Philadelphia Flyers: Can the Penguins’ success be emulated?

Jun 11, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (left) and center Evgeni Malkin (right) celebrate with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Nashville Predators in game six of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dave Sandford/NHLI/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports
Jun 11, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (left) and center Evgeni Malkin (right) celebrate with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Nashville Predators in game six of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dave Sandford/NHLI/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports /

Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup once again on Sunday night. Can the Philadelphia Flyers glean anything from the success of their intrastate rivals?

On Sunday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated the upstart Nashville Predators and repeated as Stanley Cup champions. As painful as it was for Philadelphia Flyers fans to watch Sidney Crosby and his teammates triumph, there may be a few lessons the Flyers organization can learn from the Penguins.

But what, exactly? Here are four takeaways in the aftermath of the Penguins’ victory:

(1) Unfortunately, the Philadelphia Flyers likely will not be able to replicate the Penguins’ model.

Let’s get this point out of the way first. The Pittsburgh Penguins are an incredibly fortunate franchise. Their fan base, whose arrogance is rivaled only by their brethren in New York and Boston, would be loathe to admit it, but it’s true.

Hockey was on life support in Pittsburgh before the arrival of Crosby. The Penguins finished in the basement in the regular season standings for the 2003-04 season. They complemented the feat by finishing last in attendance as well. Penguins legend Mario Lemieux, who was able to secure ownership of the team in large measure because the franchise owed him millions of dollars, was working feverishly to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh. However, as recently as 2007, Lemieux was threatening to move the team to Kansas City.

In 2005, the Penguins’ luck changed dramatically. The NHL, which was emerging from the rubble of a season-long lockout, held a lottery for the first pick in the draft. The prize was Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins won the first of what would be many victories in the Crosby era when their ping pong ball was drawn from the lot.

Ultimately, Lemieux is credited with brokering the deal that led to a new arena and preserved hockey in Pittsburgh. He earned his “savior” status, but he didn’t do it alone. If not for the emergence of Crosby, it’s easy to imagine the Penguins pulling up their stakes and moving west.

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As much as Crosby is hated in Philadelphia, only a fool would deny his greatness on the ice. His vision and passing skills turn average teammates into dangerous snipers. Crosby is a skilled scorer in his own right. In short, he’s a superstar and a future Hall of Famer. Talented players of Crosby’s caliber come along once in a generation. The Penguins happened to be in the right place at the right time to claim his services.

This is why listening to a Penguins fan crow about the team’s championships is a lot like indulging a lottery winner as he brags about the hard work that went into amassing his fortune.

More importantly, it means there is not much that the Flyers can replicate from their intrastate rivals. However:

(2) Elite goaltending is not an essential ingredient for a Stanley Cup contender, but it certainly helps.

The Penguins do not win the Stanley Cup without the combined efforts of Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. Murray led all goaltenders in playoff save percentage; Fleury himself boasted a respectable 2.56 postseason GAA. Both Murray and Fleury finished in the Top 5 in playoff save percentage. 

Fleury piloted the Penguins past the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals before ceding the crease to Matt Murray during the Eastern Conference Finals. Murray, who was injured during the pregame warmup before the first game of the playoffs, guided the team the rest of the way.

The steady goaltending from the Murray-Fleury duo stabilized the Penguins’ shaky defense. Their battered blue line, which was most affected by the absence of Kris Letang, rallied behind the stellar goalies.

The Philadelphia Flyers have a big question mark in their goal crease. Steve Mason is an unrestricted free agent. Meanwhile, Michal Neuvirth is under contract for two more seasons, but his inconsistent play and long injury history do not inspire much confidence. There is also a possibility that the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights pluck Neuvirth from the Flyers roster, only exacerbating the goalie dilemma in Philly.

Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall has invested in goalies in the draft, but none of the prospects seem ready to assume the starting role with the NHL club in 2017. The Flyers’ stable of promising but youthful defensemen could benefit from a dependable presence between the pipes as they develop.

(3) The Penguins have built around their strengths and locked up core players to long term deals. 

Take a look at the Penguins’ roster structure with respect to the salary cap. The players who form the core of the franchise– Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Letang– are committed to long term deals. Although a disproportionate share of the cap is dedicated to these players, the team has created cost certainty by locking in their stars at fixed rates.

The prospect of playing with Crosby and Malkin entices role players to sign with Pittsburgh in order to chase a Cup. They also have a golden opportunity to goose their stats, bolstering their leverage on the next contract negotiation with a desperate team willing to overpay for an offensive spark.

The Penguins have endured the erosion imposed in the cap era by supplementing their roster with inexpensive young players who can plug holes in their depth chart. Murray, for example, was drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft.

Part of Hextall’s challenge in Philadelphia is to find gems like Murray in the draft in order to expedite the Flyers’ rebuilding process. His burden has been eased somewhat by the stroke of luck from which the Flyers benefited in the 2017 draft lottery; despite the odds, they will be picking second in the draft and will net either Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier. While neither player projects to have the impact of Crosby, either one will be a welcome addition to a Flyers unit that is in desperate need of an offensive spark.

Hextall and his predecessor, Paul Holmgren, have both emphasized identifying and locking core players into long term deals. However, their efforts have produced mixed results. For every Jakub Voracek, there seems to have been two Matt Reads and R.J. Umbergers, untradeable assets occupying valuable cap space.

It’s easier said than done, but the Philadelphia Flyers’ front office must improve in their assessments of veteran talent. The salary cap era demands it.

 (4) Speed kills.

The Penguins were floundering last season before head coach Mike Sullivan took over mid-season. Sullivan implemented a scheme that took advantage of the roster’s tremendous speed, bringing up young players from his AHL team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to fulfill his vision. The addition of the speedy Hagelin improved the team as well.

By February, the Penguins were unstoppable. They rolled to the Stanley Cup last season and, though the road this season was more treacherous, the Penguins were able to ride their potent offense to another title this year.

Next: Flyers: New Coach Should Strengthen Power Play

In order to compete in today’s NHL, the Flyers must continue to get faster. Their blue line is stocked with puck-moving defensemen like Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov. Hextall must continue to build depth in the forward corps to match the skill he has on defense.