The 2011-2012 Philadelphia Flyers are a radically different team today than they were just three short months ago. Franchise cornerstones Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are gone, and with them, the team's enviable depth down the middle.
But in their place, the Flyers have added a franchise goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov. They have added young talent across their forward lines. And they have added a player many consider to be the next Mike Richards.
But none of that matters if the Flyers can't get back to the playoffs in 2011-2012. So the big question: who has to step up for the team to make a run at the franchise's first Stanley Cup in nearly four decades?
Brayden Schenn has been "Schenn-sational" at every level thus far in his career.
He's taken home MVP honors from the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championships. He's been a first-team All-Star in the WHL. He's won the Piggott Memorial Trophy (WHL ROY). He's won the H.L. Crawford Memorial Medal. He's demonstrated he can score with anyone (99 points in 59 regular season games) and play shut-down defense, all while engaging in the not-so-nice aspects of the game (210 PIM during his WHL career).
His scouting report is a virtual carbon-copy of Mike Richards' and Jonathan Toews'. Scouts of all stripes rave of Schenn's ability to score and lead. They gush about his refined two-way game and attention to the little things on the ice. And they can't stop talking about his willingness to drop the gloves with anyone who crosses him.
For all of Schenn's talent and for all of his potential, the fact remains that he was traded for one of the most beloved athletes in modern-day Flyers history in Mike Richards. The fact remains that the 19-year old Saskatoon native has big skates to fill. And the fact remains that Philadelphia fans are no more patient today than they were three months ago. Patience is, to be blunt, not a virtue many Flyers fans possess.
And that is why Brayden Schenn needs to step up in 2011-2012.
He needs to play with the same fire that Mike Richards once did. He needs to show Flyers fans everywhere that he is ready and willing to take the next step.
I'm not saying that Schenn needs to score 66 points—but he does need to score at least 35. I'm not saying he needs to be a Selke Candidate, but a Calder Candidate wouldn't hurt. But more importantly, he needs to play with a fire in his eyes. He needs to show the team-first attitude he's been lauded for everywhere else in his career. He needs to help Flyer fans forget about the man he was traded for—Mike Richards.
If Schenn can do that, the Flyers will be in contention and Schenn will have earned the respect and loyalty of the Flyer faithful (and he's going to need it).
One NHL scout I spoke with last week told me that Claude Giroux had the potential to be the most complete offensive playmaker since Peter Forsberg. And after re-watching some of the Flyers games last season, I'm inclined to agree.
Giroux had a breakout season in 2010-2011, notching 76 points (25G, 51A) despite Jeff Carter's frustrating inability to finish around the net after being set-up brilliantly time and time again. But with Mike Richards and the aforementioned Carter gone, the pressure is squarely on Giroux's shoulders to carry the load offensively for a young Flyer team.
Giroux has already proven he is capable of scoring against the opposition's top unit night in and night out. But this time around, the veteran safety net is thin, to say the least.
In each of the past two seasons, Giroux has increased his offensive production by at least 20 points. That is a trend he's going to need to continue if the Flyers hope to find success in the post-Richards era.
In addition to carrying the load in the scoring department, Giroux will need to take his defensive game to the next level. It's a tall order, to be sure. But its one that Giroux has the talent to fill.
JVR had a coming out party in the 2011 playoffs, at the expense of the Sabres' and Bruins' defense. The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft recorded a mind-blowing 70 shots on goal in just 11 games, with seven of them finding their way past all-world goaltenders Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas.
But those numbers don't illustrate the dominance of JVR during the Flyers abbreviated playoff run. He was simply unstoppable with the puck on his stick. It was quite simply one of the most dominant playoff performances—if not the most dominant playoff performance—of the post lockout era.
And with that, all eyes will be on JVR to continue his development into the offensive juggernaut he has shown the potential to be. Another 21 goal season will not be acceptable. A 30-goal season will be expected. And a 40-goal season would be preferred.
JVR has the talent to be a perennial 40 goal scorer. But will he take the next step? For the Flyers to make a serious run for the Stanley Cup, JVR needs to take his game to the next level on a consistent basis in 2011-2012.
Since his arrival in Philadelphia, "Cool Bryz" has said and done all of the right things. He's said he just wants to help the team win, that he wants to be "the guy" between the pipes, that he wants to bring the Flyer Faithful a much-overdue Stanley Cup.
But, as every fan knows, talk is cheap.
When the Flyers open their season against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins on October 6th, all eyes will be on the Flyers $51.5 million goaltender to prove he was worth the investment. Anything less than a Vezina-finalist caliber season will likely be termed a failure, and for good reason.
Without a great season from Bryzgalov in 2011-2012, it is unlikely the Flyers will be in serious Cup contention.
With the departure of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, there can be no doubt that this Flyers team belongs to Chris Pronger. It is now up to the future first-ballot Hall of Fame defenseman to show that the trust the Flyers organization has placed in him was well-founded.
For all intents and purposes, the Flyers success in 2011-2012 rests largely on Pronger's ability to stay healthy and productive over the course of what promises to be a grueling campaign.
He will be coming off an injury plagued season that saw him go under the knife four separate times. And he will need to prove that even at age 36, he is still capable of performing at a high level.
If Pronger can't return to form, the Flyers season will likely come to yet another premature end. But if the Pronger of old returns, this Flyers team could be one of the most deadly come April. In the end, it is No. 20 that holds the key to the ciy's Stanley Cup dreams.