Hi, everyone. I'm Stephane Hardinger. I'm a high school senior outside Philadelphia and I've dabbled with writing about hockey before, with my last work coming over at FanSided for Section 215. I'm also currently writing about the Eagles for FanSided's Inside The Iggles. Some of my previous work:
As we all know, the Flyers have returned many of the same players from the squad that exceeded the expectations of many by reaching the Eastern Conference Semifinals after an entertaining first round romp against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. They kept much of the forward group together, but two of its crucial members departed. Jaromir Jagr left his top-line cohorts Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell in favor of greener pastures and $4.5M in the heart of Texas, Dallas. The Flyers seemed to have an in-house replacement in Jagr's fellow Czech Republican Jakub Voracek, but the Flyers surprisingly moved up young center Brayden Schenn to the 1st line's right wing. The other big change was the departure of James van Riemsdyk in a trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Luke Schenn, hulking defenseman and older brother of Brayden.
This is the move that will determine how the season goes for the Flyers. The forward group, composed of lines consisting of Scott Hartnell-Claude Giroux-Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds-Danny Briere-Matt Read, Max Talbot-Sean Couturier-Jake Voracek, and Rusty Fedotenko-Eric Wellwood-Zac Rinaldo (with rookie Scott Laughton, opening the year as a replacement for an injured Danny B, looming threat to take Rinaldo or Wellwood's spot on the roster for the season) will score. That much is certain. The slack from Jaromir Jagr's departure can be picked up by an emergence from Brayden Schenn, and Jake Voracek can do the same for James van Riemsdyk's departure as well. With Sean Couturier taking a leap and Daniel Briere looking to rebound, the offense will be able to withstand potential regressions from Hartsy, Max, and Simmer. Even if there is a slight regression, the offense will still be among the league's elite.
The back end is where more questions loom. The entertaining and erstwhile Ilya Bryzgalov will have a big say in how the Flyers' season ends up this year, but he'll do better if the defense in front of him tightens up. It remains to be seen whether they can. The perennially underrated Matt Carle takes his under-appreciated puck moving ability and other talents back to Tampa Bay, and Chris Pronger's career appears to be over. Flirtations with unrestricted free agent Ryan Suter and restricted free agent Shea Weber both ended unsuccessfully, and the main new face is Luke Schenn. The shutdown pairing of Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann appears to be sticking together, while vet Andrej Meszaros looks to rebound off an injury-plagued season in a partnership with veteran free agent and new addition Kurtis Foster, who figures to bring a big body and a bigger shot to the Flyers' blueline amid questions about his skating ability. The glaring hole next to Kimmo Timonen is supposed to be filled by Luke Schenn.
The Flyers' 2013 season hinges on Luke Schenn. His early-career struggles with the Toronto Maple Leafs are a big concern, but the Flyers expect him to take a big step forward with the helping hand of veteran Kimmo Timo. But if Schenn's development continues to be stunted as it was his past two seasons in Toronto the Flyers are in trouble. The Flyers need the big presence that Chris Pronger has left to be assumed by someone, and they hope Luke Schenn is that someone. He doesn't need to be the bona fide #1 like Pronger was, but he does need to be a #3 or #4 as opposed to a #5 or #6. His early-career struggles mirror those of current Flyer Braydon Coburn when he was an Atlanta Thrasher, and if Philly gets that kind of production from him they will be thrilled.
With Schenn bringing another big, physical body in front of the crease, he could really help Ilya Bryzgalov have a bounce-back year. He's essentially playing for his contract this season, with the 2 amnesty buyout provisions looming in the offseason. If he returns to his Phoenix form, the Flyers could make a run deep into the playoffs.
The Flyers don't have many immediate ways to fix the defense. Their offer-sheet to Shea Weber failed, and there aren't many defensemen available on the trade market. Even if there were, the Flyers don't want to trade either of their young forwards. Since restricted free agents Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Pietrangelo, Zach Bogosian, Ryan McDonagh figuring to be off limits and Vancouver's Alexander Edler, their own Kimmo Timonen and uninspiring veterans Lubomir Visnovsky and Rob Scuderi headlining a weak free agent class, the best (and only) way for the Flyers to improve is from within. The defenseman with the most upside and room to grow is Luke Schenn.
I don't have stats, I don't have any hard evidence for you, but I believe that Luke Schenn will take a giant step up this season playing alongside Kimmo Timonen and the Flyers' defense is much-improved this season. But whether Luke Schenn steps up, stays the same, or regresses, he is the key to the season ahead.