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Moving Forward or Just Moving Forwards? A New Flyers Era Begins Tonight

Oct 6, 2011, 10:59 AM EDT

A look at the chain of events that sent the Flyers into perhaps their greatest off-season upheaval in franchise history, plus some thoughts on the finished product.
A
look at the chain of events that sent the Flyers into perhaps their
greatest off-season upheaval in franchise history, plus some thoughts on
the finished product.

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The 2011-2012 Philadelphia Flyers season begins on the very ice
surface that saw the previous season’s playoff hopes thrashed to
pieces—that of the TD Garden, home of the Boston Bruins. Sure, it might
be easier on the stomach lining to see a cupcake on the schedule rather
than the defending champs, in their house, but that’s not what the
league dialed up. They’ve pitted the Flyers against the team that most exposed their flaws and set them on a course that would
dramatically reshape them for the seasons ahead. 

HOW DID WE GET HERE?
That final blowout game, that bloodbath of a
series, the one roller coaster series before it, and  the complete
unraveling of the team over the final months of the regular season led
to a dramatic dismantling of a team that appeared to be well built for a
long window of legitimate contention. It had scoring depth, two-way
forwards, a stout and relatively deep defense, and stars spanning a
variety of ages and career stages.

The one thing the Flyers lacked was a clearcut #1 goalie. Paul
Holmgren had constructed a club with the goal of being sound enough
defensively and dangerous enough offensively that it did not need a star
goaltender. If one came along that didn’t require a hefty chunk of the
Flyers’ salary cap, so be it. But the big sums would not be allocated in
goal, where good money had been spent after bad to no Stanley Cup avail
in populating creases around the league and certainly here.

The tandem of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher—veterans who were
infrequent starters, usually backups at best, and frequently AHLers—got
them all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010. There were speed
bumps along the way (hell, there were land mines), but despite dressing
seven goalies throughout the season, goaltending was a strength of the
team in the 2010 playoffs. Patrick Kane ended our dreams with a soft
shot through Leighton’s legs, but bringing back Leights and Boosh at
their cap-friendly hits seemed like a good enough idea based on how
close the team had come. 

Leighton never returned to the ice as a starter, felled by a back
injury that seemingly escaped proper attention during the contract
negotiation stages, but the surprise emergence of a promising rookie out
of Novokuznetsk made us all wonder whether a kid called Bob was the
next Pelle Lindbergh or just the next Tommy Soderstrom. We may never
know at this point, with the reset button having been slammed like all
those times we swore the computer was cheating us at Nintendo.

Not a damn one of us needs a reminder or reopening of wounds that
have yet to heal over what caused the front office to blow up a large
portion of the team. The Flyers crashed and burned, first in the regular
season, where they still managed to finish with a respectable second
seed in the East, then royally in a pair of playoff series defined by
their inability to decide or rely on one goaltender. Instead, they
rolled out three goalies on their way to getting smoked by a
team—tonight’s opponent btw—that was backstopped by the eventual Vezina
winner and playoff MVP.

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HEAVY IS THE HEAD
Team Chairman Ed Snider took one look at that
and said, I want one of those. Yes, he wanted the team’s first Stanley
Cup since the ’70s, but also a goaltender who would be between the pipes
nearly every night, and be among the league’s best. In part because Mr.
Snider went on a media tour declaring this wish, it is widely believed
that he was the greatest force behind the team’s surprising summer
overhaul.

Some question why the owner is meddling so profoundly in personnel
decisions, reminded of a certain owner/GM in Texas. I’m more surprised
Snider didn’t direct money at this problem years ago, and then do it
again, and again until it was solved. He is a proud, successful man, and
the team’s goaltending has not been a source of either for the better
part of my life.   

Other items on the front office’s wishlist were said to include more
size and speed on the wings and an infusion of young talent to fill
major organizational voids that will arise in the coming years, but none
guided the trades of June 23, 2011, more than the desire to have a bona
fide #1 goaltender. The Flyers could have had one—the very goaltender
who beat them and everyone else on his way to a historic playoff run—for
a package including Jeff Carter the previous off-season. The Flyers
reportedly rejected that offering of Tim Thomas in 2010, and what a
difference a year makes. They didn’t hesitate to deal Carter as well as
captain Mike Richards in a stunning pair of moves that freed up more
than enough cap space to sign Ilya Bryzagalov out of Phoenix for the
next nine seasons.

Whether Bryzgalov can replicate what Thomas did, we have no idea.

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THE HAUL
The
Flyers got far more than just Bryzgalov though. In remaking the team
(well, their forwards and goaltenders; the defense has stayed largely
intact), Holmgren obtained one of the most highly touted prospects in
hockey for Richards (Brayden Schenn) along with a strong, gritty, and
talented winger in Wayne Simmonds. For Carter’s services, the Columbus
Blue Jackets sent Czech winger Jakub Voracek to Philadelphia, as well as
the 8th overall pick in the 2011 draft. That pick was used to select
center Sean Couturier, who some considered to be one of the absolute
best and closest to NHL-ready players in the draft.

