Wednesday night, the Philadelphia Flyers saw their 2013-2014 season crawl to an excruciating halt in the form of a game seven loss to the New York Rangers in the opening round of the NHL playoffs. Much like the start of the season, that saw the team stumble to a 1-7-0 record through their first eight games, there was a sense of helplessness as the overmatched Flyers exerted every ounce of will trying to win a battle that, frankly, they had little business being in anyway.
I’ll be the first to admit that I did not expect this Flyers team to make the playoffs for more than half of the season. For years now, the team’s ‘fly by the seat of our pants’ style has yielded exciting moments and abbreviated stretches of consistent success. However the team’s unique style, for two straight playoff exits now, has succumbed to an unfavorable matchup and was rendered generally useless for stretches that ran far too long for a Stanley Cup Playoff series.
There were some that complained that the Flyers-Rangers series lacked a certain element that most of the other first round series displayed. Perhaps it was the fact that there were no overtime games, the only first round series not to have any. In my opinion, it was more a result of the matchup at hand. What one had to realize by the end of game seven was that the Rangers are far superior to the Flyers when it comes to even-strength play and, frankly, if Philadelphia wasn’t on the man-advantage it was like watching JV against Varsity.
The teams in the NHL who have maintained a run of recent postseason success (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles) enter every playoff series unconcerned with how their team matches up with their opponent. This is not for a lack of respect, rather a confidence that, at their best, it does not matter what the opposition does. These teams focus all of their energy on perfecting the style that best suits their talents and don’t depend on special teams or irritability to try to gain an edge on their opponent. The Flyers may have advanced a round if they ended up playing Pittsburgh, a team they have a mental advantage over. Much like the 2011-2012 playoffs however, I am convinced they would have just ran into another team (maybe the Rangers) who were tailor-made to beat them in a seven-game series the way the Devils did two postseasons ago.
So where does the blame fall? One of the most difficult things to diagnose within the Flyers organization is just where the commands are coming down from. Owner Ed Snider has never been shy about exerting his will when it comes to the team’s personnel decisions (see Bryzgalov, Ilya). While this past offseason did see another handful of veteran player come over on hefty free agent contracts, the Flyers have also kept themselves from hastily trading away some of their young talent within the organization. This might indicate a subtle change in philosophy or a lack of legitimate nibbles on trade offerings we’ll never find out about. Never the less, upper management has allowed what is a very young core of players grow together over the past three seasons.
The Flyers are at an interesting crossroads when it comes to what direction they would like to take the team in. A couple more free agent acquisitions might get them to the 2nd round of the playoff next year. A blockbuster trade maybe gets them back to the Eastern Conference Finals. If all the chips fall into place, another miracle run to the Stanley Cup Finals isn’t even out of the question. However, if the Flyers fancy themselves one of the elite teams in the NHL, they are going to have to resist these types of ‘band-aid’ transactions and focus their energy on putting together a team that fits a philosophy rather than plugging in former stars to roles they cannot excel in. Fortunately, for the Flyers, there is an option within the organization who is a prime candidate to help lead that charge. However, for any progress to be made with the makeup of the current roster, the Flyers organization must find a different decision-maker at general manager than Paul Holmgren.
There is a notion about the Flyers GM position that it is essentially a medium for Snider to carry out his bidding. While there may be some merit to that theory, Holmgren seemed to wield a fair amount of authority in his own right and it would come as a great surprise if we found out he was essentially a puppet for his owner. Though it might not be a popular opinion, I actually think ‘Homer’ has done a pretty good job since taking over in 2006-2007. The team made it to a Stanley Cup and missed the playoffs only once. There was a point, a few seasons ago, where one could easily mention the Flyers in the same breath as some of the top title contenders in the NHL. Unfortunately, for the entire organization, that all changed on October 24, 2011 when an errant Mikhail Grabovski follow through struck defenseman and captain Chris Pronger in the eye.
The Flyers were constructed in such a way that, though quite formidable with Pronger on the ice, any incidents with their prized blue-liner would leave a gaping hole at that position. Even with Pronger, the Flyers were not a team like Chicago or New York that had six legitimate defensemen capable of playing in all situations. Instead, Philadelphia relied on Pronger’s extended ice time as well as his expansive skill set to mask the deficiencies of the rest of the defense core. When it became clear the Flyers would no longer have Pronger’s services on the ice, Holmgren and the vision he was putting together was essentially doomed. After failing to bring in Shea Weber during the 2012 offseason, Holmgren had dug himself into a no-win scenario.
Holmgren does not deserve all of the blame for how the team has been constructed. After missing the playoffs last season, another failure in that sense would have been unacceptable in the eyes of Ed Snider. In that respect, Holmgren was successful in fleshing out a fringe team and turning them into a playoff team. Unfortunately, the roster is in too delicate a position to try to tinker and tweak the way Holmgren has for the last few seasons. If Ed Snider values his legacy as an owner and not the ‘Jerry Jones of the NHL’, he’ll hand the reins over to Ron Hextall, who the team brought in last offseason from Los Angeles.
That’s not to say that Holmgren could not still hold value within the organization. He is a strong voice with familiarity at all levels and the success of the team means a great deal to him. Hextall, however, has been a part of the construction of a team that solved the formula to winning in today’s NHL. The Kings have managed, since winning the Stanley Cup in 2012, to remain a title contender in the season’s following. They are a team that plays a sound defensive game and put their primary offensive weapons in positions where they do not have to score multiple goals a game to win. A great deal of this has to do with the success of goaltender Jonathan Quick, but the level of success at which the Kings have played for the past few seasons indicate strong organizational depth with a proven system in place. Promoting Hextall to the position of general manager would work on two major levels for the Flyers as a franchise. On one hand, he is a familiar face with a history with the Flyers and a strong desire to bring a Stanley Cup to Philadelphia. On the other hand, he is a strong voice who knows what wins in today’s NHL and has a tangible track record to prove it. My main criticism of Holmgren is not so much that he hasn’t been a successful GM, but more that he has run his course calling the shots and is at a point where he is trying to put a band-aid on all the transactions that have failed instead of following a process.
If how they’ve operated in the past is any indication of what will happen with Holmgren this offseason, he will retain his position until told otherwise. Snider’s postseason address should shed more light on where he sees the roster in terms of competing for a title. What would be best for the Flyers owner is to realize he has, at his disposal, an option who knows what that takes more than he does at this stage in his life.