(Bumped because the season preview should be the top story for more than two minutes -BR)
Hockey starts today. Real, meaningful hockey.
The Flyers will open a new arena across the state tonight, hopefully the same way the Montreal Canadiens opened Pittsburgh Civic Arena back in 1967 -- with a win for the visiting team and disappointment for the home team.
Whether the orange and black win or lose in the opener, however, the season won't be made in one game. Hopefully it won't be the same roller coaster we experienced a year ago, but there will be ups and downs. There will be great moments and disappointing ones.
One thing we do know, though: the run the Flyers went on a year ago gives them the experience they need to overcome the inevitable obstacles of the regular season. They're much better equipped to make the ride a smooth one this year. After it all, they're much better equipped to win two more playoff games.
In recapping last season, where do we really even begin? The preseason expectations? Do we ignore the regular season and skip right to game 82 and the playoffs, because that's when the team really showed us what they have?
Well, no, we can't just ignore seven months of hellish intrigue, of course. So let's delve into that, I guess.
The Flyers were picked to win the Cup by The Hockey News and everybody kind of freaked out about that. Maybe it even got in the heads of the team a bit. They looked great out of the gate, Ray Emery was playing the kind of goal the team needed and Chris Pronger certainly came as advertised.
Then a mid-November road trip to the West Coast happened, and it was that trip that turned Cup dreams into a pathetic thought in the back of our minds. While out west, the team lost four straight to Los Angeles, San Jose, Phoenix and Colorado, and it wasn't until a return back to east where they finally pulled out a win against the lowly Islanders. That win wasn't a sign of things to come, though.
Three more losses in a row would hit the team like a ton of bricks, and after the third of those losses on a Thursday night in December, John Stevens would give his last post-game press conference. The next evening, fwith the Adirondack Phantoms in the building for a homecoming game at the Wachovia Center, Peter Laviolette was introduced in a press conference in the bowels of the very same building.
It would take some time, as evidenced by the 8-2 loss at the hands of the Washington Capitals the next night, but eventually, the coaching switch would prove to be the necessary change the team would need to get back in gear.
After reeling off four wins to close the 2009 calendar, the Flyers shipped up to Boston for a little outdoor hockey. They lost in overtime after holding a 1-0 lead throughout the game, which could have been considered a bit of a microcosm of the entire frustrating season at that point. Another frustrating loss back inside a building in Ottawa led to more question marks, but the team quickly went on another one of those four game winning spurts in the run up to an 9-3 January finish.
That would start the ascent. The once last-place Flyers would climb all the way up to fifth in the East at one point before hitting some rough patches and falling down to eighth. On the final day of the regular season -- and we really don't need to explain this beyond typing the word "shootout" once, but we will anyway -- the Rangers came to town with a chance to knock the Flyers out of eighth with a victory.
The playoffs brought a fresh start for the Flyers, who received an extremely favorable first-round matchup with the one Eastern team they handled in the regular season -- the Devils. They would go on to dispatch Newark's finest in five games, setting up a matchup with the Boston Bruins.
Click here for a review of the Boston series, because words can't really do it justice.
After crushing Montreal in a similar fashion to the way they handled New Jersey and after Mike Richards hoisted the Prince of Wales Trophy, things would come up short against a fine opponent in the Chicago Blackhawks. Despite the 'Hawks winning the Cup on our ice, at the end of the day, it doesn't take anything away from the incredible ride the Flyers took us on just a few short months ago.
So now, we turn to the new season, and hopes that the team can take that Eastern Conference Champions banner and turn it into a more important one.
The summer was a curious one for Paul Holmgren, filled with some decent moves but highlighted by odd timing.
First, on the eve of the open of the free agent market, he signed Michael Leighton to a two-year contract. That's all fine and everything, and honestly, the way Leights played a year ago earned him a new deal. But why would you wait until just... before... the market opens to give him a contract? As it turned out, Leighton was paid above market value, not that Holmgren took the time to see what market value would be.
Then, just an hour before the market opened on July 1, he made a trade with Tampa for defenseman Andrej Meszaros, widely considered an overpaid, underperforming blueliner. Instead of waiting an hour to see what would open up on the market, he pulled the trigger and got rid of a draft pick in the process.
