Philadelphia Flyers: 5 Players Poised for Career Seasons in 2012-13
If the Philadelphia Flyers are going to at least match last year's regular season out put (103 points, third most goals in NHL), they will have to count on their young players to take the "next step" in their progression from potential to production.
After losing Jaromir Jagr (third on team with 54 points) and Matt Carle (34 assists, plus-4) to free agency, Andrej Meszaros to an Achilles injury, James van Riemsdyk in a trade to Toronto and failing to sign Zach Parise, Ryan Suter or Shea Weber despite approximately $310 million in contract offers, the progression of the Flyguys' prospects will be paramount to the team's success.
But some of the veterans will need to step up as well. The Rangers got better. The Penguins are still the Penguins. The Devils may have lost their heart and soul in Parise, but that does not negate the fact New Jersey represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals just a few short months ago.
Danny Briere will need to improve on a disappointing 2011-12 regular season.
Scott Hartnell will have to continue to his production level as one of the league's premiere power forwards.
Kimmo Timonen will absolutely need to stay healthy to provide stability to a blue line with more questions than answers.
But those are givens.
Now, let's run through the five players who need to have the best seasons of their careers to give the Flyers a shot at competing for division and conference titles.
Bryz is not one of the Flyers youngsters, but he is their most important player heading into 2012-13.
After missing out on Weber and Suter and signing Michael Leighton as a backup, the Flyers are putting a lot of pressure on their $51 million man.
Ilya had a disappointing first year in orange and black, confusing fans with his existential rants and frustrating them with some of the most inconsistent netminding the organization has ever seen.
If Bryzgalov does not play up to his contract this season, GM Paul Holmgren and the Flyers' front office need to buy him out and begin the search for a goaltender once again.
In 2009-10 Bryzgalov was a Vezina runner-up and a top-five finalist for the Hart Trophy when he started 69 games, posted six shutouts, a 2.29 GAA and .920 save-percentage.
In three of four years as a starter with the Phoenix Coyotes, Bryz posted a save percentage of at least .920 and will need to equal that production for the Flyers to validate Philly changing the direction of the franchise to sign him as it did last season.
I can't give readers a fact-based reason why Bryzgalov will post a career season other than he has to and desperation often brings out the best in players.
With Michael Leighton as backup the Flyers are basically telling Bryz the job is his and he has to start at least 65 games.
When Bryz has played at least 65 games in a season, he averages 2.58 GAA and a .916 save percentage.
Those numbers need to be base-line minimums if the Flyers are going to make a splash in the East and a lengthy playoff run.
The team and its fans were shown glimpses of Bryz's potential last season, but ultimately his mental lapses proved too much for the team to overcome.
With a full year in the city under his belt Ilya should at least be better prepared for the demands of playing in front of a premiere hockey market on a nightly basis.
If that translates into a more comfortable goaltender, the Flyers may be able to ride 2011's prized free-agent signing through a career year.
The NHL 13 cover boy has increased his point production each of his first four seasons (three-and-a-half, technically) in the NHL.
After putting up 93 points in 77 regular season games, 17 points in 10 playoff games, winning a league-wide fan vote for a video game cover and being considered for the Flyers' captaincy, it's safe to say 'G' has arrived.
Now No. 28 has the "superstar" moniker to live up to and pressure seems to be his thing.
Although Giroux lost his mentor/right winger to free agency when Jaromir Jagr signed with the Dallas Stars, he gains a lot of speed and defensive prowess with his projected new linemate, Jake Voracek.
Giroux and Voracek should be a dynamic give-and-go pair and if Hartnell is able to fill his own role as well as last year, the top line will be able to top last year's top-line scoring (Giroux, Hartnell and Jagr combined for 214 points last season).
I have already predicted Giroux will score 110 points to set a new career high in 2012-13.
If the Flyers are going to contend seriously, they will lean heavily on their best player, and Giroux seems poised to make a Hart Trophy push in his fourth full NHL season.
As a good friend of mine said as we were discussing the prospect of Voracek having a career year: "He better."
Playing with one of the league's most productive and dynamic offensive forces in Giroux, there is no reason the 2007 seventh overall draft pick does not top his previous career high of 50 points.
Some have pointed out that Voracek's game is too much like Giroux's for them to make a great pair.
Voracek supposedly is too much of a playmaker and looks to pass too much to fully take advantage of Giroux's playmaking ability.
However, Giroux has dramatically increased his shot totals over the past three seasons and would benefit greatly from Voracek's similar playing style.
Jagr's lack of speed and 43-22 giveaway-takeaway ratio hindered the top line's potential at times last year.
Voracek's ability to force turnovers, handle the puck through the neutral zone and keep up with Giroux will result in a more threatening top line at both ends of the ice.
And Voracek won't be able to help but score more than his career high 18 goals alongside Giroux, quite possibly the league's most creative player with the puck on his stick.
Luke Schenn played for a Toronto Maple Leafs team in disarray his first four seasons in the NHL.
Once thought of as one of the league's most promising young D-men, Schenn fell out of favor with the Leafs' coaching staff and genius (heavy, heavy sarcasm) GM Brian Burke.
Schenn led all defenseman last season with 270 hits. That alone gives the Flyers' blueline a physical presence they did not have at all in 2011-12.
Furthermore, Toronto has been a wasteland of late, and that locker room cannot be a great place for a young player to develop.
Remember watching captain Dion Phaneuf play against the Flyers last season? Toronto looked like a team that lacked leadership on every level and coming to a stable franchise like Philly with a well respected coaching staff and captain's circle intact will benefit the 230-pound blueliner.
Also, and this is complete conjecture on my part, but playing alongside one's brother, as Luke will be doing with younger bro Brayden, will bring out the best in the 22-year-old defenseman.
Nobody wants to look bad in front of his younger brother and the younger brother will absolutely want to outplay his older sibling, making this family rivalry one that totally benefits the Flyers at both ends of the ice.
Wayne Simmonds broke out in his first year as a Broad Street Bully, setting career-high marks with 28 goals (previous high was 16) and 49 points (previous high was 40).
Simmonds provides a physical presence in front of the net, but can also shoot, pass and skate better than many of the "power forwards" in the league.
Coach Peter Laviolette even elected to use Simmonds in six of the team's shootouts (although he was only one for six in the game-deciding breakaways).
Despite his success, Simmonds only scratched the surface of his potential last season with an inconsistent offensive output, despite nearly netting 30 goals.
From October 20-November 3, Simmonds went eight games without scoring a goal. November 17- December 2, No. 17 went through another drought, going goal-less in seven straight games.
December 23-January 10 Simmonds went without a goal in eight straight games, again. Then February 23-March 24 Wayne was scoreless in 16 consecutive contests.
In the playoffs, Simmonds only registered one goal in 11 games.
Now Simmonds understands the rigors of being counted on as secondary scoring. Getting a full year of power play time and playing on the second line regularly with projected linemates Danny Briere and Brayden Schenn will go a long way to improve the 23-year-old's confidence and production.
The 6'2" 183-pound winger, along with human wrecking ball Brayden Schenn, will also provide an intimidating, physical force in the corners and in front of the goal to allow Briere more room to operate against opponents' second defensive units.
That's it. The five Flyers I'm expecting to set new career-high statistics. Granted, Bryz is more of a wish than an expectation, but the rest are logical projections based on statistics and evaluations of intangibles.
I left out last year's rookie class because, except for Matt Read, they should all set new career highs. But let me know what you think.
And out of Read, Schenn and Sean Couturier, who do you expect to produce the most impressive season in 2012-13?