After one of the more disappointing ends to a promising season in recent franchise history, the Philadelphia Flyers made unprecedented changes in an attempt to give the 2011-12 version of the team a fresh feel while still remaining top contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Flyers fans have responded mostly positively to the overhaul, and there is excitement among the hockey fandom of Philadelphia.
While a majority of the changes will need to play out for more than one season and if they are to be properly evaluated and compared to the team prior to GM Paul Holmgren and team President Ed Snider's franchise makeover, expectations are still high for this mixed team of young up-and-comers and veteran leaders.
I stated that I do not think this team will be as good at the beginning of the season as they could be at the end. Unlike last year's team that fell to pieces following the Christmas break, I expect this year's Flyers to be rounding into form by then as the new players get acquainted with the remaining core and the rookies learn the rigors of an 82-game season.
However, a fast start could propel the team to reach their potential earlier than any "expert" could predict and could set the stage for yet another Philadelphia team to be the "team to beat".
While every fan has seen the Flyers get out to winning starts and lock up a playoff spot early then fizzle out after the All-Star break, the culture change Peter Laviolette was hoping for when he suggested taking the captaincy off of Mike Richards has been brought to full effect.
Holdovers from the Clarke-era like Richards, Jeff Carter and Brian Boucher are gone, replaced by players better suited for Laviolette's system, such as Wayne Simmonds, Max Talbot and Ilya Bryzgalov.
Baseball's Phillies are great and seemingly on their way to another long postseason run, the Eagles are 1-3 and the 76ers probably will not play a game until 2012. The Flyers could capture the entire city's attention with a bunch of early victories.
The Flyers could re-energize a dedicated but frustrated fan base, while also building the confidence of such a young team if they are able to gel early.
Given this analysis, these are the keys to a quick start and prolonged success for the 2011-12 Philadelphia Flyers.
The season starts Oct. 6 in Boston. It will be banner-raising night in Bean Town, a party atmosphere similar to the championship parade and a final chance for the Bruins and their fans to celebrate their accomplishments from last season.
No doubt the talk going into the game will be of the way the Boston Bruins handled the second-seeded Flyers in the conference semifinals last season. In fact, Boston's sweep of Philly was the only series the Bruins played en route to becoming champions that did not extend to the full seven games.
The Flyers' mantra this offseason was "fresh start". A stud goaltender was acquired. The captaincy changed hands. The faces of the franchise were traded to the Western Conference.
However, to get where you are going you must remember from where you came. In order to put the bitter, franchise-changing end of 2011 behind them all together, the Flyers must go into the TD Garden arena and crash Boston's party.
Bring the energy of the Phillies playoffs across the street
I see the Phillies and Flyers as two Philadelphia franchises tied together this season. Maybe it's because the Winter Classic will be played at Citizens Bank Park.
As a life-long Philadelphian, I know this city loves cross promotion.
In all likelihood, when the Flyers' season opens at home on Oct. 12 against the defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks, there is also still quite a bit of meaningful baseball to be played across the parking lot.
While the Illadelph is thoroughly swept up in "Phillies Phever," it would behoove the Flyers to try to bring some of the playoff energy into the Wells Fargo Center.
Rally towels have become a staple of playoff baseball in Philadelphia, a symbol of the emotion accumulated during an 162-game regular season, the six-month waiting period before a single game means more than the one before it.
Changing the in-arena goal song from Pennywise's "Bro Hymn" to the DOOP theme used by the Philadelphia Union has been a success, and brings a sense of unity to a true sports city. The song is not the Union or the Flyers' song, it is our song.
The use of the rally towel could have a similar effect, and gives the most intimidating fans in hockey another way to cause a ruckus and create the best home ice advantage in the NHL.
Picture the "Orange Crush" effect, but 20,000-plus orange towels being waved by screaming maniacs.
If the Flyers take advantage of the excitement in the Philadelphia going on right now, it could pay off when they hit their inevitable midseason-lull and help bring even more excitement to an already revved up fan base.
No move this offseason excited fans more than the acquisition of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.
No matter how Jaromir Jagr, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds or Jake Voracek pan out in Philadelphia, the Flyers' front office finally addressed its most glaring hole, one that has seemingly existed since Bernie Parent lead the franchise to its last Stanley Cup championship in 1975.
Bryzgalov, who has a Stanley Cup ring, is a perennial All-Star and a shutout threat on any given night.
Last season, the Flyers played 82 regular season games and 11 playoff contests, winning a combined 51 of those 93 games. Given such success, it is almost astounding that the Flyers were unable to shutout their opponents even once last season.
Zero shutouts in 93 games. If the Flyers really want to prove they are a different team, they will have to win a game early with no goals allowed.
