The NHL season kicks off tonight with four games on the schedule, including your own Philadelphia Flyers starting their season off in Boston versus the Bruins. It’s always exciting to get into a new season, but this time around feels a little different to me due to diminished expectations. The Flyers finished about where I thought they would last year, but it felt like the overall optimism level was higher than it is this year. It’s almost as if we feel that the Flyers are in a holding pattern until all the young defensemen they’ve drafted recently are ready.
Whether you’re talking about the losses of longtime stalwarts Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell, the lingering defensive concerns, or the lack of exciting additions to the team, it feels like the best case scenario for the Flyers is that they will maintain their position on the playoff bubble. Nationally, they are not being picked to make much noise. TSN (Canada’s version of ESPN) has them currently ranked 25th out of 30 teams in their Power Rankings. ESPN has the Flyers ranked 22nd out of 30 teams in their Power Rankings. The Hockey News has them finishing 5th in the Metropolitan Division and missing the playoffs. None of these publications are listing a Flyer as their pick for a major award as far as I can find. You get the idea…
Let’s take a spin through each of the position groups to try to get a handle on what we can expect out of the Orange & Black this season.
I’m going to come out and say it, for the Flyers to make any kind of noise this year, they’re going to have to light up the scoreboard. I think they have the horses to do it. This is a team that returns 6 of their 7 20-goal scorers from a season ago. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek form a potent duo on the top line. After a pathetically slow start last year, Giroux actually led the NHL in points from the beginning of 2014 until the end of the NHL regular season. This surge put him in contention to be a finalist for the Hart Trophy, which was eventually awarded to Philadelphia’s darling, Penguins center Sidney Crosby.
I expect and predict that both Giroux and Voracek will have monster years, and that Giroux will be in the Hart Trophy discussion again. Joining them on the top line is former top NHL prospect Brayden Schenn, who has left a little to be desired with his performance so far. Due to the Flyers’ logjam at center, he moves to the left wing spot. Schenn has the potential, but if he cannot produce on this line, it’s very fair to start asking whether or not Philadelphia is the place for him. Last year he had 41 points (20 goals, 21 assists), this year I think we need to see at least a 55-point season out of him, especially with a creator like Giroux feeding him the puck.
Speaking of young talent that we need to start seeing a little more out of, Sean Couturier has been bumped up to the second line. In an effort to kick-start his offensive game, he is being given the chance to center a line that includes Wayne Simmonds and Matt Read. I think regardless of his output this season, Couturier has a spot on this team due to the fact that he’s so good defensively, but you really need to get more than that out of a guy who was the 8th pick in his draft (2011). Simmonds led the Flyers in goals last season with 29, but 15 of those goals came on the power play. Due to his style of play and the fact that he’s such a bull in front of the net on offense, he’s my favorite player on this team. That being said, it would really help them out if he could do a little more offensively when the Flyers are at even strength. Matt Read is a guy that you don’t think about often, but is more productive than you’d believe. I still feel like he would be on the third line on an actual contender, but he’s a nice player who gives you something on both ends of the ice. Among Flyers with 100 or more shots last season, Read was second on the team in shooting percentage, scoring on 14.6% of his shots.
The third line will be comprised of Vincent Lecavalier centering Michael Raffl and former Flyer R.J. Umberger, who came back in the trade that sent Hartnell to Columbus. In his first campaign as a Flyer, Lecavalier had an extremely rough season, scoring only 37 points in 69 games. The Flyers tried to play him on the wing for a while, which was a disaster. His season was so poor that he asked for a trade, which the Flyers were happy to try to accommodate. Unfortunately, the combination of his poor season and unfriendly contract (only 4 more years of a $4.5 million cap hit to go…thanks, Homer!) made him virtually untradeable. We can only hope that the massive lack of interest for his services lights a fire under him this year. Fortunately, he’s back at his natural position of center, which should help. I think Michael Raffl is a guy that can take a bit of a step forward this year, perhaps improving to a 30-35 point scorer. In his return to Philadelphia, I expect Umberger to be in that 30-35 point range as well.
