Published September 25, 2013
| Sports Network
The season which legions of fans and the front office has been waiting for since April 22, 2012 is finally upon the Philadelphia Flyers.
That's when Claude Giroux staked his claim to the future leadership of the franchise on the opening shift of the first-round, series-clinching Game 6 against rival Pittsburgh on home ice, rocking Penguins captain Sidney Crosby with a hard check and then scoring the game's first goal only 32 seconds into an eventual 5-1 victory.
Mulligan of a disappointing lockout-shortened year and Giroux's freak off- season golf mishap aside, the 2013-14 campaign appears to be one where it's either all going to come together or it's all going to fall apart on South Broad Street. One guess as to which side Chairman Ed Snider is banking on. General manager Paul Holmgren is coming off his second playoff-less season in his seven-plus years at the helm, but unlike the Summer of 2007, his restocking effort has been restricted by a reduction in the salary cap. That still didn't prevent him from pulling off one free-agent coup, however.
Head coach Peter Laviolette, meanwhile, is tasked with manipulating a roster of young stars, young forward talent coming off disappointing sophomore campaigns, a defense perhaps too old and too young at the same time and a goaltending situation just as precarious as the infamous three-man carousel from the 2011 playoffs.
Add to that the inclusion of not just Crosby, but Alex Ovechkin and ex-Flyer, current Blue Jacket and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky to the new, stacked Metropolitan Division, and you've got an 82-game battle ahead without a net.
The tightrope has been laid out. Now it's time for the Orange and Black to walk it.
FORWARDS - It wouldn't be early July without the Flyers coveting one or more big names on the market, but Holmgren surprised some with the signing of Vinny Lecavalier -- he of the largest contract buyout in NHL history -- and surprised even more by openly admitting the former Tampa Bay captain wasn't on the club's radar at the outset of free agency.
Lecavalier, 33, but with 14 years of quality NHL experience, is here to fill the vacancy left by the bought-out Danny Briere, who landed in Montreal. He'll need to do better than 32 points in 39 games to justify a $4.5M price tag per season over his new 5-year deal.
The 2004 Cup champion's veteran presence will be needed as Sean Couturier, Matt Read, Brayden Schenn are coming off injury-riddled and inconsistent seasons, but the efforts of Wayne Simmonds (15G, 17A) and Jakub Voracek (team- best 22G, 46 pts.), along with the charged up, rested and recovered Scott Hartnell (37G in 11-12) and Max Talbot, should be able to prop up what was the seventh-best offense in the East even with dozens of man-games lost to injuries.
Voracek will be fine, as long as he confines his speed to the ice and not the open roadways of the region.
Of course, none of this might come to fruition if prime-mover Giroux doesn't heal quickly and completely from a sliced wrist tendon suffered in August, or if the weight of a full season of the captaincy doesn't spur him to new heights. He'll simply have to channel the memory of a breakout 93-point campaign in 2011-12 to be as effective and indispensable as the franchise has touted.
On the defensive side, more is expected of Couturier, who connected on a mere 43.9 percent of his faceoffs and was a minus-8 in 46 games. Retaining veteran grinder Adam Hall from the end of last season will help greatly in the puck possession game from the defensive zone forward. The 33-year-old posted an amazing 56.2 percent efficiency in the circle last season for three clubs and has been a solid presence to aid the back line throughout his 13-year NHL career.
The only "battle" for a top-nine spot will be between last year's early call- up Scott Laughton and Austrian Michael Raffl. The former went scoreless through his five-game stint last January but impressed enough in juniors to get the call to the AHL, while the latter has apparently impressed the brass enough to get a longer look despite concerns that a smaller ice surface in North America would cause trouble.
The largely-reformed Zac Rinaldo, Kris Newbury and Jay Rosehill will provide extra grit and punch when necessary. It's also a virtual certainty that Jason Akeson and Tye McGinn will be shuttled down from Adirondack to get some NHL time up front.
DEFENSE - The specter of Chris Pronger still hangs in the air like late October chill. He's still with the club in an advisory role, still not placed on long-term injured reserve and still not pronounced himself retired.
Since Laviolette's overall system dictates the defense be able to pass, carry and shoot the puck in all three zones, along with supporting and joining the rush, it has required the goaltenders to be more on the ball than normal to keep the puck away from the crease and out of the net. Without a Pronger-type to sweep away players in front, the slot was more like a freeway than minefield a season ago.
But with the presumed return of Andrej Meszaros, the possible permanent call- up of 6-foot-6 Danish D-man Oliver Lauridsen and the potential upgrading of Hal Gill's PTO status, the Flyers might have found solutions to problems ex- goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was too cosmos-obsessed to notice.
Knowing that Kimmo Timonen's (29 pts. in 45G) time in North America is limited and overall health a concern despite a contract extension, Holmgren pulled off an expected move and sprang for ex-Islanders captain Mark Streit. Though 35 years old, the Swiss native only has eight years of NHL wear on the tires, and will be expected to take some burden off his Finnish counterpart both offensively -- as Matt Carle did before jumping to Tampa Bay on a lucrative free-agent deal -- and defensively.
Other than that, play in their own end is full of question marks. Who will make the roster/remain uninjured/prove his veteran value between Braydon Coburn, Nik Grossmann, Luke Schenn, Bruno Gervais and Erik Gustafsson? Will Matt Konan and Brandon Manning be dark-horses to take some playing time after performing well in the AHL? Can Laviolette adjust his defensive philosophy slightly towards safer play in the zone?
GOALTENDING - Salt and Pepper. Cream and Coffee. Ebony and Ivory. Whatever you want to call it, there's a healthy competition in the Philadelphia crease this season for two players again looking for new beginnings and a shot at being a legitimate NHL starter.
Steve Mason arrived in Philly in a trade-deadline transaction with Columbus, and went 4-2-0 in seven appearances down the stretch. Ray Emery returns triumphant, following a 17-1-0 season where he backed up Corey Crawford for the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Each man has his caveats: Mason carries with him a reputation for shrinking under pressure, while Emery is still dogged by concerns over serious hip injuries which derailed his first Philly tenure and has prevented him from being taken seriously as a No. 1 guy in the crease in Anaheim and Chicago.
But each man has his selling points: Mason the puck-handler who carries a chip on his shoulder over ex-Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky stealing his job and Emery the firebrand, new ring on his hand, who wants to make good on the 2009-10 season he never got to finish as the No. 1 guy.
Here's the kicker: no matter who "wins," neither man will cost close to as much as the failed Bryzgalov experiment from the last two years.
Ultimately, success in the crease depends on Emery and Mason's ability to get along, prove their worth and make the best of however Laviolette sees fit to (mis)handle the situation.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Tasked with competing in the most talented division in hockey, there will be many challenges ahead.
If things break correctly for the Flyers, they won't have to worry about surviving the final weeks to gain a playoff berth and then rolling the dice. If they don't, we may be talking coaching changes, a shift in power structure in the front office, and sitting through a lame-duck April which precedes another roster reshaping. A spot right in the thick of the Metropolitan and at least one round with home-ice advantage is certainly within reach.
Whatever happens, the club won't commit the cardinal sin of making their fans bored and apathetic. It's sure to be more entertaining than sitting around and watching paint dry.