The top ten Flyers storylines of 2011

Now that 2012 is nearly a week old, we will take one last look at some of the biggest events that occurred during the 2011 calendar year. Ahhh, nostalgia.

10. Flyers fail to show up for 2011 playoffs

Injuries limited Chris Pronger to 50 regular season and three playoff games during the 2010-2011 season. Nikolay Zherdev was a riddle wrapped in an enigma and battered in an average 1.29 goals per 60 minutes. The team was plagued with alleged locker room issues, tales of hard-partying stars, and the lack of a clear-cut starting goalie (despite the fact that both Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher boasted respectable goals-against averages and save percentages).

It didn’t matter. The players battled through it all and dominated a majority of the league before slowly succumbing to their own worst enemy after the All-Star break: themselves.

The Flyers managed to coast through the latter part of the 2010-11 regular season and win the Atlantic Division, while finishing second in the Eastern Conference and third in the entire NHL. Then they barely snuck by a depleted and inferior Buffalo Sabres team in the first round of the playoffs, only to stand around limp and lifeless as the Boston Bruins easily swept them out of the second round.

Peter Laviolette may have mismanaged the goalies and the goalies themselves did not play as well as they should have but the ultimate blame rests on the shoulders of the skaters and they, soon, would pay the price for this.

9. The kids are alright

OK, maybe that was an incredibly over-used cliché but that does not make it untrue.

In the not-so-distant past, the Flyers’ lineup was dominated by proven veterans with very few — if any — open spots for a rookie to earn a shot with the big club. That was not the case  coming into this season, as the events that took place this offseason resulted in a number of open spots on offense that could be won by rookies.

In the beginning of October, TSN’s Bob McKenzie, the NHL Insider, predicted that Matt Read, a 25-year-old rookie out of Bemidji State, would win the Calder Memorial Trophy. The prediction shocked many, as Read went undrafted and was surrounded by very little hype. So far, Read has done his best to prove McKenzie right by posting 22 points in 34 games, including three game winners, two power-play goals, and a short-handed goal.

First-round pick Sean Couturier is quickly developing into a Jordan Staal-esque player, with strong two-way play and the ability to pitch in some timely goal scoring as well.

Additionally, Harry Zolnierczyk, Marc-Andre Bourdon, Brayden Schenn, and Erik Gustafsson have done an admirable job rounding out the roster.

8. Flyers to host Winter Classic, play 2011 Flyers/Rangers Alumni Game

After months of speculation and rumors, the NHL finally confirmed at the end of September that the Flyers would host the 2012 Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park against the New York Rangers. Despite the outcome of the game, those in attendance proclaimed the game to be a memorable experience.

Those people were correct. However, the once-in-a-lifetime experience came a few days earlier, when the Flyers and Rangers all-time greats hit the ice for the Alumni Game.

It. Was. Amazing.

Fans young and old got to stand and salute players they grew up watching or only heard stories about as Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach, Bill Barber, Eric Lindros, Brian Propp, John LeClair, Mark Recchi, Eric Desjardins, Bernie Parent, et al. walked onto the ice for a remarkable matchup against the Rangers’ alumni.

Never before have we and never again will we see these epochal players come together as a team. That has immeasurable value.

7. Jaromir Jagr signs with mystery team

As fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins pulled their Jaromir Jagr jerseys out of the attic, they soon discovered a mystery team was making a play for the former Penguin. All the excitement and sentimental value that stirred inside them soon turned to bile as they learned that Jagr signed with the Philadelphia Flyers.

They soon claimed he screwed over Pittsburgh, that he was the same immature player they despised, that he couldn’t play in today’s NHL, and that they were glad he signed in Philadelphia because he would soon destroy the Flyers from the inside.

So far, these predictions have yet to bear anything but sour grapes. At a spry 39 years old, Jagr has shown great chemistry with line mate Claude Giroux, has not lost a step, and he plays each game with an ear-to-ear grin on his face.

6. Sean Couturier falls to eighth in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft

Heading into the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, it seemed likely that the Flyers would draft a defender with their first round pick. Despite their historical lack of success at developing defenders, it was an area of need, and Ryan Murphy or Dougie Hamilton were ripe for the picking.

Plans changed, though, as teams continued to overlook the formerly highly touted Sean Couturier. A bout with mono during the previous season set Couturier back and teams apparently did not want to take the chance on drafting him. Still, the Winnipeg Jets had a gift handed to them with the seventh overall pick but decided to go off the board and draft Mark Scheifele, leaving Couturier available for the Flyers to take.

Thank you, Winnipeg.

5. Claude Giroux emerges as a bona-fide superstar

Although it’s no surprise to most people who have seen Giroux play that he would someday emerge as a star in the NHL, it was hard to predict whether he could continue to develop at a rapid pace or if the increased duties of a becoming first line center would cause him to sputter.

