30 in 15: Flyers hope changes lead to playoff return
Friday, 09.20.2013 / 3:00 AM
By Adam Kimelman
NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
There were a number of reasons the Philadelphia Flyers missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, the second time since 1994 they've sat out the postseason.
They attempted to address those issues in the offseason, making big changes in goal and significant additions to the defense and top-six forward groups.
Now it's a question of how the new pieces fit with the holdovers.
"I think the anger and frustration more the disappointment at the end of the year, but now it's more excitement," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette told NHL.com. "You want to get out there and start playing again. I sense that excitement. It's been a long summer. Nobody likes the long summer. Guys are excited to get back to camp and that's what they've said. It'll be spirited and passionate."
The Flyers don't have a dominant scorer teams can focus on; rather, the team's strength is in its depth of forwards capable of creating offense.
The top line likely will feature Claude Giroux flanked by Scott Hartnell and Jakub Voracek, last season's breakout star. Voracek set a personal best with a team-high 22 goals and was second on the team with 46 points.
Voracek will need to repeat that performance over 82 games for the Flyers to have any hope of returning to the postseason, and they'll need Giroux and Hartnell to bounce back. Giroux had surgery in August to repair torn tendons in his right index finger sustained in an accident at a golf outing. Surgery was performed Aug. 15 with an estimated recovery time of 5-6 weeks, but he was handling pucks during the first on-ice session of training camp and could be ahead of schedule.
Hartnell, who had a career-best 37 goals in 2011-12, missed a month with a broken foot sustained in the third game of the season and never found his groove after returning, finishing with eight goals in 32 games.
He admitted to starting the season in less than ideal shape and the broken foot set him back even further.
"You're out of shape and you sit for three weeks and watch your foot in a cast, not being able to do anything but trying to come back as quick as you can," Hartnell told NHL.com. "Say you're a step behind before the injury, you come back and you're two or three steps behind. It was frustrating."
He said a strong offseason of training has him feeling good physically and emotionally entering the season.
"I had a great summer training," Hartnell said. "I think it's the best physical shape that I've ever been in. I've never been this excited since I got to Philly six years ago. Excited about camp, excited about our team. Just really looking forward to it."
The second line likely will feature free-agent signee Vincent Lecavalier between Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. The 33-year-old center has played fewer than 66 games each of the past three seasons and missed nine games last season with a lower-body injury. However, Laviolette said he's excited at what he's seen from Lecavalier.
"To get him out there in that first group, to see a big body like that moving up and down the middle of the ice, I thought he looked terrific," Laviolette told reporters after the first on-ice session of training camp. "His skating was great. You can tell that he came here and he wants to dig in and enjoy this, and the way he's working and the way he's fitting in with the guys, he's going to be a big piece for us this year. Getting him out there in the first practice was nice to see."
Lecavalier's arrival pushes Sean Couturier to a third-line role, where the 20-year-old might best be suited. After an outstanding rookie season in 2011-12, he fell off precipitously in a larger role last season, going from 13 goals, 27 points and a plus-18 rating to four goals, 15 points and a minus-8 in 46 games.
"I think that a lot of times there's always that expectation when players come in that first year and they're contributing a certain way, there'll be that jump to new heights in the second year, but it doesnt always work that way," Laviolette told NHL.com. "Sean still played good games and played well defensively. I think generally with our team, there were too many times where we just were inconsistent with our play. Not just Sean, but we needed to be more consistent with what we were doing."
Joining Couturier on the third line likely will be Matt Read, with the third spot open for competition. Candidates for left wing on the line range from hitting machine Zac Rinaldo to veteran Maxime Talbot to power forward Tye McGinn, who had three goals and five points in 18 games as an injury call-up last season. Other candidates include undrafted Austrian-born Michael Raffl and 2012 first-round pick (No. 20) Scott Laughton.
"There should be some competition for a couple spots up front," general manager Paul Holmgren said.
Laviolette said he wouldn't mind seeing one of the team's younger players -- Raffl, McGinn, Laughton or possibly 2011 third-round pick Nick Cousins -- step into prominent roles.
"I think that there's a few players that we're looking at," Laviolette said. "We've got the opportunity provided in training camp. Without having that last year and having it be so quick and getting right to it, you don't get to see those players. This will give us a good look at those players to see where they're at this year. And I wouldn't limit it to the bottom six. That's what training camp is for. After a summer where they're a year older, hopefully they've trained hard.
"We would love the players to come in and make a case for themselves. That's the best thing an organization can hope for."
Adam Hall and Talbot, who is healthy after missing the final month of the season with a broken leg, will form the fourth line. They could be joined by Rinaldo or one of the younger players who misses out on the third-line spot.
One of the more interesting camp situations will be how the Flyers manage what appears to be an overcrowded defense group.
