The problem with being okay with being okay

The Philadelphia Flyers have not won a championship since 1975. They have not won a playoff round since the 2011-2012 season. Since that season, they have alternated between missing the playoffs and first round exits. There have been seasons where the fans were sold that the team was trying to compete and others where they were told the Flyers were rebuilding. 

There’ve been some moves made during that span, but none of which particularly moved the needle. Most of the moves either ended up being at best a slight improvement or at worst an abject failure. 

All of this and more points to one thing: The Flyers have accepted mediocrity and have not settled on a plan to get out of it. They are okay with simply being okay.

Who’s in Charge?

Ed Snider was not the perfect owner. He made some mistakes, such as refusing to draft Russian players and giving too many ex-players a role in the franchise they may not have been necessary qualified for, but one thing was for sure with Snider. 

He wanted to win. Every year.

Of course, sometimes this was a detriment. Young players were traded away for veterans for the sake of trying to win every year, and sometimes it came back to bite the Flyers (Justin Williams says hello). But Snider’s desire to win at all costs was evident. 

After Snider’s death, ownership of the team was transferred to Comcast Spectacor. The team went from a man with a burning (although sometimes too bright) desire to win, to a faceless company. 

Teams do not necessarily need to be good for owners to make money. As long as fans are coming to games and spending money, ownership will make money. The Flyers, with all of their mediocrity, are still selling a good amount of tickets. 

They were third in attendance during the 2018-2019 season, averaging 20,371 people per game. That is up from 2017-2018, where they were still third but averaged less at 19,517 people per game. 

If the team that hasn’t advanced past the first round in the playoffs in seven years is still in the top three in attendance, why would a faceless corporate owner care about the on-ice product? They have no financial reason to do so.

The only reason to want to improve would be the desire to win. But when there isn’t at least one person being the driving force with a desire to win, all the corporation is going to look at is the bottom line. 

What’s the Plan?

Philadelphia has been no stranger to rebuilds in recent years. In the same time frame since the Flyers last playoff series win, the Sixers entered the Process and the Phillies tore down the remnants of the golden era. Both of those teams are set up much better for the future because of it. The Sixers are coming off a Game 7 loss to the new champions in the second round and look to be a strong favorite to win the East in 2019-2020. The Phillies have signed a superstar free agent in his prime and are in the thick of a tight playoff race. Even the Eagles underwent a rebuild of sorts after the Chip Kelly era and won their first Super Bowl in Doug Pederson’s second year as coach. 

But what about the Flyers? Did they really rebuild or not? Some moves say yes, such as trading away Brayden Schenn and Braydon Coburn for draft assets. But then of course, Brayden Schenn goes on to be a key piece for the St. Louis Blues in their run to their first Stanley Cup Championship. And what is the immediate return on that trade? Jori Lehtera, who was almost useless on the ice and then got in trouble with the law over a cocaine bust.

The trade looks really, really bad now, but the true end of the deal will be when/if Morgan Frost makes it to the NHL. If Frost lives up to his potential, it’ll be worth it. But while the Flyers are claiming they are a few years away for the third straight year, other teams are raising the Cup with their former players and coaches. But hey, rebuilds right? It happens. It’s not like the same thing already happened this decade when you traded two franchise cornerstones who also helped another franchise on not one but multiple Cup runs. 

But if you are rebuilding, then why sign Dale Weise to a 4 year $9.4M contract to be in your bottom six? Why sign then 32-year-old Brian Elliott to a two year, $5.5M contract? Ditto for bringing back the ever-injury prone Michal Neuvirth. 

During the time period then general manager Ron Hextall was preaching a rebuild, he made the aforementioned moves that don’t necessarily scream “rebuilding team.” Of course, rebuilding teams need to field rosters too. It makes sense in a vacuum to bring in goaltenders as to not rush along hopeful franchise savior Carter Hart. What doesn’t make sense is going into a season with a goaltending tandem of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth and expecting everything to be fine, especially after in the previous season you were forced to trade a third round pick for Petr Mrazek. And the reasoning behind that was because the team was close to a playoff spot, even though they were rebuilding. Sure. “Rebuild.” 

The G Question

One of the biggest mistakes the Flyers made during their so called rebuild was not fully clearing the pallet of all of their big contracts. Of course, the biggest contract on the team is captain and star player Claude Giroux. 

This is not an indictment of Giroux. He has proven that when healthy he is still capable of putting up elite offensive numbers. This is an indictment of the front office for never really entertaining a Giroux trade. Of course, Giroux has a no trade clause and has publicly stated his desire to remain in Philadelphia, but if the Flyers truly decided to rip it all down and start from scratch, he may have re-considered. 

If the front office and ownership were able to look into the mirror and realize they needed to start over, they may have been able to convince Giroux to waive his no trade to go play somewhere where he could compete for championships instead of wasting away the rest of his prime on a team that’s going nowhere. 

Moving Giroux would’ve freed the Flyers from the price of his contract and brought in a bounty of younger, cheaper, and possibly high end talent while simultaneously granting one of the franchise’s best players a better chance to win. 

Sitting on their Hands

Credit where it is due, Ron Hextall gave this team a good farm system and helped them escape the nightmarish cap hell that Paul Holmgren left them in. They may not have fully committed to a rebuild, but they did set themselves up pretty well for the future. And what did Hextall do with that cap space and all those assets?

Nothing.

Hextall sat on his hands as opportunities to make trades to improve the NHL roster went by. 

Ryan O’Reilly. Mike Hoffman. Matt Duchene. Jonathan Drouin. Erik Karlsson. The list could go on. These players and more all would’ve been obtainable for the Flyers without completely burning the farm and would’ve significantly upgraded the NHL roster. But Hextall never budged. 

