2011-2012 season preview: Philadelphia Flyers

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2010-2011 record: 47-23-12, 106 points; 1st in Atlantic, 2nd in East

Playoffs: Defeated Buffalo 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals, lost to Boston 4-0 in Eastern semifinals

After a disappointing showing in the playoffs, the Flyers cleaned house in the offseason. GM Paul Holmgren sent out captain Mike Richards and goal-hound Jeff Carter and in came Ilya Bryzgalov, Jaromir Jagr, Maxime Talbot, and Brayden Schenn. Is it the culture change this Stanley Cup challenger needed? One way or another, it’s going to be entertaining to see it play out.

Offense

So how do you replace the consistent offense of Richards and Carter? You get a future Hall of Famer back from the KHL in Jagr and bank on the emergence of James van Riemsdyk to be a premiere power forward as well as the continued improvement of Claude Giroux to make it work. Sound risky? It might be. Van Riemsdyk played like he finally figured it all out in the playoffs and now he’s got a six-year contract to fulfill those hopes. Daniel Briere is also still very capable to chip in on offense.

The Flyers will also be banking big on Schenn, who will start the season in the minors, to eventually step in as a rookie on the third line at center. Having Talbot and Wayne Simmonds joining him there will help out. The Flyers’ fourth line will mix up defensive skill and toughness with Blair Betts, Jody Shelley (eventually), Andreas Nodl, and possibly Zac Rinaldo at times.

source: Getty ImagesDefense

As Chris Pronger goes, so go the Flyers on defense. He’s the new team captain, he’s the snark, snarling, sarcastic guy in the locker room and he’s their best defenseman. Period. Having Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn to balance things out along with Matt Carle keeps the defensive corps intact from last season. Adding Andreas Lilja gives the Flyers an experienced guy back there to fill out the top six, but Lilja is not exactly a world-beater there. They’ll play hard and tough, but Pronger has to be out there for the Flyers to be Cup contenders. Nagging injuries for Pronger could be a huge disruption.

Goalies

Ilya Bryzgalov is the star No. 1 goalie the Flyers have been waiting years to have. With him locked in for the next nine years, Bryzgalov will have to be awesome to help keep the fans at bay. At the first sign of struggle, the fans will get restless because the expectations for him are sky high. Should the boo birds take hold, last season’s top goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, is there to step in. After last season’s odd cycle of Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher, having a true No. 1 will feel like a luxury for coach Peter Laviolette.

Coach

Laviolette enters his third season with the Flyers and this time it’s his most fascinating time to coach. After all the changes and all the new blood the expectations are huge. Laviolette has his hands full in trying to put it all together so the Flyers can pick up where they left off last regular season and try to recapture the playoff wins from two seasons ago. The pressure is on in a big way for Laviolette to get it done right and fast.

source: APBreakout candidate

Schenn came over in the Mike Richards deal with Los Angeles and also as the top prospect in the NHL. He got a taste of NHL action the last two seasons with the Kings but not enough to stick around full time. Now he’s going to likley soon be the man to center the third line and show that his hot-prospect status wasn’t just hype. He won’t quite have the playmakers and goal scorers around him to help boost his numbers, but he’s got a chance to be a revelation for Philly. Expect him to be in the hunt for the Calder Trophy.

Best-case scenario

Jagr recaptures some old glory (or just decides to imitate Teemu Selanne) and puts up 70 points this season. Giroux evolves and becomes the true top center on the team and follows up with a monster season centering Jagr and van Riemsdyk.  Briere puts up another 35-goal season and Schenn plays like a veteran in his first full season. Pronger leads the defense to a dominating year giving Bryzgalov all the help he needs to be one of the NHL’s best goaltenders, leading to the Flyers landing in the Stanley Cup finals.

Reality

Things could go really right for Philly or take a horrible turn, leading to them fighting just to get in the playoffs. The players are there for Philly to have a huge season and be one of the top teams. There’s a ton of offensive talent and enough guys around to play the typical snarling kind of Flyers’ hockey that makes everyone get angry. Bryzgalov will get tested outside of the typical defense-first system he played behind in Phoenix. If he adapts well, he can keep the Flyers rolling, even if they struggle.

If Jagr doesn’t pan out and van Riemsdyk doesn’t play how he did in the playoffs and teams get to gang up on Giroux and Briere all season, the Flyers will struggle. The margin for error is slim for all the teams in the Atlantic Division and Philly needs to hope their bets on the future pan out.

Goalie nods: Dell starts for Sharks, his sixth in the last 12 games

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There was a plan in San Jose to try and give first-year backup Aaron Dell some additional playing time down the stretch.

And the Sharks certainly are executing.

Dell, who has basically split starts with No. 1 Martin Jones this month, will get the call tonight when San Jose takes on the Stars in Dallas. He’s certainly earned the call — in five starts in March, he’s going 3-2-0 with a .941 save percentage, and has allowed a grand total of eight goals.

While there’s no goalie controversy at play — Jones is the unquestioned starter — this development has to have provided some relief for Peter DeBoer and company. Dell is a 27-year-old minor league journeyman that made his NHL debut this year, but played sparingly behind Jones for the most part.

Now, he looks like a guy the club can rely on should Jones struggle, or get hurt. Dell’s posted terrific numbers overall — 10-5-1 record, .936 save percentage, 1.85 GAA — and could see even more action over the final eight games of the regular season.

