For the 39th consecutive year, I find myself watching someone other than the Philadelphia Flyers raising Lord Stanley’s Challenge Cup above their heads and sending their fans into rapturous celebration. I’ve seen pictures and heard all of the legendary tales from the mythical parades down Broad Street in 1974 and ’75. But, my first memory of hockey was watching Yvan Cournoyer celebrating with his fellow Montreal Canadiens after sweeping the Broad Street Bullies in the 1976 Stanley Cup Final.
There I was at six years old being indoctrinated into a lifetime of heart-stopping highs and soul-crushing lows. The seasons since have varied widely in levels of success. But, where they are all the same is in the paucity of parades. Five times since the loss to the Habs in ’76 they have carried the city’s hopes all the way to the Final only to fall excruciatingly short in the face of misfortune, attrition and legendary dynasties from Long Island, the oil fields of Alberta and some place called Hockeytown. The last time was the improbable run of 2010, an underachieving team that found its stride only after sneaking into the playoffs in a shootout on the last day of the regular season and then falling behind three games to none to the Boston Bruins in the second round. They ultimately lost to the upstart Chicago Blackhawks when Patrick Kane’s seemingly innocuous flip seeped through Michael Leighton in overtime of Game Six.
It has become a tradition of sorts for me to crack open an adult beverage or two on the night that the blessed chalice is awarded and then try to figure out how far the Flyers are from their own celebration. It’s time once again for an unflinching look at the players, the plans and the placing of blame.
Never let it be said that Ed Snider isn’t committed. In fact, it is his passion and his borderline desperation to win a third cup that many people have come to believe is the reason for the four decade drought in South Philly. A chorus line of coaches, GM’s, free agents and high profile trade acquisitions have all been hailed as saviors and dismissed as disappointments by the mercurial and sometimes capricious Mr. Snider. His fondness for his players, especially those from the Cup teams, as well as their infamous style of play has often been blamed as his teams are surpassed by organizations with more modern approaches. The hope is that he has finally found a General Manager that he trusts to implement a long-term plan and that he trusts him enough to back away and allow that plan to take shape.
General Manager –
To the untrained eye, Ron Hextall would understandably be viewed as just another former Flyer player being handed the reins, in the tradition of Bobby Clarke and Paul Holmgren. With that assumption would also come the belief that he would carry on the tradition of building a big, physical team in the image of the outlaw champions of yesteryear and that he would then buttress that team by unloading top prospects for big name players who were past their prime. But, do not be misled. Hextall was an assistant to Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles while they were assembling the two-time Stanley Cup champion Kings. He brings with him the blueprint for building a winner in today’s NHL.
The sledding has been slow thus far, saddled as he is with cumbersome contracts that were the result of what we are all hoping is the ‘old way of doing things’. Last year, he dealt the polarizing but productive Scott Hartnell in order to gain some salary cap relief. In return, he re-acquired R. J. Umberger (who the Flyers had traded in 2008, largely because of his unwieldy contract) and his disappointing 15 points in 67 games. Some will point at this deal to show that we are in for more of the same while others see it as a spoonful of castor oil that we need to swallow in order to fix what is wrong. This off-season the team has taken advantage of the crumbling Russian KHL to sign players that previous regimes may have dismissed out of hand, another hint that Snider may have acquiesced. As with all GM’s, time will be the ultimate judge of ‘Hexy’s success or failure. But, he may have accelerated that process when he went way outside of the box in his choice of head coach.
Head Coach –
After 11 seasons as the head coach for the University of North Dakota, seven of which included a birth in the NCAA’s Frozen Four, Dave Hakstol was chosen to helm the Flyers on May 18th. It has been more than 30 years since an NCAA coach moved into the NHL as a head coach. It’s hard to say if it is based on historical facts or an institutional bias, but the college coaching ranks have been basically ignored by the pros. Hakstol brings with him a reputation for intensity and a full-throttle style of play that echoes the last Flyer coach to be pulled from a job at the university level, Mike Keenan. The obvious question is whether or not his style will translate to the NHL and if he can adjust his approach to work with professional players.
At this point, it is unclear if assistant coaches Gord Murphy, Joe Mullen and Ian Laperriere will to be sticking around. You would think that Mullen, who was responsible for their highly successful power-play, is feeling much more comfortable than Laperriere, the architect of their dismal and inconsistent penalty killing unit and Murphy who was in charge of their porous defense. Goaltending coach Jeff Reese, who had a very close relationship with number one netminder Steve Mason, clashed with former coach Craig Berube and eventually resigned last season over Berube’s decision to use an injured Mason. It may serve the team (and their top keeper) well to extend an olive branch in Reese’s direction.