My personal preference would be the second game of the season on Oct. 8 against the Devils in New Jersey.
Maybe Devils' goaltender Martin Brodeur has lost a step, but no netminder has haunted Philly like Brodeur and earning the shutout against a long-time nemesis could be the metaphor for the changes in Philadelphia.
The blue line is stacked with experience.
Captain Chris Pronger and Andreas Lilja have both been part of Stanley Cup-winning units. Nobody embodies a Philadelphia athlete better than Kimmo Timonen. Matt Carle has improved each year he's been in the city, and Braydon Coburn has the potential to be one of the best second-tier defenseman in the league.
Bryzgalov has posted 15 shutouts over the past two seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes, proving he is more than capable of stealing a game.
Sergei Bobrovsky had no shutouts in his first season, but appears to be on track to becoming the No. 1 goalie fans envisioned he can be during his brilliant, out-of-nowhere rookie campaign.
Bobrovsky actually outperformed the $51 million free agent in the preseason, posting a goals-against average of 0.40 and save percentage of 98.4 percent.
An early shutout, or preferably several, will send the message to the league that the Flyers can beat teams at both ends of the ice, taking pressure off a young offense that will need time to gel, given the high-profile changes made over the summer.
Breaking up is hard to do.
Jeff Carter and Mike Richards were drafted 11th and 24th overall, respectively, in the 2003 NHL Draft.
During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, both Richards and Carter were integral late season additions to the eventual Calder Cup champion Philadelphia Phantoms.
Fans watched both centers grow from rookies struggling to figure out their roles in the NHL to leaders of the most inspired Flyers team in years, coming two wins and one Patrick Kane goal shy of the city's first Stanley Cup since 1975.
Both had their moments as Flyers.
From Richards' first career playoff goal on a penalty shot against the Washington Capitals in 2008, to being named the captain the following preseason, accepting the "C" at the final NHL game ever played at the Spectrum.
Nobody will ever forget Richards' tone-setting, game-tying short-handed goal in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.
Carter netted 181 goals in 461 regular season games with the Flyers, including 46 in 2008-09, good enough for second in the league behind only Alex Ovechkin (56).
But disappointment will forever define both players' tenure in the City of Brotherly Love.
The former faces of the franchise seemed to underperform in the biggest games. In 110 combined playoff games, the pair averaged 0.65 points per game. Their regular season combined averages out to about 0.76 points per game.
But the most egregious incident of the pair's tenure was Richards' nose-thumbing to the fans and media of Philadelphia, relinquishing his duties as captain and skipping town after the elimination loss against Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals, putting an exclamation point on his seemingly career-long feud with the local media.
Keeping with the fresh start mantra, the Flyers needed to sever ties with their former stars to move forward. The only way to be satisfied with a breakup is to come to the conclusion you are better off without the other party.
Richards and his new team, the Los Angeles Kings, come into the Wells Fargo Center on Oct. 15, the second home game of the season.
Three weeks later Carter and the Columbus Blue Jackets come into town on Nov. 5.
If the Flyers can prove to the fans the franchise is better of without two guys who were once awarded a combined 23 years and $127 million in contracts, it will go along way towards completely turning the corner from the post-lockout era.
If the Kings and Blue Jackets beat the Flyers, or Carter and Richards perform incredibly well in front of their former fans, this team could end up spinning its wheels as the media plays the "what if" game for the remainder of the season.
Richards and Carter were two supremely talented hockey players. But, at the end of the day, like so many before them, they could not deal with the pressures of Philadelphia.
The dedicated and knowledgeable fan base, the unrelenting media, the Stanley Cup or bust expectations of both the city and front office would be tough for many young athletes.
Their appetite for a good time despite the outcome of a game or season does not sit well in the city that loves Rocky Balboa, Dave Schultz, Vince Papale, Jon Runyan and Chase Utley as much as it does Bernard Hopkins, Bobby Clarke, Mike Schmidt and Asante Samuel.
This new Flyers team also must prove it has the character this city loves, as that is the perception as to what was missing under the previous captain's regime.
And finally, who doesn't want to see Wayne Simmonds and Richards drop their gloves? It could be the symbolic closing of one door and opening of another fans are looking for early in the season.
The Flyers are 19-34 in games that extend past the five-minute overtime session and come down to a breakaway competition.
The 34 losses ranks them 20th out of the 30 NHL teams since the implementation of the shootout in 2005-06.
This number is no longer excusable. The acquisitions of Ilya Bryzgalov and Jaromir Jagr compliment Claude Giroux and Danny Briere to form the backbone of Philadelphia's shootout group.
While I personally hate the shootout, it is a part of the NHL and can be a valuable weapon for teams equipped to win them. Coming away from any game with two points in the standings is imperative, especially for a team like the Flyers looking to win a lot of close and low-scoring games.
