Coming off of a summer of tremendous change for the Philadelphia Flyers, the 2011-12 season would have to be considered a tremendous success. With a turnover of most of their forward slots, leadership roles, and a new, quirky starting goaltender, there were numerous big question marks enveloping the team as they began the season. Who is going to make up for the offense lost after Jeff Carter and Mike Richards were dealt? How will the health of Chris Pronger hold up, and how good will the defense be if he misses significant time? How will Ilya Bryzgalov fare in his new surroundings?
These inquiries all needed to be addressed due to being thrust into the forefront at various times during the year, but the Flyers were a resilient bunch and exceeded just about everyone's expectations.
While that was an important step for the organization in not missing a beat during a significant transition period, the bottom line is Philadelphia still were eliminated in the postseason in the exact same round as they were the previous spring. In order for the Flyers to take the next stride forward, GM Paul Holmgren is entering a truly significant weekend with the free agency period opening Sunday.
With such names as Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, and Justin Schultz bouncing around as the most-desirable unrestricted free agents available, it will not be an easy task to secure the services of any of the three.
Suter has been rumored to be looking to remain in the Western Conference and could end up with the Detroit Red Wings. With the retirement of legendary blue liner Nicklas Lidstrom, there is a gaping hole on Hockeytown's defense, one in which Suter would likely love to attempt to plug. Having been in the shadow of partner Shea Weber in Nashville, being promised at least a role similar to the one he had on the top pairing with the Predators could land Suter in Motown.
Parise is the top-scoring UFA forward available. He's managed over 30 goals in five of the last six seasons, with the only exception being 2011-12, when he missed all but 13 games with a serious right knee injury. If there were any concerns about his ability to remain healthy and produce, he answered them last year by netting 31 goals in 81 games with the New Jersey Devils. The Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings could make a run at Parise, as their lack of scoring punch during the year nearly left them out of the postseason altogether. Other teams expected to make strong runs at Parise include the Red Wings -- where he could play with the likes of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk -- and the Flyers arch rival Pittsburgh Penguins -- where he would give the Pens a deadly top two combo of Sidney Crosby with Parise on his right, and Evgeni Malkin with James Neal to his right. Scary thought indeed for any fans of Philly hockey.
Schultz is the most curious name of the trio, having never played an NHL game. He is a recent entry into the UFA pool after filing paperwork to opt out of college, thereby releasing him from any ties to the Anaheim Ducks, the team that drafted him 43rd overall in 2008. It seems absurd that a team can invest the time and money to scout players and plot their franchise's building plans, then have a player they picked use an obscure loophole to make himself a free agent without ever having played for them. At any rate, that's the subject for another day. Schultz has used his new-found freedom to entice courtships from a number of team's on his list of acceptable suitors, and Philadelphia is reportedly not on that list.
It was common knowledge that Holmgren would be looking to upgrade his defensive unit this summer, especially with Pronger's status unlikely to change and the uncertainty swirling around pending UFA Matt Carle.
From all updates given by the GM on Pronger, the captain still has his good days and bad, and is still suffering headaches. It would be wise for the Flyers to plan on Pronger not playing a single game and strengthen the back line, accordingly.
Holmgren began that process last weekend at the NHL Draft in Pittsburgh, acquiring Luke Schenn from Toronto for winger James van Riemsdyk. Schenn brings the long-absent right-handed shot to Philly's blue line, as well as a much-needed physical presence in front of Bryzgalov. The 22-year-old will likely be in the Flyers top-four, even if Carle does decide to re-sign.
The lack of a right-handed shooting blue liner was more of an issue than most realized, with Parise even acknowledging the Devils used the major Philly deficiency as a major part of their forechecking game plan in ousting the Flyers in the second round. Not that it was an all-encompassing factor, but if you noticed Los Angeles' defensive corp that won the 2012 championship, each of the three pairings possessed a right-hander and a lefty.
The Carle situation could present a problem, as the increase in the salary cap ceiling has left all but four teams with in excess of $10 million in available space.
