The Flyers had a tough, humbling set of back-to-back losses to the Lightning and Rangers this past weekend. The first loss snapped a 10-game home win streak and the second was the team’s seventh straight loss at Madison Square Garden. It was the first set of consecutive losses for the team since a 3-game skid in early December.
What was more unsettling than the result of the games was the manner in which the Flyers lost them. Against two offensively-geared teams, the team’s defense and transition play was exposed to the tune of 10 total goals against. Both Steve Mason and Ray Emery put forth sub-par performances and excessive penalties and letdowns prevented the offense from getting into a 60-minute rhythm that would allow them to outscore two opponents that now sit ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings.
Head coach Craig Berube has done a commendable job turning the team’s season around after their dreadful 1-7-0 start. Now, for Berube and the Flyers, they deal with the reality of expectations and the pressure of being in what will be a very heated race to the playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Flyers, despite the turnaround, they are an extremely flawed team. Still coping, even two years later, with the loss of Chris Pronger, the team is without a legitimate number one option on the blue line. Braydon Coburn has had one of his better seasons and looks as if he could be a 2nd or 3rd defenseman on a championship contender. After that, the team has an unenviable mix of plodders with little to no offensive talent (Luke Schenn, Nicklas Grossmann) and aging or fragile offensively-geared defenseman (Mark Streit, Kimo Timonen, Andrej Mesaros) who cannot handle the wear and tear of the forecheck of some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Include the fact that Streit, Timonen, and Meszaros are all representing their countries in the olympics and one has to wonder if the team could even field a competent defense corps against a team like the Bruins or Rangers in a seven-game series.
The team is talented as far as the forward position goes. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are elite players that can play on the first line of a Stanley Cup team, in my opinion. Sean Couturier is a unique talent whose confidence seems to grow with every game. His ability to play shutdown defense against some of the best players in the NHL paired with him being one of the best penalty killers in the NHL makes him one of the team’s three most valuable players.
After those three the Flyers offense, while potent at times, is not built to sustain. The team has a lot of money invested in veterans Scott Hartnell and Vincent Lecavalier, two players whose best days appear to be behind them. They also have a collection of young forwards: Brayden Schenn, Matt Read, Wayne Simmonds, etc. that possess desirable talents but are not the sort of lynchpins that Giroux, Voracek, and Couturier are.
For the time being, the tandem of Steve Mason and Ray Emery appears efficient enough to keep a team with a sufficient roster in contention and possibly spearhead a playoff run. Unfortunately, the team that the Flyers put on the ice, as constructed, is not capable of doing so.
The Flyers have been able to plug themselves into the playoff conversation with the help of the fact that teams that were expected to contend in the Eastern Conference got off to similar slow starts. However, now that it appears the Rangers are figuring things out and the Blue Jackets, now with a healthy Sergei Bobrovsky, are starting to collect points in bunches, Philadelphia looks to be a team that might not be sufficiently geared to make a run at a Stanley Cup, let alone win a round in the playoffs.
Considering the stubbornness of the aging of owner of the Flyers, Ed Snider, the point might be moot. That said, the Flyers need to decide if they want to put themselves in a position to win this year, or sacrifice immediate success to set themselves up for more long-term success. While the organization is not the type of juggernaut that a team like Chicago or Boston is, a few additions paired with strong performances from key players could insert them into that conversation by years end. Conversely, they do have a few desirable pieces that if they decided to part ways with, could help them continue to build up their improving stable of young talent.
There are a lot of questions to consider when dealing with a decision such as this. How many years of Claude Giroux’s prime is the team willing to waste while stuck in limbo? Shipping off players like Scott Hartnell or Lecavalier could land the team some promising young talent, but its impossible to predict how long Giroux will continue to play or progress at the level he has been. Does the team trust that Steve Mason is a long-term answer in net? Despite recent struggles, Mason has stolen several games for the Flyers and at just 25 years old, he could be a surprise solution to what seems to be a never-ending issue with finding a franchise goaltender. Does the team have the patience to let its impressive stable of young defensemen at the minor league level develop into the collection of players that seems to be essential in winning a Stanley Cup? Between 2013 1st round pick Sam Morin, 2nd round pick Robert Hagg, and 2012 3rd round pick Shayne Gostisbehere the Flyers look to have a promising blue-line of the future. Much as is the case with defenseman in the NHL, patience usually pays off and rushing a player to the NHL level can be extremely damaging to his confidence and can have career-altering effects (see: Joni Pitkanen). Considering all of these questions, one thing is certain: the Flyers need to decide if they want to be buyers or sellers come the trade deadline. If they stand pat, it will only result in moderate regular season success and inevitable postseason disappointment.
