by Clark Groome

The Phillies’ year is effectively over. The Eagles are just starting a new season/new era that raises as many questions as it does hopes. The 76ers are rebuilding. So, let’s talk about the Flyers.

Why now? Because this is the week that the NHL begins its training camps, and, in just a few days, preseason games – all in anticipation of the Flyers’ season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday, Oct. 2, at the Wells Fargo Center.

The upcoming season will look very different from any in recent years.

Because the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011, the league has been realigned. Instead of two conferences of three five-team divisions, the new setup calls for a Western Conference of two seven-team divisions and an Eastern Conference of two eight-team divisions.

The Flyers – joined by Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Pittsburgh and Washington – will be part of the Eastern Conference’s new Metropolitan Division.

The revamped schedule has the Flyers playing 30 division games and going against five opponents (Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, NY Islanders and NY Rangers) four times and the other two (Pittsburgh and Washington) five times.

They will play the eight teams in the other Eastern Conference division three times and each of the 14 teams in the west, twice. This allows, for the first time in more than a decade, for each team to play every other team in the league both home and away.

The realignment also changes the way playoff eligibility is determined. In both conferences the top three teams in each division will qualify, as will the two other teams with the best record regardless of division.

The Flyers team that will be playing this revised format will start the season with several key players who were injured last season – defensemen Andrej Meszaros, Nicklas Grossmann, Braydon Coburn and Bruno Gervais, and forwards Scott Hartnell, Zac Rinaldo and Max Talbot – all healthy. They’ve also added forward Vincent Lecavalier, defenseman Mark Streit and goalie Ray Emery to their lineup.

Both Lecavalier and Streit will add strength to the team on the ice and, having served as captains for Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders respectively, in the locker room.

Ray Emery returns to Philadelphia after some serious medical issues and very positive stints in Anaheim and, last year, in Chicago where he was 17-1 for the Stanley Cup-winning Black Hawks. He will share goalie duties with former rookie-of-the-year Steve Mason, who was impressive in the seven games he played after joining the team at the end of last season.

If they remain healthy and rebound to the form they had the year before the lockout the Orange and Black are likely to have a very entertaining season, one that should lead to a place in the playoffs.

Between puck drop on Oct. 2 and April 13’s final regular-season game, the league will have a season unlike any other in NHL history.

The first regular season outdoor NHL game was played in 2003 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It was the first Heritage Classic.

The first outdoor contest in the United States was on Jan. 1, 2008, in Buffalo with the Sabres hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins. That was the first Winter Classic.

This year not only will there be a Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic game (Jan. 1 between Detroit and Toronto at Michigan Stadium) and a Tim Horton’s NHL Heritage Classic game (between the Vancouver Canucks and the Ottawa Senators on March 2 at BC Place in Vancouver), there will be four other outdoor contests – all part of the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.

The most intriguing game from a logistics point of view is the Jan. 25 contest between the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium. Outdoor hockey in Southern California should be a challenge to the icemakers.

On Jan. 26 and Jan. 29 Yankee Stadium and the New York Rangers will host two games, the first against the New Jersey Devils and the second against the New York Islanders.

The fourth in the Stadium Series will be held at Chicago’s Soldier Field March 1 and pits the host Black Hawks against Pittsburgh.

From Feb. 9 to 25 the NHL will shut down so that its players can participate in the Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Flyers’ head coach Peter Laviolette will be an assistant to Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma for the American Olympic team. While no Flyers will be joining their coach on the USA squad, several may well be part of their countries’ squads in the 12-team men’s hockey tournament: Claude Giroux (Canada), Kimmo Timonen (Finland), Andrej Meszaros (Slovakia), Jakub Voracek (Czech Republic) and Nicklas Grossmann and Erik Gustafsson (Sweden).

The year ahead looks like fun, eh?

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