Perpetual winners but constantly in a state of flux, the Philadelphia Flyers of 2010-11 followed up a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Finals with an equally perplexing 11-game playoff course which ended in a four-game sweep to the Boston Bruins.
Cue the massive moves necessary to alter team chemistry.
Peter Laviolette, who is entering his second full season and third year at the helm, is again tasked with bringing order to the chaos — much like he did when he stepped in for John Stevens in December of 2009.
Unlike in previous years, the pressure to turn things around immediately is not pressing, but the penalties for failing to keep things on an even keel just two seasons removed from a title run are evidently clear, beginning with the jury of his peers — the Flyers fans — and will certainly extend to the front office.
OFFENSE – The change in chemistry is most evident on the forward lines, as former franchise cornerstones Jeff Carter (36 goals, 30 assists) and Mike Richards (23g, 43a) were dealt to Columbus and Los Angeles, respectively, 2010 playoff breakout star Ville Leino (53 points) left for Buffalo, third-line grinder Dan Carcillo signed with Chicago and fourth-liner Darroll Powe was shipped to Minnesota.
Kris Versteeg, who lasted all of 38 games in Philly, was transacted to Florida for two draft picks, and Nikolay Zherdev was granted his walking papers after one stormy season
While it may be a bitter pill for fans to swallow, the Flyers netted promising young forwards Wayne Simmonds (14g, 16a in LA) and Jakub Voracek (14g, 32a w/Blue Jackets) out of the dual deals.
With Carter and Richards gone, the bulk of the attention and need for leadership up front falls on 23-year-old Claude Giroux (team-best 76 points in 82 regular-season games; team-high 11 assists and 12 points in playoffs) and 22-year-old James van Riemsdyk (40 points in 75 regular-season games; tied for team-high with seven postseason scores).
Reinforcements have arrived from an unlikely place: Pittsburgh.
A clear upgrade from Carcillo, Max Talbot arrives thanks to a five-year deal, carrying with him the credentials of a Stanley Cup winner. He scored 21 points in 82 games a year ago and antagonized as many opponents — including his now current teammates. He’ll need to keep that edge to maintain his status in new surroundings.
Of course, the wild card in the equation is Jaromir Jagr. The 39-year-old (who tortured the Flyers for years as a member of the Penguins) returns from three years in Russia ostensibly to provide a veteran presence sorely lacking last year. He has meshed well in the preseason with Giroux and fellow French-Canadian Danny Briere (34G, 34A) and that grouping has the potential to stoke the fires of an inconsistent power play.
With an overloaded roster, how can Brayden Schenn — the other spoils from the Richards deal — distinguish himself after just nine games of NHL experience? It’s almost certain he’ll get a shot to show what he’s got at some point this year, but he must make the most of it.
One other burning question will surely be: can Scott Hartnell (49 pts.) put up anywhere near as many points as pratfalls this year?
DEFENSE - As it has been since Chris Pronger arrived in the summer of 2009, the Flyers defense will have an element of danger along with its puck-moving prowess — but only if he stays healthy.
A defense that ranked fourth in goals allowed in their own division (223) even graced with his limited presence needs him to be in top form for the formula to work.
The de facto team leader and 37-year-old human barometer was limited to 50 games and 25 points last season due to multiple injuries, and was clearly not up to snuff come playoff time.
When he was at the top of his game, so were the Orange and Black, who surged to the top of the standings mid-season. When he wasn’t the change was obvious.
Joining him are a solid core of durable players: the steady 36-year-old Kimmo Timonen (37 pts, plus-11), Matt Carle (40 pts, plus-30), Braydon Coburn (16 pts, plus-15), Andrej Meszaros (32 pts, plus-30), and Matt Walker, if his ailing hips ever allow him significant ice time.
The only alteration to the blue line is Andreas Lilja, who arrives from Anaheim on a two-year contract. He’s a younger upgrade from the departed Sean O’Donnell.
If all else fails, there’s always Oskars Bartulis (at a bargain price of $600,000) and the ever-present possibility of Prodigal Son Danny Syvret returning once again.
GOALTENDING - Chairman and founder Ed Snider posed sternly in front of the cameras in Boston last spring as his club was about to be tossed aside by the eventual-champion Bruins. The trifecta of Michael Leighton, Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher barely managed to turn back Buffalo in the first round, but failed to hold back the deluge in the second.
The 78-year-old spoke bluntly about the need for the “goaltending carousel” to stop.
So let it be spoken, so let it be done.
Enter free-agent netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, skillfully romanced away from several suitors in late June and presented with a $51 million deal over nine seasons.
Pried away from the desert after two above-average campaigns propping up a young roster in Phoenix, the 31-year-old Russian now faces expectations the likes of which he’s never confronted.
Though it is expected his impact in the crease will match or exceed the impact his contract is making on the salary cap, Bryzgalov may be hard pressed to top his performance of the last two seasons: 78 wins, goals-against under 2.50 each year, with 15 shutouts and a save percentage of .920.
With Leighton consigned to the minors and Boucher once again given his walking papers, Bobrovsky has been installed as the backup. In his rookie season, the 23-year-old went 28-13-8 with a 2.59 GAA, but began to falter late in the year as his shortcomings became apparent.
The affable Russian will have countryman Bryzgalov to further ease his transition into the North American game, so another drop-off won’t be tolerated for the franchise’s future starter.
FINAL ANALYSIS - It’s another year of wait-and-see as all the new pieces to the puzzle need time to fit properly.
Though the need to perform to maximum capability in a quest to win the Cup is not there for the first time in half a decade, the season will likely still be termed a disappointment if a playoff berth does not materialize.
It also remains to be seen how much better Bryzgalov performs compared to false crease saviors Martin Biron, Michael Leighton, Brian Boucher and several other goaltenders the Flyers chose not to sign over the last couple years.