With the playoffs set to start, I've found myself thinking a lot about how we got here. Going into the season, no one really knew what to expect from this iteration of the Flyers. Paul Holmgren overhauled and restructured the roster during a summer unlike any other. While there were those who thought subtracting Mike Richards and Jeff Carter would debilitate the team, I was one of the people who saw things differently. I liked what Holmgren did and felt the moves positioned the Flyers favorably for the future. There was new blood and a renewed sense of hope, vigor, and excitement in a locker room that was irreconcilably fractured by the end of last season. I never doubted that Claude Giroux could step into the spotlight as the face of the franchise and become a superstar. I never doubted that Peter Laviolette was the right coach to lead this collection of veterans and rookies and mold it into a strong, cohesive unit. I just needed to see how all the other pieces would fit together.
What we learned:
- First, the two blockbuster trades over the summer have worked out for the Flyers just about as well as anyone could have imagined. Thanks to the good fortune of having Sean Couturier slip to the eighth pick in the draft -- combined with Jakub Voracek's inspired play and the selection of Nick Cousins with the Blue Jackets' third round pick -- we will soon label the Jeff Carter trade as the second coming of Mark Recchi for Eric Desjardins and John LeClair. It's a franchise-shaper. Meanwhile, the Mike Richards trade returned Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, and a second round pick eventually used to acquire Nicklas Grossmann (more on him later). While Schenn struggled through injuries over the first half of the season, Simmonds immediately proved with his toughness, effort, and win-at-all-costs mentality that he was born to wear a Flyers sweater. The guy's so good, he can even score with his face. Simmonds also ended up validating Paul Holmgren's belief that there was "something more there" in terms of his offensive ability by posting career highs in goals (28) and points (49), while playing in all 82 games.
Schenn, meanwhile, has been more of an enigma. When on his game, he mixes offensive skill with physicality and plays an in-your-face style. When off his game, he's passive and invisible. Luckily, Schenn started to play his best hockey over the final few weeks of the season and was arguably one the Flyers' top forwards down the stretch. He had perhaps his best performance as a pro against Pittsburgh in the last game of the regular season. What's more, it's obvious he relishes the chance to go up against Sidney Crosby. Very rarely do you see players successfully pin Crosby against the boards and separate him from the puck when he's cycling down low, but Schenn has done so at least once in each of the past three Flyers/Penguins tilts. It's a subtle play on the surface, but anyone who knows the game -- and has watched Sidney Crosby operate -- understands why such a maneuver is so noteworthy.
- This is a Flyers team that thrives on adversity. Whether it's losing captain, top defenseman, and future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger to a likely career-ending post-concussion syndrome injury or routinely falling behind early in games and battling back to win, this is a team that plays its best hockey with its back against the wall. It's not a traditional recipe for success, and conventional wisdom says it's an unsustainable trend, especially in the playoffs. I'd rather the team come out strong and get off to a fast start, but, hey, whatever works.
- Claude Giroux finished third in the league in points (93) and cemented his status as a superstar. This is his team -- he is the face of the franchise and the future captain. While Giroux's goal-scoring tapered off in the second half of the season -- though his play-making did not -- and there were times when he struggled because he tried to do too much or held onto the puck for too long, his indefatigable effort was always present. Giroux possesses otherworldly talent and, perhaps most importantly, has a good head on his shoulders. He will be a fixture atop the league for years to come, and there's no denying how privileged we are to have him on the Flyers.
- I was especially critical of and harsh on Ilya Bryzgalov while he did his best emulation of what a piece of human Swiss cheese might look like in net. It was a painful experience to watch him play goalie, and I found myself cringing and sweating bullets every time an opposing player carried the puck into the Flyers' offensive zone. Bryzgalov tortured me -- and all other Flyers fans -- for nearly three quarters of the season, but, in essentially the blink of an eye, turned things around in March and returned to past form as one of the league's best goalies. It actually made me wonder if he was just trolling us all the whole time. A much more tangible reason for the 180, however, is that in addition to the arrival of Nicklas Grossmann to bolster the defense, it was also around this time that the Flyers' leadership group had an intervention with Bryzgalov and told him to cut all the extracurricular bullshit and focus solely on being the goalie the team needed in order to make a deep run in the playoffs. In short, he wasn't brought here and promised $51 million over nine years to be a sideshow clown. Bryzgalov apparently took that talk to heart and has looked locked in and determined on the ice ever since -- a mindset that was undoubtedly lacking for much of the season. He has espoused the team over the individual and taken the focus off of himself, primarily by dismissing the ever-annoying and invasive Philly media who are always trying to stir things up. Though dealing with a chip fracture in his foot, Bryzgalov is the man between the pipes for the Flyers, and it's time to show that March was not a fluke.
