The Flyers’ season has fallen apart, and the collapse could be the best thing for them. It should be the best thing for them. It should cleanse away any sentimentality attached to players who have been with the team for a long time, any pie-in-the-sky hopes that the roster is just a piece or two away.
It should clarify and crystalize the thinking of general manager Chuck Fletcher, coach Alain Vigneault, and the rest of the organization’s inner circle. Here’s where we are. Here’s where we want to be. Here’s what we need to do to get there.
Here, then, are a few big-picture truths that ought to guide their thinking and the expectations of the team’s fans.
Sometimes it really is about effort
Minutes after the Flyers’ latest embarrassment — their 6-1 loss Tuesday night in Washington to the Capitals, the seventh time this season they’ve lost a game by at least five goals — two credible voices leveled harsh, honest critiques of the team’s performance. One of those voices was Vigneault.
“Obviously, I didn’t like at all the way we came out,” he said, his team having allowed four goals in the first period. “Not the way you give yourself a chance against such a strong opponent. Wasn’t good enough.”
If anything, though, Vigneault soft-pedaled his comments compared to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Keith Jones, who during the network’s postgame show sounded like he could have been a columnist for … well … us.
“This is a team that demonstrated it didn’t want it as bad as their opponents and have put … their general manager in a position where he couldn’t go out and add to the nucleus of the team right now,” Jones said. “It’s too big of a deal he has to make. It’s not a simple ‘add a player at the deadline and fix this thing.’ This is a team in need of a major makeover. … This season has turned into a disaster.”
For years, the Flyers clung to a kind of cultural stereotype: that they were the toughest, hardest-working team in the NHL. No matter how much talent they had on their roster, at their core they were muckers. They were grinders. They never gave up. If that image got overplayed in the past, it doesn’t even apply now. When someone such as Jones — who, as honest as he is, is mindful of his role as an in-house analyst — calls out the Flyers in the manner that an outsider would, it should fire off signal flares that something is and has been lacking in their leadership.
The Flyers and their fans have to understand, acknowledge, and be open to trade-offs, costs, and risks
When he owned the Flyers, Ed Snider generally wanted them to go all in every year. When he was the Flyers’ GM, Ron Hextall generally preached patience and prudence. But a franchise always has to maintain flexibility in its approach, because the “wrong” decision can damage it for years. Consider an example from each of these two eras.
In 2009, the Flyers acquired Chris Pronger from Anaheim for forward Joffrey Lupul, defenseman Luca Sbisa, and three draft picks, including a first-rounder in 2009 and a first-rounder in 2010. One can see why the Flyers made the deal and how it almost worked. Pronger was a genuinely great player, and with him, the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2010. But consider:
Pronger’s career was cut short because of injuries, a fairly predictable development for a player who was 35 years old at the time. Meanwhile, had the Flyers held on to those two first-round picks, they could have drafted a player or two who might still be helping them. Kyle Palmieri, Ryan O’Reilly, and Brock Nelson: All of them would have been on the board.
Now, the flip side: In the summer of 2017, Wayne Simmonds was coming off a 31-goal season and was costing the Flyers less than $4 million annually against the salary cap, with two years left on his contract. Though Simmonds had a modified no-trade clause in that contract, though he was arguably the team’s most popular player then, it would have made sense for Hextall to trade him. Simmonds’ value was never going to be higher. Hextall didn’t. Simmonds’ production immediately began to decline, and when the Flyers finally did send him to Nashville in February 2019, their return was minimal: Ryan Hartman and a fourth-round pick.
The point is not necessarily that the Flyers erred in trading for Pronger or in not trading Simmons sooner. The point is that a team, with each personnel decision, has to weigh the cost of being “wrong” as much as it does the benefit of being “right.” The Flyers turned out to be “wrong” in both of those decisions, and they’re still paying the price.
It doesn’t matter that the Flyers haven’t won a Stanley Cup in 46 years
This is a common lament among the team’s fans — How patient do you expect us to be? — and the urgency to end this drought was a factor in the organization’s decision to fire Hextall and accelerate the rebuild that he began. But the fact that the Flyers haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1975 has no bearing on their ability to win the Stanley Cup right now. Right now, they’re not equipped to win one, and there’s no telling when they will be.
There should be no rush to correct every mistake and patch every hole before next season begins, because there have been too many mistakes, and there are too many holes. When your enemy has bazookas, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been waiting to fight and how eager you are to win. If all you have are Super Soakers, you’ll lose.