Training camp for the Philadelphia Flyers is officially underway and with it comes the grinding competition to secure one of 23 highly coveted roster spots.
And yet there already appear to be quite a few locks for a team that missed the postseason last year.
Philadelphia's top line is already shaping up to be one of the most versatile and dangerous units in the NHL. Captain Claude Giroux, who has paced the Orange and Black in scoring each of the last three seasons, will likely open the season in the middle of Jake Voracek (coming off a career-high 22 goals last year) and Scott Hartnell (looking to rediscover his chemistry with the dynamic center which produced a career-best 37 conversions just two seasons back).
Giroux's playmaking ability coupled with Voracek's speed and Hartnell's size gives the Flyers a little bit of everything on their top unit.
And Philly shouldn't take much of a step back at all when the second line comes over the boards.
Vincent Lecavalier, the team's big free-agent splash this summer, gives the Flyers a tremendous 1-2 punch at the center position with Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn likely to join the 33-year-old former Stanley Cup champion.
Lecavalier's days of posting 40 or more goals are clearly behind him, but on a line with an emerging power forward like Simmonds and a blossoming offensive star like Schenn, it's not at all a stretch to predict 25 tallies from the newly acquired center. Meanwhile, Simmonds will look to continue his upward ascent while Schenn will need a breakout season to show why the 22-year-old phenom was worthy of the fifth overall pick back in 2009.
The Flyers have such forward depth, their third line won't look at all like a traditional checking line.
Instead, Sean Couturier will likely center a deceptively dangerous unit featuring Matt Read and the recently acquired Dan Cleary.
At just 20 years old, Couturier is already one of Philadelphia's better two-way forwards and he'll be looking to rediscover the offensive confidence he possessed when he notched 27 points in 77 games during his rookie campaign two years ago. And he'll be given every opportunity to shake last season's struggles (15 points in 46 games) by playing with some of Philly's better complementary pieces.
Very quietly, Read has quickly established himself of one of the team's more reliable scorers. The 27-year-old forward has registered 35 goals in his first 121 NHL outings and is one of just four Flyers to have produced double-digit goals in each of the last two seasons.
Meanwhile, Cleary (whose signing will become official at the end of the month) will likely replace the veteran offensive presence of Simon Gagne. At 34 years old and with a history of knee problems, Cleary isn't the dynamic threat he was when he buried 26 goals just two years ago. He should still be able to manage double-digit conversions for the seventh time over the last eight seasons and could provide valuable playoff experience should the Flyers return to the postseason.
Look for the Flyers to then round out their forward corps with jack-of-all-trades Max Talbot, spark plug Zac Rinaldo and youngsters Tye McGinn and Scott Laughton.
Meanwhile on defense, the Orange and Black hope to receive a boost in the coming year both via free agency and the return of several critical healthy bodies.
Veteran Kimmo Timonen and reigning NHL hits leader Luke Schenn are the only two regulars to return from a season ago. The pair missed a combined four games last year for a blue line that was decimated by injuries for much of the season.
Braydon Coburn (15 games), Nicklas Grossmann (18 games) and Andrej Meszaros (37 games) all missed significant time due to injuries last year but are all set to return to the Orange and Black healthy for opening night this season. Coburn and Grossmann will add a much-needed physical component to the Flyers defensive unit that relied far too often on Schenn as the only physically intimidating presence from a year ago. Meanwhile, Meszaros could provide some offensive punch from the back end if genuinely healthy.
The Flyers will certainly get some added defensive offense from their summer acquisition of former New York Islanders captain Mark Streit. A seven-year pro, Streit has already produced 35 or more points on the back end in five NHL campaigns. He is a model of durability having missed just nine games over the last five years and zero outings in the last three seasons.
Expect Philly's defense corps to be rounded by blossoming youngsters Erik Gustafsson and Brandon Manning, who the Flyers hope to see patrolling the Philadelphia blue line on a regular basis in the years to come.
Finally, the Flyers will be hoping they can find a full-time answer in net between the tandem of Steve Mason and Ray Emery.
The enigmatic Ilya Bryzgalov is gone after a compliance buyout and as a result, question marks hover atop Philadelphia's goal crease once again.
Mason, who inked a one-year extension shortly after he was acquired by the Flyers last season, performed well in limited action with the Orange and Black last year. The former Calder trophy winner produced a 4-2 record in just seven appearances to go along with a 1.90 goals-against average and .944 save percentage.
While Mason's play at the close of last season was encouraging, it certainly wasn't enough for Philadelphia to commit the starting goaltender job to the streaky 25-year-old netminder.
And so the Flyers plucked Ray Emery out of free agency with a shrewd one-year, $1.65 million agreement. For nearly half of what it cost the Chicago Blackhawks to bring in Nikolai Khabibulin to replace Emery, Philadelphia nabbed a goaltender who went 17-1 last season (albeit on a very good team) while recording a 1.94 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.
Mason and Emery should provide a healthy competition for the starting job and Philly is hoping that competition helps elevate both goaltender's games.
With all the names just outlined, it appears the Flyers have addressed needs at critical areas and now possess depth throughout the lineup that it severely lacked a season ago.
Still, it's a squad that failed to qualify for the postseason last year and will continue to be questioned until they find their way back into the playoffs.
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