VOORHEES, N.J. -- A year ago, the Philadelphia Flyers lost in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a victim of a sweep by the Boston Bruins.
They lasted one more game in the second round this year, but following their five-game loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, there remained a feeling of optimism thanks to the stunning development of a number of young players.
The Flyers had six rookies in their final-game lineup, and no team got more production from its first-year players than Philadelphia.
"We knew we had a good group of young guys," GM Paul Holmgren said Thursday. "I think the coaches did a good job of putting them in situations and giving them roles that keep them excelling. To their credit they did. For [Sean] Couturier to play the role he did in the playoffs as a shut-down centerman and make plays gives you a glimpse of what he is going to do in the future. It is pretty neat."
Couturier, the eighth player picked in the 2011 NHL Draft, was credited with shutting down Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin in the first round, and did a good job limiting Ilya Kovalchuk's chances in the second round. He also was the youngest player since 1945 to have a hat trick in a playoff game when he scored three goals and added an assist in Game 2 of the first round.
Center - PHI
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 4
SOG: 18 | +/-: 2
"I think Sean next year will be a guy the coaches will probably think about using on the power play from time to time," Holmgren said. "I think he has good offensive instincts, maybe above average. He's always produced offensively at every level. If history shows anything, it's that guys who play in a defensive role against the other team's better players, they generally get offensive chances because the guy you're playing against doesn't really want to play defense. So sometimes it's a better situation."
Coach Peter Laviolette agreed and said Couturier, who had 13 goals in 77 games during the regular season, could see an elevated offensive role next season.
"I think the upside of Sean is really bright," he said. "He's been an offensive guy his whole career. He comes with a tag of being a smart two-way player, as well. We had to find roles for all of our guys and I think that the role that Sean filled this year for us … the way it started and increased to the way that it ended, it was a terrific year and a terrific start for him. Certainly the option of more ice time and possible power-play time and increased offensive role, that certainly factors into the equation."
Another pleasant surprise was rookie Eric Wellwood, who had just nine points in 35 combined regular-season and playoff games but arguably was the fastest player on the team.
"From a role standpoint, I'm not sure if anybody played better in their role than Eric did," Holmgren said. "I don't know if he had a point in the playoffs, but he killed penalties, he gave us energy, he used his speed … he was good. Very good."
It wasn't just the rookies who developed well. Claude Giroux, just 24, stepped to the fore as a leader on and off the ice.
When Holmgren traded All-Stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter last June, he said part of the reason was his confidence in Giroux being able to take his game to the next level. Giroux did just that, finishing third in the League with 93 points -- and despite playing just 10 playoff games, he still leads the League in goals, assists, points, power-play goals and shorthanded goals.
"Obviously Claude had a great year," Holmgren said. "Did he exceed expectations? I don't know -- he's sort of been trending that way for me the last couple of years. This year maybe because of the changes we made last summer gave him obviously a little more of a role, and he jumped all over it and had a great year."
Another positive development was the way the team chemistry developed with so many new faces in the lineup, young and old. Besides the rookies, offseason trades brought in Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek, and free agents Maxime Talbot and Jaromir Jagr were signed.
"You sign with a team, you're not sure how the chemistry is going to go," Talbot said. "At the start of the season … everybody was talking about the chemistry and how it was going to gel together. But we never really kind of slowed down, we were always really consistent. We kept improving and all the rookies just stepped up all through the season. We had the injuries, Chris Pronger going out, and you look at what we battled, it's huge."
A big key in that battle was Jagr, who returned from a three-year stay in Russia to emerge as a leader on and off the ice.
"Our young kids got to learn from some good veteran guys, and Jaromir was a huge part of that -- huge," Holmgren said. "Not only his play on the ice and what he brought to our locker room, but what he brought to the practice rink and our strength and conditioning room was outstanding. I think he was just … having him around for the young guys was a great, great thing."
"We knew we had a good group of young guys. I think the coaches did a good job of putting them in situations and giving them roles that keep them excelling. To their credit they did."
-- Flyers GM Paul Holmgren
Jagr said following Game 5 on Tuesday that the 2011-12 season was the most fun he's had in hockey. But he can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and stopped short of saying he wants to return to Philadelphia.
"I want to play in the NHL," he said. "I want to play somewhere I know teams will want me. Hopefully we are going to find some team where I can play. … I don't know what kind of direction Philadelphia is going to go. What is my situation going to be? I don't think they know right now. We have a long summer to think about it and talk about it."
Holmgren said he believes Jagr, who will turn 41 next February, still can be an effective player.
"I can still see Jaromir being a good player in our League next year," he said. "We did talk to him and his agent briefly during the year about next season. We kind of agreed to talk about it more after the season was done, but I have not met with Jaromir yet so we'll see."
Holmgren also said he needs time to judge the future of defenseman and team captain Chris Pronger, who played just 13 games and none after Nov. 19 due to a concussion. Holmgren said there's been no improvement in the 37-year-old's condition, but remains confident he'll play again.
"As it relates to Chris, as much as anything else, I'm a glass-is-half-full kind of guy," Holmgren said. "I believe he's going to play. But I don't know. I don't have anything to back that up."
Besides Jagr, key free agents are defenseman Matt Carle (unrestricted) and Voracek (restricted).
Holmgren said he hopes to bring back Carle, who had four goals and 38 points in 82 regular-season games.
"If Matt wants to be here, we'd like to have him back," he said. "I don't see any reason why we can't work out a deal."
Of Voracek, acquired in a deal with Columbus last summer, Holmgren said he'd like to see the 22-year-old develop into more of a goal-scorer; he had 18 in 78 regular-season games.
"I think Jake had a good year," he said. "I think there's areas he can still get better at. I think he can work on his shot a little more; he can probably shoot the puck more. But he's an exciting young player who's going to continue to get better."
While the Flyers' present is disappointing, those who went through the season believe the best is yet to come. Talbot compared this year's Flyers team to the group he was with in Pittsburgh that struggled in its first trip to the playoffs in 2007.
"I can go back [five] years ago with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and you look at the core we had that year and we got totally beat against the Ottawa Senators, who went on to the Stanley Cup Final," he said. "They were just too good for us; we lost in the first round, five games, and it went really quick. So you look at the chance we had playing against Pittsburgh, six games, and then losing that way against the Devils with high expectations, so it's disappointing … it stings, [but] what we can take from that is big for this team."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK