Why, yes, hockey is starting today. This is by far the most curious Flyers season I can remember, just because of the magnitude and suddenness of the trades that were made over the summer. The organization completely and unexpectedly changed course, abandoning its once-concrete commitment to building a Stanley Cup winner around Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Whatever the reasons were for the split, it's in the past. Now is the time to move forward and look at a future that appears quite bright. I am of the opinion that both Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk have more raw talent and higher ceilings than Richards and Carter. They are the new franchise cornerstones, along with Ilya Bryzgalov. Chris Pronger, who turns 37 in four days, is the new captain (Giroux should be next) and undisputed leader. He's coming back from a season marred by injuries but is healthy -- right? -- after offseason surgery and ready to go for the opener. At that age, it's fair to wonder what Pronger has left in the tank (let's just not talk about his contract). A fitness freak whose steadfast devotion to the game is second to none, he doesn't appear quite ready to hang up his skates. Instead, it seems Pronger's desire is as strong as ever, and he sounds like a player who wants to punctuate his Hall of Fame career by bringing the Stanley Cup back to Philadelphia for the first time since 1975. He's already laid down the law:
"It's not good enough just to be in this room,'' [Pronger] says. "It's not just good enough that you're in the National Hockey League. You want to achieve. You want to win games. You want to have a long, illustrious career and do all these great things.
"Well, that takes hard work and it takes passion and it takes dedication. You have to be willing to make some sacrifices to do it.''
Say, if I didn't know any better, I'd say that statement reads like a thinly veiled shot at the departed Richards and Carter. Regardless of Pronger's intent, that quote speaks volumes about what is expected of the team, and perhaps what was missing last season. Whatever the case, hopefully this means everyone is now on the, ahem, same page.
Ilya Bryzgalov was brought in to finally end the annual goaltending woes that have doomed past teams; all it took to finally address the issue was complete and utter humiliation in the 2011 playoffs. His colorful personality is already a hit with teammates, the media, and fans, and hopefully his play on the ice will engender similar sentiments. I'm happy Paul Holmgren kept Sergei Bobrovsky as the backup; he was thrust into an impossible situation last season and performed admirably. He's also been very impressive in the preseason. Bobrovsky will be a good starting goalie in this league, even if it won't be with the Flyers. While it's a shame that he'll be denied the opportunity to grow into a starter here, this is a team built to win now and a franchise not exactly known for its patience.
In front of Bryzgalov is one of the league's best defensive corps (on paper), led by the aforementioned Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, who'll turn 37 in March. With Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros, and Matt Carle all in their mid-20's and entering what should be the primes of their careers, the blue line is stacked. I'm most interested in how Coburn performs this season. He'll be a free agent in the summer and, if he wants that big money contract, needs to separate himself from the rest of the pack. We all know he can skate like the wind and carry the puck up ice, but will he develop a snarl and start consistently using that big, imposing body of his to physically punish opponents?
Another question surrounding this year's team is whether James van Riemsdyk will take that proverbial next step, like Claude Giroux did in 2010-2011. If the glimpses we saw in the playoffs is the real JVR, we have ourselves a dynamic power forward in the making. He's a player who can dominate with his unique skill set, whose combination of size, speed, power, and hands is "whoa" inducing. First line minutes and first line pressure await. Luckily for JVR, he'll be playing with two puck wizards of the highest order. Singing Claude Giroux's praises is nothing new for me, so what the hell. After a breakout season, I believe an even better campaign -- a superstar campaign -- is about to follow. From watching some preseason games, I've also noticed that Giroux seems to be shooting more. That's a really encouraging sign for the people, like me, who feel his shot is a dangerous weapon that's underrated and underutilized. If Giroux actually does commit more to putting the puck on net, I expect him to score 35+ goals this season, to go along with the 50+ assists he'll surely record.
