Flyers are no Cinderellas
Sure, they made the playoffs after a rocky start, but they were built to make a playoff run.
BELEAGUERED Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer, packing his bags yesterday in Toronto, said it best: "The hockey world is a crazy place."
A few minutes later, down the hall from the Leafs' locker room, former NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan was officially installed as the president and ruler of the Toronto hockey empire.
Wholesale changes, from the coaching staff to the key cogs on Toronto's roster, are bound to happen.
Hard to blame Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke. It's amazing more heads haven't already rolled. Toronto went from being nine points up on a playoff spot on March 13 to all but eliminated 17 days later.
Heck, after a 2-12 collapse to close the season, Ed Snider might have changed the Flyers' logo or something.
Were the expectations for the Maple Leafs unfair this season?
Toronto had been the only NHL team to fail to make the postseason every year after the 2004-05 lockout until they qualified last spring in a 48-game season. The Leafs, of course, fell into a 3-1 series hole to Boston in the first round, clawed back and spectacularly blew a 4-1 lead with less than 11 minutes to play in the third period of Game 7.
Off to a quick start last fall, the Leafs appeared to rebound from their horrific finish and jumped out to a sizable lead on a playoff spot. The grand expectations machine began to swirl - perhaps fed by the unique beast that is the Toronto market and the Leafs' unquenchable fans.
Then, the wheels fell off. Or, as former general manager Brian Burke once said, it was like an 18-wheeler off a cliff.
Along the way, as the expectations quickly increased following a berth in a strange, shortened season and a fast start, the Maple Leafs' fatal flaws on defense were largely ignored. A group of fans in tune with the burgeoning analytics side of hockey were the only ones screaming that the Maple Leafs couldn't survive by continuing to allow the most shots on net in the NHL.
The funny thing about expectations in pro sports is how quickly they're shaped - by not only fans and media, but management and even players. Even more so in Toronto, as Reimer noted.
It seemed to be too big a step, too soon for the Maple Leafs.
Yesterday in Nashville, a town which has won just two playoff rounds in its 15-season history, the Predators fired Barry Trotz, the only coach they've ever known. Never mind that it was the same year-in, year-out rigmarole about the Predators never having enough offense on their roster.
All of which brings us to the Flyers and their expectations on the eve of the Cup playoffs - and they are hard to handicap.
In the eyes of some, this year's Flyers are somewhat of a Cinderella story. Their record of 1-7 to start the season, followed by Claude Giroux's now-famous guarantee on Oct. 21 that the Flyers would be one of the NHL's 16 playoff teams, has them ingrained as such in the eye of the public.
Just get into the playoffs, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said on multiple occasions.
By that rationale, and the playoff appetite for fans in a starved Philadelphia, the Flyers have now met expectations in what appeared to be a lost season.
"Nobody believed in us in the beginning," Jake Voracek was saying Sunday after the Flyers wrapped up Game 82. "It's a good feeling to be in the playoffs."
The only issue is that the Flyers are not built to be a just-get-into-the-playoffs team. Holmgren did not sign Mark Streit and Vinny Lecavalier to $43.5 million worth of deals because the Flyers had salary-cap room to burn.
Presumably, Holmgren pushed for Streit and Lecavalier - and sent Ilya Bryzgalov to the bank with a $23 million buyout in deferred payments - because he believed the shortened season was an aberration. Holmgren said the 2013 season was "just a weird year" on the day the Flyers cleaned out their lockers last spring.
To say the Flyers did not meet expectations for the first 6 weeks of this season would be an understatement. But that would also be like calling a championship matchup between Kentucky or Connecticut - two big-money college basketball programs - a battle of underdogs.
The Flyers played at a 104-point pace after Nov. 7. They deserve to be judged as a 104-point team, since they were never built as a one-round-and-done team.
The regular season is over, a new season is upon us. The Flyers are a Cinderella no more. From here on out - considering most of the same pieces are in place, the goaltending is better and they have a few high-priced upgrades - the Flyers are picking up where they left off in 2012 against New Jersey.