Giroux has really come into his own this season as part of the formidable Hartnell/Giroux/Jagr trio that has run roughshod over the league. Despite missing some games to injury, Giroux still sits atop the league as the NHL’s top point getter. Giroux is also fourth in assists and tied for ninth in goals. What you cannot tell from the stats sheet, though, is how well he sees the ice, his ability to make unbelievable passes, how he can make a puck defy the laws of physics, and how he makes the players around him better.

Giroux’s dominance this season has left fans wondering if there anything he cannot do. Answer: Nothing…except maybe play goal.

4. Flyers sign Ilya Bryzgalov to humongous big contract

After a disappointing second-round playoff exit, Ed Snider declared that the Flyers would resolve the team’s perennial goaltending issues once and for all. To fulfill this mandate, Paul Holmgren acquired the rights to Ilya Bryzgalov, who was set to leave Phoenix as an unrestricted free agent, for Matt Clackson a third- round draft pick, and a conditional pick.

Holmgren had less than a month to work out a deal with Bryzgalov before he hit the free agent market. Then it happened. On June 23, the Flyers announced that they signed Bryz to an astounding 9-year, $51 million deal. Pundits quickly pointed out that teams simply don’t sign goalies to that sort of deal anymore but many fans were relieved to think that Philly’s carnival-like crease carousel would finally stop.

Much like love, though, money also cannot buy you a guarantee that any goalie will be the solution to a team’s woes. To date, Bryzgalov has posted an .890 SV%, 3.01 GAA, and a 14-8-3 record.

The silver lining is that Bryzgalov still has over eight seasons to right the ship. And a lifetime beyond that to contemplate the vastness of the galaxy.

3. Pronger’s career hangs in the balance

In April of 2010, Ian Laperriere took a second puck to the face in one season. The first puck cost the heart-and-soul player seven teeth. This one hit him in the eye. He worried that he lost his eyeball. It was an injury that ultimately cost him his career.

At the beginning of this season, history repeated itself. Newly minted captain, Chris Pronger, took a dangerous hit to the eye from the stick of Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski. Soon thereafter, Pronger was put on IR. A month later, it came out that Pronger had a concussion and was out indefinitely.

After the injury, the outspoken and quick-witted Pronger disappeared from the limelight and has remained relatively quiet about his injury. It’s entirely possible at this point that Pronger, much like Lappy, will remain on LTIR for the remainder of his contract and then quietly retire.

At this point, we can only hope that both players remain healthy enough to not have the quality of their lives ravaged by concussion symptoms.

2. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl loses entire team in plane crash

This past offseason was one marred by a series of tragedies where players like Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, and Rick Rypien passed away way too young.

Less than one month before the start of the regular season, the hockey world was rocked by even more devastating news when the jet carrying the players of the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crashed en route to Minsk, Belarus. Of the 45 people on board, 44 died, including numerous former NHLers such as Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei,Karlis Srkastins, and Josef Vasicek. The news really hit home when reporters learned that former Flyer, Brad McCrimmon, was among those who died in the crash.

McCrimmon just left Detroit, where he was an Assistant Coach for the Red Wings and was to make his debut as a head coach.

The Flyers honored McCrimmon by wearing a black #10 patch on their jerseys during the Alumni Game.

1. June 23, 2011

It was a day that will live in infamy, a day that saw Philadelphia’s two emerging young hockey stars depart in shocking trades.

Despite being plagued by trade rumors throughout his tenure in Philadelphia, Jeff Carter was considered one of the team’s core players, someone who would remain in orange and black as long as the Flyers were able to keep him here. This sentiment was reinforced the previous November, when the Flyers signed Carter to an 11-year, $58 million contract extension.

Those rumors turned to truth early that Thursday afternoon as news leaked out that Carter had been traded to Columbus for restricted free agent Jakub Voracek, a first-round pick (Sean Couturier), and a third-round pick (Nick Cousins).

Though Carter’s importance to the Flyers often went overlooked, Holmgren managed to get a solid return for the sniper — primarily because Couturier slipped to eighth in the draft.

Before anyone had time to digest this news, HockeyBuzz’s Eklund floated a rumor that the Flyers were working on a deal to send captain, Mike Richards, to Los Angeles. At the time, it seemed like a cruel joke but it was, in fact, the case. Less than an hour later, new broke that Mike Richards and Rob Bordson had ben traded to the Kings in exchange for top prospect Brayden Schenn, winger Wayne Simmonds, and a 2012 second-round pick.

Later that day, the Flyers announced that they had come to terms with Bryzgalov but this news paled in comparison to the bombshells that were the Carter and Richards trades.

Star players get traded or sign with other teams as free agents. In and of itself, there is nothing particularly spectacular about this news but to announce that a team’s two top stars were dealt within about an hour of each other is remarkable. It was one of those “where were you when it happened” moments.

I was sitting at my desk, slack-jawed and speechless.