After coming two victories short of earning their first Stanley Cup in 34 seasons, are the Philadelphia Flyers primed to seal the deal in 2010-11?
Behind a robust defense corps -- bolstered by the additions of Andrej Meszaros, Sean O'Donnell and Matt Walker -- and an offensive arsenal that rivals any other NHL team, coach Peter Laviolette thinks so.
"I think our guys will be pretty motivated, just because we got so close," Laviolette said. "I think if we have a good training camp, there's no reason we can't come out and find success through the course of the regular season."
While the loss of Simon Gagne hurts, General Manager Paul Holmgren hopes offseason acquisition Nikolai Zherdev will pick up some of the slack.
The Flyers took their fans on an emotional roller-coaster ride in 2009-10. A coaching change, countless injuries, rumors of dressing-room turmoil and even a five-man goalie carousel couldn't derail the Flyers' remarkable postseason run. They became the third team in League history to overcome a 3-0 playoff series deficit against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but fell short of becoming the third team ever to rally from a 2-0 hole in a Cup Final.
There were franchise record-setting playoff performances by rookie Ville Leino and Danny Briere (League-high 30 playoff points), and Mike Richards silenced critics who questioned his leadership with an inspiring postseason performance, scoring 7 goals and 23 points in 23 games.
"We have to get back to where we were," Briere said. "We were two wins away from our goal of bringing this city a Stanley Cup and that's the goal again. I think we have every element in place for that to happen. I seriously believe that we have a team that can get back there and maybe even improve."
The Flyers open the season with a deep and formidable top nine. During training camp, while Leino was recovering from offseason hip surgery, Laviolette had Briere centering Daniel Carcillo and Scott Hartnell and Richards centering Jeff Carter and Zherdev.
It would make sense for Richards to work between Zherdev and Carter, who had 33 goals, including 6 game-winners, and 61 points in 74 games last season. Richards' regular-season numbers were down from 2008-09, but he still led the team with 62 points and 13 power-play goals. Zherdev, the fourth pick of the 2003 Entry Draft, spent last season playing in Russia.
When Leino returns, there's no reason to believe Laviolette wouldn't reunite what was a postseason powerhouse in Leino, Briere and Hartnell. Leino tied a League rookie record with 21 points in the postseason despite missing four games as a healthy scratch. The media-dubbed "Second Chance Line" combined for 11 goals and a plus-12 rating once they were united.
"The one thing you can't force right away is chemistry; you either have instant chemistry or you don't," Briere said. "We had it right from the get-go so we have that on our side. I believe if we work hard, it seems that the three of us will be on the right path. I think we can pick up where we left off in the playoffs."
Claude Giroux, who collected 47 points in 82 regular-season games, came into his own during the playoffs, with 21 points in 23 games. More than likely, he'll enter his fourth season as the team's third-line center, flanked by James van Riemsdyk and, possibly, Bill Guerin, who is attending training camp on a tryout basis.
Not to be forgotten are penalty-killing specialists Darroll Powe, Blair Betts and Ian Laperriere, who will be out indefinitely to start the season as he is suffering from post-concussion symptoms. Laperriere is scheduled to go to Pittsburgh on Friday to meet with the doctor that originally treated him last spring after taking a shot to the face against the Devils in the Eastern Conference Quartfinal Round. Powe and Laperriere finished second and third on the team in hits last season, with 183 and 171, respectively. All three were ranked among the top 11 on the club in blocked shots, and Betts and Laperriere were third and fourth in average ice time per game while shorthanded.
Jody Shelley, who has 1,347 penalty minutes in 538 NHL games, enters his 10th season in the League and first as a Flyer, while defensive-minded forward Andreas Nodl, a 2006 second-round pick, will have every opportunity to earn a more prominent role.
The addition of Meszaros gives Laviolette the luxury of four established puck-movers, including Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle. It also will help cut back the ice time Pronger and Timonen saw last season. Pronger, 35, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in August, led the League in ice time (29:03 per game) during the playoffs, while Timonen, 35, was sixth (26:37).
It remains to be seen whether Pronger will be ready for the season opener, against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 7 at Consol Energy Center. There's no question the trade for Pronger at the 2009 Entry Draft proved to be golden for Holmgren, as the veteran was a big reason the Flyers were so confident on the back end in the postseason. During the playoffs, the Flyers yielded a League-low 2.65 goals per game and allowed just 29.2 shot per game, third-fewest among teams that played at least 10 playoff games.
Another key move during the offseason was the re-signing of Braydon Coburn to a two-year deal. Coburn, paired mostly with Timonen last season, also was a big part of last season's success and should continue to thrive. O'Donnell, who ranked third on the Los Angeles Kings with 98 blocked shots last season, and Walker, acquired from the Tampa Bay Lighting in exchange for Gagne, will offer depth along the blue line. Right behind Walker is Oskars Bartulis, who played 53 games with the Flyers last season, and prospect Marc-Andre Bourdon, who posted 19 points in 61 AHL games with the Adirondack Phantoms.
No one will forget Michael Leighton and the tale of the journeyman goalie turned overnight sensation during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.
It was Leighton, however, who took the blame for Patrick Kane's Cup-clinching Game 6 goal 4:06 into overtime that sealed the deal for the Chicago Blackhawks. Leighton and Brian Boucher were to open the season as Nos. 1 and 2 on the depth chart, but those plans were put on hold on Tuesday when Holmgren learned that Leighton is dealing with a bulging disc in his lower back that will sideline him until the end of October. Leighton suffered his back injury over the summer and re-aggravated in overtime of a preseason game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sept. 24. It appears Leighton, who finished the postseason 8-3 with a playoff-best 2.46 GAA and second-best .916 save percentage, will not require surgery. Boucher, who becomes the team's starter by default, went 6-6 with a 2.47 GAA (second only to Leighton) and .909 save percentage. He suffered a knee injury in Game 5 against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Holmgren reiterated he would not add another goalie outside the organization. Waiting in the wings, in fact, is Russian-born prospect Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a three-year deal last May and impressed during training camp. Bobrovsky, 22, spent the last three seasons with Metallurg Novokuznetsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, and last season had a .919 save percentage and 2.72 GAA in 35 games.
"I think his quickness is what catches everybody's eye," Laviolette said of Bobrovsky. "I think that's what jumps out most for everybody that watches him, is that he's athletic and he's quick."
The Flyers also are very high on prospect Johan Backlund, who is recovering from offseason hip surgery.