The Philadelphia Flyers 2010-11 season ended, as every Flyers season since 1975 has, in bitter disappointment.
Flyers fans want the Stanley Cup. The Flyers management wants a Stanley Cup. Despite owning the best record in the Eastern Conference for the majority of 2010-11, Philadelphia wore down entering the playoffs and was ultimately swept out of the second round by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.
Such disappointment from a team who lost in the Cup Finals the season before resulted in monumental shake-ups, but not the kind the City of Brotherly Love has come to expect from its hockey franchise. For the first time in memory, the players, not the coach, were held accountable for their underachievement. Remember, this is a team that replaced Terry Murray as its coach after being swept out of the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals and has had a virtual carousel at the helm ever since.
But this time the captain, Mike Richards, was shipped to Los Angeles for prospects. Assistant captain Jeff Carter was traded to Columbus. Kris Versteeg was moved to Florida for a bag of pucks. Ville Leino, Sean O'Donnell, Brian Boucher, Nik Zherdev, Darroll Powe and Dan Carcillo all left via free agency, replaced by a slew of youngsters plus an all-star goaltender and an aging legend whose been playing in Russia the last three years.
No offseason in franchise history has created as much controversy and uncertainty as 2011. Given such uncertainty, it seems like the perfect opportunity to make some BOLD PREDICTIONS.
So, without further ado, here are the five things you can bet will happen in Flyers Nation this season.
Of all the changes in South Philly, this was the most surprising. Jaromir Jagr (whose image on the scoreboard at the old Spectrum was a cue to play Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady" over the PA system) is now a Flyer. From a distance, this looks like the classic Philly addition, signing a former star well past his prime. But Jagr comes to Philadelphia with a specific role, to put the puck in the net on the power play. And he knows his role, claiming upon his signing that he chose the Flyers in part because of the handedness of his potential power play partners, saying Claude Giroux and Danny Briere were a better fit for his style than Pittsburgh's mega-stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Despite past success, the Flyers power play faltered down the stretch and hindered them in the playoffs. Philly finished 19th in the NHL in 2010-11, converting on only 16.6% of its man-up chances. With players like Briere, Giroux, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Scott Hartnell, James van Riemsdyk, Nik Zherdev and Ville Leino that is an unacceptable statistic.
Jagr may not log the ice-time he was capable of earlier in his career, but he hasn't lost his hands or touch, and he did log 71 points for the New York Rangers in 2007-08, his last in the NHL.
BOLD PREDICTION: JAROMIR JAGR SCORES AT LEAST 15 POWER PLAY GOALS.
Team President Ed Snider, the patriarch of hockey in the city, called the goalie carousel during last season's playoffs "embarrassing", and vowed to solve his team's decades old Achilles' heel.
General manager Paul Holmgren made good on his employer's promise by acquiring Ilya Bryzgalov's negotiating rights from the Phoenix Coyotes and signing him to a nine year contract. Expectations are high for the 31-year-old Russian to be the backstop Flyers fans have yearned for since the days of Bernie Parent.
The former All-Star now plays behind a stacked veteran blue-line including Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn. With high +/- defenders in front of him, and coach Peter Laviolette's emphasis on team defense, Bryzgalov will be able to make up for the offense that was traded away in the offseason (Carter and Richards alone combined for 132 points in 2010-11).
Goaltending has been THE issue holding back quite a few excellent Flyers teams of the past. It seems now that will no longer be an excuse. With last year's rookie sensation Sergei Bobrovsky backing up, the Orange and Black (the same team that chased the Soviet National Team off the ice in 1976 and avoided Russian players like the plague under former GM Bob Clarke) will be defending their net with a Hammer and Sickle.
BOLD PREDICTION: ILYA BRYZGALOV WILL BE AN ALL-STAR
Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Both taken in the first round of the 2003 NHL draft. Both signed long-term extensions early in their careers to, seemingly, usher in a new era of Flyers hockey. But after a disappointing second-round exit and non-stop rumors of locker room discord, the two friends were shipped to opposite sides of the country in a move that will prove beneficial to all involved. In all likelihood the leadership group will become Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Danny Briere. These three veterans have lead by example since arriving in Philadelphia and will need to continue to set the example of excellence for a team that got a whole lot younger over night.
However, as previously noted, Carter and Richards, despite their reputations as the Rock Stars of Sea Isle City, combined for 132 points last season. They'd anchored the offense and special teams for their entire careers and now that responsibility will fall upon two other "young veterans". Claude Giroux lead the Flyers in Assists (51) and points (76) last season, and is expected to see more ice-time in all phases of the game this coming season. Giroux's puck handling and ice vision are second-to-none in the league, and his play-making ability will draw the attention of every opponents' top defensive unit.