System hockey only goes so far in the NHL. Some of Berube’s schematic changes and his emphasis on accountability have yielded some positive results and has the Flyers competing most nights. What it really comes down to with this team is talent. One could argue that they are more talented than some of the other teams in the playoff race (Washington, Montreal) but they are clearly less talented than the teams that would stand in their way of possibly reaching a Stanley Cup (Pittsburgh, Boston, Tampa Bay (with Stamkos)). If they wanted to break the farm, again, and try to pry a player like Evander Kane from Winnipeg or Mark Giordano from Calgary they might be able to creep up into that sort of tier. Or, if they decided to ship off veterans like Hartnell, Meszaros, or Timonen they could supplement what is already a promising core of young talent at both the NHL and minor league level.
The Flyers were both lucky and unlucky last trade deadline. They were unable to get anything for Danny Briere, as his injury scared off contenders from making a move for the former Flyer for a playoff run. They were able to trade Michael Leighton and a meaningless draft pick for Steve Mason who could be the team’s goalie for the next five seasons or more. When 2014′s March 5th deadline reaches, the team should have a clear indication of whether they are good enough that one or two pieces might get them over the top or if they are too far off from the class of the NHL. With games against the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks (arguably the three best teams in the Western Conference), the Flyers should have a pretty good idea of just how close or how far off they are.
One of the reasons the Flyers are considered a ‘successful’ organization is that they are always in the playoffs. Just twice since the 1994-95 season (including last year) the team has missed the postseason and they are often in the conversation for a team that can contend for the Stanley Cup. This might be sufficient enough comfort for Ed Snider to justify constantly throwing big money at free agents and trading away draft picks and prospects. Unfortunately, the last few seasons have shown that the teams that hoist the Stanley Cup are those built through the draft and those that know when to cut ties with players. After winning it all in 2010, the Blackhawks refused to give in to the demands of the very popular Dustin Byfuglien and traded him to what is now the Winnipeg Jets. Along with allowing several other members of their cup-winning team to walk, the Blackhawks looked like an entirely different team the following season. They instead focused on their franchise cornerstones (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook) and trusted that their scouting department and a few savvy signings along the way could replenish the talent level and allow them to return to an elite level. Sure enough, in 2013, they were right back at the top of the NHL and won their second cup in four seasons after not winning one in fifty years.
Whether or not Paul Holmgren is on the hot seat as a general manager should be irrelevant. Many feel that the presence of Snider is preventing any executive from setting forth a long-term plan that could position the Flyers to contend for a Stanley Cup. One cannot force Snider to do anything, he is one of the most powerful owners in sports and the Flyers are one of the premiere organizations in the NHL. That being said, if Snider wants to cement his legacy as an icon in Philadelphia, he is going about it the wrong way. Pulling at straws to try to win one more cup is a recipe that does not work in today’s NHL, where the richest owner cannot outbid every team in the NHL. The franchise has shown they are not savvy enough to pick the right free agents and max contracts have hamstrung Snider and the Flyers even further from bringing in the top players.
If it were up to me, this Flyers team just does not pass the eye test. Adding an Evander Kane to the top line might help them win a round in the playoffs, but with the relentless styles of play used by the Bruins and Penguins its just tough to imagine a tweak could fix the Flyers enough to have them compete for a Cup. It might be a tough pill to swallow, but the Flyers have an improving farm system stocked with young players and the yields from trading some of their veteran players will only add to that. They have to trust that their young players will continue to progress with the help of coaching and natural development. As long as the team does not start shipping off parts like Morin and former 1st round pick Scott Laughton, I actually do not think they are too far off from returning to being consistently mentioned in the conversation for Stanley Cup contenders. The true challenge lies in whether or not ‘Mr. Snider’ can stomach the possibility of not reaching the playoffs, an occurrence that has not happened in 20 years.