Predicting Philadelphia Flyers' Most Improved Players for 2014-15 Season
After a 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference following the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the Philadelphia Flyers rebounded last year with 42 victories en route to a sixth-place finish in the East and the team's 17th postseason appearance in the last 20 years.
Much went right for the Flyers last season.
Captain Claude Giroux paced the Orange and Black in scoring for the fourth straight season and was a Hart Trophy nominee for league MVP. Wayne Simmonds led Philly in goals scored and quickly began to establish himself as one of the pre-eminent power forwards in the game today. And Steve Mason provided incredible stability between the pipes for the Flyers both during the regular season and playoffs.
But there's still room for improvement.
Here's a look at who will be Philadelphia's most improved players next season.
At just 21 years old, Sean Couturier will already be in his fourth NHL campaign when the 2014-15 season gets underway.
Four months after being chosen with the eighth overall selection in the 2011 NHL entry draft, the 6'3", 197-pound forward was a regular in the Flyers' lineup and contributed an impressive 13 goals and 27 points in 77 games during his rookie campaign.
The Phoenix native matched his career high with 13 tallies this past season and set a new personal-best mark with 39 points overall while appearing in all 82 games last season. All told, Couturier has produced 30 goals and 81 points at the NHL level while suiting up in 205 of a possible 212 contests during his three-year professional career.
One of Philadelphia's better two-way forwards, the former Drummondville Voltigeurs standout will likely continue to center Philly's third line next season but should be given more overall offensive freedom along with additional opportunities to produce on the power play.
Couturier produced back-to-back 96-point campaigns to close out his junior career. Even though his NHL production hasn't come anywhere close to that level so far, it's clear the offensive tools are there for the former eighth overall pick to be a regular 50- to 60-point producer at the NHL level.
Given his durability to date along with his chemistry with linemate and perennial 20-goal scorer Matt Read, expect Couturier to push the 50-point plateau in the coming year and to set a new career high in goals scored.
It's hard to imagine Vincent Lecavalier having a worse 2014-15 season than he did during his opening campaign with the Orange and Black.
After an encouraging start (five goals and seven points in eight October games), the 34-year-old forward fell off the map, amassing just 15 goals and 30 points through his final 61 outings. What's worse, the former Stanley Cup champion was a complete afterthought during the postseason, compiling just one goal and two points while averaging the third-lowest per-game ice time (10:41) among all Flyers.
Lecavalier missed 13 games last season due to injury, including nine in December, and the 15-year veteran never appeared to be the same thereafter.
An experiment at wing proved disastrous, and by season's end, the four-time All-Star and $22.5 million offseason acquisition had been relegated to fourth-line duties.
Efforts by newly appointed general manager Ron Hextall to trade Lecavalier have proved futile so far and at least for now, it appears the much-maligned pivot from a year ago will be back in a Flyers jersey next season.
If so, there are two key factors that should lead to a considerably better campaign next year for both Lecavalier and the Flyers.
First, Philadelphia needs to accept that Lecavalier is a center and head coach Craig Berube needs to find second-line center minutes for the former "Rocket" Richard Trophy winner. Like it or not, the Ile Bizard, Quebec, native and his $4.5 million annual cap hit needs to play in the middle and not in the middle on the fourth line.
And second, Lecavalier needs to stay healthy. He missed three games in mid-October last year and was able to recover from that but simply wasn't himself after missing the bulk of December's schedule. He managed just 11 goals and only 23 points in 47 games after returning from his nine-game midseason absence.
Lecavalier will never be the 40- to 50-goal scorer he was less than a decade ago, but there's still every reason to believe he can crack the 30-goal plateau given the right circumstances.
After acquiring Andrew MacDonald from the New York Islanders in early March, it took the Flyers just over a month to realize they liked what they saw from the 6'1", 196-pound blueliner. So much so that then-GM Paul Holmgren locked the 27-year-old defender up long term with a robust six-year, $30 million deal.
MacDonald will need to be one of Philadelphia's most improved players next season to justify his massive new contract, but the stage certainly appears set for him to be just that.
In 19 games with the Flyers during the regular season, the Judique, Nova Scotia, native registered four points (all assists), but more importantly, he averaged the second-highest per-game ice time (22:00) of all Philly skaters. He then contributed a goal and an assist in seven playoff outings and paced all Flyers—by a wide margin—in ice time (22:37) during the postseason.
MacDonald led all NHLers in blocked shots (242) last season, and no skater has amassed more blocked shots (550) over the last three years than the five-year veteran.
Even with Kimmo Timonen back in the fold, MacDonald will still be one of Philadelphia's most called-upon defenders next season. He'll log huge minutes at even strength, will be a regular contributor on the penalty kill and should even enjoy some time on the power play in anticipation of Timonen's eventual departure.
He won't contribute more than a handful of goals in any given year but should have every opportunity to top his previous career high of 27 points.
Brayden Schenn has yet to live up to the hype surrounding his fifth overall selection in the 2009 NHL entry draft. Through three seasons and 192 career NHL outings, the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, native has produced 40 goals, 47 assists and 87 points.
But all signs point to a breakout campaign during the upcoming 2014-15 season.
First, the 22-year-old forward is coming off career highs in goals (20), assists (21) and points (41). Schenn finished sixth among all Philadelphia skaters last season in total scoring and was one of seven Flyers with at least 20 goals a year ago.
Like many young forwards, it's taken Schenn a few years to find his way at the NHL level, but it seems evident now that he's a player on the ascent.
Second, with Philadelphia's roster as currently constituted, Schenn appears to be the most likely candidate to take the place of the departed Scott Hartnell on Philly's top line alongside Giroux and Jake Voracek. If that's the case, Schenn will be operating with Philadelphia's two most dynamic playmakers and two of the most creative and cohesive forwards in today's NHL.
In other words, there will be opportunities galore for the soon-to-be 23-year-old forward to surpass the career highs established just a season ago.