Giroux's rise to super-stardom will need to be aided by another top talent. The way John LeClair benefitted from the outstanding play of Eric Lindros is the blueprint for James van Riesmdyk (JvR). JvR's playoff performance is a big part of the reason the Flyers' front office was confident enough to trade away two of its best offensive weapons. JvR piled up the scoring chances, and his full-time pairing with Giroux and an increased role on special teams will allow him to blossom into the player he was expected to be when he was drafted second overall in 2007. The new six-year contract he signed today furthers the belief that the Flyers will depend on him to produce for the offense. Adding another scoring winger like Jakub Voracek or Wayne Simmonds to the pair of Giroux and JvR will create a line to be reckoned with in all phases of the game.
BOLD PREDICTION: CLAUDE GIROUX AND JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK WILL BECOME THE NEW LEGION OF DOOM.
Every Flyers fan saw what happened in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and it makes each and every one of them ill. The Boston Bruins out-bullied the boys in black and orange. Given Philadelphia's power play troubles, nobody was afraid to play aggressively against the Flyers last season, and it showed in the playoffs. When the checking gets tighter and the toughest teams shine the Flyers were dismembered by a stronger, more aggressive Bruins team. Even the seventh seed Buffalo Sabres questioned the Flyers toughness after pushing them to seven games in the quarterfinals.
Although Captain Morgan (Richards) and Dan Carcillo have departed, the Flyers are poised to be more physical than in the past season. Adding disciplined tough guys such as Wayne Simmonds, an agitator in Max Talbot, another powerful winger in Jakub Voracek coupled with the growth and maturation of Giroux and JvR and keeping around high PIM veterans like Scott Hartnell and Jody Shelley and the return of FLYERS HOCKEY is an exciting proposition. Also, rookie Zac Rinaldo earned a call-up during the playoffs to add a physical element to the Flyers, and he is likely to see time on the fourth line in 2011-12.
BOLD PREDICTION: THE BROAD STREET BULLIES ARE RE-BORN AND THE FLYERS LEAD THE LEAGUE IN PENALTY MINUTES.
January 2, 2012. The push towards the playoffs will officially begin on the grass at Citizens Bank Park. While the game has been moved from New Years Day to the second, due in part to an Eagles game and the Mummer's Parade on the first, the game will still be the place to be for all sports fans. Having personally experienced the 2010 Winter Classic from high atop the Green Monster in Boston's Fenway Park, the excitement level surrounding this outdoor game between the Flyers and New York Rangers couldn't be higher. Anytime the Rangers come into Philadelphia it's interesting. Now imagine doubling the size of the crowd and putting them on the center stage of the sports world. The Winter Classic is already the coolest tradition in sports, and the intensity of the game will reach a new level being played in front of the best hockey fans in the United States (Yes, I said it.)
Until last season, participation in the game was a pass to the Stanley Cup finals (2008: Pittsburgh; 2009: Detroit; 2010: Philadelphia). If nothing else, this year's game will be a showdown of two historic rivals in the nation's most historic city. It will be a true celebration of hockey, and a chance for the new-look Flyers, in front of the largest audience the NHL can produce, to prove their overhaul was not a step backwards.
BOLD PREDICTION: THE FLYERS WIN THE WINTER CLASSIC VIA SHUTOUT.
The Greatest Trophy in Sports
What kind of prophet could I be if I did not predict the outcome of the Flyers 2011-12 season. While every Flyers fan picks Philadelphia to bring the Cup home every year, this is the year they have filled their franchise's most glaring hole. However, with aging veterans boasting injury histories like those of Chris Pronger and Danny Briere, it remains to be seen whether this team will have the chemistry or consistency to win in the playoffs. With unknown variables in key roles such as James van Riemsdyk, assumed third-line center Brayden Schenn, eighth-overall draft pick Sean Couturier, Jaromir Jagr and Andreas Nodl, it is tough to gage exactly where the Flyers should finish without seeing this team play together.
JvR should continue his rise to a legitimate top six forward. By the All-Star break Schenn should have a defined role in the offense and be showing signs of why he was dubbed the best prospect in hockey and worth the departure of the captain and face of the franchise. Nodl should continue his own growth, and develop a chemistry with Schenn on the third line to provide the depth the Flyers have come to be known for over the past several seasons. Given these IFs, I believe the Flyers have the talent, the goalie, the coach and the system for a successful season.
BOLD PREDICTION: THE PHILADELPHIA FLYERS WILL REACH, AT LEAST, THE EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS IN 2012.