The Philadelphia Flyers have been known to make a splash during the summer months, many times coming away with the most prized free agents the off`season has to offer. With deep pockets and a burning desire to procure a return of Lord Stanley to the City of Brotherly Love for the first time since 1975, the team has gone in many different directions through the years in an attempt to find a winning combination.
A wild summer of massive changes to the lineup in 2011 still resulted in a second consecutive second-round exit from the playoffs. With an overhaul to the forward ranks and a long-awaited upgrade in net, many believed this summer Philadelphia would concentrate on what looked to be an ailing blue line.
Paul Holmgren focused squarely on that undertaking and hoped for a similar revamp to his defensive unit.
Not much happened, but it could not be said it was for a lack of trying on Holmgren's part. The GM made an attempt at landing free agent Ryan Suter, but the former Predator instead joined former New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise and signed on to play for the Minnesota Wild.
Philly then turned their attention to the Predators in an effort to swing a trade for Shea Weber, a restricted free agent who was slated to become the most sought-after free agent next summer. When trade talks faltered between the teams, Holmgren signed the Norris Trophy runner-up to a monster 14-year, $110 million offer sheet in hopes that the Preds could not match.
That attempt also came up fruitless as Nashville matched the offer sheet, despite the intricate workings that ensured Weber would be paid $27 million in the first 13 months of the pact, even if there is a league-induced lockout come September 15.
Suter would have been a good replacement for Matt Carle, one of the club's most reliable defenders over the past three seasons, who left the Flyers for the sunny shores of Tampa Bay via free agency. While the Flyers were wrapped up in their all-out pursuit of Suter and Weber, they may have taken Carle's allegiance and his willingness to wait patiently to re-sign for granted.
The Flyers were hoping Weber would become the franchise defenseman the club has sorely lacked for the last two decades since the departure of Hall-of-Famer Mark Howe.
When Holmgren acquired Chris Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, it appeared they had done just that. But Pronger's 35-year-old body had endured many wars throughout the years and after making it through an injury-free first year in helping Philadelphia to the Cup Final, has appeared in just 63 regular season contests over the past two years. After sustaining a concussion in November and finishing the campaign on Long-Term Injured Reserve, the return of 38-year-old Pronger is doubtful.
With 37-year-old Kimmo Timonen also showing signs of wearing down as he enters the final year of his five-year contract, obtaining a defenseman who can eat a ton of minutes would have been a wise move. Compounding the Flyers' defensive woes was the news that Andrej Meszaros -- who was recovering from late-season back surgery and was being counted on for increased ice time upon his return -- had surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon in early-August and is out indefinitely.
With all the bad luck on the injury front, Timonen will likely have to log a significant amount of ice time, slated to be paired with his usual partner Braydon Coburn as the club's top duo.
With Meszaros out, the second pairing is looking to be Nicklas Grossmann -- who was acquired from the Dallas Stars before the trade deadline and provided a physical, defense-first element that had been missing since Pronger was lost from the lineup -- and newcomer Luke Schenn, who was picked up from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for winger James van Riemsdyk in June.
The welfare of the defense will have a significant impact on the play of Ilya Bryzgalov in the net. The veteran goaltender struggled at times during the year but put things together late in the regular season to finish with a very respectable 33-16-7 record, with a 2.48 goals-against average, .909 save percentage, and six shutouts.
As always, the real strength of the Orange and Black comes from its forwards.
Boasting one of the most well-balanced offensive attacks in the league, there are many poisons with which to choose from in Philly. The Flyers had 11 different goal-scorers hit the double-digit mark, one of only three teams to accomplish that feat last year.
Philadelphia was led by diminutive wizard Claude Giroux's 93 points. He recorded the most points by a Flyer in a single season since Eric Lindros notched the same total during the 1998-99 campaign, and his 65 assists were the most since Lindros' 68 in 1995-96. Giroux was the spark plug that ignited the team's attack, and he also proved to be the club's leader in the first-round playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. His first shift of the game in Game 6 featured a thunderous hit to take Sidney Crosby off the puck, followed quickly by a goal in the game's first half minute.
Giroux got plenty of help along the way from a host of first-year Flyers:
- Playing on the top line with Giroux and left winger Scott Hartnell, Jaromir Jagr notched 19 goals and 54 points while providing a veteran leadership for a young group of Flyer forwards.
- Jakub Voracek, obtained from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Jeff Carter trade, scored a career-high 18 goals and finished the season with 49 points.
- Wayne Simmonds came over from the Los Angeles Kings in the Mike Richards deal and promptly posted 28 goals and 49 points -- both career-bests -- while employing a physical style that resulted in 114 penalty minutes.
- 25-year-old rookie Matt Read scored 24 goals and 47 points while performing in all situations and his well-rounded game gave Peter Laviolette much flexibility. Read also came through in the clutch as evidenced by his six game-winning goals, which tied him with Hartnell for the team lead.
