Two seasons ago, the Philadelphia Flyers came within two wins of a Stanley Cup thanks to a miraculous playoff run. Last year, the team nearly finished first in the Eastern Conference and were one of the league’s most dangerous teams until injuries and goaltending issues prematurely ended the team’s season in the second round of the playoffs.
The Flyers had a more active offseason than any team in the league, and hockey fans have spent the last three months debating whether or not Paul Holmgren has built a dynasty or dismantled one of hockey’s top teams. The 2011-12 season will begin to show the flaws and benefits of Holmgren’s aggressiveness, but the team remains in consideration for the best squad in the conference.
The Eastern Conference has some strong contenders for the conference crown this season, but the Flyers have positioned themselves to be a major part of the conversation. Here are nine reasons why it will be Chris Pronger’s responsibility to decide whether or not to touch the Prince of Wales Trophy this playoff year.
The Flyers can still rely on production from veterans like Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and Chris Pronger, but the strength of the roster will come from the fact that many of their players are ready to have career years.
Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek can all be expected to put up better numbers than ever, and young players like Brayden Schenn will make significant contributions. On the other end of the ice, Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn continue to grow, and youngster Sergei Bobrovsky will thrive as a backup in his second year.
Though the Flyers lost two important penalty killers this offseason in the form of Mike Richards and Darroll Powe, the acquisition of Max Talbot, along with the continued progress of Claude Giroux and the reliability of Blair Betts will keep the Flyers shorthanded efforts a strength. A defense with five capable options will also help the team avoid paying for infractions.
More importantly, the team may find themselves spending less time shorthanded, as loose cannon Dan Carcillo is no longer on the roster and the overall team appears to be more disciplined. But when problems do arise, the defensive units will be ready.
Good penalty killing is not new to the Flyers, but success in the opposite scenario is: this year’s power play will be vastly improved. In preseason alone, we have already seen the difference that a healthy Chris Pronger will make, and Jaromir Jagr is proving to still be a power play specialist.
The power play will allow the Flyers to utilize strong forwards like Jagr, Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds, as well as great setup men like Giroux and Kimmo Timonen. The Flyers special teams may not be the best in the league at the end of the year, but they will be strong points for the team.
The major reason the Flyers ran out of gas during their 2010 Stanley Cup playoff run was the fact that the team was forced to cycle four defensemen for most of every game, as the third unit of Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent was not equipped to deal with opposing offenses. Since then, the Flyers have added depth on defense in order to utilize more than four defensemen.
If Andrej Meszaros is considered the team’s fifth defenseman, he is a hell of a fifth defenseman to have on the roster. Behind him are Andreas Lilja, Oskars Bartulis and possibly Erik Gustafsson. These players, combined with the core four of Timonen, Pronger, Carle and Coburn, make up one of the most intimidating defenses in the entire NHL.
Does anything else need to be said? Teammates of Giroux’s have compared him to Forsberg and Lemieux, compliments that, even if they are overstatements, nonetheless paint the picture of a dangerous offensive player.
Giroux led the Flyers in scoring last season and seems poised to become one of the league’s top setup men with James van Riemsdyk and Jaromir Jagr playing on his wings. Few players in the league see the ice better than Giroux, and his linemates will reap the benefits of his amazing passing abilities.
The anchor of the Flyers defense and new captain of the team was almost entirely absent from last year’s playoffs, appearing in only three games and seeing very limited action because of a hand injury. This offseason, Pronger’s health was almost as big a storyline for Flyers fans as the roster overhaul that took place.
Not only has the front office assured Flyers Nation that Pronger is healthy, but the 6’6” defenseman made it back to play in Thursday’s preseason game against the Devils. A big concern was whether or not the team was rushing Pronger back to action, but it appears that he is fully healthy and ready to play a complete season, and more.
When the team signed Jagr to a $3.3 million contract in July, fans were cautiously optimistic at best, and openly disgusted at worst. The Jagr signing seemed to be too expensive for a 39-year-old that hadn’t played in the NHL since 2008.
Jagr’s limited preseason action has already seemingly put concerns to rest. He scored four goals in only three games and ignited the team’s formerly stagnant power play. Jagr may not put up the numbers from his former NHL seasons, but at $3.3 million, it looks like the Flyers will get their money’s worth.
The most aggravating goaltending era in Flyers history may finally be over.
Despite having a solid goaltending prospect in Sergei Bobrovsky, GM Paul Holmgren saw an opportunity to make the team’s historic net troubles go away by acquiring the rights to potential free agent Ilya Bryzgalov and signing him to a nine-year deal.
With Bobrovsky playing in a more comfortable backup role and Bryzgalov finally getting support on both offense and defense, both netminders are poised to have stellar years. As long as injuries don’t play a role, it appears that the team can finally enter the playoffs without wondering which goalie on the roulette wheel will show up.
Whether or not you choose to believe the media hype about Mike Richards’ relationship with the front office and coaching staff, Chris Pronger’s presence in the locker room had a more undeniably positive influence on the team than Richards’ did.
Pronger is a natural leader, and while Richards is a capable captain himself, Pronger’s experience and maturity make him the right choice to lead a young team like the Flyers.
With Pronger and coach Peter Laviolette presenting a united front, leadership has transitioned from a question mark to a strength for the Philadelphia Flyers. And you can never put a price on good leadership.