October 9, 2013

The day the hockey died.

I grew up in a period of hockey excellence.

From 1994 to 2004, the Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs every season. They went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1997 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 1995, 2000, and 2004. No trophies, sure, but it was still a stretch where the team finished no lower than second in the Atlantic Division.

They weren't afraid to make big moves, pulling off the blockbuster that brought Eric Lindros to town and trading Mark Recchi and Rod Brind'Amour at the height of their talents for several other high-profile players (John LeClair, Eric Desjardins, Keith Primeau) who would power the team going forward. And while signings like Chris Gratton and John Vanbiesbrouck flopped, there was always plenty of money (and young talent) available to fill any voids.

But the scales never tipped fully in their favor. LeClair and Desjardins proved to be exquisite second bananas during the Lindros era, but the Flyers consistently failed to best superior teams in Detroit or New Jersey. And soon after the 2003-2004 playoffs, a remarkable stretch that led to Phil Esposito dubbing him "the most dominating player I ever saw," Primeau suffered a debilitating concussion that abruptly ended his career.

In a way, the loss of Primeau (nine games into the post-lockout 2005-2006 season) was the beginning of the end. Several talented players (Patrick Sharp, Dennis Seidenberg) were dumped for a song. And the ones who survived, well, they didn't exactly become the faces of the franchise.

The team missed the playoffs in 2007. They collapsed in 2011 after a 47-win regular season. And more than a few questionable decisions were made along the way.

It all came to a head on Tuesday morning, when head coach Peter Laviolette was fired three games into the season. Rather than bash how Laviolette handled a floundering team, fans and the media alike took another stance: "This organization is a disaster."

A little over three years ago, the Flyers were two wins from the Stanley Cup. In 2012, they pulled out a remarkably sloppy but entertaining series against the feisty (and, in many people's opinions, Cup-bound) Pittsburgh Penguins. That's not the usual recent resume of a disaster.

But very few disagree with the sentiment that the Philadelphia Flyers have lost their place as one of hockey's great franchises. They used to be admired for strong, decisive decisions. Now they're mocked for knee-jerk moves that we question from day one.

Trading Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for a handful of young guns (Wayne Simmonds, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn) that could've conceivably led the way for years to come? That only looks like a mistake because Jonathan Quick won those two a Cup the next season in Los Angeles.

But signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year contract? Trading James van Riemsdyk to Toronto for Luke Schenn? Dumping Sergei Bobrovsky on Columbus for nothing, seemingly just to keep Bryz's mental state intact? Letting influential veterans like Jaromir Jagr walk? Placing any sort of post-2010 faith in Michael Leighton?

Once upon a time, I praised the Flyers for being "stubborn but aggressive." I thought they were one of the few sports franchises that truly went all out, every season, in an attempt to win a championship. But I also condemned them for forcing young players into roles they couldn't quite handle, for valuing size and grit over speed and talent, for refusing (or being unable) to develop young goaltenders in such a pressure-packed environment.

These flaws remain. And in the era of the salary cap, there are no more quick fixes. Invest in the wrong group and you're doomed. Besides Voracek, the young players haven't improved. In many areas, they've regressed. The defense is patchwork at best, a handful of slightly above-average guys who lack basic puck-handling skills. Once upon a time, we thought Braydon Coburn would become the total package. Now I wonder what the team can get for a 28-year-old who's been stagnant for three years.

As a friend of mine, a die-hard Boston Bruins fan, remarked on Tuesday afternoon, "If Chris Pronger were here, this never would've happened." And he's probably right; Pronger's talent, mixed with zero tolerance for bullshit, might've been the force that Laviolette needed to stay alive and turn this team around.

But Chris Pronger will never play in the NHL again. And Shea Weber isn't walking through that door to save the day, no matter how many times you call sports radio and ask about trading for him.

Now a smart coach pays the price for his mediocre roster. Maybe Ed Snider can't, in fact, fire the players; maybe Craig Berube will wake everyone up; maybe the youngsters really couldn't thrive in Laviolette's system. But it seems to me that we're viewing the dying gasps of a once-proud organization, one that might need to suffer though an extended dark period before everyone sees the light and realizing that whatever methods they're relying on are no longer working.

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