A rebuild doesn’t just mean picking players relatively high in the draft and then waiting for them to develop. You have to recognize which of said players are in your future and which you can use as trade bait to improve elsewhere. Hextall chose to cling to all of his prospects instead of moving from his dearth of young defensemen to acquire more proven or elite NHL players who could’ve helped in the short and long term. 

Hextall’s biggest mistake was not pulling the plug on the Dave Hakstol experiment sooner. The writing was on the wall following the 2017-2018 season, but Hextall opted to not make a change. Doing this allowed coach of the then champion Washington Capitals Barry Trotz to go to the New York Islanders, where he helped take them from near the bottom of the Metro to second place and a playoff berth with a difference in 23 points. The Flyers went from 98 points to 82 in that same span. 

Then after axing Hextall and at long last Hakstol, the Flyers seemed to set their sights on three time Stanley Cup Champion Joel Quenneville to be their head coach under new general manager Chuck Fletcher. But they missed on Quenneville, and ended up with Alain Vigneault. Vigneault has seen some success but also has been criticized for the way he handles young players. 

By waiting to fire Hakstol, the Flyers essentially missed on two slam dunk hires and ended up with one that very well may end up being the right move but has question marks. 

A complete 180

Less than a year into the Chuck Fletcher era, we can already see he is the antithesis of Ron Hextall. Fletcher has shown he isn’t afraid to make moves to try and make the team better.

But have any of his moves actually made them better? 

Trading Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen is questionable at best. The Flyers traded Gudas for an older, analytically worse, and more expensive defenseman. The Justin Braun trade is even more suspect. The Flyers gave up a second and third round pick for a 32 year-old-defenseman who was the fourth worst defenseman in the league last year according to the admittedly flawed NHL WAR metric.  

Throwing a bunch of mediocre veterans at problems isn’t rebuilding. It’s something that teams that are one or two pieces away from a championship do. The Flyers are not one or two players away from a Cup run. They may be out of their “rebuild” phase, but they should not be collecting aging players who are slight improvements at best. 

The biggest move Fletcher has made to date is trading for the rights to and then signing Kevin Hayes. After surrendering a fifth round pick for the rights to get an early negotiation period with Hayes, the Flyers signed him to a seven year, $50M contract. Even though Hayes pretty clearly makes the team better as the second center, that is a lot of money for a player of his caliber. The contract makes him have the third highest cap hit on the team and in the top 20 in money for all centers. 

Is Hayes a good player? Yes. Is he a top 20 center worthy of that big of a contract? Debatable at best. Will he be the missing piece that finally pushes this team out of mediocrity? Probably not. 

Why are you still here?

Paul Holmgren was originally introduced into this franchise when he was drafted as a player in 1975. He became general manager during the 2006-2007 season. Holmgren’s era was defined by a large amount of splashy trades and signings that for better or worse, grabbed the headlines.

There were some great ones, such as acquiring Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen, Chris Pronger, and Scott Hartnell. But there were a fair share of bad ones.

Trading James Van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn was a disaster. The team all but admitted their mistake when they re-signed JVR this past offseason after trading Schenn away over three years ago after a poor tenure with the team.

Trading franchise cornerstones Mike Richards and Jeff Carter on the same day was supposed to bring back a core that would provide multiple deep playoff runs. Holmgren also signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine year $51M contract to anchor said new core in net. 

Those moves did spark deep playoff runs. Just not for the Flyers. Richards and Carter both ended up on the Los Angeles Kings and helped lead that team to its first two Stanley Cup Championships. Meanwhile the Flyers have not made it past the first round since 2012. 

As for Bryzgalov, the contract proved to be a disaster, as after two seasons, the Flyers admitted failure and bought out the contract. Adding further salt in the wound, acquiring Bryzgalov made the team comfortable in trading young goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he went on to win two Vezina Awards given to the league’s best goaltender. 

Now, you would think that after those colossal failures, the Flyers would’ve shown Holmgren the door. But instead, they fired him by promotion, taking away his general manager title but effectively moving him up by naming him team president. At first it appeared no harm done as he wouldn’t be the one making the moves anymore. But after Hextall was fired, who was the one who took over for the time being and started the new GM search? Holmgren himself.

Holmgren may not be the one actually making the phone calls anymore, but it is now clear he still has too much power in this organization. After the mistakes of his general manager tenure, he should have been fired and been no longer a part of the organization. But for whatever reason, he has been allowed to stay.

Let the Past Die

The Flyers throughout their history have been associated with the Broad Street Bullies. Those teams won the first championships in franchise history and the first in the city since 1960. The Flyers will be forever linked to those players.

But those players should not be forever linked to the team. Meaning, those players should be treated with respect and thanked for their accomplishments, but they should not have any influence over the team today. Because of the franchise’s need to cling to the past, Bobby Clarke was able to stay as GM for a combined 19 seasons, and all the team had to show for it was a litany of playoff disappointments and feuds with their star player. 

The obsession through the franchise’s history with reclaiming that once found glory from almost forty-five years ago did almost irreparable damage in the years following it. While the Flyers focused on getting big hulking tough guys and goons, the rest of the league shifted towards more finesse and speed. As of today, the Flyers are just starting to finally get up to date with the modern NHL. 

Even the new mascot’s name is designed to bring back memories of the Bullies. The Flyers would rather you watch Gritty’s antics, even though they are hilarious, rather than calling them out for their poor management. The Flyers have been so busy selling nostalgia over the last four decades, they forgot to actually win another championship.