The Philadelphia Flyers shocked the world more than a few times during the playoffs last year, and they're preparing to try for the same success this year.
Granted, you could argue that the Flyers should have never been in a position to shock the world with the offensive superstars and loaded defense they had (and you'd be right), but they did.
So, is it a fall-off this year, or do they just get better?
The defense was tightened up with the acquisition of Sean O'Donnell, one of the best penalty-killing defensemen in the game, but he, Chris Pronger, and Kimmo Timonen are all 35 or better.
Yes, they lost Simon Gagne, but the Flyers have four guys (James van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux, Ville Leino, and Nicholay Zherdev—according to the Flyers' website the spelling is different than everywhere else) who can easily replace those numbers (17 goals, 23 assists). You can also expect big improvements from the first three guys on that list with Zherdev being a wild card, so offensively they should be fine.
So, your roughly $2.4 million question is: Can Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton (once healthy) do it again?
1) Brian Boucher thrives while Leighton is out
Who knows if the Flyers can ride the same tandem for an entire season, but Boucher has the ability to keep the Flyers competitive for the first month while Leighton gets back into game shape. The numbers don't suggest it, but Boucher is a fine stop gap which, at worst, will help the Flyers tread water.
2) Daniel Briere scores 75
In his time in Philly, Briere has always been a playoff performer. Even before last year's post-season heroics, Briere was just shy of point-per-game production in his Flyers playoff career. This year he scores 75 thanks to last year's success, along with being more focused and mentally stronger, following a 2009-10 where he was bogged down with a glut of personal issues that have since passed.
3) Ville Leino proves the playoff scoring was for real (to an extent)
Leino won't come in and give the Flyers a 70-point season, but a serviceable 40+ isn't out of the question for the former Wing. After a tough-luck time in Detroit, he's found a spot in Philly and will bring some that scoring talent to the surface again.
4) Richards makes his way back to 70 points
With Briere's rejuvenation and some expanded production out of the kids, Mike Richards will find himself back above the 70-point plateau. However...
5) The Flyers make the playoffs without anyone scoring more than 80 points
The offensive depth of this team means that the Captain won't be leaned on as heavily for production. This will be a much more deadly, comfortable, and balanced squad offensively this year.
6) James van Riemsdyk outperforms Claude Giroux
Last year it was the other way around, as Giroux beat out JvR by 12 points, but Van Riemsdyk gets the upper hand this year. With the two paired on the same line to start the year, they should be a dynamic duo, and the third party (it won't be Bill Guerin) should be in for a treat, whether it's Giroux or Van Riemsdyk doing the heavy lifting.
7) The Flyers top 85 team fights
A Flyers team that's tough? Nah. The Flyers combined for 77 fights last year, which was second in the league. Not surprisingly, that total should go up with the acquisition of Jody Shelly, who'll replace Aaron Asham's departed toughness.
8) Blair Betts leads the league in short-handed time on ice for forwards
Not hard when you were top five to begin with, but Betts has earned himself the title as one of the best penalty-killing forwards in the game, and he proved it again last year. On a highly penalized team, he'll get plenty of opportunities and continue to thrive.
9) The Flyers power play doesn't get any better, but that's not necessarily a bad thing
The Flyers had a great penalty kill last year. Sure, the 83 percent success rate had them just outside the top 10, but considering it was the fourth-best percentage out of the most-penalized teams, I'm not sure you could ask for much more.
10) Dan Carcillo fights twice as often as he scores
Simple enough: He scored 12 times last year but came up short with 17 fights. This year? Fight more or score less. It's really his choice. But every time I do some sort of season preview, I bring up the fact that Carcillo can do this too. It's not often that 20-goal talent punches you in the face, I guess.
The Stretch (Remember to laugh): Carcillo adopts more peaceful ways, and brings the Flyers with him, lowering their penalty minute totals. In an effort to get tough (and more annoying) the Flyers trade for Sean Avery. It doesn't work. But April Avery has taken up knitting and jam-making.
Bryan Thiel is a senior writer and a columnist for Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game! If you want to get in contact with him, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.