problem is replenishing the goals that were lost via free agency and trades.
Still young and improving every season, the time is now for James van Riemsdyk(notes) and Claude Giroux(notes) to really hit that next level offensively. Giroux was the leading point-getter in Philly last season with 76, while van Riemsdyk has averaged 37.5 points in his first two NHL seasons. Giroux is primed for a breakout season and JVR, with a nice new contract, is expected to ratchet up the production.
Piggy-backing off a superb 2010 playoff run, Danny Briere(notes) potted a career-high 34 goals last season; and depending on JVR and Giroux's production, could be looked upon as the go-to goalscorer when needed.
The 19th-ranked power play (16.6 percent) will be interesting to watch as Jagr joins the cast. Jagr hasn't played more than 55 games in a season since he left the NHL in 2008 and seeing if he'll be able to hold up over an 82-game campaign will be something to keep an eye on. Also, the dynamic inside the Flyers locker room between Jagr and Chris Pronger(notes) should be fun. Will Pronger keep the "PuffNuts" nickname alive for No. 68?
It's an important season for Voracek. A restricted free agent next summer, he took a step back last season, with the ugliest stat being his shooting percentage dropping from 10.4 to 7.7-percent. He certainly has the talent, but will his conditioning work over the summer pay off to break his scoring inconsistencies?
Another newcomer due for a bounce-back year is Simmonds. He'll provide grit down the lineup while holding the potential to net 15-20 goals.
Hoping to improve on their 15th-ranked penalty kill, Talbot was brought in after being a key cog for the Penguins' shorthanded unit. His offensive stats have taken a dip since a 26-point season in 2007-08, but his effectiveness on the penalty kill has improved.
Schenn, Couturier and Matt Read(notes) will play a role in the future of the Flyers, but for now, it looks as if the 20-year old Schenn will be given first crack to make the most immediate impact. Read was impressive (13 points, 11 games) in his pro debut with Adirondack of the AHL after signing with the Flyers late last season and should see some ice time at the NHL level.
On defense ... New team captain Chris Pronger is practicing and expected to start the season healthy. He missed 32 games last season and underwent back surgery in May, but a potential pairing with fellow vet Andreas Lilja could prove to be a formidable duo on the blue line.
The Braydon Coburn(notes) and Kimmo Timonen(notes) combo is one of the best shutdown duos in the league. While Coburn provides the sandpaper, Timonen brings the offense and it's shown with his eighth straight 30-plus assist season last year. The 36-year old Finn was also seventh in the NHL in blocked shots (175), while Coburn was in the top 20 among defensemen in hits with 177.
Leading the Flyer defense in scoring was Matt Carle(notes) (1 goal, 39 assists) and while he struggled without partner Pronger during the playoffs, it was hist best season since joining Philadelphia. In the postseason Carle was paired with Andrej Meszaros(notes), who scored eight times last season to lead all Philadelphia blue liners and was named the team's best defenseman.
In goal ... Is Bryzgalov the answer to the never-ending questions about the Flyers' goaltending situation? We'll see, but he's certainly a big improvement over recent Philadelphia netminders. While all eyes will be on his Bryzgalov reacts to the pressure of playing in Philadelphia, we're looking forward to his continued comedy via his Twitter account.
Behind Bryz will be Sergei Bobrovsky who posted a good rookie season with an 18-10-4 record, 2.42 goals-against average and .916 save-percentage. He wore down in the playoffs, but will provide adequate coverage for when Bryzgalov (68, 69, 65 games the past three seasons) needs a spell.
"WaterWorld."Trouble behind the scenes becomes public knowledge, as an anti-hero attempts to reach his team's ultimate destination: Dry (Is)land.
Even with all of the changes on the Flyers' roster over the season, head coach Peter Laviolette will not switch from what's brought him success in Philadelphia. According to Tim Panaccio of CSN Philly, to help ease the formation of new chemistry, Laviolette will place two players who've played together with a newbie. That should help in finding the right fit for the new players within the Flyers' line combinations.
Maybe owner Ed Snider pushed hardest for the move or maybe it was GM Paul Holmgren, but they finally acquired a big-time goaltender and spent $51 million and committed nine years in doing so. The trades of captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter signaled a change in direction and leadership on the team, with Pronger given the "C" last week. There is no "wait 'til next year" in Philadelphia.
There's a reason why Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi was so hesitant to move Schenn unless it was the right deal. With a forward group already stocked with talent, Schenn will sit behind Giroux and Briere on the depth chart down the middle. He also worked out with Gary Roberts(notes) over the summer, which should equate to a solid rookie year given the post-workout production of the former NHLers pupils.
"THEY'RE A LITTLE LIGHT AT FORWARD."
Twice in the past three years Jagr was a free agent: after his final season with the New York Rangers and then in 2010 after his second season in the KHL with Avangard Omsk. There wasn't the hype around him then to return to the NHL, but for whatever reason, Jagr was determined for one last ride and was able to create a market for himself leading up to July 1. Jagr played 49, 51 and 55 games the past three seasons, so the question is how durable and productive can he be at age 39 over the span of an 82-game season after a three year absence from the NHL game?
How will Bryzgalov play outside of Dave Tippett's system in Phoenix? He's proven to be a solid netminder during the regular season, but then come playoff time he crumbles. And in Philadelphia, with the talent within their lineup, the postseason will be the main concern.
Even with their captain and leading goal scorer from last season gone, the Flyers are still a strong team in the Eastern Conference. They'll contend with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Atlantic Division title, but it will all come down to how the new blood in the lineup gels with the returnees. Big things will be needed from Giroux, Briere and van Riemsdyk in order for the Flyers to remain one of the conference's top seeds. Pronger's health will also be a factor in retaining their strong defense.