Bryzgalov, last season's rookies top Flyers' questions
The Philadelphia Flyers entered last season with what was believed to be a franchise goaltender and a questionable offense. They ended the season as one of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL backed by a goaltender who appeared at times to be -- in his words -- "lost in the woods."
Ilya Bryzgalov had an up-and-down first season with the Flyers, and his performance in Year Two of the nine-year contract he signed with the Flyers last summer is just one question facing the team in its quest to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1975.
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1. Can Bryz bounce back? -- Bryzgalov signed a long-term deal after two excellent seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes, but failed to meet expectations last season. However, the belief around the organization is that Bryzgalov will be more comfortable with a year's experience in Philadelphia under his belt.
Scott Hartnell said he saw Bryzgalov struggle in his first season the way he did in his first season with the Flyers. Arriving from a non-traditional market with a long-term contract, Hartnell said he felt far better in his second season with the Flyers, and the same should happen for Bryzgalov.
"Once you get to know the guys and you feel more comfortable in your house, in your life, all that kind of stuff, definitely you get more confidence as the year goes on," Hartnell said. "Next year he'll come back from Russia in the summer and his house is all set up -- he'll be ready to play."
2. How do they avoid the sophomore slump? -- No team got a bigger contribution from its rookies last season than the Flyers. Matt Read led all first-year NHL players with 24 goals; Sean Couturier, the eighth pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, was second on the team with a plus-18 rating while playing against other teams' top lines; and Brayden Schenn was fourth on the team in playoff scoring with nine points. Rookie blueliners Erik Gustafsson and Marc-Andre Bourdon also grew into significant roles.
With the departures of James van Riemsdyk, Jaromir Jagr and Matt Carle, those young players now will be expected to provide even more. Schenn likely will enter the season as a top-six forward, while Couturier will see more ice time, especially on the power play. Their performances could determine how far the Flyers are able to go in the postseason.
3. Who replaces Jaromir Jagr? -- Jagr arrived after three seasons in Russia and turned his line with Claude Giroux and Hartnell into one of the best in the League. But Jagr is with the Dallas Stars now, leaving a significant hole at right wing on the top line.
The front-runner to fill that spot appears to be Jakub Voracek. He brings more speed to the trio than Jagr, but his 18 goals last season were a career best. He'll have to perform at a higher level to take some of the pressure off Giroux and Hartnell.
4. Who fills the holes on defense? -- With Chris Pronger's future in doubt and 37-year-old Kimmo Timonen entering the final year of his contract, general manager Paul Holmgren went big after free-agent defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, and after missing on them, he also lost Carle, who signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Their issues on defense became even greater when Andrej Meszaros tore his Achilles tendon earlier this month, sidelining him indefinitely. Another veteran option, Andreas Lilja, is also expected to miss the start of the season after reportedly having hip surgery.
5. What can Claude Giroux do for an encore? -- In his third full NHL season, Giroux finished third in the League with 93 points and second with 65 assists. He was the fourth-leading scorer in the playoffs with 17 points despite playing 10 games. He skated in his second NHL All-Star Game and had the most points by a Flyer since Eric Lindros had 93 in 1998-99. Giroux's coach memorably called him the best player in the world, and he capped his season by earning the cover spot on EA Sports' NHL 13 video game.
Now comes the hard part -- staying at that high level. Teams will focus their best checking lines and defense pairs on Giroux any time he's on the ice. How he handles that level of competition could determine the Flyers' fortunes this season.
6. Can there be a Luke Schenn revival? -- Is Luke Schenn the classic example of a player who just needed a change in scenery? The 22-year-old defenseman saw his average ice time plummet from 22:22 per game in 2010-11 to 16:02 last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. His production didn't change much -- he had 22 points and a minus-6 rating last season after scoring 22 points with a minus-7 rating the season before.
Regardless of what happened with the Maple Leafs, the Flyers are confident Schenn can be a gritty, physical defensive-zone presence. He had 270 hits last season, nearly 100 more than any Flyer. Playing with his brother Brayden for the first time also should be a motivating factor.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at: @NHLAdamK