Philadelphia Flyers: Dreams, Expectations, and Reality

Apr 24, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol talks to the media following game six of the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Washington Capitals at Wells Fargo Center. The Capitals won 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 24, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol talks to the media following game six of the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Washington Capitals at Wells Fargo Center. The Capitals won 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia Flyers 50th season hangs on a bit more than just the hope of its fan base.

The way I see it, each season can be broken down into three categories:  dreams, expectations, and reality.  The dream for the Philadelphia Flyers is obviously to win the Stanley Cup each season, the expectation after last year among most fans is probably at least a playoff appearance, and the reality of what will happen with the season is anyone’s guess.

The dream for the golden anniversary would be for the Philadelphia Flyers to win the Stanley Cup for its fans in the wake of the death of longtime owner Ed Snider, to win in light of the off-season moves Ron Hextall made, and to win in the experience Coach Dave Hakstol gained from last year.  The icing on the cake would be if the Philadelphia Flyers took the Cup from their cross-state rivals, kept it in Pennsylvania, and moved it East from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.  The sports world would hear Philadelphia scream.

The expectation for the team to make the playoffs is not baseless given the playoff appearance last year, but the Philadelphia Flyers have not made too many off-season moves over the summer.  The players the team will ice during the fall will largely be the same players the team put on the ice last year, and as a result, the Flyers could be on the playoff bubble or miss the playoffs entirely which may concern some, but is that necessarily a bad thing?

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If the Flyers miss the playoffs, then should Hextall come under fire for the team he has built over the past three years?  I’m asking these questions as a result of the relationship the Philadelphia Flyers have had with the playoffs since 2011.  If you don’t know, the Flyers have an on again off again relationship with the playoffs.

This is how that relationship breaks down:  2011:  made the playoffs; 2012:  missed the playoffs; 2013:  made the playoffs; 2014:  missed the playoffs; 2015:  made the playoffs.  This is more positive than it is negative as far as appearances are concerned.  The Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs 3/5 years.  The inconsistency in making the playoffs is the issue.

The Flyers played for the Cup in 2010 but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks (who in retrospect won two more championships in 2013 and 2015, so the Flyers were up against a modern day dynasty).  An additional concern is how the power shifted last year during the regular season in the cross-state rivalry between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On top of that, the Penguins eventually won the Cup, so the road ahead could very well be long and full of trials.  What’s the silver lining here and what can fans expect from the Flyers under Coach Hakstol?  After being hired, Coach Hakstol explained what fans would see when his team takes the ice.

"You’ve got to be as good a team without the puck, you’ve got to work and play fast without the puck and with good structure.  It’s about transition. But you’ve got to have the puck, you’ve got to get the puck in order to be able to transition up ice.  You’re going to see with me an expectation that our defensemen are involved in an awful lot of our play in terms of our play with the puck. I think it’s essential both getting up the ice as well as in the zone."

This is the essence of coach Hakstol’s philosophy, and his coaching philosophy is in line with how the game is played today.  Hockey is about knowing what to do without the puck as much as it is knowing what to do with the puck.  The anticipation of knowing what to do without the puck and where the puck is going next is one of the aspects of hockey that made Wayne Gretzky the best player in the game.

A team could be playing to get the puck more often than it plays with the puck depending on how good their puck possession is, so knowing what to do without the puck is a crucial element of the game.  Hakstol’s position on defensive play is exciting because of the defensive prospects the Philadelphia Flyers have.

Coach Hakstol brings his modern philosophy to a Philadelphia Flyers team that watched Western Conference teams like the Los Angeles Kings or the Chicago Blackhawks win two Stanley Cup Championships each from 2012-2015, and its cross-state Eastern Conference rival the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Cup last year.  In contrast, the Philadelphia Flyers have not won a cup in 41 years.  I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

Hextall and Hakstol’s goals align in that they both want to win a Cup, so the question becomes:  how can the Philadelphia Flyers emulate the most recent Stanley Cup teams, and how far off are they from success?  Some people believe since the Philadelphia Flyers did not make too many off-season moves it means that the team is content to have a similar season this year as it did last year – a first round appearance and exit.

I think it means the Flyers are under leadership who know the “spend big and win now approach” obviously did not work (see:  the last time the Flyers won the Cup as proof).  This new direction is an overwhelmingly positive change, and it is an adjustment for the organization as much as it is for the fans.

Ron Hextall has managed the team for a few years now, and while three years is a decent bit of time that pales in comparison to how long former GM Paul Holmgren oversaw player moves and personnel.  This is an adjustment and rebuilding period, and Hextall has preached and practiced patience.

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I suggest fans do the same thing and do not think if the Flyers miss the playoffs this year the guns should come out for either Hextall or Hakstol.  There is clearly a long-term plan in place from both men, and changing a team from one with a spotty playoff record to perennial contenders deep in the playoffs is not an overnight process.  The prospects for the future are exciting.