After an offseason of change for the Philadelphia Flyers, all has not yet settled. As training camp approaches, there are still at least five key positional battles yet to be settled, all of which could have a massive impact on the Flyers' success during the 2011-2012 NHL season.
Without further ado, here they are: the five positional battles that will play out over the season. Enjoy!
As always, comments are welcome and appreciated.
I'm sure many Flyers fans think the goaltending issue has been settled. I disagree.
Sergei Bobrovsky posted an excellent rookie season, made more impressive by the fact that it was his first year playing in North America and his first time consistently working with a goaltending coach. It is likely "Bob" will improve dramatically over the summer and push the newly acquired Bryzgalov for playing time.
On Bryzgalov's end, he will soon experience the cold, cruel reality of being "the guy" in a major hockey market. While his shiny new contract is nice, it does not come with a no-trade or no-movement clause. If he struggles while Bobrovsky shines, don't be surprised to "Cool Bryz" on the bench (or worse) while Bob is on the ice.
For the time being, the job belongs to Bryzgalov.
When the Flyers acquired highly-touted prospect Brayden Schenn from the L.A. Kings in return for Mike Richards, they immediately penciled the young center in on the third line. However, the team has already invited former Capital and Ranger Michael Nylander to camp, as well as eighth-overall pick Sean Couturier.
Contrary to popular belief, many established NHL players (including Henrik Zetterberg) believe Nylander can make a comeback and be successful. He already has some chemistry with Jaromir Jagr and could be the assist machine the Flyers need to replace Richards.
Couturier is a long shot to make the big club this year, but if he dominates in training camp, he could end up as the team's third-line center. Flyers GM Paul Holmgren has already stated he believes Couturier is NHL-ready and will challenge for a roster spot.
Should that happen, Schenn will likely move to wing (interestingly, that is something the Flyers have mentioned he is able to do).
On most teams, the third-line center is a position of some, but not great, importance. On the Flyers, however, that is not the case. Head Coach Peter Laviolette's system is predicated on his ability to consistently rotate three strong scoring lines for the full game, eventually wearing down the opposition and generating scoring chances. A mediocre third line would dramatically weaken the Flyers' ability to play Laviolette's system properly.
Needless to say, this will be a battle.
The Flyers currently have two open wing spots (third line left wing and fourth line left wing) with three players currently in the mix: the newly signed Max Talbot, the re-signed Andreas Nodl and the highly-touted Matt Read.
Of the three, Talbot is a lock to make the Flyers after he signed a five-year, $9 million contract this offseason. Where he ends up playing, however, is still up in the air. Right now, the Flyers have Talbot penciled in on the third line, with newly acquired youngsters Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds.
That could all change if Matt Read has a stellar camp.
If that happens, Talbot could be moved down to the fourth line and Read would assume his place alongside Schenn and Simmonds. On paper, that group could be excellent. Read is a playmaker with the puck (he plays a game similar to the departed Ville Leino), Simmonds is a gritty power forward with offensive upside and Schenn is an all-around offensive threat with a knack for finishing around the net.
If Read and Talbot both have solid camps, it's likely Read will challenge Nodl for a spot on the fourth line and Talbot will remain on the third line, at least to start the season.
Of course, all of this could be for nothing if Couturier ends up making the team out of training camp and sends Schenn to the third-line winger spot. In that case, both Read and Nodl are out of luck.
If there was any question that the Flyers locker room belonged to Chris Pronger before The Trades, there was certainly none after them.
With Richards and Carter gone, it is likely Pronger will be given the "C" with the expectation that he will impose his gritty, win-at-all-costs mentality on the rest of the Flyers team. It's no secret that Paul Holmgren and Peter Laviolette want to see a return to the days of the Broad Street Bullies. Pronger epitomizes that style of play and is the perfect candidate to lead the new Bullies.
While this sounds all well and good, there is still a question as to how Jaromir Jagr will take all of this. Jagr has been known to be a selfish player, to bring with him some drama and to not give it his all at practices. Before the Flyers signed the enigmatic Czech RW, they had Pronger talk to him and sign off.
Regardless of the offseason conversations, how these two former captains and future Hall of Famers interact in the Flyers dressing room during the season (and playoffs) will likely have a major impact on how successful the team is in 2011-12.
Going into training camp, the three-way battle for the sixth defense spot is probably the least discussed positional battle. It also might end up being the most important one.
With Pronger's health improving but still in question, the pressure is on the Flyers' other defenders to elevate their own play until Pronger is fully recovered. For veterans Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Meszaros, that should not be an issue. All four played well during Pronger's prolonged absence last season and should be comfortable doing so again.
The challenge for the Flyers is to make sure the four aforementioned veterans aren't logging 25-plus minutes per game while Pronger recovers. By the end of the 2010-2011 season, it was clear the heavy workload had taken its toll on Timonen, Carle and even Coburn.
The team needs its sixth and seventh defenseman to step up in a big way and log significant minutes.
Lilja, the oft-injured former Red Wing and Duck, will be penciled in at the No. 6 spot. However, if he struggles during camp or is injured again, the position will likely come down to the smooth-skating Timonen clone Gustafsson vs. the talented but inconsistent Bartulis.
In terms of talent, the advantage clearly goes to Gustafsson, who has shown the potential to be a legitimate Top 4 defenseman at the NHL level. In terms of NHL experience and raw physical size, the advantage goes to Bartulis.
Further adding to the confusion here is the possibility that the Flyers could still bring in a seasoned veteran like Bryan McCabe should Pronger suffer a setback, or none of the current options at the No. 6 spot prove viable.