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By Scott Burnside
For two straight seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers have been vanquished by cross-state rival Pittsburgh in the postseason. And while no one player makes or breaks a team's chances, Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren rolled the dice and traded a whole passel of future to bring in the one piece he believes may help the Flyers get over the hump right now: former MVP and Norris Trophy winner Chris Pronger.
It was a bold move, but for a Flyers team that has all kinds of things going for it, you have to give Holmgren credit for seizing the moment, or at least trying to. From a solid crew of gritty, talented forwards to the Pronger-led defense to uncertainty over goaltending (hey, it's Philly), there will be no shortage of storylines surrounding the Flyers this season.
"We've got characters and we've got character," coach John Stevens quipped during a recent interview with ESPN.com. All teams should be so lucky.
Here are 10 things you should know about the Flyers heading into the new season:
1. Everybody loves Raymond
Well, everyone is going to love netminder Ray Emery if he can do what he did back in 2007, when he backstopped the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup finals against Pronger and the Anaheim Ducks. Of course, if Emery more closely resembles the unfocused, troubled netminder of the following season, well, let's just say the controversial netminder is going to end up being yet another Philly goaltending experiment gone wrong.
Emery's return to the NHL is one of the most intriguing storylines of this season as he tries to resurrect his reputation and career after a strong year in the Kontinental Hockey League.
"He's been great," Stevens said. "His work ethic has been impressive."
The coach acknowledged people will be waiting for Emery to step out of line, but the Flyers are encouraging him to be himself. "Ray's got to be Ray. He's a fiery guy. Things are going to happen," Stevens said.
The Flyers are hoping that what happens is mostly Emery piling up wins.
2. This is Plan B?
OK, so, what if Emery goes off the rails? Well, it'll be back to the future with Brian Boucher, who, once upon a time, was another goalie of the future for the Flyers. At this stage, though, Boucher, who appeared in just 22 games and produced an impressive 12-6-3 record in San Jose last season, is definitely a short-term answer, not a Stanley Cup answer. One imagines Holmgren must still have Martin Biron's phone number somewhere in his rolodex; the former Flyer isn't too far away on Long Island if things go awry with Emery.
3. Everybody hates Chris
Isn't that a show, too? Well, it's not likely to get much of an audience in Philadelphia, where Pronger is expected to continue his magical tour of post-lockout playoff success. After leading Edmonton to the Cup finals in 2006, guiding Anaheim to a Cup win in 2007 and posting a strong playoff showing last spring, Pronger's mission is simple: lead the Flyers to their first Stanley Cup since 1975. Big, mean and still offensively dangerous, Pronger has all the tools to deliver on that mission. He promptly signed a seven-year contract extension after the trade.
"It probably couldn't have worked out any better. They've got a great group of young players and a good mix," Pronger recently told ESPN.com. "Their style of play kind of fits the way that I play. It's a fitting end, hopefully, to my career."
4. Split personality
There are two different views of rising star forward Jeff Carter. First, there was the man who delivered 46 goals, second among all NHL players in a monster breakout season in 2008-09. Then, there was the Jeff Carter who managed to deliver just one goal in a first-round loss to Pittsburgh, including whiffs on several virtual open-net shots. Carter said his confidence is high coming into this season. The fact he was asked to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp will also provide a motivating factor.
5. The Hearst, Ontario, factor
Just as Carter took a giant step forward last season, watch for 21-year-old winger Claude Giroux, a native of the hockey hotbed Hearst, Ontario, to continue his rapid acceleration toward stardom. A number of Giroux's teammates have quietly likened him to former Flyer Peter Forsberg in terms of his mix of skill and toughness, and he was one of the team's best players in the first round. Giroux should continue to play on a line with a rejuvenated Daniel Briere, although he may end up seeing some time with Carter and Scott Hartnell. Stevens said one thing is certain: changes in personnel mean Giroux will get an opportunity to show his stuff on the power play.
Speaking of opportunity with top-six forwards Joffrey Lupul and Mike Knuble gone from last season's roster, there are a couple of prime forward spots open. There will be plenty of competition as former Rangers defensive specialist Blair Betts is in camp on a tryout and Ian Laperriere, over from Colorado, is in the mix. But it will be interesting to see how top prospect James van Riemsdyk measures up at training camp and whether he can push his way into an NHL job. The big forward, who delayed becoming a professional to play at the University of New Hampshire, was the second overall pick in the 2007 draft. The player taken before him, Patrick Kane, is already an established NHL star and there have been rumors of dissatisfaction from within the Flyers organization about van Riemsdyk's evolution as a player. "He's a good-looking player," Stevens said. "His fitness has really improved."