- After a rough start that had people wondering if a trade was in store, Scott Hartnell harnessed his talents and blossomed into one of the league's premier power forwards. Turns out all it took was a promotion to Claude Giroux's wing to get Hartnell going on the path to a career season, in which he scored 37 goals (tied for sixth in the NHL) and notched 30 assists while playing his trademarked sandpaper style. In the process, he also took on more of a leadership role and has embraced the added responsibility. Not only is Hartnell blessed with soft hands and a howitzer of a shot, but he's not afraid to go into the dirty areas to make plays or take punishment in front of the net to score goals. He also knows how to piss off the other team and get opposing players off their game. A supreme agitator who can also score upwards of 40 goals? Yeah, you don't see those nowadays. Scott Hartnell is one of the engines that makes this Flyers team go, and he'll need to be at his best in the playoffs. He's also a cool, funny, down-to-earth dude who encapsulates why hockey players are the most beloved professional athletes.
- Jaromir Jagr isn't the player he was when he left the league four years ago, but he's still pretty damn good. Even though his play -- mainly his goal scoring -- tailed off toward the end of the season, his presence in the locker room and the example he set for younger players cannot be overstated. Jagr was just as important to this team off the ice as he was on it. He says he wants to play next year, and I hope the Flyers bring him back.
- Danny Briere had an up-and-down season and dogged it far too often for my liking. Still, he appeared to find a comfort zone on a line centering Schenn and Simmonds and had registered nine points in five games before Joe Vitale's hard hit sidelined him with an upper back contusion. Briere is in the lineup for Game 1 tonight, and we can only hope he taps into his playoff magic reserve as in years past.
- The kids are, in fact, alright. Better than alright, actually. For the Flyers to have success this season, it was no secret that the influx of rookies populating the roster would have to step up. And step up they did. Led by Matt Read and Sean Couturier, the Flyers boasted the league's best crop of first-year players -- a group that combined for 128 points (64 goals, 64 assists) and played significant minutes every game. In fact, Read and Couturier were both staples on the penalty killing unit and quickly earned Laviolette's trust to play in all situations. Read has been marvelous in every possible way and possesses a shot that portends 30-goal ability. He skates on ice like a cheetah runs on land and is a heady, cerebral player who does all the little things that help a team win hockey games.
With all due respect to Read, the player who generates the most excitement among Flyers fans is Sean Couturier. From the moment training camp began, it was clear as day that he belonged in the NHL. Remember, Couturier was out on the ice for the final minute of the first game of the season as the Flyers clung to a 2-1 lead over the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins. Laviolette's post-game declaration that Couturier was the best defensive forward on the team was as illuminating as it was shocking. But you know something? Coach was right. Couturier's defensive game is extraordinarily advanced for a player his age, and I begin to salivate when thinking about what he'll look like three years down the road. He's genuinely team-first oriented all the way and plays with the poise, maturity, and composure of a ten-year veteran. Nothing seems to faze the kid, either. Make no mistake, Couturier is a rare breed. The only part of his skill set that doesn't grade as a "plus" is his skating, but it's still above average and not a deterrent to his game. Couturier's hockey IQ is elite, his positioning perfect, his stick work sublime, and you can tell his offensive game has serious potential (he's already got a wicked wrister, Giroux-like vision, is superb along the boards, and strong on the puck); the kid's a natural, and he does something every game that makes you cognizant of it. At his peak, Sean Couturier will score 70+ points while playing Selke Trophy-caliber defense against the opposition's best player. We'll get our first sampling in the upcoming series versus Pittsburgh, where Couturier will be matched up with probable league MVP Evgeni Malkin.
Honorable mentions to Zac Rinaldo (the human homing missile), Marc-Andre Bourdon (who came out of nowhere but showed legitimate NHL skills and will be playing on the third defensive pairing with Andreas Lilja), Erik Gustafsson (Kimmo Timonen-lite), and Harry Zolnierczyk.
- Speaking of rookies, Eric Wellwood has been a revelation these past few months. I love this kid. If Matt Read is a cheetah, Wellwood is the ThrustSSC. His explosive first step and acceleration are unlike anything I've seen before; he's at top speed in a millisecond. Wellwood has always been lauded for his defensive acumen (in fact, it's what got him drafted), but he's shown impressive offensive skill as well. Every game I watch him play, I find myself liking him more and more. I think Wellwood has the talent to be a 15-20-goal scorer at the NHL level and hope he remains a regular even when James van Riemsdyk is healthy. He's earned that right.
- When Jakub Voracek goes into beast mode, he can be the best player on the ice. If he had a more potent shot and better finishing ability, he'd be a point-per-game player. As it is, Voracek's speedy and powerful skating complements his relentless work on the forecheck and strength protecting the puck to make plays. Furthermore, he's another guy whose effort is never in question. Side note: There's not a faster line in hockey than Voracek-Read-Wellwood. It's a treat to watch them buzz around the ice and make opponents look like they're skating in quicksand.
