Phil Sheridan: Flyers need time to develop a Cup champion
It is not a pretty snapshot. The new-look Flyers fell apart in astonishing fashion in the second round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the jettisoned cornerstones of the old-look Flyers are preparing for the Western Conference finals as members of the Los Angeles Kings. It is hard to look at that picture without concluding that Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren took a gamble and lost when he radically remade the team last summer.
It is not a pretty snapshot.
The new-look Flyers fell apart in astonishing fashion in the second round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the jettisoned cornerstones of the old-look Flyers are preparing for the Western Conference finals as members of the Los Angeles Kings. It is hard to look at that picture without concluding that Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren took a gamble and lost when he radically remade the team last summer.
But this snapshot is not the complete picture, because the complete picture is not available yet.
Even if Mike Richards and Jeff Carter skate with the Stanley Cup this year, the picture will not be complete. There is little reason to believe they would have done so this year in their Flyers sweaters had Holmgren not traded them. They were here, after all, for last year's second-round sweep by the Boston Bruins.
And they are pieces, not centerpieces, in L.A. Goaltender Jonathan Quick has been the key to the Kings' surprising run so far. He is 8-1 with a 1.55 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage. Quick is the reason the Kings blew past No. 1 seed Vancouver and St. Louis in the first two rounds.
It isn't easy, but the snapshot has to be set aside for the moment. The players Holmgren acquired in those deals - Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds - range in age from 19 to 23. Along with Claude Giroux (24) and James van Riemsdyk (23), they are going to be the nucleus of this team's offense for years to come.
Judging that nucleus on its first aborted playoff run would be ridiculously unfair.
"The future's so bright," coach Peter Laviolette said. "There's so many young, talented hockey players here that just gained a valuable season, a valuable year of experience. Not what we want to hear in Philadelphia - that's not why we're here. We're not here to turn young players into second-year players. We're here to win championships."
If you believed hitting reset and assembling this talented group was a sound way to build toward a championship, then the Kings' run shouldn't change that. From the time Holmgren pulled off those trades, it looked to be a two- or three-year experiment.
It gets a little more complicated when you factor in the other big move Holmgren made last summer. Using salary-cap space freed up by the blockbuster trades, he signed free-agent goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.
At his best, Bryzgalov was terrific. But one of the main things you look for in a goaltender is reliability, and Bryzgalov fell short in that area. Was that just who he is, or did he need a year to adjust to playing in a demanding hockey market as well as playing behind Laviolette's attacking, offense-oriented system?
Jaromir Jagr, who has seen pretty much all there is to see in this sport, made an interesting analogy.
"When you change teams and you sign a big contract, it's never easy," Jagr said. "You don't have to go very far. Look at Albert Pujols. He's the best baseball player in the world and he's having a tough time the first two months because he signed a big contract and he changed teams. Nobody would think of that before the season, but that's what it is."
Jagr said he expected Bryzgalov to be better next year. There is more than mere faith to base that on. In March, after Bryzgalov settled in a bit and the team added defensemen Nick Grossmann and Pavel Kubina to the back line, the goalie was excellent. If that's who Bryzgalov can be for a whole season - and more important, a whole postseason - the Flyers can win with him.
It is not a small if. Bryzgalov's quirky personality added to the perception that he wasn't exactly rock-solid in net. That may not be fair, but it was no less true.
"His job is to stop pucks and help us win games," Holmgren said. "It's not Comedy Central. We're all different - him included. We all learn lessons in life. I think Ilya learned some things from one year in Philadelphia. I think we'll see a different person next year. We'll certainly see a different goaltender."
A year with Bryzgalov should tell Holmgren and Laviolette some things, too. Another top defenseman and maybe some tweaks in the way the defense plays in front of him could help the goalie, which in turn would help the team.
There was nothing pretty about the way the Flyers fell apart against the New Jersey Devils. That shouldn't completely erase the 103-point season and first-round triumph over Pittsburgh. There is plenty of time for this team to turn Holmgren's gamble into a big win.
That's the upside. The down: That will be almost impossible to remember if Richards and Carter get their names on the Cup first.