A YEAR WITH JAROMIR
The next bombshell would come when the Flyers
signed Jaromir Jagr out of Russia when everyone expected him to end up
either back in Pittsburgh, where he became a true NHL legend, or in
Detroit. Feeling as though he’d burnt too many bridges on his way out of
the Confluence, and seemingly with little compelling sentiment for the
franchise he’d won a pair of Cups with, Jagr signed with their arch
rival Flyers.

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Funny part is, the only thing shocking to me about the Flyers
signing Jagr is that everyone seemed so shocked by it. From the day it
was announced (at which point of course it was quite surprising, but
more so because he had been strongly linked in the media to Pittsburgh
and Detroit, but not Philadelphia) to the day he first skated in
Voorhees, fans and media alike fixated on the oddity of it all. I’m not
entirely sure why. As indelible as the image of the baby-faced, mulleted
Czech is in black and yellow alongside Mario Lemieux in the early ’90s,
he went on to play substantial years with the Washington Capitals and
New York Rangers as well. Meanwhile, the Flyers are not entirely
strangers to signing league legends who are past their primes in the
hopes of a Cup run, regardless of whether they played for rivals. It is
notable for sure, but it could also be the perfect fit. I’d be a lot
more surprised if they signed Matt Cooke than when they inked Jags. 

Jagr may be fairly one-dimensional, but even at 39 and having won
all there is to win in hockey, he appears to still be one of the hardest
working players in the sport. If you love Roy Halladay running the
stairs at Citizens Bank Park early every morning, you’ll appreciate that
Jaro straps weights onto his legs and skates nightly to maintain some
of the strongest legs in the game. His best days are behind him, but his
best days are written in record books. He could still be a dominant
offensive force, as we’ve seen in his preseason games with the club. All
signs so far point to Jagr helping to revive an oddly anemic Flyers
powerplay, and hey maybe fostering the growth of Claude Giroux and James
van Riemsdyk into elite scorers alongside him.

A bit optimistic? Perhaps. But I’m as excited about Jagr as I am any
of the Flyers’ additions, and we know there have been many.

ENTER THE VOID
The
Jagr signing can be seen as a direct replacement for Ville Leino, the
spare part turned star who couldn’t sniff the ice in Detroit before
coming to Philadelphia and watching a bunch of games from the press box
before finally getting his shot. I’m not all that concerned with losing
Leino himself, in part because there isn’t a soul in town who thinks the
Flyers should have ponied up what Buffalo did to retain his services.
The numbers weren’t quite as eye-popping, but it felt a lot like
watching Jayson Werth go to Washington for $126 million and a Senate
subcommittee appointment (and not just because Werth and Playoff Leino
are dead ringers). If the Flyers weren’t going to keep Leino, the second best
thing that could happen from a PR standpoint was for Ville to
immediately be dubbed the most likely to be a free agency bust in the
coming year. The best would be that Jagr outscores both Leino in Buffalo and Leino last year in Philly. It’s certainly possible, too.

The only lingering concern with Ville leaving is that his chemistry
with Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell was one of the big reasons the
Flyers nearly won the Cup in 2010, and the line was the only one to
consistently skate together for most of last season. I’m hoping that the
more important factor was Danny being moved back to his natural center
position, and that he can thrive with some of the new faces on the team,
because we’re likely to see a good bit of shuffling on his flanks at
least early on. If any of this seems like I’m downplaying Leino’s
contributions, that isn’t my intention. He was a lot of fun to watch
with the puck, and I’ll never forget the image of him standing over a
broken Jaroslav Halak with his stick raised calmly and confidently in
the air. I don’t think he’ll be a bust in Buffalo, though I’m not
confident he’ll play up to his salary either.

Continuing the Leino is Werth and Werth is Leino theme, does that make Jagr Hunter Pence?

IN THE TITLE, YOU INDICATED SOME ELEMENT OF A PREVIEW…
First,
this is a Flyers season preview, and unconventional as it may be, no
Flyers season preview would be complete without worries over the
goaltending. But!! They went out and got the top free agent! Finally!!!

They did sign a talented goalie who is said to have carried a team
that would have otherwise decayed into one of those matterhorn skulls
under the Sonoran sun into the playoffs. But, as shallow as this may
sound, I didn’t personally see that happen. Almost everything I know
about Bryzgalov I read from someone else’s accounts, and not all of it
was glowing praise by the way. Plus, I just spent two seasons convincing
myself that a true #1 was often mythical and seldom the primary piece
to a Stanley Cup puzzle in the modern NHL era, and further that teams
reaching out for the golden goaltending ring often miss and fall off the
carousel.