An added element to this mystery of a season is the Jaromir Jagr factor. He's the wildcard, a player who could ultimately prove to be the best signing of the offseason. And, let me tell you something, Jagr is going to be effective. Really effective. I still don't believe my eyes when I see him in a Flyers sweater, but, damn, do I like it. I know the preseason is not the regular season, but I also know what I saw during those tune-up games. Jaromir Jagr, who'll turn 40 in February, can still play, and do so at a high level. Honestly, I think it's going to look like he never even left. The hands, the patience, the vision, the shot. They're all there. He's "still got it", as Peter Laviolette beamed at the conclusion of the final preseason game. That big ol' butt, which has always allowed Jagr to shield the puck from defenders like few ever have, certainly hasn't gone anywhere either. One of the numerous transcendant abilities that has defined Jagr's career is his ability to hold onto the puck and slow the game down until he's ready make a play. In a sport where everything happens at breakneck speed, that's an invaluable trait. There's also no denying his impact on the power play -- expect the Flyers to be among the league's best in that department.
Obviously the status of Sidney Crosby's concussed head is the top storyline going into the season. But this Jagr comeback, his NHL swan song, is quite intriguing in its own right. He and Claude Giroux -- who, as I'm sure you've read by now, Jagr described as "a little Mario Lemieux" -- operate as though the puck is attached to their stick blades like a magent, and the synergy of their talents has the chance to produce some special results. Their chemistry on the ice was instantaneous, and the potential for nightly magic is palpable and undeniable. If you enjoy mesmerizing puck skills, awesome dangles, and watching exquisite poetry in motion, you're in for quite a treat. Get excited.
The Flyers need to replace the goal-scoring production of the departed Richards, Carter, and Ville Leino, and it'll be up to everyone else to pick up the slack. Then again, if you don't give up that many goals, you don't have to score that many to win. Top to bottom, this roster has a wealth of size, speed, skill, and grit. Danny Briere has embraced his new role as a sniper, and the organization has high hopes for Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek (who, like Jagr, is a native of Kladno, Czech Republic). Scott Hartnell will have his fair share of brain farts, but he'll also provide a physical presence up front, do the dirty work down around the crease, and post a minimum of 20 goals and 20 assists. Rookie Matt Read had a phenomenal training camp and preseason, validating his standout performance in an 11-game stint with the Phantoms last season after finishing his career at Bemidji State. At age 25, the Flyers hope they have found a late-bloomer gem. While expectations have perhaps started to get a little sensational and unrealistic, Read certainly looks like a player who belongs. He's versatile and strong defensively, with blinding speed and surprising offensive ability (tied with Giroux for the team lead in points with seven). Sean Couturier, the team's eighth overall pick in June's draft, will get a nine-game tryout at the NHL level, but it remains to be seen whether he'll end up back in the QMJHL.* Meanwhile, Brayden Schenn -- who was all but assured a roster spot in the summer and trumpeted as a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors -- has been hampered by a shoulder injury and will start the season in the minors (but won't stay there for long). Maxime Talbot, Andreas Nodl, Zac Rinaldo, and Jody Shelley round out the forwards. Why Blair Betts had to be waived -- and is now a Montreal Canadien -- so the Flyers could keep Rinaldo and Shelley, I can't process nor explain.** I was going to express my confusion and displeasure with the move, but Travis Hughes over at Broad Street Hockey already took care of that.
* Edit: Well, seeing as how Peter Laviolette called Couturier the team's "best defensive player" (!!) and had him out on the ice protecting a one-goal lead with under a minute left in the first game of the season, perhaps the 18-year old rookie is here to stay. His defensive game is extraordinarily advanced for a player his age, which has already garnered him all kinds of good will and trust from the coaching staff. Very, very impressive debut.
**Nevermind, it can be explained. Rather easily, too.
Overall, this is a playoff team that should compete for the Atlantic Division title with the Penguins, Devils, and Rangers -- even challenge for the top spot in the conference. The pieces are in place at every position, and Peter Laviolette is behind the bench. Time to do the damn thing. But what am I most looking forward to this season? HBO's 24/7, of course. Well, that and a Stanley Cup parade.