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by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
Some pundits have said that the 2011-12 season will be a transitional one for a team that has undergone significant changes since winning the Atlantic Division last season. While Peter Laviolette’s squad must undergo an adjustment period to incorporate its new players, there is also plenty of reason for optimism that the club will emerge an even stronger hockey team.

If Flyers history has taught us one thing, in fact, it’s that so-called transitional seasons can quickly turn into glorious ones. In 1979-80, many in the press wrote the Flyers off before the season. Instead, the club posted a North American team sports record 35-game unbeaten streak and went to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Five years later, the Flyers iced the youngest team in the NHL, and were picked as low as fourth in their own Division. That Flyers team went on to enjoy the best regular-season record in the NHL and reach the 1985 Stanley Cup Final.

The 2011-12 Flyers are actually much deeper and better balanced from top to bottom than their predecessor clubs (including the 2009-10 installment) that went on to enjoy lengthy playoff runs.

The following are four reasons why the current team could be a powerhouse during the regular season and ultimately become the team that emerges from the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

1.  Ilya Bryzgalov in net
It is untrue that the Flyers have never had high caliber starting goaltending in the playoffs since the early career of Ron Hextall. However, the team has not had a Vezina Trophy winner since Hextall in his rookie season of 1986-87 or a Vezina finalist since Roman Cechmanek in 2000-01.

Enter Ilya Bryzgalov.

Over the last two seasons, Bryzgalov was the single biggest reason why the Phoenix Coyotes defied expectations and became a playoff club in the Western Conference. He was a Vezina finalist in 2009-10 and played only a shade beneath that standard last year.

Acquired by trade on June 6 and subsequently signed to a nine-year contract,  the 31-year-old Bryzgalov has the potential to make goaltending into a major team strength for the Flyers for years to come. In addition, backup netminder Sergei Bobrovsky is coming off a spectacular preseason and appears ready to build on his promising rookie campaign of last year. If Bryzgalov were to get injured or simply needs a rest, the younger Russian goalie is more than capable of backstopping the club successfully.

2. Stability on the blueline
While there have been major personnel changes up front and a new starting goaltender acquired, the Flyers have retained almost their entire starting defense corps from last season. Five of last year’s six starters are back this season, with Matt Walker and new addition Andreas Lilja rounding out the group.

"I think it helps a little bit in terms of the system, because we [the defense] have already been playing it as a unit. It makes the communication a little better at this stage. There are still adjustments to make but we know the approach that Peter wants, so hopefully it comes along a little faster," said assistant captain Kimmo Timonen.

Although the personnel is largely the same, the defense as a whole has a chance to be improved than last year.  The biggest reason: The Flyers two most important defensemen are both healthier now than they were a year ago.

Last season, top defenseman Chris Pronger went through four different surgeries (a pre-season knee procedure,  in-season operations to repair foot and  hand injuries and a summertime surgery to correct a herniated disc in his back). A year ago, Pronger missed the entire preseason, large segments of the regular season and most of the playoffs.  Even when he played, he was at far less than 100 percent health.

Meanwhile, Timonen played all 82 games last year. However, he spent much of the latter part of the campaign dealing with assorted nagging injuries that had not fully healed during the shortened off-season after the Flyers’ run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final and got worse over the course of the season.

Pronger has returned to the lineup ahead of schedule, appearing in the next-to-last preseason game, and will be ready to go for opening night. Timonen reports that he feels stronger and more energetic than he did at any point last season.

Plain and simple, if Pronger and Timonen stay reasonably healthy this year, the Flyers’ defense can be among the very best in the NHL.

3. Instant chemistry on the top line
Any fears that Jaromir Jagr could no longer play successfully at the NHL level after three years away were quickly put to rest over the course of three preseason games in which the future Hall of Famer looked like he’d never been away.  He and Claude Giroux found instant chemistry, forming a deadly combination that, on any given day, could take over a hockey game.

It remains to be seen if the 39-year-old Jagr’s body is able to withstand the long grind of the NHL regular season, but if the likes of Teemu Selanne and Nicklas Lidstrom can do it in their early 40s, why not Jagr? The six-time Hart Trophy finalist keeps himself in tremendous physical condition, and has shown good durability over the course of his career. In fact, Jagr did not miss a single regular season game during his three-plus seasons with the New York Rangers.

Giroux established himself as an NHL All-Star last season, and still has not yet reached his full potential as an NHL player. Jagr recently likened Giroux to a smaller version of Mario Lemieux when it comes to seeing the ice and making plays that even most NHL players cannot execute.

Giroux and Jagr did not even get a chance to play together in the preseason with the line’s third member, James van Riemsdyk. With the departures of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, the Flyers are heavily counting heavily on van Riemsdyk to play to the level he displayed during much of the 2011 playoff series against Buffalo and especially in Game 2 of the Boston series. The club has placed a lot of confidence in the third-year forward and has bestowed a new long-term contract on him a full year ahead of him reaching restricted free agent status.

The gauntlet has been thrown to Claude Giroux and JVR to become the franchise cornerstone.  Van Riemsdyk is fully aware of the challenges to come.

“I definitely realize that there’s more pressure on me now, but I just have to embrace the challenge, because this is what hockey is all about,” said van Riemdsyk. “I have quality teammates and have a chance to get a lot of ice time, and that’s really all I can ask for. The rest is up to me. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Van Riemdsyk got off to an excellent start in the preseason before suffering a lower body injury. For precautionary reasons, the team kept him out of the final three preseason games.  However, he will be ready to go on opening night.

4. Improved power play
Despite the team’s stellar regular season record last year, the Flyers’ struggled on the power play for much of the campaign. After clicking at a success rate over 20 percent in each of the three previous seasons (the only NHL team to do so over that span), the Flyers’ fell to 16.9 percent last year, ranking 19th in the league.

This year, team has all the ingredients for a greatly improved power play. First of all, a healthier Pronger would be a much more dangerous power play quarterback and trigger man from the point than he was a year ago. Secondly, Jagr is one of the game all-time greats both at operating with the puck along the half boards and, without the puck, at finding seams in the defense to get open for scoring chances.

In addition, new acquisition Wayne Simmonds has shown the potential to give the club the sort of effective presence directly in front of the net that has been lacking since the departure of Mike Knuble. Simmonds scored four preseason goals, three of which came from the doorstep or via deflection in front. James van Riemsdyk is also very capable of continuing to develop his down-low game in addition to scoring from other areas of the ice.

Last but certainly not least, the Flyers have incredible depth up front to use on their power play units. It’s hard to call a unit containing the likes of Danny Briere – the team’s top goal-scorer last year and most proven playoff goal scorer – and highly talented Jakub Voracek the “secondary” group. 

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