The Flyers entered training camp with nine defensemen on one-way contracts, plus training camp invitee Hal Gill. Then there's prospects Oliver Lauridsen and Brandon Manning, each of whom impressed in call-ups late last season, and 2013 first-round pick (No. 11) Samuel Morin, who signed his entry-level contract Sept. 17.
"We'll figure something out when all is said and done," Holmgren during the early part of training camp. "Quite a few preseason games to play. I'm not concerned, because these things usually work themselves out over time."
The big offseason addition was offensive-minded Mark Streit, who was acquired from the New York Islanders in a June trade then signed to a four-year contract. Streit has averaged 46 points the past six seasons he's been healthy (he sat out 2010-11 with a shoulder injury).
"He's a nice addition for a few different reasons," Laviolette said. "I think the offensive part of it and what he's able to bring to the game. He's able to jump into the play, lead the rush. He has a big shot on the power play. There's a spot for him on the blue line where we can utilize his assets to our advantage, a guy that thinks about contributing to the offensive part of the game on a regular basis."
More than that, Laviolette likes the leadership aspect of Streit's game.
"He's a guy that had a letter on his sweater, was a captain for the New York Islanders," Laviolette said. "I think it's good for our team. Claude did a terrific job as captain, but it's nice to have guys like Kimmo [Timonen] in the room and Mark Streit and Hartnell and Vinny, guys that have been leaders in the past and helped out."
However, Streit is 35, which does nothing to help a group which projects to have one player in the top six younger than 27 (23-year-old Luke Schenn) and had six defensemen finish the season on the injured list.
Laviolette said he isn't worried and expects Timonen (broken foot), Braydon Coburn (shoulder), Nicklas Grossmann (concussion) and Andrej Meszaros (shoulder) to be healthy and ready to contribute when camp starts.
"Injuries were tough last year," he said. "You never want to see that. We're hoping for better health this year. To get all the defensemen back healthy, we're excited to see where everybody is at."
One of the silver linings to the injuries was the chance to see how some of the team's younger players react to increased minutes, and one who stood out to Laviolette was 24-year-old Erik Gustafsson. When the injury bug bit the Flyers, Gustafsson stepped up. In the season's final 10 games he averaged nearly 23 minutes, including four games with more than 24 minutes of ice time, and had three points and a plus-3 rating. In those 10 games, the Flyers were 6-4-0.
"You don't want to see guys go down, but it's an opportunity for someone else to step in," Laviolette said. "While we noticed everybody, one who did raise some eyebrows was [Gustafsson]. Not only did he finish very strong for us at the end of the year, but he went to [the 2013 IIHF World Championship] and was Sweden's leading minutes-getting defensemen, and helped his team get a gold medal, and put himself into a Swedish Olympic camp. He really jumped out and stuck out in a real positive way in the end of last year."
In July 2011 the Flyers signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51.5 million contract in the hope he could be the long-awaited answer in goal. Two years later, Holmgren called Bryzgalov's signing a costly mistake and used a compliance buyout to terminate the final seven years of his contract.
To replace him, the Flyers signed Ray Emery, who went 17-1-0 with the Chicago Blackhawks last season, and will pair him with Steve Mason, who went 4-2-0 in seven late-season games in Philadelphia after arriving via trade, arguably his best stretch of hockey since his Calder Trophy-winning season in 2008-09 for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"We're real comfortable with where the goalies are at," Laviolette said. "Watching Steve at the end of last year, it was a change of scenery, change of life. He worked hard in practice and games and really pulled off some fantastic numbers. I know it's a snapshot, I know he did it a few years back, and with a change of scenery we think he can get back to where he was. With regard to Ray, the organization and a lot of the players that were here [during Emery's first stint with the Flyers in 2009-10], the coaching staff has a tremendous amount of confidence in him."
The players are excited by what the tandem can accomplish.
"I think it's good," Giroux said. "They both want that No. 1 spot. The competition between those two is going to be good. Anytime you got two good goaltenders, it's very exciting."
Laviolette said he's in no rush to name a starter, and in his mind, recent history tells him he doesn't have to.
"You go back and you see the teams are able to do it with two goaltenders and they're able to find success," he said. "You go back to Boston [in 2011] and Tim Thomas played more of the playoff games, but he and Tuukka Rask split the [regular-season] games. Ray played 18 games [last season] in a lockout-shortened season. There's room for two goalies to push each other. They'll work through that and figure it out together. In the right relationship and using them in the right way, they can push each other to be successful."
They'll need one or both to be successful if the Flyers want to return to the postseason. Undrafted Cal Heeter, who likely will start for the team's American Hockey League affiliate, isn't NHL ready, and the organization's best goaltending prospect, Anthony Stolarz, will spend at least one more season in junior hockey.