7. Simon Gagne says
The classy forward was one of the comeback stories of last season, recording 74 points after he returned from a serious concussion that cost him most of 2007-08. His goal total (34) was down from the 41 and 47 he scored the two previous seasons, but he remains a top offensive talent. Still, the 29-year-old forward left the Canadian Olympic orientation camp with a groin injury and there will be lingering questions about his durability. When he's healthy, though, he remains a big part of a Philadelphia offense that ranked fifth in goals per game.
8. Flyers in the penalty box? Say it ain't so
Maybe you can't ask a team to be what it can't be. In this case, maybe it's impossible to suggest the Flyers play nice, or nicer. Still, for a team that led the NHL in minor penalties last season, that's playing with fire regardless of how good your penalty kill is (the Flyers ranked sixth overall). What was more troubling to Stevens was the fact the vast majority of those minor penalties were assessed in the first two periods of games.
Stevens has made reducing the number of minor penalties a top priority and would also like to see the gap between the number of power plays enjoyed and penalties killed narrowed.
9. A scheduling note
The Flyers never play more than five games in a row on the road, although they have two five-game road trips on their schedule. The last of those culminates with the Winter Classic in Boston on Jan. 1.
10. Olympic exposure
The Flyers are going to have lots of players in Vancouver as Pronger and Mike Richards are likely locks for the Canadian Olympic team. If Carter gets off to another strong start, he will be on the team, as well. Gagne is a bubble player, although a strong start could push him back into contention. Kimmo Timonen is a lock for Finland and forward Ole-Kristian Tollefsen will no doubt be part of the Norwegian effort. In some ways, Flyers management may be hoping Carter and Gagne are left off the Canadian squad.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 44-27-11
• Division: Third in the Atlantic
• Conference: Fifth in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted by Pens in first round
• We figure the Flyers and Penguins will be in a dogfight for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, but we give the nod to the Pens, which means the Flyers will settle into the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
• There was a time during John Stevens' first full season as coach when some suggested he wasn't the right guy to coach the Flyers. That was before he guided them on an unlikely trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2008. Although the Flyers faltered down the stretch and ended up having to play on the road to start the playoffs last spring, Stevens morphed the team into a top-notch squad with a nice blend of youth, grit and skill. Stevens' systems saw the Flyers rank in the top 10 in both power play and penalty kill during the regular season in 2008-09.
Now, with Chris Pronger in the fold, the ante has been upped significantly for Stevens and his squad. One and done won't cut it this season, not if job security is a priority. We have a feeling that's not going to be a problem.
F -- Jeff Carter
• Looking to build on 46-goal campaign.
F -- Scott Hartnell
• One of the league's characters. Best hair in the game.
F -- Claude Giroux
• Sky's the limit for Giroux, who now replaces ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun as the most famous native of Hearst, Ontario.
D -- Braydon Coburn
• Coburn took a step back last season, but still a big body with great skating ability
D -- Kimmo Timonen
• Talented and cool, a poor man's Nicklas Lidstrom (relatively speaking).
Best Bet: Jeff Carter, F: What do you get if you reduce Alex Ovechkin's output by 20 percent? That's right: Carter generates his value along the same categorical strengths as Ovechkin, only to a lesser degree. Lots of goals, lots of power-play goals and lots of shots on goal help Carter fit easily into our top fantasy assets this season. There is even a little upside as his points per game slipped from 1.12 to 0.92 after the All-Star break. If he can maintain his stamina all season, he could even go from being a poor man's Ovechkin to being, well, Ovechkin.
Risky Move: Mike Richards, F: Richards underwent offseason surgery on both of his shoulders, but he played through much of last season with the pain (to the tune of 80 points). Again, Richards loses some value because he gets most of his points through assists, and there is also some risk he loses his role as power-play point man to Chris Pronger. Richards still ranks as a midrange No. 2 forward thanks to the plethora of skilled wingers in Philly, which guarantees the team will be able to ice two very good scoring lines.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
After acquiring the services of defenseman Chris Pronger this offseason, the popular belief is that the Philadelphia Flyers had established themselves as one of the elite defensive teams in the league. Those who have bought into that thinking might want to reconsider.
The Flyers' defensive depth is remarkably poor when calculated by Puck Prospectus' defensive GVT (DGVT) metric. After Pronger (4.5 DGVT), Kimmo Timonen (4.6 DGVT) and Braydon Coburn (4.0 DGVT), the Flyers have no one else with a defensive GVT over 4.0. Two of Philadelphia's defenders and 10 of its forwards have defensive GVTs below 2.0 (2.0 is the average mark for NHL forwards; the average for defenseman is 3.5).
There are several factors that go into defensive GVT, but one of the main components is the number of shots on goal a team allows below the league average. By that measure, the Flyers -- who allowed an average of 32.5 shots on goal per game last season, tied for the fifth most in the NHL -- were abysmal. Don't get us wrong: Pronger is a great addition. It's just that one player alone won't mask an entire team's deficiencies on defense.
Will the Philadelphia Flyers be able to win the Atlantic Division this season?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.