The points squandered early in the schedule came back to haunt the Flyers. Even with wins in their final four outings put them one game over the .500 mark (23-22-3) -- the first time they were above the break-even point all year -- Philadelphia missed the playoffs for a second time in seven seasons.
The schizophrenic offensive identity they assumed was on full display while posting a 10-5-0 mark to close out the season. The Flyers scored 4.3 goals per game in the 10 wins, while averaging a microscopic 0.6 goals in their five losses.
Philadelphia exercised amnesty buyouts on both forward Danny Briere and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, then re-invested in three of the most coveted UFAs on the market; forward Vincent Lecavalier, defenseman Mark Streit, and netminder Ray Emery.
While it was significant that GM Paul Holmgren added the trio without subtracting any pieces from the young core group the club has been assembling over the last few years, is it good enough to get the Flyers back into playoff contention?
Claude Giroux played his first game towards the end of the exhibition season following offseason surgery to repair tendons in his finger due to an accident with a golf club. Jakub Voracek was injured late in the preseason with a back injury after crashing into the goal post against the Devils. Giroux and Voracek were the Flyers’ top two scorers last season, and both will need to remain healthy and productive if the team is to make a return trip to the postseason. Also required is secondary scoring, which deserted the club for long stretches during the season. The addition of Lecavalier as Philly’s second-line center between Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds should pay immediate dividends. Versatile Matt Read inked a four-year extension to avoid becoming an UFA next summer. 2012 first-round pick Scott Laughton was in a late training camp battle with Chris VandeVelde for a roster spot.
Three to watch:
Brayden Schenn is entering the final year of his entry-level contract signed while he was still with Los Angeles, and stands to become a RFA next summer. The younger of the Schenn brothers got off to a quick start last year with six goals and 19 points in his first 22 games, but closed out the schedule with just two goals and eight points in his final 26. Playing with Lecavalier should be a boost to the 22-year-old’s game as he enters what is an important year with the team.
Thrust into a totally defensive role last year, Sean Couturier looked tentative and took a step backwards offensively with just four goals and 15 points in 46 contests in his sophomore campaign. Still only 20 years old, Couturier worked hard in the summer and seemed much more confident with the puck during the exhibition season.
The supporting cast could get a further boost with a productive season from Lecavalier. This is not the same player that was dubbed "The Michael Jordan of Hockey" after being drafted first-overall in 1998 by then-Lightning owner Art Williams, and his offensive numbers have actually declined somewhat in the last few seasons. Following five consecutive years with more than 30 goals from 2002/03 through 2007/08 -- including his only 50-goal and 100-point NHL campaign, both set in 2006/07 -- he has had seasons 29, 24, 25, 22, and 10 (in the abbreviated season) goals over the past five campaigns. He provides Philadelphia with another scoring forward with size, something the team has sought to add for some time. Lecavalier has scored 20 or more goals in each season following his rookie year, with the exception of the recently completed lockout-shortened campaign, in which he netted 10 in 39 games -- still a 20-goal pace in a normal 82-game schedule.
One of the biggest problems for Philadelphia last season was not replacing the puck-moving blue liner lost when Matt Carle left for Tampa Bay via free agency. It's not that Holmgren didn't try, as he did in failed attempts to land UFA Ryan Suter and signed RFA Shea Weber to an offer sheet. The result was sometimes hard to watch as just getting the puck out of their own zone became an adventure for the Flyers. Injuries didn't help either, as half of the blue line were AHL recalls by year's end. Philly wasn't going to be shutout again this summer and Holmgren nabbed pending UFA Streit. Oft-injured Andrej Meszaros played well during the preseason while Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann, and Erik Gustafsson round out the group. 38-year-old Hal Gill was still on the roster late in training camp.
Two to watch:
Meszaros is a huge X-factor. The loss of the 27-year-old Slovak to three major surgeries in the last two calendar years has weakened the club's back line significantly. He has proclaimed himself healthy after missing a good portion of the last two seasons, and a return to his 2010/11 form would be a good omen. Entering the final year of his current pact earning $4 million, this is a big season for Meszaros.
At 35 years old Streit represents another veteran blue liner who is long in the tooth. But as he has pointed out, he didn't enter the league until he was 27. So he has a lot less mileage on his body than most NHLers his age. Excluding the 2010/11 campaign in which he missed because of a shoulder injury, Streit has averaged in excess of 10 goals and 46 points over the last six seasons.
After a well-documented career-threatening hip injury during his first tour of duty with the team in 2010, Emery provides consistency and more maturity this time around. He’s also coming off a Stanley Cup-winning season in Chicago, one in which he posted a stellar 17-1-0 mark with a 1.94 goals-against average, .922 save percentage, and three shutouts.
Acquired at the trade deadline this past spring, Steve Mason finally gave Laviolette a viable option with which to rest Bryzgalov down the stretch. Mason was up to the task and following a 1-0 loss in Buffalo, the netminder promptly won his last four starts to close out the year and finished with a with a 4-2-0 record, with a 1.90 GAA and .944 save percentage.
Both Emery and Mason are excellent puck-handlers and could at times be akin to having an extra defender on the ice, especially when the Flyers are shorthanded and the netminders can clear the zone without fear of an icing call.
As awful as these units were early on, they became the Flyers’ strong points over the last 40 games. The third-ranked power play (21.6%) was especially effective at home, where they clicked at an NHL-best 27.8%. The scary part about the Philadelphia man advantage is they’re adding an elite PP quarterback in Streit, and one of the better PP forwards in the league in Lecavalier. With Giroux and Lecavalier set up on their off wings for one-timers and the big bodies of Scott Hartnell and Simmonds crashing the opposition nets, expect the Philly PP to be near the top of the NHL rankings again this season.
The much maligned penalty killing squad -- operating at a league-worst 67.7% efficiency after the first seven contests -- finished fifth-overall with a very respectable 85.9% success rate. Just as important as he is to the PP unit, Giroux’s tireless work is just as essential to the PK.
Holmgren upgraded the offense by subtracting Briere and adding Lecavalier, and attempted to improve team chemistry by moves in goal. It may take some time for the group to completely gel, but things seem to be heading in the right direction for the franchise.
Already over the salary cap by almost $1.5 million, roster moves will have to be made prior to opening night. Having more salary tied up in their blue line than in forwards, it's likely a defenseman -- perhaps Meszaros and his $4 million salary -- is moved to attain compliance.
Secondary scoring and starts to games will be key factors in how much success Philadelphia will be able to achieve in the new season. No lead was safe against the 2011/12 version of the Flyers as the deep and resilient bunch came back from numerous deficits, but that was not the case at all last season. The team finished with a brutal 1-12-0 mark when trailing after one period, and was 2-14-0 when behind heading into the third. The addition of Lecavalier and Streit, as well as bounce back offensive years from top line left winger Hartnell, Couturier and Max Talbot would go a long way.
It's still only preseason, but it has to be somewhat worrisome that Philly was following the pattern of falling behind early and not being able to recover. Heading into their exhibition finale, they had fallen behind 2-0 three times and 3-0 twice in compiling a 1-4-1 mark.
With the Metropolitan Division containing traditional arch rivals in Pittsburgh, the Rangers and Devils, as well as the improving Islanders and adding the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals, the Flyers could find themselves on the bubble of qualifying for the playoffs.
David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period.