The Calgary Flames decision to acquire Washington Capitals defender and pending UFA Dennis Wideman and promptly sign him to a five-year, $26.25 million extension could be the worst thing to happen to the Flyers this summer. It seems to have changed the thinking in the Carle camp, as it was expected Holmgren would receive a hometown discount due to Carle's desire to return. The 27-year-old defenseman could well take full advantage of the market's climate and cash in with a ridiculous offer that Philly is not willing to attempt to top.
Coincidentally, one of the teams that will be throwing money at a rear guard if they cannot land Suter is the Penguins, and don't think for a second they will try everything in their power to lure Carle to the western end of the Commonwealth.
Viable options other than Suter and Schultz that could help include (alphabetically): Bryan Allen (31, Carolina Hurricanes, $2.9 million -- physical); Jason Garrison (27, Florida, $675,000 -- Milan Jurcina (29, New York Islanders, $1.6 million -- big, sometimes physical, right-handed shot) Michal Rozsival (33 years old, Phoenix Coyotes, $5 million cap hit last contract -- right-handed shot); Sheldon Souray (35, Dallas Stars, $1.65 million -- big, physical, booming shot from point).
Of this group of four, Souray, Garrison, and Jurcina could attract the most attention.
Souray's career was in the veritable scrap heap just two years ago -- an overpaid defenseman relegated to the minors for a year due to his exorbitant salary. The 2011-12 campaign saw a return to form for the 6' 4", 237-pounder, scoring six goals -- four on the power play -- while recording 21 points and finishing with a +11 for a Dallas squad that did not qualify for the postseason. The goal total was a far cry from the 26 and 23 he scored in 2007 and 2009, but his play in the defensive end was far improved. He used his size and the plus / minus number was his best since playing in N.J. back in 1998.
Any attempts to ink Souray will come with a much higher price tag than the $1.65 million that the Stars were able to manage, especially with the bevy of teams looking for competent defenders and the cash available to them with the increased cap.
The same could be said for Garrison, who came out of nowhere last season to notch 16 goals for the Panthers while earning just $675k. Though his offensive upside -- which was only over one season, not a good sign for depending on a repeat -- last season was attention-grabbing, Garrison is not known for exhibiting any physicality.
Nonetheless, he will generate a good deal of interest in a summer where defensemen will come at a top premium. Garrison will be seeing a tremendous raise very soon.
Jurcina is another huge body that also brings along a much-needed right-handed shot. He is 6' 4", 253-pounds and uses his size, recording 173 hits, the 21-highest total among NHL defensemen. One of the biggest detractors working against the big blue liner is his durability, having played more than 70 games just three times during his seven-year career.
If Holmgren isn't satisfied with what's left as free agents begin to sign elsewhere, the possibility of trading for a defender remains likely.
At the top of the Flyers wish list is Weber -- one of the top three blue liners in the League -- who just may become available if the Preds cannot re-sign the RFA. The Nashville captain was taken to arbitration last year and awarded an $8.5 million salary for '11-'12, and after finishing runner-up to Ottawa's Erik Karlsson in the Norris Trophy voting, will be looking for another big raise.
GM David Poile has a lot of money available to him as the Predators currently own the lowest allotted payroll in the NHL. With more than $35 million at his dispense and the go-ahead from ownership to spend to the cap ceiling, Poile will match any team that takes the risk of signing Weber to an offer sheet.
Even if Poile's hand is forced, Weber is still a long shot to wear the Orange-and-Black. He would immediately rectify any shortcomings on the Philadelphia defense, but the asking price would be astronomical. With van Riemsdyk already having been moved in the deal for Schenn, teams will be demanding either Luke's brother Brayden or Sean Couturier in return for any big name player.
Outside of a defenseman named Weber, that just will not happen.
One thing is for certain, and that is the need for additional depth on the blue line -- with players possessing the capability to play more minutes in an attempt to cut down on that logged by Kimmo Timonen. The 5' 10", 194-pound Finn is 37 years old and has been appearing to break down physically from the grind of each season more and more with each passing year. In order for him to be as effective as Peter Laviolette needs, a decrease in time on ice in the regular season is a must.
Holmgren has to be careful to balance the current needs of his team and the affect it will project on the Flyers long-term future.
Top-Line Scoring Right Winger
Just a year after everyone wondered where the Flyers goals would come from, there seems to be a growing complacency that the team will have no problems in that department in the coming season.
