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30 in 30: Flyers' questions involve goalies, defense

by Adam Kimelman

It's been 38 years since Bernie Parent skated with the Stanley Cup, and more than 25 years since Ron Hextall won the Vezina Trophy.

So it's been about that long that fans have been asking what the deal is with Philadelphia Flyers' goaltenders.

However, who the main man in net will be in Philadelphia is just one of a few questions facing the Flyers this season, as they look to show last season's 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference was just a blip on the radar.

Here are six questions facing the Flyers:

1. Will the goalie rotation work? -- Steve Mason, acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the NHL Trade Deadline, showed flashes of his Calder Trophy-winning form in seven late-season games, going 4-2-0 with a 1.90 goals-against average and .944 save percentage.

To supplement Mason, the Flyers signed Ray Emery, who went 17-1-0 in 21 games with the Chicago Blackhawks last season, and was third in the League with a 1.94 GAA.

After two seasons of Ilya Bryzgalov as the unquestioned starter, the Flyers enter this season with Mason and Emery on equal footing. The question, though, is will it work.

"They’re both good goalies that we like," general manager Paul Holmgren said. "Steve's a young guy who obviously started out with a bang and had a couple down years. I think last year, even in his time in Columbus, it looked like he had bounced back, and we were certainly happy with the way he played for us at the end of the year.

“When you've got two good goalies that you're comfortable with, they're both extremely competitive, both very athletic, both good teammates … I think it's a real positive for our team."

2. Can the defense stay healthy? -- Of the seven defensemen on last season's opening-night roster, only two were healthy at the end -- Luke Schenn and Kurtis Foster. The Flyers had 13 players skate at least one game on defense, tied for the most in the League.

They lost their most effective defensive pair 10 days apart in late March, when Nicklas Grossmann went out with a concussion and then Braydon Coburn followed him with a shoulder injury. Andrej Meszaros, who spent the lockout rehabilitating from back surgery, played 11 games before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury. No. 1 defenseman Kimmo Timonen played more than a few weeks on a broken foot before it finally gave out on him with three games left. Kent Huskins (concussion) and Bruno Gervais (torn stomach muscle) also ended the season on the injured list.

The injuries gave the Flyers a chance to look at some of their younger players, and while Erik Gustafsson, Oliver Lauridsen and Brandon Manning did well in extended playing time, shoring up the defense was a critical offseason goal for Holmgren.

Whether they accomplished that remains to be seen. The only NHL-ready addition was Mark Streit, acquired from the New York Islanders and signed to a four-year contract before he hit free agency.

Streit may have made the defense a bit more mobile, but at 35 he didn't make it any younger, or less injury-prone. Timonen is 38, and while Grossmann (28), Coburn (28) and Meszaros (27) aren't old, injuries and their physical styles of play have left them with a bit less tread on their tires. At 23, Schenn is the youngest of the expected top six.

With questions in goal, the Flyers will need their defense to remain intact and productive to give Mason and Emery the best chance to be successful. Holmgren, though, is positive things will be fine on the back end.

"We really like our defense," he said. "We were able to add Mark Streit to our defense. We had a lot of injures last year. We're counting on [Coburn] and Andrej Meszaros and Nick Grossmann to bounce back and have the type of years we expect them to have. We'll be in good shape. … I'm very comfortable with our defense. I think we're big, I think we're mobile. Our puck-moving ability is better just by the addition of Mark Streit. I like our group. If the season were to start tomorrow I'd be very happy."

3. Is Jakub Voracek the real deal? -- Voracek was a big offensive producer growing up in the Czech Republic and in his two seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

However, prior to 2012-13 he never had found his scoring touch in the NHL -- in three seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who selected him with the seventh pick of the 2007 NHL Draft, and one with the Flyers, his best output was 18 goals and 50 points.

Last season, though, the departure of Jaromir Jagr opened a spot at right wing on Claude Giroux's line and Voracek took advantage, scoring a career-best 22 goals while playing all 48 games. He also had 46 points; pro-rated over an 82-game season, those totals would have been 37 goals and 78 points.

The biggest difference for Voracek last season was his willingness to shoot -- his 129 shots on goal were second on the team, and in an 82-game season projected to a career-best 220.

Voracek might have caught some teams by surprise, but that won't happen this season. Can he fight through the extra attention to be productive again in 2013-14? For the Flyers to get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he'll have to.

4. Will the real Sean Couturier step up? -- As an 18-year-old rookie in 2011-12, Sean Couturier had 13 goals, 27 points and a plus-18 rating that was second on the team in 77 games. He was even better in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, becoming the youngest player since 1945 to have a hat trick when he scored three times in Game 2 of the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He also played outstanding defensively, where he was tasked with covering Evgeni Malkin. He held that season's Art Ross Trophy winner to eight points in six games, but three points came in one game.

Sean Couturier
Center - PHI
Goals: 4 | Assists: 11 | Pts: 15
Shots: 75 | +/-: -8
The belief heading into last season was that Couturier was ready for an increase from the 14:08 of ice time he got per game as a rookie, including some time on the power play. While his ice time went up to 15:58 per game, though, his production plummeted. He had four goals and 15 points in 46 games, and was a minus-8. After scoring twice in his first six games, he went 27 games without a goal.

So was last season a blip and Couturier will develop into a second-line center? Or is he more suited to a third-line role, where he can use his defensive abilities to chip in offensively? The addition of Vincent Lecavalier will push Couturier to a third-line role to start, but if he plays like he did as a rookie, he could earn a bump up the lineup.

5. Can Vincent Lecavalier keep up? -- Speaking of the veteran center, he was nowhere near the Flyers' thought process until the Tampa Bay Lightning opted to use a compliance buyout to get out from the final seven years of Lecavalier's contract.

"I certainly had no idea he was going to be bought out," Holmgren said. "We changed our [offseason] plan right away. He all of a sudden moved to the top of our list in terms of forwards."

The Flyers signed Lecavalier to a five-year, $22.5 million contract, with the expectation that he can center the second line, or shift to right wing on a line with Claude Giroux. But can Lecavalier keep up with the Flyers' up-tempo style of play? The 33-year-old hasn't played more than 65 games in a season since 2009-10, and has suffered from hand, wrist and foot injuries the last few seasons. He says he feels good now, though, and the Flyers expect to be stronger up the middle with Lecavalier's presence.

"Depth at center is huge," Holmgren said. "I'm a big believer that the more centers you have, the better off you'll be. We just added a guy that can play ahead of Claude, behind Claude. … With Giroux, Lecavalier and Couturier as your three centers, that's pretty good."

6. Are they better now than when the season ended? -- Holmgren never has been a general manager willing to sit still. If he sees a problem or an issue, he does his best to solve it.

He saw a need for a puck-moving defenseman, and found it in Streit. He needed to clear cap space, so he used a compliance buyout on Daniel Briere. He wanted to change course in goal, so he used his second compliance buyout on Bryzgalov and brought in Emery. He wanted to get bigger down the middle, and signed Lecavalier to a five-year deal.

While those transactions filled needs, were they the right moves to get the Flyers back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

That question won't be answered until April, but the people who made them certainly feel confident.

"I go into every season optimistic and excited," team chairman Ed Snider said on the day Streit, Emery and Lecavalier were introduced to the media. "You don't add three terrific players like that without getting better. We're better, no question about it."


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