This year's Philadelphia Flyers will certainly be a very different team. Over the past three months, they've cut ties with nine players from the 2010-11 roster, including their captain (Mike Richards), an alternate captain (Jeff Carter), a pair of 40-plus point players (Ville Leino and Kris Versteeg), four solid role players (Nikolay Zherdev, Sean O'Donnell, Brian Boucher and Darroll Powe) and their best agitator (Dan Carcillo).
The result? Many around the NHL believe the Flyers are no longer a bona-fide Stanley Cup contender. Analysts and sports writers are predicting the team will finish as low as tenth in the Eastern Conference. Anyone on the "Flyer Bandwagon" has abandoned ship.
But are all of the gloom-and-doom prognostications a bit premature? Is there still hope for the new-look Flyers? Can they still finish at the top of the Eastern Conference standings? Here are six reasons not to count them out just yet.
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Despite the slew of changes, the Flyers' defense remains largely intact. The only change made was a lateral one, replacing third-pairing blueliner Sean O'Donnell with some combination of Andreas Lilja, Oskars Bartulis and Erik Gustafsson.
Many around the league forget level and depth of talent on the Flyer blueline, but this is a group that—on paper—is as good as any other in the league. While the health of franchise defenseman Chris Pronger is still in question, all signs continue to be positive. Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle will be playing for new contracts. And there is not a team in the league that wouldn't like to add Andrej Meszaros or Kimmo Timonen to their defense corps.
The old saying goes that defense wins championships. If it is true, the Flyers are a bona-fide Cup contender and should be a favorite in the East.
There are few coaches in the NHL who possess a combination of hockey knowledge, coaching skill, dedication and passion comparable to Peter Laviolette.
The Flyers' head coach is known around the NHL as one of the best in the business. He's a modern-day Herb Brooks, a natural leader and passionate motivator that knows how to get the most out of each of his players. Laviolette places an overwhelming emphasis on training and conditioning, preaches two-way hockey and demands 110% effort from his players on every shift.
In short: If ever there was a true Flyer hockey coach, he would be named Peter Laviolette. For a young, talented team like Philadelphia, there is no coach better qualified to be behind the Flyer bench. In hockey, as in every sport, success starts with the coach. Laviolette's combination of experience, dedication, discipline and passion is one that is proven to be effective.
In Claude Giroux and James van Riemdsyk, the Flyers have found a pair of budding superstars capable of leading the team the promised land.
Giroux continued his meteoric rise into the ranks of the NHL's elite during the 2010 season, posting a career-high 76 points (25G, 51A) and contributing significantly in almost every aspect of the game. Van Riemsdyk, the former number two overall pick in the NHL entry draft, had a breakout season of his own come playoff time, where he recorded an amazing 70 shots on goal in just 11 contests.
Almost every serious Stanley Cup contender has at least one offensive superstar (except Boston). With these two young playmakers, the Flyers believe they have found a pair as talented as any in the NHL. While that may not be exactly correct (Crosby and Malkin, Toews and Kane, Ovechkin and Backstrom), there is no question that Giroux and JVR have the skill, dedication and intangibles necessary to be considered among the league's elite players.
While Flyers fans will never know exactly what happened or didn't happen inside the Philadelphia locker room, one thing is certain: it was serious enough to justify the trades of two franchise players in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
Team chemistry is probably one of the most under-rated aspects of professional sports—it can't be measured or perfectly defined, it doesn't show up directly in the box score and most people never see it at work. That being said, I have yet to meet the athlete who believes chemistry isn't one of the most important—if not the most important—aspect of a successful team.
The team now has an undisputed leader in Chris Pronger, a roster stocked with level-headed young stars and a number of solid veteran players.
The Philadelphia Flyers have won four playoff series over the past two seasons. Those two Flyer teams were backstopped by netminders Brian Boucher, Michael Leighton and Sergei Bobrovsky. Imagine how much more those teams could have achieved with a legitimate number one between the pipes.
After the embarrassing goaltender carousel of 2011, Flyers Chairman Ed Snider finally had enough of the team's lackluster goaltending. After the Flyers were swept out of the playoffs by the Bruins, he issued a public edict that the team would fix the problem for good. And they did.
In June, the Flyers acquired the rights to former Vezina finalist and Stanley Cup champion Ilya Bryzgalov—a player almost universally acknowledged as a top-10 NHL netminder. The team now boasts one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL, with the aforementioned Bryzgalov joining uber-talented youngster Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Flyers believe they have finally found the answer between the pipes in Bryzgalov, and they may well be correct. The Russian netminder has been one of the best in the NHL over the past two seasons, putting up stellar numbers (137 GP, 0.921 SV%, 2.381 GAA) while playing behind a mediocre Coyotes team. Adding an established star like Bryzgalov to a team with a defense as deep and talented as the one in Philadelphia can only mean good things for the Flyers in 2011-12.
Even after their offseason makeover, the Flyers still boast one of the deepest offenses in the NHL. Currently, they have at least seven forwards who can be reasonably expected to score 20 or more goals: Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Scott Hartnell, Jaromir Jagr, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds.
Quite simply, the Flyers may be the deepest team in the East. They have three legitimate scoring lines and an exceptionally good fourth line. During the offseason, they added a number of bigger, stronger, more skilled forwards—players much better suited to play Peter Laviolette's system.
The Flyers' strategy is quite simple: depth breeds consistency. The recent success of teams like Boston, Chicago, and Detroit is a testament to the validity of the idea—and it is a major reason why the Flyers should be considered favorites in the East.