A couple of considerations when dismissing Philadelphia's need for another legitimate scorer -- 1) The Flyers had many players record career-highs during the 2011-12 season, and there is no guarantee some will be able to repeat, and 2) If teams employ similar defensive strategies as the New York Rangers did during a regular season that saw them go 6-0 against Philly and the Devils in the their playoff win, do the Flyers possess a true game-breaker that can make a difference outside of Claude Giroux?
Flyers career-highs posted last year:
Giroux -- 28 goals, 65 assists, 93 points. Goals, assists, and points were all career-bests for the 24-year-old Hearst, Ontario-native.
Hartnell -- 37 goals, 30 assists, 67 points. Hartnell posted career-highs in both goals and points, while the 30 assists tied his season-best total.
Wayne Simmonds -- 28 goals, 49 points. The 23-year-old set marks for goals and points, in fact doubling his goal total from the previous season with the Kings.
Maxime Talbot -- 19 goals, 15 assists, 34 points
Jakub Voracek -- 18 goals (*It should be noted that Voracek remains an unsigned RFA as of the time of this post. 2011-12 salary: $2.25 million)
Production of the '11-'12 Philly rookies:
Matt Read -- 24 goals, 23 assists, 47 points
Couturier -- 13 goals, 14 assists, 27 points
Brayden Schenn -- 12 goals, six assists, 18 points
While it's not an impossibility for the players who hit for career-best offensive stats to continue to improve, there is the possibility some of those numbers drop this year.
As for the rookies, there is always the risk of suffering the sophomore slump. Many second year players have fallen victim through the years, but this group of players could very well see markedly improved offensive numbers on their 2011-12 totals, especially Schenn and Couturier.
Uncertainty isn't solely around Carle, as Giroux's right winger Jaromir Jagr is close to testing the free agent waters, as well. Conflicting reports since the end of Philly's season have had the Czech future Hall-of-Famer either close to re-signing or as good as gone, but tomorrow should give a clearer vision into the truth behind the murky rumors.
With Scott Hartnell securely locked up for another season on Giroux's left, it's imperative that Holmgren provide the line with a compatible flank on the right. Jagr fit in very well when healthy, and another year for the 40-year-old would lend some stability.
Jagr's issues with returning may have more to do with his role with the Flyers more than any other single consideration. He obviously wants to play a vital part in his club's offensive scheme, but it's not known if Philadelphia wants to instead go another route. They may want to go with a younger winger, one that doesn't present the unfortunate chronic groin issues experienced by Jagr last year.
While Parise would give Laviolette an imposing top line, it's not likely it will come to fruition.
There are some very interesting alternative choices at right wing via the UFA route: Shane Doan (35, Phoenix, $4.55 million -- big, tough, scoring power forward); P.A. Parenteau (29, Islanders, $1.25 million -- solid, late-bloomer flourished on the Island); Teemu Selanne (41, Anaheim, $4 million -- Classy scorer still lethal, but likely to return to the Ducks); Alexander Semin (28, Washington, $6.7 million -- elite-level offensive talent).
Plainly stated, Doan -- who has played his entire 16-year career with the Winnipeg Jets - Phoenix Coyotes franchise -- is the prototypical Philadelphia Flyer. He's a big (6' 1", 223-pound), tough (1,071 career PIMs) winger who can score (20-or-more goals in 11 of the last 12 seasons, including 30 twice), kind of in the Rick Tocchet mold. 'Captain Coyote' would not only provide a presence crashing the net on the top line, he also would give Hartnell assistance in providing some protection for Giroux, who increasingly became the physical target of opponent's game plans.
With his robust, heart-and-soul style of play, there is no doubt the winner of the 2012 Mark Messier Leadership Award would become an instant fan favorite in Philadelphia, much the same way Ian Laperriere won over Flyer fans in such a short period of time.
The biggest factor with Doan's eventual destination is if he has any intentions of playing in a different NHL city or not, and the fact that he brings so many desirable attributes in one package will make him a popular commodity if he does decide to take a dip into the free agent pool. But make no mistake -- the continued instability of the Coyotes situation in Phoenix may just give Doan the push he needs to leave the desert, and move on to a hockey-crazed city such as Philadelphia. While he has been appreciated with the 'Yotes, he would be absolutely blown away by the support shown in a location where hockey is all important for the majority of sports fans.
