Assessing the Broad Street Bulldozer: Are the Flyers a Better Team?

By David Strehle
NHL H
ot Stove Creative Editor

After Philadelphia was knocked out of postseason contention by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in May, Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren said he was happy with his club.

It was a foregone conclusion that there would be an upgrade to Philadelphia’s goaltending position.  Ed Snider all but guaranteed that would be the case after the rotating carousel of goalies in the playoffs became a disruption for the team.

It’s probably safe to say that no one saw the extreme makeover that was to come to the core of the Flyers’ forwards.  Philadelphia’s list of offensive attackers was leveled, much the same way the Spectrum was last winter just across the parking lot from the Wells Fargo Center.

Within a two week period, there was a turnover that altered the very face of the franchise.

Gone are:  captain Mike Richards (traded to the Los Angeles Kings); leading goal-scorer Jeff Carter (traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets); Kris Versteeg (traded to the Florida Panthers); Darroll Powe (traded to the Minnesota Wild); and most likely Nik Zherdev, who remains an unrestricted free agent, also.

There have been rumors that something big is still to come for the Orange-and-Black, but the likelihood of that happening is decreasing with each passing day. 

  • UFA center Brad Richards signed a 9-year, $60 million deal with the New York Rangers over the weekend.  It was thought that Brad Richards could help fill the offensive void that was left with the departure of Carter and Mike Richards, as well as give the team’s ailing power play unit a much-needed boost.  But that act will be on Broadway in the 2011-12 season.
  • Many among the Flyers’ faithful have longed to see winger Simon Gagne return to Philadelphia after his one year exile from the City of Brotherly Love.  But the Flyers former 40+ goal-scorer inked a 2-year, $7 million pact with the Los Angeles Kings (AKA, Flyers West) over the weekend.  Not that this would have been an earth-shaking addition, other than the history Gagne has with the club and the love that has been shown for Simon since he was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning last year.
  • The biggest name of all that has been bounced around as possibly becoming a Flyer has been Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos.  The original word was that Holmgren was going to submit an offer sheet to the restricted free agent on July 1st in hopes that Tampa couldn’t match the exorbitant numbers (10-12 years, $115 million).  After the Flyers said that was not an option, speculation turned to the potential for a trade.  Rumors that he could be dealt stems from the difficulty in which GM Steve Yzerman has had in locking up the 21-year-old sniper with a new contract.  As talk has been that a new pact could be announced soon, it’s likely that the rumor-mongers will turn the attention of their mania to Yzerman then dealing Stamkos to the Flyers.  Holmgren has said he does not believe that will be the case, even though the announcement of defenseman Braydon Coburn signing a two-year contract extension has been delayed for some reason.  Maybe Holmgren just wants to be crystal clear that nothing can be worked out before putting all of his ducks in a row.

Philadelphia opens up their development camp tomorrow, with first-round draft pick Sean Couturier and newcomer Brayden Schenn attending.  Both have a solid shot at making the Flyers opening night roster.

As of right now this is the way the 2011-12 Philadelphia Flyers roster appears to be shaping up:

(* 20 players under contract, $5.077 million left under the ceiling):

Forwards

Scott Hartnell-Danny Briere-Jaromir Jagr

James van Riemsdyk-Claude Giroux-Jakub Voracek

Schenn-Couturier/Ben Holmstrom-Wayne Simmonds**

Jody Shelley-Blair Betts-Andreas Nodl

Extras:  Couturier / Ben Holmstrom, Matt Read, Eric Wellwood, Mike Testwuide

(At the time of publication, center Max Talbot’s 5-year, $9 million contract is not in compliance with the rules of the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, and as such, he is not listed as one of the club’s centers, and his $1.8 million cap hit is not reflected in the team’s remaining cap space.  It’s expected that Holmgren will adjust the salary number in Talbot’s fourth year to make the contract CBA-compliant.  That would also adjust Philadelphia’s remaining cap space to $3.27 million below the upper limit.)

(** At the time of publication Simmonds has yet to be signed, though Holmgren made the following statement on the subject of Simmonds’ contract talks in a conference call on July 1st:  “Well, we’re continuing to talk.  Fair to say we are close.”)