Once the market did open, Holmgren picked up Jody Shelley and Sean O`Donnell, who are likely both nice pickups. Shelley's pay could be considered a little high, but for a well-liked fourth liner, it's not the worst acquisition in the world.
Overall, Homer did improve the defense to levels that might elevate it to the best in the NHL. That has to be commended. At the same time, that doesn't mean some of the moves aren't questionable.
On offense, a late July signing of Nik Zherdev was a great coup for the club if Laviolette can keep his attitude in check, and in some respects it makes up for the loss of Simon Gagne, a move that's been debated beyond debate.
Phantoms To Watch (aka Your Injury Callups)
There's the personnel. Let's take a look at the 2010-11 Flyers, their strengths and their weaknesses.
- Defense: Even with Matt Walker and Andrej Meszaros, the Flyers defense is worlds better than they were a year ago. And they were great last year too. In 2009-10, the team wound up with two dominant pairs. In the playoffs in particular, though, the third pairing was weak... to say the least. It got to a point where they weren't even getting a regular shift.
Now, with three strong pairs, the Flyers can limit the minutes of Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen and not worry about a huge drop off.
- Top nine forwards: With the addition of Nik Zherdev, even despite losing Simon Gagne, the Flyers group of top nine forwards rivals any other in the NHL. Expect Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk to really step up and join the other guys as top-notch point producers. Scoring will not be a problem this season, if all goes to plan.
- Attitude: The biggest problem with the Flyers last year was their lack of consistency and their lackadaisical attitude towards the game while John Stevens was at the helm. In the postseason, however, all of that fell away. The Flyers learned how to play the game, so to speak. It's almost like they grew up in just a two months. That inconsistency we dealt with last year? It's gone.
- Goaltending: Do we need to explain?
- Penalty killing? It was a strength a year ago, but it'll be curious to see the impact that losing Ian Laperriere has on the unit.
- They don't have Roy Halladay.
Everybody knows the story by now: the playoffs-via-shootout, historic-comeback-against-Boston, eventually-coming-within-a-game-of-the-Cup story. But are the real Flyers the regular season team or the playoff team? Well, the problems throughout the regular season basically stemmed from a complacency with coach John Stevens and the belief that they didn't need to work hard to win hockey games. Once they realized that wouldn't fly (sure, it took a firing), they blossomed into what they can really be. With improvements on defense and one of the best groups of top-9 forwards in the league, there's no reason to believe that the Flyers can't be in the Finals again... and hopefully, it won't need a miraculous story, this time.
>> Travis Hughes
Just like the time before and the time before that, this will be a season of wild ups and downs for the Flyers. Ian Laperriere will retire before the trade deadline, and there will be a pregame ceremony. I do see the goaltending question marks being erased sometime around November with a big trade (or maybe a little one for someone like Jose Theodore), but this team's inconsistency is about more than just goaltending. I see a slow fall, a hot January/February, a terrible March, and a nice April that puts the Flyers at around fifth in the East, where they'll make it to the second round. Not Flyers related, but the Caps will lose in the first round to the Maple Leafs. You heard it here first.
>> Ben Rothenberg
Coming off a Stanley Cup Final run leaves most fans expecting the team to take that final step, while others warn against the hangover. The story for the 2011 Flyers will likely be somewhere in between the 2009 Penguins and the 2007 Hurricanes; they won't win the Cup, but they won't collapse either. They will be inconsistent - though not as inconsistent as last year - on their way to a low-90s point total and middle of the East playoff seeding. Individual players will bounce back (Richards, Briere, Coburn), some will fall back down (Carle, Pronger, Leighton), and others will stay just about the same (Carter, Powe, Timonen). Hartnell will score 23 goals but fail to reach 50 points; Leino will barely reach 50; and Meszaros will prove so much better than Ryan Parent, he almost deserves three times as much as him. (Yes, you did the math right.) Elsewhere, Simon Gagne will score 25 goals and Tomas Vokoun will get traded at the deadline - but not to the Flyers, who refuse to trade Meszaros for him - while Patrick Maroon will still not have made his NHL debut, and Matt Walker is a healthy scratch as many times as he plays. Then the Flyers lose in the second round because they can't cope with a top-4 defenseman going down to injury.
>> Geoff Detweiler