Flyers fans are looking forward to a new year with, basically, a new team.
Uncertainty is the word for Flyers fans right now. Despite all the predictions (my own and others), there is very little we really know about this team.
Was the CCR clique (Jeff Carter, Dan Carcillo and Mike Richards) really to blame for the team's late season woes, or just another scapegoat along the lines of Terry Murray in 1997 or Bill Barber and Eric Lindros in 2000?
Will this team mesh early enough in 2011 to make a serious run at another Atlantic Division crown?
Will Bryzgalov respond well to the pressures of a contract suiting a franchise goaltender?
Optimistic predictions aside, here are the five most concerning issues regarding the new-look Flyers entering a year with tentatively high expectations.
All signs point to big #20 wearing the 'C' on his sweater in 2011-12.
Health of veterans is the concern of all teams pushing for a playoff berth or division title.
However, on a team like the Flyers looking to rebuild its leadership corps and reestablish itself as a Stanley Cup contender despite the roster turnover, quite a bit of responsibility falls on the players who have been around the league and seen it all before.
Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen, Chris Pronger and Jaromir Jagr. Each has his own list of health concerns that trouble the Flyers beyond the loss of that player's individual production.
Beginning with the offense, Danny Briere set a career high in goals last season, putting up 34 in 77 regular season games. His +20 rating was also a career high. But keep in mind Briere has had a plethora of injuries, many of the lingering variety.
While Briere managed to stay healthy in 2010-11, he played in only two fewer games the year before and managed only 26 goals and a rating of -2. Also keep in mind prior to last season Briere's career rating as a Flyer stood at -25. If Briere, who turns 34 in October, can't produce to last year's standards the offense could be in trouble.
Jaromir Jagr, 39, has been brought in to offset the offensive losses and turn around a struggling power play. But can a player who has not played in the National Hockey League since 2007-08, and only averaged 52 games played over the past three years in Russia really be depended on as a top six forward?
Given the signing of Ilya Bryzgalov it is clear the Flyers are leaning towards a bit more of a goaltending and defense-based team.
However, the heart of the defense are a pair of 36-year olds in Timonen and Pronger. While their performances on the ice are still on par with the top four defensemen around the league, it is their time in the training room that is a major concern. Timonen is a silent warrior. He does his job and does it to the best of his ability every night. Timonen has played in no less than 77 games since joining the Flyers in 2007-08, including all 82 the past two years.
But one has to wonder how many more times Jim Jackson can say "Timonen looks a little gimpy coming off the ice" before it hinders his effectiveness, especially considering his smallish stature and proclivity to log no less than 20 minutes of ice-time on a nightly basis.
Chris Pronger, the assumed captain, is the embodiment of the uncertainty surrounding this team. For the second straight year Pronger is likely to miss the beginning of the season. After playing in only 50 regular season games and three of 11 playoff games in 2010-11 one must keep in the back of their mind the captaincy drama that played out between Keith Primeau, Derian Hatcher and Ken Hitchcock while Primeau struggled with post-concussion syndrome and the Flyers simply struggled.
If Pronger misses significant time for a second consecutive season could the leadership void divide the locker room? Flyers' history is filled with tension surrounding the letter on the sweater. If similar circumstances play out once again, leadership-the issue that lead to these offseason shake-ups, could be a bigger hindrance to the Flyers success than it was last year.
Living up to the last #10 will be a tall order for the highly touted prospect Schenn.
Since the onset of the Stevens-Laviolette co-era depth has been the hallmark of the Flyers offense. What they have lacked in a 40-50 goal scorer they've made up for with solid contributions from their second tier players on the third and fourth line behind the big names.
Last year alone saw nine Flyers post at least 10 goals, and and eight tally at least 40 points. Carter (36G-30A-66P), Richards (23G-43A-66P) and Leino (19G-34A-53P) were all key contributors in at least 80 games last season and the loss of their production creates both concern and opportunity.
The top six forward spots seem all but settled. The Flyers have their young building blocks in Claude Giroux, 23, James van Riemsdyk, 22, and new-comer Jakub Voracek, 22, who put up 14 goals and 32 assists in 80 games last season. They also have their grizzled veterans in Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr. Beyond them, however, are only question marks.
If concern No. 1 comes to fruition and a veteran is forced to miss substantial time, even more responsibility will fall on to the unknown commodities on the Flyers roster. First, Brayden Schenn, Schenn was the centerpiece of the deal that sent Captain Morgan to Los Angeles. The 20-year old center dubbed the best prospect in hockey is being counted on to fill the role of secondary scoring and contribute on the penalty kill. His quick development in coach Peter Laviolette's system is imperative to the team's success, but as they saying goes, "there's no such thing as a can't miss prospect."