- Max Talbot. Love the guy; he's a player that every team needs. In addition to his leadership and tireless work on the penalty kill, Talbot chipped in a career-high 19 goals. With any luck, he'll prove himself a Penguin-killer in the playoffs.
- Nicklas Grossmann, a player who I said wouldn't single-handedly fix what ailed the Flyers on defense, proved me wrong. Totally wrong. It's not merely a coincidence that Ilya Bryzgalov's transformation from infuriating sieve into impenetrable brick wall coincided with Grossmann's arrival. The big defenseman has been a godsend for the Flyers and added a physical, intimidating element that was so noticeably absent on the back end. All of a sudden, opposing forwards couldn't camp out in front of the net without paying the price in the form of bodily harm. The entire defense as a whole followed suit and started to play better, especially Braydon Coburn, who now joins forces with Grossmann to form the Flyers top shutdown defensive pairing. Grossmann has also provided further value by living up to his reputation as a shot-blocking connoisseur. He was justly rewarded with a new four-year, $14 million contract extension.
- Two months ago I had absolutely zero faith that this Flyers team could legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup. Today, I'm singing a completely different tune. As long as Bryzgalov plays like he's capable and the defense is solid, the Flyers can beat anyone (aside from maybe, sigh, the New York Rangers).
- The future for the Flyers is very, very bright, and the foundation for sustained success has been laid. As the core players grow and mature together, I'm thinking a Stanley Cup championship isn't too far away. This team is comprised of a fun, likable, and resilient group of guys who play hard and play for each other. Paul Holmgren is building something special here, and I'm elated to be along for the ride.
(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators
Bad draw for the top seed here. Ottawa's a fast, gritty, and offensively talented team that gave the Rangers problems during the regular season. With Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek, and Erik Karlsson leading the way, the Senators finished fourth in the league in scoring. Guys like Kyle Turris and Nick Foligno provide solid secondary scoring, as well. Even though the Senators ranked 24th in goals allowed, they have an unheralded goalie in Craig Anderson who's been known to steal games in the playoffs before. Yeah, the Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist and play suffocating defense, but I'm going with my gut and picking the shocking upset here. Might the fact that I'm bitter about the way the Rangers utterly owned the Flyers this season have influenced my prediction here? Perhaps. Senators in 6.
I know the Capitals have played the Bruins well this season, but I still like the defending champions in this series. I've watched enough Caps games this season to know that I don't trust them in a seven-game series, even though Alex Ovechkin rediscovered his scoring touch and Nicklas Backstrom has returned. I think the Bruins have the clear advantage in overall skill and physicality and expect them to impose their will and grind down Washington's defensive corps. Capitals goalie Braden Holtby has performed admirably down the stretch after being thrown into the fire, but the playoffs are a different animal. Then again, maybe the whole "no pressure" factor will work in his favor -- and in favor of the Caps as a whole. Whatever, I still like Boston. Bruins in 5.
The Devils ruined my childhood multiple times, and I still hate them so, so much, regardless of the fact that the Flyers exorcised those demons in the last two playoffs series between the teams. Also, seemingly everyone is writing this series off as an easy Devils romp. Fuck that, the Devils love losing in the first round of the playoffs. Go Panthers, and bring back the rats. Panthers in 7.
By far the most compelling series of the entire first round, in either conference. It's all anyone's been talking about since hostilities boiled over on the ice and behind the benches at the end of the Flyers' 6-4 victory at CONSOL Energy Center on April 1. If you want to get someone into hockey, have them watch this series. It's going to be a bloodbath, and it's going to be glorious. These teams genuinely despise each other, and the passion and intensity will make for an incredible spectacle. The Penguins are the favorites to win the Stanley Cup -- with good reason -- but the Flyers aren't intimidated. They match up well across the board and aren't hesitant to come at the Pens physically. Plus, the Flyers love playing at the CONSOL Energy Center. Attack with speed, get the cycle game going, and grind them all game long. It'll pay off. I feel a calm, quiet, and almost eerie confidence about playing the Penguins. I actually wanted to play them in the first round. I want to see Sean Couturier match up against Evgeni Malkin and become his permanent foil. I want to see Brayden Schenn continue to elevate his game and play chippy when on the ice with Sidney Crosby. I want to see Claude Giroux continue his mastery of the Penguins. I want to see Scott Hartnell piss everyone off. I want to see Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot come back to haunt their former team. If Ilya Bryzgalov doesn't poop the bed, I like Philly to pull off the upset. One last thing: Nothing would be sweeter than winning the deciding game in Pittsburgh. Flyers in 7.