When healthy … Steve Mason is just about as good as it gets. His .928 save percentage and 2.25 goals-against average were both in the top ten among NHL puck stoppers. Anyone who watched him over the last 5-6 weeks of the season saw a madman whose manic desire to keep the puck out of the net belied his team’s hopeless ‘lame duck’ status. That degree of ‘want to’ and lack of ‘quit’ are high on the list of desirable attributes. Unfortunately, last year Mason fell victim to a series of the dreaded ‘lower body injuries’, which meant that back-up Ray Emery and career minor-leaguer/classic rock tribute band Rob Zepp were asked to carry the load for longer stretches than the team could survive. Who ends up being Mason’s understudy this year should not make or break the team. But, if the Hextall/Hakstol experiment is going to show improvement, it will begin with a healthy Mason between the pipes for at least 60-65 games. In the system, watch for the continued development of 6’6” Jackson, New Jersey native Anthony Stolarz.
The blueliners have been saddled with the lion’s share of the blame for the team’s playoff sabbatical this year. In today’s NHL, you need to go at least 8-deep with competent defensemen. But, more than that, there are clear roles to be filled. The most vital role is at the top and the Flyers have not had a true Number One since Chris Pronger skated, screaming, off the ice after Toronto’s Mihail Grabovsky’s stick struck his right eye in October of 2011. With Kimmo Timonen, a warrior and solid 1A, nearing the end of his career and dealing with blood clots, the D was thin at the top and the remainder of the defense corps was eventually exposed. Mark Streit proved himself a useful power play quarterback. Andrew MacDonald is a shot blocking machine. Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto were solid and dependable. Nick Grossman and Luke Schenn were supposed to provide the muscle. More often than not, they seemed like obstacles to be skated around rather than wrecking balls to be avoided. Radko Gudas, acquired when Braydon Coburn was shipped to Tampa Bay, carries with him the weighty yoke of potential. KHL refugee Yevgeni Medvedev, who will be 33 when the puck drops in October, could be a wild card.
The organization does currently boast four highly touted defense prospects in Robert Hagg, Samuel Morin, Shane Gostisbehere and Travis Sanheim. Any of those four could be the story of Hakstol’s first training camp if they play themselves onto the big club.
In the 2013-14 season, the Flyers boasted seven 20-goal scorers. Six of them returned this season. But, only three of them (Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds) were able to duplicate that output. Michael Raffl (21) reached the mark for the first time as well. But, the lack of scoring depth was evident throughout the year.
Of those who did not repeat their 20 goal output, Matt Read soldiered through a high ankle sprain during the first half of the season, stoically refusing to admit that it was the cause of his lack of productivity. The sooner he can make everyone forget his 8-goal season the better for all involved. Vincent LeCavalier, who was inexplicably signed to a cumbersome multi-year deal only days after the Flyers used their amnesty exemptions to extricate themselves from deals with Ilya Bryzgalov and Daniel Briere, had better find a productive role under Hakstol or his brutal lack of production while occupying a dangerously large part of the salary cap will continue to hurt this squad.
There is an obvious Boyz-II-Men reference to be made here. But, frankly, I’m in no mood for frivolity. The young forwards on this team need to take the next step. If Sean Couturier only played against Pittsburgh, he would be a household name. But, that isn’t the case and, as his fifth season dawns, it’s time to find out if he can ever get over the hump and score more than his career best of 15 goals. Brayden Schenn was the fifth pick overall in 2009 and a major piece in the Mike Richards trade in 2011. But, he has not yet shown the consistency and confidence that were expected of him. His regression from 20 to 18 goals and his -5 plus/minus left much to be desired. Scott Laughton, Jason Akeson and Nick Cousins have all had a taste of the NHL over the last few seasons and may be primed to make a contribution in 2015-16.
Each of the 12 forwards a team dresses needs to understand their role and commit to that role. The third and fourth lines featured the pleasantly surprising Frenchman Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Hakstol’s former player at UND Chris Vandevelde, a resurgent Ryan White and the tenacious Zak Rinaldo. Nobody is depending on big production out of these guys. So, it’s hard to define their success at times. Suffice to say that, though their minutes may be limited, their presence will need to be felt.
Bring Me That Horizon –
Preaching patience is not a popular approach in this town. But, that is where we appear to be. If Hextall is truly in charge and in possession of an LA-style blueprint, there is still much work to be done. That work begins in South Florida on June 26th where the Flyers hold the 7th and 29th pick in the first round of the draft and 10 picks overall.
I know… I know… It would be great to say that all will be well and that we should plan our parade route for June 2016. Instead let’s set our sights on the more attainable goals of establishing Coach Hakstol’s system, developing the youth and clearing the salary cap deadwood.