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Neuvirth, Gagner give Flyers some optimism

by Brian Compton

The Philadelphia Flyers are hoping to erase the memories of last season, when they won 33 games and failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons.

They enter this season with a new coach and the hope that their talented group of forwards, along with goaltender Steve Mason, can get them back in contention.

Here are four reasons for optimism in Philadelphia:

Fresh face behind bench: Flyers fans might be nervous that coach Dave Hakstol has never worked at the NHL level, but general manager Ron Hextall said Hakstol is ready for the challenge. Hasktol, 47, coached the University of North Dakota to the Frozen Four seven times in 11 seasons.

"I've got to go to work and I've got to work my way through it," Hakstol said of the adjustment from college to the NHL. "I'm going to make sure I do everything I can in terms of preparation and detail to make sure that time period is as short as possible."

Elite up front: The Flyers have talent among their forwards, led by right wing Jakub Voracek and captain Claude Giroux. Voracek, who signed a multiyear extension July 30 (eight years, $66 million, according to TSN), was among the NHL scoring leaders last season with 81 points; Giroux has 159 points over the past two seasons.

"I'm fortunate enough to play with one of the best players in the NHL," Voracek said of Giroux. "I think when [left wing Michael Raffl] played with us, he was very good as well. I have great linemates, first of all, teammates as well. They're supportive. I had a good summer, I was working really hard to try and get to the next level and I got that [last] year and it's going to be even harder [this] year."

Right wing Wayne Simmonds is coming off another impressive season; he had 28 goals and 22 assists in 75 games and has become one of the better power forwards in the NHL.

Goaltending settled: It's been an issue more often than not in Philadelphia, but the Flyers should be solid in goal this season. Mason started 48 games last season and finished in the top eight in the NHL in goals-against average (2.25) and save percentage (.928). He'll be backed up by Michal Neuvirth, who signed a two-year contract as a free agent July 1. Neuvirth had a .918 save percentage in 27 games for the Buffalo Sabres before finishing the season with the New York Islanders.

"He's a proven goalie. He's a good goalie," Hextall said of Neuvirth. "I think one of the attractive things for us with a backup goalie is, God forbid something happens to Mason, he can carry the load and he's done that in the past. We think we've brought in a real good goalie that's going to give us a real solid backup. I'm sure he's going to probably play more than the typical backup."

Another chance for Sam Gagner: The No. 6 pick in the 2007 NHL Draft by the Edmonton Oilers, Gagner will play for his third NHL team after they acquired him from the Arizona Coyotes this summer. It could be the charm for Gagner, who has good vision and solid hands. The 25-year-old, who'll likely be moved from center to wing, has 336 points (116 goals, 220 assists) in 562 games.

"He is a very skilled forward," Hextall said. "I think in the right situation he can be a productive player for us. He is a player we were going to try and seek whether it was through a trade or free agency or whatnot. We felt like he was a good fit. We did our homework, we did our research, and everything came out good. So we feel good about Sam."


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