So here we are, the beginning of January, a time when we would usually be swooning over the success of the Winter Classic, preparing for the latest version of the struggling All-Star Weekend, and awaiting the final push to the playoffs.  Instead, we eagerly await the start of 2012-2013 NHL season (can we agree to call it the 2013 season?) with nightmares of the 100+ day labor lockout dwindling from memory.

The 2011-2012 Philadelphia Flyers’ season was one of great transition, with Chris Pronger sidelined with recurring concussion symptoms, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards shipped out, the sideshow that is Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes, and a young squad of talent stepping up to the plate.  What became a roller coaster of a season was capped off with an exciting Round One in the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Who can forget Claude Giroux’s “beast mode” against Sidney Crosby that led the Flyers to an exciting win?  Sadly, the boys in orange were ousted on their way to Lord Stanley’s hardware, leaving many questions for the off-season.

Now we embark on a new hockey adventure, awaiting word on the upcoming 48-game season that will see increased divisional and conference play.  There are some new faces, old returners, and a to-be-filled captaincy (cough, Giroux, cough).  Our boys start camp sometime this weekend, so what are we working with?  Here are my three keys moving forward towards the ultimate prize.

Master the short season…quickly

There’s no lie that this is going to be a really strange season.  48 games compared to the normal 82?  Ken Hitchcock, former Flyers coach and current leader of the St. Louis Blues, has already reached out to an NBA team to get some insight on the impact of a tight schedule on players.  Those who ventured overseas to keep limber and train/play are rushing back in time for camp.  The AHL will also soon be losing some valuable talent as they move towards the Calder Cup Playoffs.

From puck drop on opening day/night, it will be a mad dash to the finish, with no all-star break to provide valuable rest time.  Those players who are already injured (Briere, Meszaros, Bryz, possibly even Giroux) will be thrown right back into the mix with little possibility for being eased into things.  As with every season, the key will be to stay healthy.  Peter Laviolette sure does have his work cut out for him there, which brings me to my next point…

Sure up the defense

Matt Carle’s swan song with Philadelphia has come and gone.  Chris Pronger will likely never play another game.  Andre Meszaros is coming off a lot of down time recovering from serious surgery, with no guarantee that he is ready to go (as of writing, he still was not 100%).  No, the Flyers’ defense is not looking it’s best and is considered by many to be a major hole for the team.

Nick Grossmann, coming over from Dallas last season, was a stabilizing presence and will have to step up this season. Luke Schenn is poised to have a breakout season surrounded by a steady offense and (hypothetically) solid goaltending.  Perhaps “The Brothers Schenn” (Luke and Brayden) could have the chemistry of Vancouver twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin…right?…please?…possibly???

Old favorites and steady-handed defensemen Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn return to the roster and should provide a steady balance for a short time as the newcomers and young additions find their footing in the Wells Fargo Center.  We will need all the help that we can get in front of the net if Bryz doesn’t return to Phoenix Coyotes or recent KHL form.  For now, we hope that…

Bryzgalov steps up

Last season, we saw the $51-million dollar investment of a goaltender struggle throughout the entire season with brief glimpses of genius.  Near the end, the was a light at the end of the tunnel that leaves me optimistic that Bryz can have one of those elusive bounce-back seasons.  If his most recent performance in the KHL is any indication, Bryz seems to be getting his groove back (not Stella).

Our goalie must also step away from the media and not get wrapped up in the comedy act that engulfed him last season.  Already this week Bryz has commented on Scott Hartnell’s resemblance to Tom Hanks in Cast Away, stating that he needs a Wilson (Hartnell was growing a lockout beard).  While Cosmopolitan Magazine’s #5 hottest NHL star (true story) does enjoy shaggy growth, I would like him to focus on staying on his feet and putting pucks in the net.  Slight tangent there…anyway…

Michael Leighton returns to back up Bryz in the pipes.  I, for one, am a fan of Leighton, who provided steady relief in the playoffs a few seasons ago before letting in a softy for Chicago to clinch the Cup.  With a consistent role and some play, he could be solid in the stretch.

Overall, the truth of the matter is that this season can best be viewed as a toss-up.  Perhaps the team will flourish and become a force to be reckoned with for seasons to come, maybe even making a playoff run.  Of course, the opposite could be true.  Whatever the next couple of months hold, rest assured that I WILL NOT be boycotting (a stupid idea… remember, you were upset during the lockout because you MISSED THE GAME!).  Instead, I’ll be treating every game like it’s game 7, eating my Crab Fries and drinking my overpriced beer in my second level seats.  Doop!