June 23, 2011

In praise of the craziest day in Philadelphia Flyers history.

At one point in late February, the Philadelphia Flyers -- then widely regarded as the best team in hockey -- were 40-15-6.

But on May 6, in the midst of a painful collapse, they were swept in embarrassing fashion by the future Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

And today, on June 23, the hammer finally fell. Paul Holmgren traded captain Mike Richards and assistant captain Jeff Carter to the Los Angeles Kings and the Columbus Blue Jackets, respectively.

My initial reaction, which I imagine most Flyers fans shared, was one of shock. The faces of the franchise! The gritty, two-way center and the pretty-boy goal scorer, moved out of town on the same day! A team that was two years removed from the Stanley Cup Finals and six months removed from dominating the NHL had just gutted its core in the matter of one hour. That's absolute insanity.

But as I settled down, and as the players involved were announced, I grew to love it. When a professional sports team falls apart, it's easy to fire the coach or set some fringe contributors free. The simplest solution for Flyers management would have been to trade Matt Carle or Braydon Coburn, open up some cap space for Ilya Bryzgalov and take one more crack at the Cup with essentially the exact same roster. And hey, if that doesn't work, you can always blame Peter Laviolette.

But Paul Holmgren obviously had no intention of heading down that path. We'll probably find out over the next week or so if the team got tired of the two young players and their partying ways, if Richards really was becoming a problem in the locker room, if they felt the need to move them before any no-trade clauses kicked in or if this was a pure hockey decision. Probably all of the above.

Either way, this is one of the strangest days in Philadelphia sports history. But give Holmgren credit; he didn't blame the system. He didn't throw the coach under the bus. He didn't make injury-related excuses or explain that the Flyers just ran into the Bruins at the wrong time. He kicked two of his best, most prominent players out the door and slammed it shut behind them. That takes balls, and balls are something that Holmgren has never lacked.

Don't get me wrong, I really like Mike Richards. I've got his jersey hanging in my closet, and I'll really miss goals like these. And I don't know much about the players that are coming to Philadelphia -- Jakub Voracek, Brandon Schenn and Wayne Simmonds -- other than that they're young, cheap and apparently very good at hockey.

But I can see why Holmgren and the Flyers felt this was necessary. If he really believed that these guys didn't have what it takes to bring home a championship, if they weren't going to mature into the men he thought they'd become, or if they just weren't willing to put in the time and the effort that Laviolette's system demands, then kudos to the team for getting out from under some lengthy contracts and bringing home some skill in return. As the 76ers have proven recently, there's nothing worse than being buried under big deals for expensive players that just aren't good enough to win it all.

And Claude Giroux's still in town. So is James van Riemsdyk; so is Danny Briere. Chris Pronger will get the C -- and hopefully he'll be out there on the ice to show it off -- and we can all cross our fingers that Kimmo Timonen has a little more left in the tank. Plus, a major, major influx of young talent is on the way. They might not contend for a Cup next season, but there will still a boatload of skill on the ice in Philadelphia. And they've all been served a notice: no one is safe.

Of course, as I was writing this post, the Flyers signed Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract. You know what? Good for them. That's a reasonable cap hit, and now they've got the goalie position locked down for a long, long time. He seems like a very entertaining personality that we'll all really enjoy, and there's no doubt that he's a talented netminder. They'll regret the contract in the end, but I think everyone was beyond tired of the goalie carousel. It's officially come to a halt.

Today's been about making a statement. Two young guns, brimming with talent, were sent packing. A slightly psychotic Russian goalie was inked to a massive deal. But let's roll with this unique brand of "balls to the wall" hysteria; it's certainly unexpected in the buttoned-down, "afraid to mess up" sports world we live in.

For a long time, the Flyers operated like every year was 1975 all over again. Today, though, they went as far outside the box as any team in recent memory. When you've gone 30+ years without a Cup, maybe going a little crazy isn't the worst idea in the world.

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