Hartnell and Briere and van Riemsdyk and Giroux are set, it just depends on which line Jagr best fits as to where he and Voracek end up.  Jagr plays an upgraded game similar to that of the departed Ville Leino; strong on the puck on the cycle, and excellent hands to set up both Briere and Hartnell.  Even at 39, Jagr should still prove to be a better goal scorer than Leino.  My money is on Jagr landing on that line in Leino’s spot. 

Even if Jagr plays on the right of Giroux and with van Riemsdyk on the left, that would prove to be an equally lethal line.  Both of those youngsters have blossomed, and look to be the new faces of the franchise in place of Richards and Carter.  Holmgren explained that the development of Giroux and van Riemsdyk facilitated the Richards and Carter trades.

Certainly the emergence of Claude over the last few years has been a factor,” Holmgren said via conference call on June 23rd.  “I think the ascension of James over the last part of the season and particularly the playoffs – I think we have two good young players there that are on the verge of doing even better things for our team.  So that certainly was a factor, particularly Claude.  I view Claude as sort of Mike Richards-like in his competitiveness and his ability to do a lot of things for us offensively and defensively.”

Giroux plays a much larger game than his 5′ 11″, 172-pound frame would suggest, and with van Riemsdyk (6′ 3″, 200 pounds) and Jagr (6′ 3″, 240 pounds) providing big bodies from both wings, the trio could be a nightmare for opposing goaltenders. 

Schenn and Couturier are likely going to be given every opportunity to make the Flyers opening night club.  The two have a little bit of history together, also.  “We played together at World Juniors,” Couturier said.  “It was a good experience just being around him and everything.”

Couturier said he has every intention on making the big squad in October.  “My main goal is to make the NHL next year,” he said.  “Once I get to camp, I’ll be prepared.” 

As for what he could bring to the Flyers, Couturier’s game sounds NHL-ready.  “Probably my hockey sense, my two-way game is pretty solid,” he said.  “I’m pretty reliable defensively, and offensively I’m pretty good at protecting and controlling the puck.”

The game of the 6′ 4″, 200-pound center has been compared to that of Jordan Staal of the Pittsburgh Penguins.  “It’s a pretty good honor to be compared to him, but for sure, we’re similar in some ways.”

The fourth line needs to contribute more than they did last season, especially as the club looks for added offense to replace what has been lost with Richards and Carter gone.  At this time, two-thirds of the trio remain the same.  Betts and Shelley seem destined to return with Nodl taking the place of Powe, who was moved to Minnesota for a draft pick.  If Shelley is bought out of his contract, that would pave the way for big Tom Sestito (6′ 5″, 230 pounds) to take his place – and at exactly half of Shelley’s $1.1 million salary.  This could happen, depending on if any additional movement is needed to keep under the cap limit.

As we’ve seen first-hand this summer in the Philly-area, things can change in a hurry, and nothing is completely set in stone.  This is especially true when it comes to the forward ranks of the Flyers this offseason.  Even with the unlikelihood that Stamkos is in their future, it seems hard to imagine that Holmgren is completely done re-tooling.

But one thing is for certain – the Flyers needed to get bigger on the wings, and Holmgren did just that with his acquisitions in the Carter and Richards deals.

Defense

Chris Pronger-Matt Carle

Kimmo Timonen-Coburn

Andrej Meszaros-Andreas Lilja

Extras:  Erik Gustafsson, Oskars Bartulis, Matt Walker

This unit will likely resemble the blue line that the team iced last season.  The club’s top five all return for another year, and UFA signing Lilja takes the place of Sean O’Donnell, who left for the Chicago Blackhawks via free agency.

Health will certainly play a huge part in just how effective the rear guard position performs in 2011-12.

Pronger missed 32 regular season games last year with three different injuries that required corrective sugeries, and saw action in only three of the 11 Philadelphia playoff contests.  It is of the utmost importance that he be healthy this coming year, especially during the postseason. 

When Pronger is unscathed, Carle’s contributions seem to be much more pronounced.

Timonen had a variety of ailments that he attempted to play through, but it was obvious that his effectiveness was limited from what we’re used to seeing from the veteran defender.  The announcement of Coburn’s contract extension is expected to be made sometime in the coming days, and that would likely guarantee his pairing with Timonen until the Finnish vet calls it a career.

Both Pronger and Timonen will turn 37 during the regular season, so it’s imperative that the other defensemen be prepared to log more ice time.

When all are in the lineup and at peak shape, Philadelphia has one of the best top-five in the NHL.  They just have to do everything in their power to see that happens often enough in the upcoming season.

