It was June 9, 2010 when Michael Leighton gave up what was then just the latest in ridiculous, embarrassing playoff goals in the franchise’s brutal goaltending history. Seeing that one cost the Flyers the Stanley Cup was especially galling. Little did any of us know that, years later, that low moment was as good as it would to get for the foreseeable future.
Tuesday night’s desultory, disinterested 3-1 home loss to the San Jose Sharks left the Flyers buried in the basement of the Metropolitan Division and losers of nine straight games. A home date with Boston followed by three games in four nights in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver are coming up. That’s not a stretch where a turnaround is apt to begin.
This season has been ugly. The real tragedy, though, is that this Flyers team, despite what its record would suggest, is not in a rebuilding mode. Shockingly, pathetically, this bottom-feeding team was built to win now.
Unfortunately for the Flyers, while anyone casting an objective eye on the roster last season could see that it was past time for them to move on from the core of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds – a trio that has led the Flyers to one first-round playoff exit in three seasons – the Flyers themselves didn’t see it. Those three are being paid a total of $23,750,000 this season.
Giroux will be 30 in January. Simmonds will turn 30 in August right after Voracek turns 29. It’s fine for the Pittsburgh Penguins to build around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as those players roll into their thirties because they’ve won consecutive Stanley Cups. It’s fine for the Washington Capitals to continue to build around Alex Ovechkin because, well, the time to trade him was five years ago, so there really is no turning back for the Caps now.
But the rest of the successful teams in the Eastern Conference this season are built around youth, speed, and skill – in many cases, traits that are all found in one or two transcendent talents. Auston Matthews in Toronto. Steven Stamkos in Tampa. Taylor Hall in New Jersey. You would have to name 50 such players in the league before you could consider naming one Flyer.
The Flyers actually had a player like this, until they traded him for a lesser, older talent and two first round picks. Brayden Schenn may have underperformed here, but apparently all it took for him to remember how to play hockey was to go somewhere else. Schenn’s total of 30 points through 25 games for St. Louis this season suggests that he’ll annihilate his prior high point total of 59 from two seasons ago.
Before you chime in with “well, at least they can build through the draft with those picks,” let’s tick through those first-round selections in the past seven seasons: Sean Couturier, Scott Laughton, Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, German Rubtsov, Nolan Patrick, and Morgan Frost. From that list, only Couturier and Provorov have been productive Flyers thus far. Everyone else on that list is a ‘maybe’ or a ‘sort of.’
And then there’s the goaltending.
When you see the latest new Flyer netminder, Brian Elliott, languishing in 28th place among NHL goalkeepers in goals against average while former Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky maintains the top spot for the division-leading Columbus Blue Jackets, I mean, it’s like the Flyers’ handling of goaltending encapsulated in one screenshot.
It’s to the point now where you have to wonder why you would go to a Flyers game. Who are you there to see? What satisfaction are you going to derive from, say, watching them blow a two-goal, third period lead or get blanked by the Minnesota Wild?
Perhaps, not surprisingly, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall (who conceded some pretty memorably atrocious playoff goals in his own right) is in full “we’re all all right” mode:
Ron Hextall says Flyers losing 9 games in row is “not acceptable”
“We are not playing poorly”
He says Flyers are “shooting ourselves in the foot and making critical mistakes” pic.twitter.com/R71N8IYlQ8
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) November 29, 2017
Not playing poorly? The team hasn’t won in three weeks. They blow leads. They’re bad at home. They’re bad on the road. They’re bad. That’s it.
Recently my colleague Anthony SanFilippo called for head coach Dave Hakstol’s job. Anthony’s take is spot on. It also, to my mind, didn’t go quite far enough.
Look at the team’s org chart. Seriously. Three of the top hockey operations men are Paul Holmgren, Hextall and Bobby Clarke. Hakstol wasn’t the one who gave Giroux the contract which pays him superstar money when he isn’t a superstar anymore. Hakstol wasn’t the one who overpaid Voracek, either.
When Ed Snider was alive, you knew that he was always going to take care of his own, and that an unavoidable consequence of this would be seeing former Flyer greats installed in various capacities in the organization without term limits, like they were Supreme Court justices.
Somehow, even with Mr. Snider having ascended to the astral plane where his team always wins and his wives just get younger and younger, this team is still being run by the old Flyer guard.
Firing Hakstol for failing to win with this team is like firing a chef for failing to keep your restaurant open after you gave him some expensive ingredients whose expiration dates had passed and bought the rest of the kitchen stock at Aldi.
The Flyers need to accept that they are in a rebuilding mode now despite not knowing or appreciating it until it was too late. The rebuilding, though, shouldn’t start on the ice.
It should start in the suites.