After a first round playoff exit last spring, a year of optimism and high expectations now lies ahead for the orange and black.
Since the puck last dropped on Wachovia Center ice, the Flyers have said goodbye to several old faces and will welcome in many new ones. They are widely regarded as a serious contender in the Eastern Conference, and here is how they stack up on the whole:
The loss of scorers Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul will not be felt too harshly because of the Flyers’ great depth and balanced scoring. A (relatively) full season from Danny Briere and strong rookie campaign by James van Riemsdyk would go a long way toward replacing the output of the departed wingers.
Claude Giroux is ready to bust out as a young star after showing flashes of brilliance late last season and during the playoffs.
Simon Gagne, slowed by a groin injury this preseason, might be a question mark for quite a while. The team cannot lose him for an extended period of time like it has before.
Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, now wily veterans, may have to deal with the added burden of representing Canada at the Olympics. Will they have enough gas left in the tank come spring?
Richards will again vie for the Selke Trophy after being robbed of it last season, but he and Carter both need to be better on faceoffs.
The bottom lines will feature several players new to the team, like checking center/tough guy Ian Laperriere, Finnish energy winger Mika Pyorala, and PK specialist Blair Betts (assuming he is offered a contract).
The team should also receive an added offensive boost from the blueline with the addition of Chris Pronger. More on that later.
Jeff Carter: 41 G, 44 A, 85 P
Mike Richards: 27 G, 51 A, 78 P
Claude Giroux: 21 G, 48 A, 69 P
Simon Gagne: 30 G, 35 A, 65 P
Danny Briere: 27 G, 37 A, 64 P
Scott Hartnell: 26 G, 31 A, 57 P
James van Riemsdyk: 16 G, 22 A, 38 P
Offense Rankings: First in Atlantic Division, third in Eastern Conference, fifth in NHL
It would have been nice to watch Luca Sbisa develop as a Flyer, but the team simply could not pass up the opportunity to add Chris Pronger to the mix.
Pronger brings veteran leadership, solid puck movement, and flat-out nasty play to the Flyers’ blueline. Acquired specifically to get in the face of Sidney Crosby and other Eastern Conference stars, Pronger will contend for the Norris Trophy.
Whether or not he is paired with Pronger, Kimmo Timonen should improve on last year’s three-goal, 43-point output. And Braydon Coburn should learn a lot from his new teammate as he continues his development.
Matt Carle (all offense) and Ryan Parent (defense only) can both be effective in their one-dimensionality, while Ole-Kristian Tollefson and Danny Syvret are fine as defensemen No. 6 and No. 6A. Randy Jones will not be missed.
Chris Pronger: 13 G, 40 A, 53 P
Kimmo Timonen: 8 G, 39 A, 47 P
Braydon Coburn: 10 G, 28 A, 38 P
Matt Carle: 7 G, 27 A, 34 P
Defense Rankings: First in Atlantic Division, second in Eastern Conference, sixth in NHL
And now we come to what always seems like the biggest question mark about the Flyers. Gone is the extremely average goaltending of Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki, and in comes wild card Ray Emery.
Without question, Emery has the talent to win, as evidenced by his run to the 2006 Stanley Cup final with Ottawa.
But the following season, with the Senators at the beginning of a precipitous decline, his play suffered and he became a distraction with his off-ice antics.
After Emery’s fairly successful year in Russia, nobody knows what to expect from him this season. Because of the team in front of him, he won’t have to stand on his head too much. But he will have to give the Flyers better netminding than they have had since the lockout.
Brian Boucher returns again as the backup, and should be very capable in that role. He will, however, start the season on the injured list, opening a temporary spot for Swedish import Johan Backlund. He could be a total nonfactor or he could be the next Roman Cechmanek. Who knows?
Goaltending Rankings: Fourth in Atlantic Division, eighth in Eastern Conference, 17th in NHL
The Flyers have “No. 4 seed” written all over them, as they probably won’t be able to beat out Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Division crown. They should crack the century mark in points after finishing with 99 last year.
A deep playoff run is badly needed for a team that seems built to win right now. A likely scenario involves them beating a team like Carolina in the first round and then having to topple a division winner (Penguins?).
It says here that the Flyers are up to that challenge, but, in the end, they will fall to the Capitals in a very tight Eastern Conference Final.
Still, a break here or there and the Flyers could well find themselves hoisting the Cup in June. So let the quest begin.
Good night and good hockey.