Parenteau is a journeyman that found his place on the right side of Matt Moulson and John Tavares, scoring 38 goals and recording 120 points over the last two seasons. He evens has an edgy element to his game, as evidenced by his 89 PIMs last year, and wherever he ends up, will see a huge raise from the $1.25 million the Isles paid him annually over the past two campaigns.
Semin may just be the biggest wild card of any available player this year, possessing one of the most intimidating skill sets of any NHLer, but also includes a maddening disconnection and lax defensive-consciousness that drives coaches crazy. Given the strained relationship that unfolded when the Flyers brought in Nikolay Zherdev in 2010-11, Semin would more then likely become a distraction, one that is not needed as the team attempts to take the next step closer to regaining Lord Stanley.
If Holmgren doesn't like his options after players begin to sign, he may go the trade route to acquire a right winger for Giroux.
The biggest names mentioned in draft weekend rumors last week were Columbus captain Rick Nash, as well as Anaheim sniper Bobby Ryan. Both teams were rumored in talk with the Flyers, but in the end the asking prices were too high.
The 28-year-old Nash's burly frame (6' 4", 219-pounds) and net-crashing style would serve Laviolette well and give Giroux one of the top game-breakers for years to come, but not at the cost of sending vital building blocks in the Flyers future out of town as part of the return.
Jackets GM Scott Howson -- whose job is certainly in jeopardy after several seasons out of the playoffs and trades last summer that saw Voracek, a high draft choice (eighth overall that ended up being Couturier), and Carter leave Ohio with just Jack Johnson coming back in return -- needs to hit a grand slam, especially if dealing with Philadelphia. Again, with JvR gone, it's probable any deal for Nash would have to include a number of early-round draft picks and either Brayden Schenn or Couturier, and the current version Holmgren -- who made a habit of making that kind of deal in the past -- will not facilitate that return.
Expect Nash to land in Detroit, or either of New York with the Blue Shirts or Pittsburgh -- two of the top Philly Atlantic Division-rivals.
Ditto the reason Ryan won't be donning a Flyers jersey. Like Nash, the N.J.-native, who is reportedly disgruntled with the constant inclusion of his name in a plethora of trade rumors, would add a sniping element to the Philadelphia arsenal, but the demand of the inclusion of Brayden Schenn last week quashed any talks.
Unless either team comes off those demands, Holmgren will have to look elsewhere.
something that could help is a return to form of Danny Briere. With only 16 goals in 70 games during the 2011-12 campaign, Briere suffered through his worst season since signing with Philadelphia five years ago. When he did manage to produce, the points came in bunches -- he had two goals and four points in a late-October tilt with the Winnipeg Jets, recorded a hat trick against the Ottawa Senators in early-January, and picked up four assists against the Toronto Maple Leafs in late-March.
Those three contests represented over 22% of Briere's offensive production for the entire year. As he has done so often, Briere heated up as the postseason neared. He closed out the regular season with two goals and nine points in his last five games, then notched eight goals and 13 points in 11 playoff contests. The Flyers will need much more from the diminutive forward during the 2012-13 campaign, and on a more consistent basis over the course of the campaign.
With the departure of Sergei Bobrovsky in the draft day trade to the Columbus Blue Jackets, backup duties to Bryzgalov has become an open spot. The leading contender was re-signed yesterday when the Rangers re-upped ex-Flyer Martin Biron to a two-year pact. The chatty veteran would have presented the perfect complement to Bryzgalov.
There is, however, a very competent list of veteran backstops to fill Bobrovsky's void: Alex Auld (31, Ottawa, $1 million -- Several seasons removed from starting job, still reliable); Dan Ellis (32, Anaheim, $1.5 million -- injured most of last season); Scott Clemmensen (34, Florida, $1.2 million -- most likely still seeking a starting role, may find one with Devils should Martin Brodeur leave via free agency) Johan Hedberg (39, New Jersey, $800,000 -- capable backup to Brodeur past two years); Michael Leighton (31, Philly, $1.55 million -- familiar with Philadelphia); Chris Mason (36, Winnipeg, $1.85 million -- may be best option for Holmgren).