- Maxime Talbot, the ex-Penguin who signed as an UFA last summer, posted career-highs in goals (19), assists (15), and points (34). "Mad Max" also thrived in all situations.
- 18-year-old center Sean Couturier -- also acquired in the Carter trade -- surprised everyone when he made the big club out of training camp instead of returning to juniors. He scored 13 goals and recorded 27 points, but it was his play in the defensive zone that has the organization so excited. A Selke Trophy could be in the cards for Couturier sometime in the future.
- Another vital piece acquired from the Kings was Brayden Schenn. The 20-year-old began the season in the AHL due to salary cap issues, then was injured. He finished the year strong, posting 12 goals and 18 points.
- The Flyers also received contributions from rookies Zac Rinaldo, Eric Wellwood, and Harry Zolnierczyk.
What To Expect in 2012-13
With all of the changes made in such a short period of time, there were many unknowns heading into the 2011-12 season. The Flyers passed almost every test with flying colors, and this year brings forth a new set of challenges.
But it's with an almost identical roster this time around.
Moving forward, Philadelphia may be hard-pressed to repeat the offensive success they enjoyed during the 2011-12 season. Part of the descriptive words for many of the Flyers' offensive totals was "career-high", and that will require a command performance in the upcoming year. Both Jagr and van Riemsdyk were subtracted from the mix, and only 33-year-old winger Ruslan Fedotenko was added as an UFA.
Taking over Jagr's vacant spot on the right wing of the number one line is likely to be Voracek, who recently signed a four-year contract. The 23-year-old Czech native filled in nicely when Jagr was battling through groin issues, and could develop into the offensive force envisioned when he was selected seventh by Columbus in the 2007 draft.
As a matter of fact, that's a common theme with many Flyers' forwards -- youth. Along with Giroux and Voracek, players such as Simmonds, Read, Couturier, Brayden Schenn, and Wellwood should continue to progress in their rapid development.
Another positive factor is that the team's offense did not miss a beat even though Danny Briere -- one of the team's most consistent performers since coming to Philadelphia in 2008 -- suffered through a somewhat miserable 2011-12 campaign. The 34-year-old was invisible for long stretches and managed just 16 goals and 49 points in 70 regular season games before coming through with eight goals and 13 points in 11 postseason contests. A return to form from the highest-paid Flyer for the duration of a full season would be a huge plus for the team.
Both Simmonds and Hartnell are fresh off inking new six-year deals with the Flyers, and will certainly play large roles on the club. Hartnell led the team with 37 goals (yes, another of the Philly career-highs), and could find Simmonds as his linemate if Voracek for some reason doesn't work out in the slot.
It is doubtful that Philadelphia's top prospect Nick Cousins -- the gritty forward with the best chance of making the opening night roster of any of the club's rookies -- can even attend training camp in September due to legal troubles that arose over the weekend.
With UFA right winger Shane Doan set to make a decision as to where he will play by September 15, the Flyers could end up with another addition. The Phoenix Coyotes captain is likely to remain in the desert, though other teams -- including a late run by the Buffalo Sabres -- could well sway Doan's ultimate decision. But the chances he comes to Philadelphia appear to be very slim.
While the defense corps doesn't have the elite-level stud to anchor the unit, there still are eight to 10 NHL-caliber rear guards to fill spots. Add in the fact that Philly's forwards are a defensively-conscious bunch, and it could well turn out the Flyers will be just fine in that aspect of their game.
One area that needs to be solid is between the pipes, and Bryzgalov must find a way to build upon the momentum garnered late in the regular season and playoffs. After distractions caused wild inconsistencies in his game, Bryzgalov's play late in the year -- and more specifically, the increased reliability in his game -- was more along the lines of what was envisioned by Flyers' ownership when they obtained him from the Coyotes last summer. The fact they signed him to a nine-year pact gives the upcoming campaign the utmost importance, as it will almost certainly shape the relationship between the goaltender and the organization for the long haul of the contract -- and the course of action the club may find necessary if things don't go according to plan.
Playing in perhaps hockey's toughest division, the Flyers found out the hard way they will have a rough route if they are to make their way to the Promised Land. Philly didn't have much left after an ultra-physical first round against Pittsburgh, and the Devils manhandled their neighbors to the west, as the Flyers' list of players who required surgery mounted.
After losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, Philadelphia has fallen to the eventual Eastern Conference representative of the Finals in each of the past two springs.
Some questions remain. Following years of making wholesale off-season changes, will the Flyers finally break through after basically maintaining the status quo? Will the dam in front of the Philadelphia goal hold, or will the potential weakening of the club's blue line make it necessary for the team to score goals in bunches to compensate?
No one knows for sure at this point, but chances are Holmgren won't sit on his hands should he need to make adjustments.