Andreas Nodl was the Flyers' 2011 recipient of the Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy as the team's most improved player after posting a career high in games (67), goals (11) and assists (11). But Nodl scored 9 of his 11 goals before January 1, when his and the team's production dropped off greatly.
The Flyers are depending on Nodl to prove he's more than a role player by putting up numbers that will warrant the increased playing time he's sure to see early in the season. But Nodl has only played 115 NHL games over three seasons and his true potential is yet to be uncovered.
Wayne Simmonds, 23, and Max Talbot, 27, will set the tone for the bottom six forwards with their hard work and fierce play. Simmonds and Talbot will be asked to provide consistency and physicality to lines big on potential and low on experience.
The defensive depth isn't quite as concerning, but if Pronger is out longer than expected or Timonen needs to miss any time at all questions about Braydon Coburn's consistency, Matt Carle's size, Andreas Lilja's age (36) and the readiness of defensive prospects such as Oskars Bartulis or Erik Gustaffson will rear their heads.
Confident in each other?
The Flyers 2009-10 season ended with an overtime loss in game six of the Stanley Cup finals. A disappointing end, no doubt, but one that left Flyers' fans and management confident the core was in place to bring the Cup back to Philly.
Flash forward a year, throw in an embarrassing second round sweep and wholesale changes were made. But make no mistake about it, even with losing 109 goals via trades and free agency, the Flyers mentality remains: WIN NOW. But hockey is a sport based on chemistry, and the new players will need time to adjust to their line-mates, coach Peter Laviolette's system as well as the rigors of playing in front of the most demanding fans in sports.
The Flyers front office is confident Laviolette is the coach who can deliver a championship. If Paul Holmgren and Ed Snider did not feel this way it would have been Laviolette, not the faces of the franchise, shipped away over the summer. But such a commitment only goes so far. The 11 and 12-year contracts for Carter and Richards, respectively, were a great commitment as well, and it was not long before the Flyers' brass switched its allegiance.
Knowing the Flyers coaching history one must wonder, "how long is Laviolette's leash?" If this team does not perform right away how long will Laviolette have to right his own ship? His predecessors weren't given much time, and although Laviolette is regarded as one of the top coaches in the league, recent organizational activity suggest ANYBODY not pulling their own weight might as well already have a foot out the door.
More worrisome could be a slow start for the new franchise goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Again, the fans and front office expect quite a bit from the $50 million netminder and not standing on his head from the opening night does not bode well for the 31-year old Russian's tenure in the city.
Fans are quick to use the word "bust" (it was said quite a bit about JvR early on), and despite Ed Snider's pledge to end the goalie carousel, getting a look at (or at least showcasing) 22-year old Sergei Bobrovsky will be tempting, especially if the team as a whole is not winning consistently.
Organizational patience has not been a virtue for the Flyers, which could be the greatest concern for fans heading into 2011-12.
The man known as "Bob" was THE man in South Philly for much of last season, but the signing of Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year deal puts Bobrovsky's future with the Flyers very much in doubt.
Bob has not shown any warning signs of a malcontent, but even if he has it would be tough to interpret, at least without an actual interpreter. The facts are nobody like a demotion and Bryzgalov averaged 67 games over three full seasons as the starter for the Phoenix Coyotes. With Michael Leighton under contract there could be speculation about a potential Bobrovsky from training camp through the trade deadline.
The Flyers would be best served to address the Bobrovsky situation sooner rather than later, as there will be enough distractions and concerns surrounding the players actually contributing to games.
Any goaltending injury around the NHL will surely result in Bobrovsky trade speculation. And given the depth concerns, the Flyers may be better served to acquire a forward in exchange for Bob's services.
Could the Flyers have feared the embarrassment of HBO cameras following Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for the weeks leading up to New Years?
The media is a distraction. When it is following your team literally 24/7, it can be a major distraction.
Last year's Winter Classic was the first to be accompanied by HBO's 24/7 documentary series, following the two teams involved, the Penguins and Capitals, for the weeks leading up to the New Years Day showdown.
And the effects were obvious.
Washington was in disarray during the filming and an inside look into their locker room showed just how close to the brink the team and its coach, Bruce Boudreau, really were. The Penguins were in the middle of a winning streak when filming began, and the Classic was the beginning of their unraveling.
If any of the aforementioned concerns come to fruition they will be broadcast in front of the entire world, uncensored. That is not to say adversity will crush this Flyers team.
The leadership group of Pronger, Timonen, Briere and Laviolette is one of the strongest in the league. But adversity that finds its way out of the locker room will be magnified to the Nth degree.
A team struggling to find its identity could really come unglued under such circumstances. Not to mention a poor perception by the front office as to how the team was represented on the show by an individual player or the team as a whole could force the aforementioned impatient trigger finger to make even more changes.
You've now read my predictions and concerns, and it's time to voice your own. Let's hear what the rest of the Philly Fandom is thinking.