Inside the Flyers: Retooled Flyers enter season with new optimism

New center Vinny Lecavalier gives the Flyers size in the middle and dominance in the faceoff circle.
New center Vinny Lecavalier gives the Flyers size in the middle and dominance in the faceoff circle. (Associated Press)
Posted: September 09, 2013

In the offseason, the Flyers landed the NHL's marquee free agent (hello, Vinny Lecavalier), bolstered their goaltending by signing Ray Emery, and improved their transition game by adding puck-moving defenseman Mark Streit.

Those three players are the focal point of the New Flyers, who open training camp Thursday at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Old Flyers didn't have the depth to overcome injuries last year, lost a majority of board battles, and never got into a rhythm as they missed the playoffs for just the second time in the last 18 seasons.

"The changes we made this summer, in my mind, are all positive," said third-year winger Matt Read, who, along with numerous teammates, has been skating at the team's Voorhees practice facility for several weeks, trying to get a jump-start on things. "There's a lot more positive energy in the locker room. . . . I can't wait for the season to start."

"The experience we added is unbelievable, and I think it's a lot of what we needed," said winger Jake Voracek, one of the few Flyers who excelled last season.

Lecavalier, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound center who gives the Flyers size up the middle and dominance in the faceoff circle, and Streit are former captains who will be solid role models for Claude Giroux, the Flyers' young captain. Emery is coming off a 17-1 season for the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.

"They'll all help the young players, including me," Giroux said. "And they'll bring another look to the team and a different mentality. I think it's important to blend in with them and see how they do things."

The three newcomers will give the Flyers some leadership and swagger, but when camp starts, don't underestimate the importance of another trio: Braydon Coburn, Nick Grossmann, and Andrej Meszaros, defensemen who will be just as vital to the team's 2013-14 blueprint.

Because of various injuries, the three defensemen missed a combined 70 games during the lockout-shortened 2013 season. All are healthy and, combined with the newcomers - and a group of rising young players, led by Giroux and Voracek - give the Flyers a sense of optimism.

And the belief that last season was an aberration.

"When you take three top defensemen out of the lineup, any team would struggle," Streit said. "This year is going to be different."

Another difference: A spirited battle looms for the No. 1 goalie spot. Emery (1.94 goals-against average, .922 save percentage last season) and Steve Mason (1.90 GAA, .944 save percentage in seven games with the Flyers) are the combatants, and the competition should bring out the best in each of them. Both are on one-year deals and are playing for contracts.

There is, of course, one other major change: Colorful-but-zany goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is no longer around, which means the locker room should have less drama and more focus.

"There's more camaraderie here than the last camp," winger Zac Rinaldo said after an unofficial practice session on Thursday, adding it had nothing to do with Bryzgalov's departure and everything to do with the fact that the core players have been together for a while. "Guys are more comfortable with each other, on and off the ice. It's just a good atmosphere now."

In addition to the goalie competition, there will be a battle for a left-wing opening, and an intriguing free-for-all for defensive spots. The Flyers have nine defensemen on one-way contracts; they have lots of blue-line veterans, along with emerging defenders Erik Gustafsson, Oliver Lauridsen, Brandon Manning, Mark Alt, and Marc-Andre-Bourdon, who is trying to return from a concussion.

"Our defense is fine when we're healthy," Holmgren said.

Fine, but not nearly the caliber it displayed during Chris Pronger's days. The defense has struggled ever since Pronger - the team's rock - suffered a career-ending concussion. The Flyers need the once-heralded Coburn (who was having a subpar season before he separated his shoulder), Grossmann, and Meszaros to return to form and complement Luke Schenn, Kimmo Timonen, and Streit.

There will be a defensive logjam in training camp.

"It'll play out, but it's not a bad thing to have that many players and that much depth," said Holmgren, who has also invited veteran defenseman Hal Gill to camp. "As we saw last year, we ran into some issues with injuries. I'm happy they're all healthy and happy we have depth, and happy we're going to have competition in training camp for ice time. We'll see how it plays out."

It would not be surprising if the Flyers dealt one of their veteran defensemen (Meszaros?) to free cap space and open a spot for Gustafsson, who last spring played a key role as Sweden won the IIHF World Championships. In that scenario, Bruno Gervais might become the seventh defensemen when the season starts Oct. 2 - and the New Flyers try to become relevant again.


Contact Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @BroadStBull.

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