Meszaros proved to be invaluable last season, his first with the Flyers.  His versatility may have been one of the most-underrated aspects of any success the 2010-11 team acheived, as he moved around the lineup as Peter Laviolette saw fit while Pronger was unable to go.

Gustafsson almost made the big team out of training camp last season and was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year for the Adirondack Phantoms.  This season, he could just make the Flyers out of camp.

Bartulis underwent long periods of inactivity during the past season.  He did get the call and stepped in when O’Donnell suffered a knee injury, but then was injured himself when given a questionnable hit by ex-Flyer and then-Phoenix Coyote Scottie Upshall.  It remains to be seen just how well Bartulis’ shoulder has been rehabilitated and how it will hold up in cotact situations. 

Walker endured one injury after another and saw very little playing time in the four games in which he appeared.  A buyout of his inflated $1.7 million contract seems a likely solution.

Goal

Ilya Bryzgalov-Sergei Bobrovsky

There is no doubting that this Russian pairing provides the Flyers with their best tandem heading into a new season since the 1986-87 campaign (Ron Hextall-Bob Froese, even though at the time, they did not know what they would get from the then-rookie Hextall at that time).

The organization finally made the long-awaited commitment to the crease in orchestrating Bryzgalov’s addition to Philadelphia’s lineup.  After acquiring his negotiating rights from the Phoenix Coyotes, Holmgren promptly signed the best-available free agent to a 9-year, $51.5 million pact.

Following years of question marks between the pipes, the Flyers now have the most stability at the goaltending position that they’ve had for the better part of two decades.

Laviolette now shouldn’t be besieged with inquiries as to who will be his starting netminder, and that should give him one less thing to worry about.

And it should give the team an added piece of mind not witnessing the rotation of goalies they did during the playoffs this past May.  There is no doubt the constant change in netminders led to letdowns at times in the team’s performance.

Bobrovsky, who the Flyers have called their “goalie of the future”, should be a solid backup.  But he also could find himself in a precarious position if additional cap space is needed.  The 22-year-old’s contract pays him $1.75 million, or $200,000 more than that of Michael Leighton.

If the roster stays the same until the new season commences, Bobrovsky will be Bryzgalov’s backup.  But if moves are made and salary needs to be trimmed, “Bob” could become a cap casualty.  He cannot be sent down to the minors without first clearing waivers.

Conclusion

As it stands right now, the Flyers should be a much better defensive team than they have been in the past several seasons.  They not only have assembled an excellent defensive unit, but now have added the piece that had been their missing link for some time – Bryzgalov.

With some of the changes up front, they just may find themselves in need of cutting down on the number of goals allowed.  While Philadelphia added a good deal of size to their wings, there are also some wildcards that come along with their unknown commodities.

Schenn and Couturier may make the club, but how much offense can the teenagers be counted on to supply?

Voracek and Simmonds are both in their early-20s and have both experienced some amount of success with their previous teams.  Can they score enough to help offset the goals that were sent out of town?

Can Jagr, nearing the end of a Hall-of-Fame career, recapture enough of his old game to help propel the Flyers to the next level?

Will Giroux and van Riemsdyk continue their development and vindicate management in their decision to deal away Richards and Carter?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions at this time, but some things may seem more clear than others.

There were obviously problems in the locker room and schisms within the team.  Whether or not trading two of the franchises most-recognizable and counted on players rectifies that divisiveness remains to be seen.  

A divided room will self-destruct, and that’s what appeared to happen with last year’s once-promising season.  It was like watching two different clubs from the midpoint in the NHL calendar through the end of the playoffs.

It was apparent that something was necessary to repair the Flyers, and Holmgren made aggressively bold moves in order to mend his broken team.  Give him credit.  Even with input from over his head, I cannot imagine many others making such major moves with a team that was considered a “championship contender”.

The GM almost certainly knows that how the upcoming Flyers’ season progresses will likely have a directly proportional affect on his position moving forward.

There has been a much different feel about the team in the past two weeks, and it hasn’t all been negative after the initial shock subsided.  Many of the key pieces are still in place, and others that have been added should aid in correcting areas in which Philadelphia was glaringly lacking.

Are the Flyers a better team after the makeover?  Perhaps the key part of that question is the “better team” portion.

Only time will tell if the end justifies the means.


If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter – @David_Strehle