Originally Published: September 24, 2013

Philadelphia Flyers: Well, it depends

By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com


It was, without a doubt, a curious season for the Philadelphia Flyers. They were once again a dangerous team offensively and their special-teams play was also ranked highly (fifth on the penalty kill, third with the man advantage) but they never seemed to get into a rhythm. Plagued by injuries, especially on the back end, the Flyers missed the playoffs, finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference, six points out of eighth place. "Overall, the season was an awkward one," captain Claude Giroux told ESPN.com before training camp. GM Paul Holmgren never rests, regardless of how the Flyers fare, and so it was another adventurous offseason with the buyout of philosophical netminder Ilya Bryzgalov and the additions of veteran goalkeeper Ray Emery and former Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier. The Flyers also signed former New York Islanders captain Mark Streit in the hopes of bolstering offense on the back end. Andrej Meszaros returns theoretically at full health, although the hand injury suffered by Giroux while playing golf late in the summer put a damper on the Flyers' optimism. Still, Giroux insisted he is hopeful of playing in preseason games and expects to be ready for the start of the season.

The buying out of Bryzgalov, coupled with the Vezina Trophy win of former Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus, reinforced the team's ongoing issues with finding goaltending consistency. That question looms again with former Flyer Emery's return after he fought off what was believed to be a career-ending hip injury. Veteran goaltending coach Jeff Reese told ESPN.com he's thrilled at Emery's return and believes he will have a significant impact on Steve Mason, who came to Philadelphia at the trade deadline and played well in the short time he was a Flyer. Streit's arrival should help fill a gap created when Matt Carle left to free agency in the summer of 2012 in terms of a capable puck-moving defender who can help out on the power play. Interesting management decision as longtime Flyer favorite Ron Hextall left his job as assistant GM in Los Angeles to take on the same post with the Flyers. Most people believe Hextall is ready for a fulltime job and that has created much speculation that job could be in Philadelphia if the Flyers struggle again this season.

Lecavalier basically replaces the departed Daniel Briere in the Flyer depth chart after Briere signed in Montreal, which should be a good trade-off provided Lecavalier can stay healthy. Lecavalier is 33 and Streit will turn 36 in December but especially up front the future for the Flyers is their youth. Assuming Giroux returns to full health and recovers from an off year that saw him perhaps grappling with the increased pressure of being the Flyers' captain, there is a lot of room for growth for the young guys -- Jakob Voracek, who led the team with 22 goals and was second to Giroux with 46 points, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Matt Read and Sean Couturier -- most of whom played a big role in the Flyers' successful 2011-12 season. Scott Laughton, the 20th overall pick in 2012, will get a long look too, as will Austrian Michael Raffl. Erik Gustafsson has shown he has the makings of a solid NHL blueliner as well, and the Flyers' top pick in June's draft, 6-foot-6 Samuel Morin, impressed during training camp before being sent back to junior. Staying healthy will be a huge factor for the Flyers. And of course there's the goaltending. Of course there is. Emery is coming off a stellar season backing up Corey Crawford for the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, where he was immensely popular, turning in a 17-1 record and a sparkling 1.94 GAA. If Emery can stay healthy and if Mason can continue to rehabilitate his career, maybe this is the year the goaltending isn't a dominant storyline. Reese believes Mason, who won his last four starts in Philadelphia while allowing just eight goals, has turned a corner. "Mase made some great strides here. He needed a change and he needed people to believe in him again," Reese said. "They're both really dialed in right now," Giroux said of the goaltending tandem. "It's good to have a little competition."

OK, let's start with the goaltending. Why not? It's Philadelphia, after all. Emery must prove he can shoulder a starter's workload without breaking down and/or Mason has to prove there remains somewhere inside him the goaltender who won rookie of the year honors and was a Vezina Trophy nominee in 2008-09. If those two pieces of the puzzle do not fit nicely, then this could be another long season for the Flyers. Further, injuries and the threat of injury means the blue line remains a work in progress as Meszaros, who has missed significant time with injury the last two seasons, must prove he can resume his gritty play. Marc-Andre Bourdon, another defenseman poised to take on full-time responsibilities two years ago, has battled concussions and is still not ready to play with the big club. He cleared waivers and is with the team's AHL affiliate in Adirondack. Luke Schenn, who came to Philadelphia in the James van Riemsdyk trade in the summer of 2012, must also prove he's worthy of top-four or -five minutes. How much is left in the tank for classy veteran Kimmo Timonen? In all, many questions on the defensive side of things for the Flyers. Up front, Giroux must bounce back to the form that saw him shoulder his way into Hart Trophy discussion a couple of seasons ago and there are also questions about Lecavalier's durability.

With the addition of Columbus and Detroit to the mix in the Eastern Conference (the Blue Jackets join the Metropolitan Division while Detroit moves to the Atlantic), the competition, especially for the two wild-card berths that will determine the fourth seeds in both divisions, figures to be fierce. If the Flyers goaltending holds up, they should avoid that dogfight; if not, they'll be scrambling for one of those two final spots in the playoff bracket.

Burnside: The Flyers will settle into the fourth spot in the Metropolitan Division and hold off Carolina and Columbus for a playoff spot.

Custance: Third in the Metropolitan Division.

LeBrun: Second in the Metropolitan Division.

Melrose: Fifth in the Metropolitan Division.

Strang: Seventh in the Metropolitan Division.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer


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