It's been a long and eventful offseason for the Philadelphia Flyers, but with real games just 10 days away, it's about time to get down to the real business. Twenty-nine players were cut from the roster yesterday and we're beginning to see the roster take shape. Now is the time where we begin to form our expectations for the upcoming season, and where we start to get excited for the possibility of a glorious parade down Broad Street in June. Before that ultimate question, though, there are several smaller queries that beg our attention.
The largest looming question as we get ready to kick off the season has to be in goal. Ray Emery has left exile in Russia to join the Flyers, a move that raised many eyebrows when it was made back in June. It's a risky proposition bringing in the enigmatic and potentially misunderstood Emery, but the possibility of greatness with him in the lineup is certainly evident. He led the Ottawa Senators to the Finals in 2006 and he's got the cockiness necessary to win at the NHL level, but it's his off-ice behavior that ultimately did him in with the Sens. Can he keep his head out of the clouds off the ice? With a solid defense in front of him, at what level is he expected to play? Can he perform at that level, get back to the Finals, and ultimately win a Stanley Cup?
Claude Giroux is entering his first full season as a Flyer and there are a lot of potentially unfair expectations on his plate. He's definitely a breathtaking player to watch -- his vision is among the best we've seen in a long time and he's able to do things with the puck that only seasoned veterans would dare think of. At just 21 years old, however, Giroux has yet to experience the grind of a full NHL season. With Joffrey Lupul and Mike Knuble out of the picture, he'll be expected to shoulder more of the offensive workload. There's no doubt he has the skill, but with just 50 career NHL games under his belt, is it reasonable to expect that Giroux can handle it?
Simon Gagne had an excellent comeback season last year, returning from a head injury that knocked him out of the 07/08 season. But after suffering a separate injury last month at Canada's Olympic camp, will Gagne be at top form this season? Elsewhere on the injury front, can Danny Briere get bounce back from an injury-riddled 08/09 season and return to all-star form? Is he really even the player we thought he was when the Flyers signed him two summers ago?
Speaking of big offseason acquisitions, defenseman Chris Pronger has an extremely large order to fill this season. How will he perform in a Flyers uniform, will he live up to the hype (and the paycheck), and will he truly push the Philadelphia blueline over the top? Elsewhere on defense, there's the overpaid Randy Jones who hasn't lived up to his paycheck since signing a hefty two-year contract extension in the summer of 2008. He suffered a serious hip injury early on last season and only played in 47 games total, but he showed little to no promise in those games. Now in a contract year, will Jones step up his game?
Then, there are the role players on the roster like Ian Laperriere and Darroll Powe. They'll be low on the depth chart for sure and won't wow you with scoring prowess, but their hard working attitudes are the type that will make life miserable for the opponent. As for the toughness on the team, will Riley Cote even be on the Flyers? If not, can Arron Asham pick up the slack and will Dan Carcillo be able to reign in his game, take less penalties, and contribute offensively while still playing the role of agitator?
Perhaps the most burning question of all is one that we've already seen rear its ugly head here in the preseason. Will the discipline and leadership problems continue? Last year, the Flyers were the most penalized team in the NHL, and it had nothing to do with being tough. Some might say there is a vast conspiracy in the hockey world in which the officials call penalties only on the orange and black and never the opponent. Others, though (usually those of the rational variety), simply see the Flyers playing lazy hockey and taking dumb, unnecessary penalties at crucial junctions in games.
This sole problem was the doing-in of the entire season last year. The lack of discipline and apparent disinterest in the game led to several third period breakdowns last season, costing the Flyers vital points down the stretch of the season and ultimately, losing out on home ice advantage in the first round. It didn't stop in the playoffs, either. If they played determined, 60-minute hockey in several of the games versus Pittsburgh, it could've been a completely different outcome. Instead, the Penguins kissed the Cup while the Flyers watched from the couch. Is that enough determination, or will the same problems continue? Can the Flyers as a whole play smarter, more inspired hockey and work for their wins as opposed to believing they'll win based on talent alone? If not, what (if anything) is done to correct the problem?
Surely, there are more questions as we head into the season, but these are a handful of the major issues at hand. With these on your mind, what are your expectations for the 2008/09 season?