After one of the most memorable off-seasons in franchise history, the Flyers will look to improve on their 2010-2011 season and return to serious Stanley Cup contention.
Wiith that goal in mind, these are the five keys to the Flyers' success in 2011-2012.
As always, comments are welcome and appreciated.
One of the bigger questions facing the Flyers that almost no one is talking about is the status of the team's third defensive pairing. Rock-solid veteran blue liner Sean O'Donnell is now playing in Chicago, and reigning Barry Ashbee winner Andrej Meszaros will be playing alongside either oft-injured journeyman Andreas Lilja or young wild card Oskars Bartulis.
The Flyers learned the hard way in the 2010 playoffs that this pair is one of the most vital pieces to a championship team. Almost every Stanley Cup contender has two solid (or better) defensive pairs. Very few have a third pair of the same caliber as the first two.
With an aging Kimmo Timonen and a still-recovering Chris Pronger anchoring the team's top two pairs, the Flyers are going to need the third pair to eat up at least 18 minutes of TOI each game without a noticeable drop-off in quality of play. If the Flyers third pair is able to do that, it would provide Timonen and Pronger will valuable rest and spare them up to an additional 12 games' worth of punishment over the course of an 82-game season. That's a big deal, especially come playoff time.
That's no small task, but its one that Meszaros and _______ are going to need to be up to if the Flyers hope to contend in 2011-2012.
Brayden Schenn might be the biggest unknown on the Flyers roster going into the 2011-2012 season. Scouts of all stripes have compared him to elite two-way centers Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews. At Flyers prospect camp, Schenn was excellent, scoring a hat trick in the scrimmage and looking every bit the part of the world's top prospect. But scouting reports and training camps and scrimmages are one thing, and an 82 game NHL season is quite another.
Under Laviolette, the Flyers offensive attack is predicated on the team's ability to rotate three main scoring lines over the course of the game, eventually wearing down the opposition and generating scoring chances. The team's top two scoring lines are more or less stocked with established players who have a proven ability to generate offensive production at the NHL level. The third line, centered by Schenn, does not have that track record.
Like the third defensive pair, the third scoring line will be counted on to take some pressure off of the top two lines in terms of both TOI and point production. Schenn is the key to that line. If he is able to step into the NHL game and produce at the clip that his scouting report suggests he should (between 35-55 points), the Flyers will be fine offensively.
If Schenn struggles, it will put more pressure on the first two lines and force Laviolette to over-play his major offensive weapons in Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Jaromir Jagr, and James van Reimsdyk in an attempt to compensate for a mediocre third line.
Again, the key here is depth. The Flyers need their third line to produce at least 50 goals in order for the team to succeed in 2011-2012. That isn't an absurd total, nor is it unrealistic. But for the third line to achieve that goal, Brayden Schenn will need to play up to expectations. If he falters, he could end up dragging the rest of the Flyers' offense down with him, especially come playoff time.
There is also the minor point that Schenn playing well could appease a Flyers fanbase that lost two of its biggest stars in the span of two hours not long ago. Life in the Wells Fargo Center tends to be a lot easier for the team when the fans are on the Flyers' side.
Former Flyer Chris Therien once said the issue with James van Reimsdyk was never one of talent—it was one of confidence. The validity of that statement was affirmed when JVR hosted a mini coming-out party at the expense of the Sabres and Bruins during the 2011 NHL Playoffs, where he managed 70 shots on net in just 11 games, with 7 of those finding their way to the back of the net.
For the Flyers to succeed in 2011-2012, JVR will need to pick up where he left off in the playoffs, imposing his will on opposing defenses, using his size and speed to get to the front of the net, and playing with the same confidence and reckless abandon that he did at the end of last season.
More than that, JVR will need to prove that he can be a legitimate #1 scorer for a team that lost two of its best offensive weapons in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. This is not to say that JVR must score 50 goals for the Flyers to contend; that would be absurd.
However, it is reasonable to expect him to produce 35 goals, all things considered. If he attempts just 4.0 shots per game (fewer than Carter), while shooting the same relatively pedestrian 12.1% he did last season, JVR would be on-track to score 39 goals in 2011-2012. If JVR is able to do that, the Flyers will have one of the NHL's most dangerous young 1-2 punches and a top line that can score on just about anyone.
If JVR fails to take the next step, all eyes will continue to be on emerging superstar Claude Giroux, who will be asked to shoulder a disproportionately large piece of the offensive burden. For the Flyers to succeed in 2011-2012 and beyond, the key is balance. JVR's taking the next step will provide some much-needed balance on the team's top line as well as go a long way toward replacing Carter's goal scoring and offensive production.
In many ways, the 2010-2011 Flyers season was a tale of two teams: the one with Chris Pronger, and the one without Chris Pronger. Most NHL analysts agree that the health of No. 20 will have a direct correlation to the team's on-ice success in 2011-2012, and I do not disagree.
Arguably, no player is more important to the team on and off the ice. When Pronger is healthy, he is one of the top three defenseman in the NHL. He is the human eraser, capable of making quite a few otherwise deadly mistakes vanish into thin air in one swift motion. He is the catalyst to the Flyers' powerplay, providing a calming presence and a booming shot from the point, along with pinpoint passes and massive screens, where necessary.
Beyond Pronger's play, there is the attitude that he brings to the Flyer bench. When he's on the ice, the team seems to take on his personality, playing a little harder, showing more grit, more willingness to play physical, a stronger desire to impose their will on their opponents, a seemingly insatiable desire to win at all costs.
That is exactly the attitude this year's Flyers are going to need to have in order to win. And Chris Pronger brings that every night with his contagious style of play. The team needs him to return healthy and ready to play early in the 2011-2012 season in order to have a chance to compete in the Atlantic Division and the suddenly competitive Eastern Conference.
While it wasn't necessary, the Flyers sacrificed quite a bit to bring Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia when they traded away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. And all eyes will be on the man touted as the Flyers first franchise goaltender since Ron Hextall.
The Boston Bruins provided yet another proof of the age-old adage: great goaltending covers all manner of on-ice sins. Regardless of who is manning the Flyer blueline or who is centering what line, if Bryzgalov can elevate his level of play and blossom into the elite goaltender he has the potential to become, the Flyers will be a difficult team to beat.
If Bryzgalov struggles early on, the Flyers will struggle. Team Chemistry will not develop as quickly. Confidence and morale will be low. The locker room will be loud, and not with cheers. One man currently has the ability to prevent all of that with his play: Ilya Bryzgalov. His play is the biggest key to the Flyers success in 2011-2012.
Should he have a Vezina-caliber season, the Flyers will likely win the Atlantic Division and contend for a Stanley Cup. Should he cave into the pressure of playing in Philadelphia, the Flyers could be in for a long season.