Alright, this is the Flyers and we’re talking fourth line, so who do we have as our enforcer this year? Who’s gonna be our guy to punch somebody’s lights out and continue that Broad Street Bully tradition? Whaaa…nobody? That’s right, folks, the Philadelphia Flyers are going sans enforcer, at least for the start of the year. Jay Rosehill will be biding his time in Lehigh Valley just in case. This year’s fourth line is going to be looked to for additional scoring. The only holdover on that line is Zac Rinaldo, who needs to spend more time on the ice and less in the penalty box. He was 5th in the league in penalty minutes (153) last year and led the league in minor penalties. Those negatives aside, Rinaldo has some skills and can contribute; he’s not just a goon. The other wing spot will be manned by Jason Akeson, who seemed to be one of the only Flyers who could score in last season’s playoff series loss to the Rangers. Hopefully, we can see more of that production spread out through an entire regular season. Centering Rinaldo and Akeson will be Pierre-Edouard Bellamare, who comes to Philly from the Swedish Hockey League, which is one of the better leagues in Europe. Last year, Bellamare was 20th in the SHL in scoring, accruing 35 points (20 goals, 15 assists) in 52 games.
This is where all the question marks remain. A unit that was already considered suspect was dealt a massive blow when top defenseman Kimmo Timonen was lost until at least the beginning of 2015 with blood clots in his legs. That “beginning of 2015” prognosis is probably too optimistic; the greater likelihood is that Timonen’s long, storied career is over. He joins defenseman Chris Pronger on the Long-Term Injured Reserve List so that his salary does not count against the cap, because (wink wink, nudge nudge) those guys could come back at any time!
So let’s sift through this maligned unit. The first pairing is that of Braydon Coburn and Andrew MacDonald. Coburn is a big defenseman that can move the puck while logging quite a few minutes, but being paired up with Timonen for so many years, he never had to be the lead dog in his pairing. That may change now that he’s matched up with MacDonald, and it will be really interesting to see how that plays out. I expect these two to really struggle early while they figure each other out.
At first glance, MacDonald seems like a good addition to the defense last year. He’s young (27), he can skate and move the puck, and he led the NHL in blocked shots last year with 242. That all sounds pretty good to me, so I was surprised with how much a lot of the die-hard Flyer fans on Flyer-centric blogs hate this guy. And make no mistake…they HATE MacDonald. The contract extension (6 years, $30 million with a $5 million annual cap hit) that he received probably did him no favors in the eyes of the Flyer faithful, but after watching closely for a little bit, I can say that I understand some of the hate. The main problem with MacDonald goes on in the neutral zone, where he allows puck-handlers to freely move and even gives them a comfortable cushion into the Flyers’ defensive zone. I don’t know if it’s a lack of aggression or what, but he needs to be up in the face of the guy with the puck a lot sooner that he usually is.
The second pairing will consist of Mark Streit and Nick Grossmann. Streit will almost definitely provide the most offensive assistance from the blue line, as he’ll take Timonen’s spot when it comes to handling the puck on the power play. This is your classic puck-handler (Streit) and stay-at-home guy (Grossmann) defensive pairing. I expect more improved consistent play out of these two this year now that they’ve had all of last season to work together and get a feel for each other’s game.
The third pairing also gives you that puck-mover/stay-at-home defenseman feel in Michael Del Zotto and Luke Schenn. In my opinion, Del Zotto will be one of the most interesting guys on the team to watch this season as he tries to resurrect what was once a promising career. Once looked at as a key member of the New York Ranger blue line, he lost his confidence and his spot on the team, getting moved to Nashville last season before coming to Philly as a free agent. If he works out well, I can see him giving Streit the occasional rest as a secondary power-play quarterback. He’s shown the offensive skill to do that in the past, but he can be a bit of an adventure defensively. That’s where Luke Schenn will be needed to pick up some slack. Schenn was 3rd among all NHL defensemen last year with 260 hits. Much like the Coburn/MacDonald pairing, I think the Del Zotto/Schenn pairing will take quite a bit of time to find some consistent footing.
