Last season: (41-35-6, 88 points, 3rd in Atlantic Division, 7th in Eastern Conference) You probably heard the story already if you’re a big hockey fan, but it’s still pretty amazing to think about it. The Flyers went from needing a failed Olli Jokinen shootout attempt on the last day of the season to eek into the playoffs to being down 3-0 to the Boston Bruins in the second round to making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. Sure, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks was disappointing, but the Flyers exceeded just about everyone’s expectations last season.
Head coach: Peter Laviolette pulled off a very Dan Bylsma-like feat with the Flyers last season, taking over a struggling club during the season and installing a more aggressive style that propelled them to the Cup finals. He didn’t win a Cup like Bylsma, but Laviolette has a championship on his resume from his run with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Flyers are in solid hands with Laviolette.
Key departures: F – Simon Gagne, G – Ray Emery, D – Ryan Parent. It’s weird to mention Emery as a “departure” since he seemingly injured himself so long ago. Gagne might be a bit injury-prone, but he’s a speedy sniper who made an impact when he returned to the Flyers during the playoffs. He’d be missed a bit more if Philly wasn’t so loaded at forward.
Key arrivals: F – Nikolai Zherdev, D – Andrej Meszaros, D – Sean O’Donnell, F – Jody Shelley. The Flyers rolled the dice with the talented but flighty Russian Zherdev. They also took on expensive and questionable defenseman Meszaros, sturdy blueliner O’Donnell and fighter Shelley. The Shelley signing would have been ridiculous if Rangers GM Glen Sather didn’t decide to one-up everyone by making Derek Boogaard rich.
Under pressure: Most people would say their goalies (Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher) are under the most pressure and that’s probably true. But we’ll get to them in a second.
One other person to watch is sniping center Jeff Carter, a consistent goal scorer whose performance in the playoffs left much to be desired. He’s in a contract year, so don’t be surprised if Carter leads the Flyers in points. (If he can handle the pressure, that is).
Protecting the house: Leighton and Boucher won’t go high in any fantasy hockey drafts and will be the source of plenty of derision in plenty of season previews. Leighton is struggling with back issues and doesn’t have a long track record as a starting goalie. Boucher is a journeyman goalie who is a 1b at best. Neither goalie is a likely Vezina Trophy candidate, but if they stay healthy, they might be sufficient.
Why? Because they play behind what is (on paper) the best defense in the Eastern Conference, if not the NHL. He might not be Mr. Popular, but Chris Pronger is the most intimidating blueliner in the league (sorry, he’s just a little bit nastier than Zdeno Chara). When Scott Stevens retired, Pronger took the mantle as the most sadistic defenseman on ice. Let’s not forget about the Kimmo Timonen, another great (and highly-paid) blueliner in his own right. Matt Carle benefits from Pronger’s imposing presence while Braydon Coburn is a solid companion for Timonen. Sean O’Donnell should be a solid bottom pair guy while Andrej Meszaros might make sense in a smaller role.
It might not rank alongside the Anaheim Ducks defense that included Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, but you won’t find many groups better than Philadelphia’s … especially in the East.
Top line we’d like to see: Carter-Mike Richards-Danny Briere. Richards provides the two-way play and some great leadership (not to mention plenty of skill). Carter can just focus on being a sniper while Briere would abuse teams that would have to focus on him less than his two line mates.
Oh captain, my captain: Richards can do a little bit of everything, from scoring to winning a big faceoff to killing penalties with aplomb. His leadership was challenged when the team faltered and it seemed like Pronger wore the pants in the family, but Richards justifies his position as an NHL captain quite well.
Street fighting man: Shelley is (probably) the biggest fighter, but this is the Broad Street Bullies we are talking about here. Throwing knuckles is a requirement in Philadelphia in the same way that employees must brew their own beer at Sam Adams. Dan Carcillo will wrack up the PIMs and keep Shelley company in the penalty box. You have to wonder if scary brain injuries might slow down last year’s leading fighter, Ian Laperriere, though.
Best-case scenario: Carter uses that expiring contract dangling carrot to score 50 goals while Briere capitalizes on his playoff points-leading run by putting up big numbers again. Philadelphia takes advantage of their considerable scoring and defensive depth to win the Atlantic Division. Pronger wins his first Conn Smythe while the Flyers prove that the ‘cheap-goalie plan- works by winning a Cup with the Leighton-Boucher duo.
Worst-case scenario: Chris Pronger shows his rapidly increasing age and goes down with a serious injury. Both Leighton and Boucher flop under the full season focus. Ville Leino and Claude Giroux end up being Fernando Pisani-level busts while the Flyers shockingly miss the playoffs.
Keeping it real: The Flyers really do have a ridiculous amount of depth, especially in the forward position. Just look at that talent: Carter, Richards, Briere, Giroux, Leino, Scott Hartnell and James van Riemsdyk are all worthy contributors who could have nice years. Combine that forward depth with a very good defense and they might not need great goalies.
Make no mistake about it, though, Boucher and Leighton aren’t great goalies. These shortcomings might cost them the Atlantic Division title – I say they battle the Penguins for second place – and will keep them from winning the Cup. They should be interesting to watch, though.
Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, there’s a part of me that wants to say ‘5 out of 5,’ but instead I’ll go with a 4. The goal situation makes me a little timid, I’ll admit it.