The hole at goalie and skill players not as well suited for a breakaway competition have put the Flyers at a disadvantage in years passed.
Now, however, the Flyers could use the shootout to their advantage, and winning them early in the season would give both the team and the fans confidence when games come down to the final frame.
If the Wells Fargo Center is confident and booming the home ice advantage in the shootout could be the difference in playoff seeding, and ultimately, whether or not a playoff seventh game will be played in front of the most intimidating fans in hockey.
There are quite a few fans walking around the Wells Fargo Center already sporting what are rumored to be the Flyers' 2012 Winter Classic jerseys.
Nothing has been confirmed, but if the jersey pictured above is what will be worn Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park, then I'd love to see them.
I understand the NHL will want the jerseys to be seen first at its outdoor extravaganza, but this city loves new jerseys. Hell, we bought those awful blue and yellow Eagles uniforms they wore once in 2007 and never again.
Personally, I would love to see the boys in black and orange come out for warm-ups in the Winter Classic gear for the game against the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 15.
The crowd will be rocking for Captain Morgan's return, and it could be one final shot at Richards, showing him what he could have been a part of, while subtly showing fans "we're a different team."
It also irks me when a team debuts a jersey for a specific event, a fan base empties its pockets to buy this new, exciting merchandise, and then it is never seen again, except for fans in the stands still trying to get their money's worth.
Hartnell being manhandled
Last year's Flyers loss stung more than any other playoff elimination in recent memory.
As a fan, I have been dealing with playoff exits far too early to my liking.
But last year's hurt the worst. Maybe it was the sting of losing in the Stanley Cup finals the year before. Maybe it was the embarrassment of the goalie carousel. Maybe it was the inevitable feeling that players I had grown attached to were about to be shipped off and this whole thing would have to start all over the next year.
But then I remember how those 11 playoff games went down.
The Broad Street Bullies were bullied by a stronger and tougher team in the Boston Bruins. Hell, the Flyers struggled to match Buffalo's intensity through the first six games of the Buffalo series.
If the Flyers want to start 2011-12 with a bang then they need to play Philadelphia hockey. Bully hockey.
Like no other city, Philly loves physical hockey. It it what drew us all to the game in the first place.
The Bruins proved in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals that the toughest team still wins. The Flyers need to reestablish themselves as the most aggressive team in hockey to build momentum and energy.
The opening night roster should be released momentarily, but toughening up the Flyers appears to be one of the key factors in all the offseason acquisitions.
Wayne Simmonds is quickly becoming a fan favorite for his gritty, team-first attitude, and willingness to step up for his teammates.
Chris Pronger's health, which appears to be on track, goes a long way to defining the toughness of the Philadelphia Flyers. While Pronger is not the big-hitter he used to be, he is a gigantic presence in the middle of the ice.
Pronger fears nobody, even Gary Bettman and his new minister of hypocrisy, Brendan Shanahan.
If Pronger feels an opponent is taking liberties, he has garnered the respect of officials enough to yap his way into a makeup call. And when Pronger feels he has been the subject of a dirty play he will defend himself by any means necessary, as was made apparent by his two-handed chop against the Buffalo Sabres in the playoffs.
Zac Rinaldo made his debut in that series against the Buffalo Sabres and has all but cemented himself as an effective physical grinder with serviceable enough fighting skills, despite being listed at 5'11" and 169 pounds.
Replacing Blair Betts with Max Talbot is a move that could also pay off in the toughness department.
Talbot is a classic agitator. Every Flyers fan remembers the beating he took from Dan Carcillo in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2009, which spurred Pittsburgh's comeback from a 3-0 road deficit to eliminate the Flyers.
In this instance it was not who was the better fighter, but the smarter hockey player.
The Flyers will be looking to get their offense on the power play, and rightfully so with a roster sporting the names of Jaromir Jagr, Danny Briere, Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek.
If the Flyers are able to hit their opponents hard and frustrate them with solid defense, an agitator like Talbot will be able get his team on the man advantage through his gritty play and maddening conduct.
Philadrlphia's depth will also allow for more physical play as Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Talbot and Wayne Simmonds join an already solid penalty-killing unit, despite the loss of Mike Richards.
The special teams advantage could prove to be the most important aspect of the 2011-12 Philadelphia Flyers, as the power play should be able to take advantage of 20 percent of its chances at minimum.
The penalty-killing unit should be capable of denying opposing power plays at a rate amongst the top 10 teams in the league, while not wearing down the top units, a consistent problem late in seasons when Richards, Simon Gagne and other front line players were the premiere penalty killers.
These are the seven ways I see the Flyers can get off to a hot start and keep it rolling through the summer.