MIKE RICHARDS and Jeff Carter come back to Philadelphia for the first time as a duo and it is impossible not to look back, and to wonder. It is a waste of time, of course, the wondering - but sometimes you can't help yourself.
What if they had not been traded?
What would this team look like?
"I think it's a long time ago," Claude Giroux was saying. "A lot has changed since. I think there's only four guys on the team who were there in 2010. So a lot has changed. We have a new look in the Flyers' organization."
It is five guys - Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Ray Emery. Still, only five. In three seasons, the turnover rate has been 75 percent on the Flyers' typical game-day roster. The coach is different, the style of play is different and three-quarters of the players are different. The only thing that remains the same is the fact that the Flyers have not won the Stanley Cup since 1975.
Are the Flyers closer to the Cup than they were when Carter and Richards helped take them to Game 6 of the 2010 finals against Chicago? Of course not. But are they behind that 2010 team in overall ability? No - and the key pieces are younger. In the 3 years before the trade, the Flyers earned 60 percent of the available points. In the 3 years since, they have earned 59 percent - but with a building momentum for 5 months now, a momentum that was temporarily halted in their 3-2 loss to the Kings last night.
It is an impossible argument. You are left with the tangible thing that hits you during the conversation - just how long it has been. June 23, 2011 was the date that altered the course of the Flyers' franchise.
It was 1,006 days ago.
"I don't remember what I was doing but I checked my phone and I had, maybe, 20 messages," Giroux said. "I was like, 'What just happened?' Obviously, they both got traded. I think it was a big thing here in Philadelphia and a big thing for the organization of the Flyers. It was a big change."
That the trade benefited the Flyers can be measured in goals and assists and overall bodies (Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek and even part of Nicklas Grossmann all arrived, eventually, in the trade). It was a good trade, period. But the Kings are the ones who won a Stanley Cup in 2012 after acquiring Richards from the Flyers and Carter from Columbus, and the symbolism is undeniable.
But what would the Flyers look like without those players? How might they be filling out their lineup if Carter and Richards were making about $11 million combined, as they are today? They would be more top-heavy, less balanced - and how would they be able to duplicate the production? After all, Simmonds, Schenn, Voracek and Couturier combined make more than $1 million less than Richards and Carter.
And the biggest unanswerable: How would Giroux have developed, as a player and a leader, if Carter and Richards and their significant shadows had not been moved out of the way?
Before the game, Giroux was pondering all of this stuff, mostly because he was asked to ponder.
As for his role, he said, "It didn't really change as much as people think. 'Prongs' [Chris Pronger] was here. Danny Briere. [Simon] Gagne. Whoever was still here - there was a lot of leadership. I just went out there and played my game."
But Pronger got hurt. Gagne left immediately in a trade to Tampa Bay. Briere was bought out last season. And if Pronger has never been adequately replaced, the transition away from aging stars to productive youth happened because of the trade. And the transition to an unquestioned leadership role for Giroux also took place.
"I didn't think so until I kind of heard you guys talking and writing," Giroux said. "Then I kind of [felt] a little more pressure on me. But it's good. It's a good pressure. It's a responsibility that a hockey player wants. It was a sad day [when they were traded] but it's the business side of it."
That Giroux has thrived under that pressure goes without saying. That the scorekeeping on the trade remains incomplete is also plain. Because fair or not - and it really isn't fair, because the deal was a good one for the Flyers - the scorekeeping around here does not begin until the springtime every year.
On Twitter: @theidlerich