Any good hockey fan knows that a team’s star players need to play to the best of their abilities for the team to win a championship. When the centerpiece of a team goes silent, it’s hard for anyone to play an 82 game season and win sixteen playoff matchups.
However, it takes more than superstars for a team to win a title, and sometimes the difference can be made by a “wild card” player whose performance lifts the team over the hump and gives them the extra edge come playoff time. The 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks experienced this with the surprisingly stellar play of Dustin Byfuglien, whose mere presence caused problems for opposing defenses throughout the playoffs.
With the 2010-11 season just around the corner, fans of the Stanley Cup runner-up Philadelphia Flyers may find themselves wondering what it will take to get the team to championship glory. Surely the majority of the pressure falls upon captain Mike Richards and bruising defenseman Chris Pronger, but who will be the key player that takes the team from contender to cup-winner?
Flyers fans may be inclined to put their faith in the performance of goaltender Michael Leighton. After all, Leighton proved to be the Flyers’ savior in 2009-10 after the Ray Emery Experiment failed and Brian Boucher appeared unable to keep the struggling team afloat.
The Flyers may well have missed the playoffs if they had not acquired the journeyman goaltender that would backstop the team into the playoff picture and provide a strong net presence for most of the playoff campaign.
This offseason, General Manager Paul Holmgren made the decision to put Leighton in the starter role, despite the fact that recent Flyers history has taught us not to put too much faith in an unproven goalie. Fans may argue that a more reliable netminder like Evgeni Nabokov or Marty Turco would have been a better investment for the team, but it is unlikely that a superstar goalie will be the difference between failure and glory in the coming season.
The Flyers have invested money primarily in their defensive corps and as a result, Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros and Sean O’Donnell will make life a little easier for anyone who puts on the big pads for Philadelphia. Leighton will not face the same pressure he would if he were playing for a team like the Washington Capitals, whose defense is notably more suspect than that of the Flyers. Pronger and Co. can be relied upon to block shots, make precise outlet passes and keep the game under control for most of the season.
The Flyers will need Leighton to be good if they want to compete for the Cup. But if all goes as planned, they will not need him to be great. His performance alone will not be the difference between win and lose, and therefore he is not the Flyers wild card.
Nikolai Zherdev was the Flyers’ biggest offseason acquisition on offense, brought in from the KHL to play left wing and eventually fill the void left on the first line after Simon Gagne was traded to Tampa Bay.
While Zherdev is not known as the most reliable player game in and game out, his numbers from his last two years in the NHL will raise eyebrows. He racked up 61 and 58 points in 2007-08 and 2008-09, respectively, and played in all 82 regular season games in each of those years.
61 points is not going to win Zherdev the Art Ross Trophy, but those types of numbers go a long way on the Flyers. Mike Richards led the team in points last year with only 62, so Zherdev has the potential to shine in a well-balanced offense like that of the Flyers.
However, Zherdev is not likely to add an extra dimension to the Flyers’ offense. His shaky years in the NHL and time spent in the KHL indicate that he is unreliable both on and off the ice.
Compared to Gagne, Zherdev is a step back, not forward. It is unlikely that he will improve the players around him the way Gagne did, and therefore the Flyers are not relying on him to be a difference-maker in 2010-11.
Some may argue that Claude Giroux will be the Flyers’ wild card this season. Giroux will likely be the team’s third line center, a spot he has been given primarily because of the Flyers’ incredible depth at the position. On a team that did not feature Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Danny Briere, Giroux would certainly be playing on the second line or better.
At age 22, Giroux is still coming into his own in the NHL, which is a scary notion for opponents to deal with. The shifty centerman was nearly a point-per-game player in the playoffs (21 points in 23 games, including an overtime winner in the Finals) and though his regular season numbers were not stellar, fans can expect to see a more effective Giroux in this coming year now that he has a full season under his belt and more time to be integrated in coach Peter Laviolette’s offensive schemes.
While Giroux is no slouch when it comes to goal scoring, his true talents lie in his ability to dish the puck. These talents were showcased throughout the playoffs on the powerplay, when he spent time on the ice with capable goal scorers like Mike Richards and Simon Gagne.
Giroux has all the abilities to put up big numbers, but he is going to depend on his linemates to make him a more productive player. For Giroux to live up to his potential, he will need a capable scoring teammate to make opponents fear the Flyers’ third line. This brings us to the true wild card of the Flyers’ season, an up-and-comer known primarily by his initials: J.V.R.
James van Riemsdyk played his first full season in 2009-10 after being selected #2 overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, and he put up respectable numbers for a rookie with 15 goals and 35 points (including six game winners). As a second-year player at age 21, the talented winger could be on the verge of a breakout season, or he could be headed for a sophomore slump.
With a full year of NHL experience and a Stanley Cup run under his belt, as well as spending the offseason in an intense conditioning program, van Riemsdyk comes into 2010-11 stronger, faster, and more mature. With Giroux prepared to be an outstanding setup man, the onus is on JVR to find twine consistently. If JVR plays to his abilities, not only can he be expected to net at least 25 goals this year, but he makes the Flyers’ third line an uncommonly capable scoring threat.
However, if JVR fails to progress the way fans hope he will, he will render himself a non-factor for the team and also inhibit the abilities of Giroux to put up points. When Giroux’s line fails to score consistently, the Flyers lose one of their great advantages: offensive depth.
The Flyers will be most dangerous if they can score even when teams shut down their top two lines, which will likely feature Zherdev-Richards-Carter on the top line and Hartnell-Briere-Leino on the second. Should JVR finds his scoring touch this season, he may see himself with plenty of opportunities to shoot at the net, as his line will likely be playing against weaker defensive units than Richards, Carter and Briere.
Because the team does not have a Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin or Patrick Kane putting up monstrous offensive numbers every year, the key to the Flyers’ offensive success will be their depth. They have two lines that should be able to put up points reliably, but JVR’s performance as Claude Giroux’s winger could turn the Flyers’ offense into a three-headed monster.
As the team prepares to take the ice for preseason in the coming weeks, fans know what to expect from Richards, Pronger and the team’s other big names. But it may be the wild card, James van Riemsdyk, who adds an extra dimension to the team and proves to be the difference between an early exit and a Broad Street parade in June.