Nick Schultz is the seventh defenseman, and he is a guy who is there, I really don’t know what else to say about him. If he ends up playing significant minutes, it might be a long season. One of the biggest questions regards Shayne Gostisbehere, who looks to be the first in a line of promising young defensemen that will eventually make their way to the Wells Fargo Center. He’ll be starting the season in Lehigh Valley, but hockey is a rough sport in which injuries happen, so if he holds up his end of the bargain in the AHL, I think he is a guy that we will eventually see up with the big club at some point this season. Other candidates to come up from the minors include Mark Alt, Brandon Manning, and Oliver Lauridsen. If the Flyers decide to give Gostisbehere a full year of seasoning in the minors, one of these guys will likely get the call first.
Jeff wrote up a good piece on Steve Mason earlier today, which I encourage you to check out. So I’m not going to get too much into Mason other than to say that he was definitely the team MVP in the first half of last season. I expect an ever-so-slight drop off in performance this season, but the lion’s share of the issues this season will concern the defense. Ray Emery is a solid backup goalie, even when he’s not busy demolishing unwilling fight participants. Rob Zepp (not to be confused with the delicious Norristown zep sandwich) is the starter in Lehigh Valley and I’m assuming he will be called up if an injury occurs. I don’t know that for sure, I just wanted an excuse to reference a Norristown zep. Represent!!
Craig Berube starts what is technically his first full season as the Flyers head coach, although he stepped in three games into last season. The hope here is that an almost full year in Berube’s system will prevent the Flyers from repeating their atrocious start to last season. I guess you can’t have a stretch like that in any part of a season, but to have it in the very beginning makes things so much harder for the rest of the year. This is especially true for a team that’s walking that line between playoff team and lottery participant.
Best Case Scenario
The offense is explosive, with all four lines contributing. Giroux contends for the Hart Trophy, but is consistent through the entire 2014-2015 NHL campaign instead of just turning it on late. Voracek establishes his presence as one of the top wingers in the NHL. The defense, while not superb, is at least steady enough to keep Mason from having to be Superman. The Flyers finish third in the Metropolitan Division and get the 6th seed in the East, where they pull an upset and move on to the second round before bowing out.
Worst Case Scenario
The Flyers get off to another slow start. Giroux’s pre-season injuries linger into the regular season and affect his performance. Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier show no real growth in their offensive game. The defense is as bad or worse than even our worst fears, causing Mason to check out mentally. The Flyers miss the playoffs by a wide margin and the conversation turns to tanking, the new draft lottery odds, and the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel sweepstakes.
I’m going to go slight homer here and say that the Flyers make the playoffs as the 8th seed and get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. Realistically, I think the Flyers will finish anywhere from 7th to 11th in the Eastern Conference.
x – Denotes a playoff team
Eastern Conference Finals: Montreal over Boston
Western Conference Finals: St. Louis over Chicago
Stanley Cup Finals: St. Louis over Montreal
Hart Trophy (most valuable player to his team): John Tavares, NY Islanders
Art Ross Trophy (league leader in regular season points): Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay
Norris Trophy (top defenseman): Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis
Vezina Trophy (top goalie): Carey Price, Montreal
Rocket Richard Trophy (league leader in regular season goals): Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay
Calder Trophy (rookie of the year): Jonathan Drouin, Tampa Bay
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward): Patrice Bergeron, Boston
Lady Byng Trophy (best sportsmanship): Martin St. Louis, NY Rangers
Jack Adams Trophy (best coach): Lindy Ruff, Dallas