PHILADELPHIA – Uncharacteristically out of the playoffs last season, the frustrated Flyers turned their summer into a game of fantasy hockey.
Time will tell if they win that game.
Either way, Philadelphia is different.
In came 33-year-old forward Vinny Lecavalier, given a five-year deal worth $22.5 million to spruce up the offence. In came 35-year-old defenceman Mark Streit, given a $21-million, four-year deal to shore up the defence. And in came 30-year-old goaltender Ray Emery—on a $1.65 million, one-year deal to join the Flyers a second time—to give Steve Mason some competition for the top spot.
Philadelphia even took a retreat to Lake Placid, N.Y., to help team rapport, and mesh the new faces in with the old ones.
This new-look bunch will debut—ready or not—vs. Toronto on Oct. 2.
The Flyers went 23-22-3 and were 10th in the Eastern Conference with 49 points last season. After a slow start, coach Peter Laviolette’s performance was under scrutiny for most of the lockout-shortened year. Philadelphia’s defence was decimated by injuries, and inconsistent play, overall, doomed the team.
So general manager Paul Holmgren did things the Flyers’ way. He spent money. Lots of it. And he’s counting on the new faces to return the Flyers back to the post-season—a place where Philadelphia won five series from 2010-2012.
“I always go into the season with high hopes,” Flyers owner Ed Snider said, “but I’d say I’m at another level this year.”
The Flyers will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their first Stanley Cup this season. For a franchise that loves to honour their past like few others in sports, the Broad Street Bullies tributes will be a fun reminder of what it can be like to win a championship in Philly. But this year’s Flyers will settle for a post-season berth—and see if this rebuilt roster can actually get them to June.
Here are five things to keep an eye on with the Flyers:
WHO’S IN NET: The No. 1 job is up for grabs. Emery and Steve Mason will compete for playing time, and Laviolette has no favourite yet. He’ll likely go with a tandem to start. Emery, who played for the Flyers in 2009-10, went 17-1 with a 1.94 goals-against average for the Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks in 2013, but was not a key cog in the post-season. Mason had a fantastic finish for the Flyers after he was acquired in a late-season deal with Columbus. Together, they will replace the enigmatic Ilya Bryzgalov. “Our goaltending situation, I think is solid,” Snider said. “And I would be very disappointed if it is not.”
ON THE HOT SEAT: Laviolette hasn’t led the Flyers past the second round since the surprising Stanley Cup finals run in 2010, and all of Holmgren’s moves couldn’t get the team into the post-season. With another slow start, both could be on the hot seat, especially with former Flyers goalie Ron Hextall now in the front office after a stint in Los Angeles. Snider, though, backed both Laviolette and Holmgren in his preseason press conference. “Paul has done good things for this organization ever since he became general manger, so there’s no issue there whatsoever,” Snider said. “As far as Peter is concerned, last year was an anomaly. He’s been a very good coach for us, he’s been a good coach in this league.”
CLUTCH CHEMISTRY: Laviolette’s biggest task is chemistry. That’s part of the reason why they took the retreat, as they worked on trust-building exercises in the woods. They’ll see if that trust can help them beat the Penguins and the Rangers. Either way, there will be a veteran presence on this team like few others. Lecavalier and Streit, after all, are both former captains and will now fall in line behind Claude Giroux.
DEFENSIVE HEALTH: Blame Bryz. Blame the lockout. Blame Laviolette. But point the first finger for the Flyers’ underwhelming season straight at the defence. Kimmo Timonen had a decent season, but the rest of the unit was smacked with injuries and poor play. Andrej Meszaros and Marc-Andre Bourdon are both trying to return from injuries to contribute.
BEST IN THE WORLD: Giroux earned the “best in the world” moniker from Laviolette, after posting six goals and eight assists in a 2012 opening-round playoff series against Pittsburgh. The Flyers made him their captain last season in the wake of Chris Pronger’s career-ending eye injury. Giroux instead was barely “best in Philly” and finished with a pedestrian 13 goals and 48 points. He was still rewarded with an eight-year extension worth over $64 million, but then injured his hand in a freak golf injury. He’ll be ready for opening night—and he needs to be, if the Flyers expect to play beyond the regular season.