5 Biggest Storylines for Philadelphia Flyers' 2013-14 Season
The 2013-2014 NHL regular season begins in just five days with the Philadelphia Flyers set to commence their 46th season of operation just a day later when the Orange and Black welcome the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Wells Fargo Center.
Optimism is high in the City of Brotherly Love as the Flyers welcome a trio of key offseason acquisitions while returning many of the team's most valuable assets.
Still, that enthusiasm must be tempered as this is a squad only five months removed from failing to qualify for the postseason for just the second time in the last 19 years.
Questions always linger in the early stages of the season, but here are the five biggest story lines to track throughout Philadelphia's 2013-14 campaign.
Is Vincent Lecavalier Still Elite?
His resume reads like a Hall of Fame plaque: 383 career goals, four-time All-Star and Stanley Cup champion. But that was the past for Vincent Lecavalier.
A 14-year run with Tampa Bay came to an end this summer when the Lightning used one of their compliance buyouts on their long-time captain, putting one of the game's brightest stars for the last decade on the open market.
Philadelphia won the Lecavalier sweepstakes with a five-year, $22.5 million agreement, setting in motion one of the biggest questions facing the Flyers this season—is Lecavalier still an elite player?
The Ile Bizard, Quebec native has produced nearly 400 goals in his NHL career but has seen his goal-scoring totals drop in each of the last three seasons.
Lecavalier has managed double-digit goals in each of his 14 NHL campaigns but hasn't eclipsed the 30-goal mark in five years.
He played a pivotal role in Tampa Bay's championship run, but that was back in 2004 when the now 33-year-old center was just 24.
Lecavalier is certainly no longer in his NHL prime, but Philadelphia awarded the 6'4", 208-pound forward a five-year pact believing he could not only replace Danny Briere as the team's No. 2 center but be a pivotal piece to ending the team's 38-year Stanley Cup drought.
Will Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier Take the Next Step?
If the Flyers are to end their longstanding championship layoff, it will have to be as a result of contributions not only from veterans like Lecavalier but from the team's rising stars as well.
The two youngsters who will attract the most attention this season are Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier.
Both are entering their third season with the Orange and Black with the returns for both players through their first two campaigns proving to be quite inconsistent.
Schenn, the former fifth overall selection back in 2009, has managed just 20 goals and 44 points through his first 101 games in a Flyers sweater. After an encouraging 12 goals (but just 18 total points) in 54 games during his first season in Philadelphia, the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native produced just eight conversions and 26 total points in 47 games last year.
Schenn enjoyed an additional minute-and-a-half in average ice time last season and doubled the number of power-play points he contributed from his first season in Philly, but he failed to take that noticeable step forward in his NHL development.
Meanwhile, Couturier surprised everyone with his immediate contributions.
Less than six months after being chosen with the eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft, Couturier was a regular in the Flyers lineup and registered 13 goals and 27 points in 77 games during his rookie campaign. What's more, the Phoenix, Arizona native quickly established himself as one of the team's top defensive forwards.
But the encouraging start was dampened by a sophomore slump that saw Couturier record just four goals and 15 points in 46 games a season ago. In fact, during a stretch from February 21 to March 30, Couturier went 15 games without registering a single point.
Now both Schenn and Couturier enter their critical third year of NHL development. Both will be given playing time in all situations and will have the opportunity to play with some of the team's high-end talent with the hope that it sparks the next phase of their development.
If it doesn't, the future may not look so bright for the Flyers after all.
Can the Flyers Defense Stay Healthy?
The Flyers would appear to have solid defensive depth...when healthy.
That's quite a stipulation, though, following a season in which three of the club's mainstay blueliners (Braydon Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann and Andrej Meszaros) missed a combined 70 games due to injury.
The trickle-down effect produced an increased (and unreasonable) workload for Kimmo Timonen and Luke Schenn and regular minutes for fringe defensemen like Bruno Gervais and Kurtis Foster.
With less than a week remaining before opening night, Coburn, Grossmann and Meszaros are all currently healthy and have rejoined a defense corps that was bolstered over the summer with the acquisition of former New York Islanders captain Mark Streit.
Still, questions remain regarding this group's long-term durability.
Grossmann has missed 49 games over the last three seasons while Meszaros has now lost 57 contests over the last two years due to injury. Meanwhile, Streit missed the entire 2010-11 campaign after tearing his shoulder labrum and rotator cuff.
Finally, Timonen, the team's most reliable blueliner over the last six seasons, will turn 39 before the end of the season and is entering the twilight of his career.
Who Will Be Philadelphia's No. 1 Goaltender?
It wouldn't be a season of Flyers hockey without questions surrounding the team's goaltending.
At least this season, Philadelphia has options.
A genuine battle for the starting job is on in the City of Brotherly Love between trade deadline pickup Steve Mason and free-agent acquisition Ray Emery.
Mason was solid last year in limited action with the Flyers after coming over from Columbus. He posted a 4-2 record in seven appearances while recording a 1.90 goals-against average coupled with a .944 save percentage.
Meanwhile, Emery earned a 17-1 mark last season in Chicago. Corey Crawford's backup during the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run, Emery produced a 1.94 goals-against average and .922 save percentage during the regular year and would have been the starting goaltender on at least a half-dozen NHL squads.
Both players have battled consistency issues throughout their respective careers, though, which is why the Flyers were only willing to commit one-year agreements to each of them.
As such, both Mason and Emery are not only fighting for minutes this season but for a long-term netminding position down the road.
As is the case annually in Philadelphia, it will be very interesting to monitor what happens between the pipes for the Flyers.
Can the Flyers Make It Back to the Postseason?
The Flyers missed the playoffs last year for just the second time in the last 18 seasons. Philadelphia hasn't missed the postseason in back-to-back campaigns in 20 years.
This is a team that isn't afraid to spend money or make a blockbuster transaction to ensure it competes year after year after year.
Last season, the Flyers finished 10th among the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference and six points back of the New York Islanders for the final playoff berth in the East.
But Philly finished the year playing its best hockey of the season as the Orange and Black won four straight contests and six of its final seven outings. In fact, it could be argued that had last year been a standard 82-game calendar, the Flyers likely would have found their way into the East's top eight.
With a group of forwards that features Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Jake Voracek, Lecavalier, Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Couturier and Matt Read, the Flyers boast the offensive firepower to keep up with any of the other 29 NHL squads.
Their defense is solid and the team has options in goal should one of their two netminders falter.
The adjusted 16-team Eastern Conference—which includes the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Canadiens, the Boston Bruins and now the Detroit Red Wings—will be as competitive as ever, which certainly won't make Philly's attempt to return to the postseason any easier.