No word yet on who starts for Dallas. Kari Lehtonen played in last night’s shootout loss to Chicago, so logic would suggest it’s Antti Niemi.

Elsewhere…

— As we wrote about earlier, Jaroslav Halak makes his first NHL start in 85 days as the Isles visit Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury is in for the Pens.

Petr Mrazek gets the call as the Red Wings host the Lightning. No word yet on a Bolts starter, though Andrei Vasilevskiy would seem likely given Peter Budaj played against (and beat) Boston last night.

— The red-hot Jonathan Bernier gets another start as the Ducks play host to the Jets. No word yet on a Winnipeg starter, but Connor Hellebuyck did play last night against L.A.

Pre-game reading: Bettman insists NHL isn’t ‘anti-Olympics’

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— Up top, members of the Detroit Red Wings and their fans recall some of their fondest memories from Joe Louis Arena, which will host its last NHL game on Apr. 9.

— Here’s NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking Friday in Chicago: “The league isn’t anti-Olympics. The problem is, the clubs are anti-disruption to the season. To disappear for almost three weeks in February when there is no football and baseball and it’s only basketball and … there’s no programming for the NHL Network, for NHL.com (and) all of our social media platforms. … If somebody proposes something dramatic and radically different that gets the attention of the clubs where they say, ‘You know what? We don’t like going but on balance it’s worth it because of this,’ we’ll have to look at it again. But overwhelmingly the sentiment of the clubs is it’s too disruptive.” (Chicago Tribune)

— The players have said they won’t negotiate with the league for the right to participate in the Olympics. But they’ve made no secret about their desire to go, as evidenced by ESPN’s lengthy list of player quotes on the topic. Said Steven Stamkos: “In talking to a lot of players, I’ve yet to hear someone say they didn’t want to get a chance to represent their country at the Olympics.” (ESPN)

— Whether the NHL continues its Olympic participation or not, it’s clear the league is eyeing China as part of its growth strategy. In September, the Canucks and Kings are expected to play a couple of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. And according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, there may even come a time when an NHL franchise is owned by Chinese business interests. (The Globe and Mail)

— Are the Bruins on the verge of collapse? CSNNE columnist Joe Haggerty saw some concerning signs in last night’s loss to Tampa Bay — a loss that put the B’s in further danger of falling out of a playoff position. Haggerty concludes: “Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.” (CSN New England)

— Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, is ready for — and even looking forward to — a hostile crowd tonight at PPG Paints Arena. “For me, Pittsburgh is the one city as a whole where I’m totally OK with them hating me. For wearing No. 66. Mario Lemieux is a hero, a pioneer for them there, and for them to take it as disrespect is completely understandable.” (Newsday)

Enjoy the games!

PS — Lemieux said he was “fine” with Ho-Sang wearing his old number.

In prepping Vegas for draft, McPhee cites ‘outstanding’ record with Caps

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George McPhee is a veteran of the draft process, having presided over nearly 20 during his time with the Caps.

This year, he’s in a unique position — spearheading the first draft for the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights — and he suggests his past success should set him up well for the future.

“I think we have an outstanding staff,” McPhee said, per the club website. “I think our draft record in my previous job was outstanding.”

Assessments like these are always up for debate — draft success is somewhat subjective, and there are inevitably a bunch of misses among the hits — but McPhee does have a strong history of drafting and developing players, and could point to the current Capitals as validation to his claim.

The active roster has 11 players that were original draftees (Braden Holtby, Philip Grubauer, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom), with goalies Holtby and Grubauer — both fourth-round picks — emerging as pretty good finds.

McPhee’s strategy? Go big or go home.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played it safe going to the draft,” he explained. “I believe in swinging for the fences, and trying to find someone who can be a real difference maker. The difference makers are those core guys on your team, those 4-5 players that become elite players are the ones that can really take you a long way.

“They are hard to find. Those are the ones I’d like to swing for.”

At this year’s draft in Chicago, Vegas should have a shot at landing an impact guy. The club will have the same odds of winning the lottery as the team that finishes with the third fewest points this season and, though it’s considered a weak draft overall, there is some serious talent at the top end.

WHL Brandon’s Nolan Patrick, QMJHKL Halifax’s Nico Hischier and OHL Windsor’s Gabriel Vilardi are all considered high-end prospects and — importantly — all three play center. For a team that’s building from scratch, filling that position is of vital importance.

McPhee acknowledged this is a weaker draft, but contended those are the ones “where the best teams excel.” He theorizes that with fewer quality players available, the strongest teams emerge with the good ones.

He also shared how the Golden Knights plan to land ’em.

“We’re really aggressive,” he said. “We try not to play it safe very often.”

B’s ink prospects Fitzgerald, Johansson to entry-level deals

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Boston has brought a pair of talented youngsters into the fold.

Forward Ryan Fitzgerald, who just wrapped his senior season at Boston College, and defenseman Emil Johansson — who spent this year playing in the Swedish Hockey League — have signed their entry-level deals and will begin playing with the club’s AHL affiliate in Providence.

Fitzgerald — who’s father, Tom, is the assistant GM in New Jersey — scored 31 points in 34 games for BC this year, serving as an alternate captain. He was originally taken by Boston in the fourth round (120th overall) of the ’13 draft.

Johansson, 20, was a seventh-round pick in ’14 that’s panned out pretty well. He scored a career-high seven goals and 17 points in 49 games for Djugardens this year, appearing in three playoff contests.