I would not have objected had the team stayed the course of “Bob is
the goalie of the future,” which it said above the desk while feverishly
texting Bryzgalov’s agent below it (note: timeline may be inaccurate)
and brought back most of last year’s team, likely still letting Leino go
but getting Jagr and Max Talbot at the cost of the valuable Blair
Betts. I’d have been on board for some approximation of that scenario,
because I was a pretty big fan of both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter on
the ice, and I didn’t think they were the problem.

That being said, I’m also on board with the overhaul. Two reasons.

One,
I’m a Flyers fan, and I grew up watching every game of seasons in which
they absolutely sucked and others when they seemed ready to blow the
doors off the conference and finally, oh my god, finally win a Cup in my
lifetime. I’ve never seen that with my own eyes though, and even if I
never do, I’ll still be on board.

Reason two is, I’m not so sure they didn’t go out and actually get
better in the off-season. As weak and waffling as it may sound, in the
sober light of October, I neither strongly agree nor disagree with the
decisions to both exile Richards and Carter and sink a ton of money into
a goalie whose playoff record is less than inspiring. Maybe that means I
wasn’t as attached to Richie and Carter as I thought I was. But I think
it’s more that I really do like the guys they got in the deals, at
least what I have gotten to know of them over the summer and into camp
and the preseason.

Surprise, Reason three! Reason three is that while the two faces of
the franchise were dealt, the team’s best player was not. Claude Giroux
is still here, and he led the team in scoring while also contributing in
all three facets of the game on every night. We haven’t even seen how
good he can truly become, and we got a glimpse of what JVR can do when
he picked up the team’s scoring and intensity mantles in a postseason
that was doomed from the start.

And, I’ve always been a huge Jagr fan, and after admitting that
bias, it won’t surprise you if I say he might be the most important
player they brought here this off-season.

My hope is that
Bryzgalov earns that title though, rising to elite status and silencing
critics of the decision to make him Goaltender For Life Or Flying Cars,
Whichever Comes First (which is what it seems like even though his
contract isn’t THAT bad).

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BRYZGOALIE
It will not come easy here for the Bryzerker. True,
the defense corps is largely unchanged on the blueline, but the team’s
best defensive forwards and penalty killers (Richards and Betts) are now
gone. Much of the early season will be spent learning whether the young
players they traded for, drafted, and signed can pick up those
responsibilities with a team effort. It’s hard to imagine any individual
doing it as well as Richards, at least this year, but it’s not
impossible either.

Worst-case Bryzgalov scenario: The Flyers lose too many close games,
have a goals against total right in line with or higher than last
season’s, and Bryzgalov is either fairly or unfairly goated over soft
goals, while his easygoing, quick-to-quip repertoire with the media
gradually turns sour, with some casual malapropism ultimately launching
headlines (first locally, then on Puck Daddy and TSN) and defining his
first year—or his career—here.

Best-case Bryzgalov scenario: Energized by playing for a franchise
and in front of raucous nightly crowd that demands greatness, Bryzgalov
finally breaks a curse that has lasted more than two decades and finally
gives Philadelphia the elite goaltender it has long coveted.
Vezzzinnnaaa bitchesssss.  IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK?

IN SUMMARY (FINALLY…)
I don’t have a prediction as to whether
Moving Day 2011 will result in the Flyers being immediately better than
they were in 2010-2011 (yep, you read all this for nothing), but I’m
currently feeling good about the moves. There’s an excitement around
this camp that was absent even last year, coming off a trip to the
Finals. Everyone I talk to about the Flyers says they can feel it, and
the coach, GM, and players seem to as well.

Something wasn’t right about the team in each of the previous few
seasons. Most of the time, the types of people who make multimillion
dollar personnel decisions aren’t tinkerers. They’re aggressive and
self-confident, sometimes to a fault and sometimes to glory. Snider and
Holmgren are both loyal subjects of their own humanity, but I love how
badly they want to win, and so do most of their players throughout their
respective tenures. Whether you feel their decisions this summer were
misguided in a practical sense or off the mark in terms of specific
personnel, it’s hard to argue that their intentions are any different
than our own—a long walk down Broad Street in June.

Take a look around the league and remember that it’s not like that everywhere.

People
say we’re tortured here, and most of the voices from out of town
absolutely get off on our annual early exit. But aside from that one or
two week stretch every summer when we can barely stand the sight of
other teams playing hockey, we have it amazingly good, because
particularly lately, this team has a shot at contending every single
year.

This year’s does too, even though there’s clearly some uncertainty
with all of the turnover. Oddly enough, I think the moves may have
tempered fan expectations for the upcoming season rather than fanned
them, not unlike when the Eagles decided to part ways with Donovan
McNabb. Like that team, we should really have no concrete idea in early
October of what to expect from the Flyers or the rest of the league for
that matter.

Last year, our season preview was a series of three questions facing
the Flyers. To do that this fall would have probably been more like 10
questions. So, instead, you got this.

Thousands of words that can be summed up as “I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.”

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