Flyers’ demise raises questions

Opinion May 18, 2011 0 Comments

by Clarke Groome

After watching the Philadelphia Flyers’ puzzling and earlier-than-expected exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, three things came to mind.

First, and most disheartening, is the attitude of many of the players, some in key leadership roles. They often seemed passive and too willing to accept a loss.

Second, the organization needs to change its goaltending philosophy.

Third, there are a lot of reasons – excuses, really – to explain what happened.

To take the last item first, among the excuses given for the embarrassing end-of-the-regular-season and playoff performances are:

•The other teams’ goalies were difficult to score on (true).

•Defenseman Chris Pronger’s absence due to injury was a huge loss (true to a degree, but the Flyers didn’t collapse when he went down earlier in the season).

•Newcomer Kris Versteeg arrived just as the team started its regular-season swoon in mid-February and maybe that was more than just a coincidence (hard to tell but he does take bad penalties).

•The Flyers’ goalies were not up to the demands of the playoffs (partially true, but they also played very well at times).

•The 11 goalie switches in seven games gave the team a lack of confidence in the guy in goal (again, partially true, though denied by the players).

•The defense was out of whack (true).

•The offense couldn’t get its act together (true, although some will credit the opponents’ goaltending as the reason).

The most talked about issue is the Flyers’ approach to goaltending.

What to do? There is an attitude in this organization that goaltending will work itself out, and there’s an accompanying lack of patience when it doesn’t.

In the 11 years I have been covering the Flyers, 15 different goalies – some touted as the franchise’s savior – have been in net. Alphabetically they are Johan Backlund, Marty Biron, Sergei Bobrovski, Brian Boucher (twice), Sean Burke, Roman Cechmanek, Jeremy Duchesne, Ray Emery, Robert Esche, Jeff Hackett, Martin Houle, Michael Leighton (twice), Neil Little, Antero Nittymaki and John van Biesbrouck.

During that time there has never been an absolute commitment to one guy being number one. It’s always, “we’ll see who’s hot,” or “they have to compete to earn that spot.”

The Flyers need to decide over the summer who their number one goalie is going to be and maybe trade to get him. When that is done, the number one, barring injury, should play 55 to 60 games, and the backup – who, if he isn’t number one, should be Sergei Bobrovski – would play the rest.

Finally, all teams deal with slumps and injuries. The Flyers, clearly the best team in the NHL from October until the regular season’s last six weeks, can be excused for some poor results. Sometimes the other team was simply the better team that night.

But the fade this team experienced went far deeper than just a bad night or a missing defenseman.

At a critical time in the season, some of the team’s leaders – most notably Captain Mike Richards – dismissed a loss or the downward spiral of which that loss was a part as “nothing to worry about.” They kept saying that when the games began to mean something – that’s hockeyspeak for the playoffs – all would be well.

Never happened. The lackluster, inconsistent play continued right through the playoffs. There were moments – game 7 of the first round against Buffalo and game 2 in the second round against Boston – when the dominating team that the Flyers had been for most of the season reappeared. Alas, that team vanished in the next game. The result: an overly taxing first round and being swept in round two.

So what needs to be done?

The team has to figure out just why many of the players don’t seem to hate losing. Sure they all like to win, but – with the exception of veterans like Kimmo Timonen, Danny Briere, Blair Betts and Chris Pronger – the key guys like Jeff Carter and Richards always seem to be accepting of defeat and not angry enough that they just lost.

Losing sucks, and I’m sure these guys know it, but that’s not the impression they give.

One solution, not likely to happen but not without precedent, would be to recast the official team leadership. If Richards would step down as captain, Chris Pronger, a proven force on and off the ice, could take the role.

Richards is a good guy and leads by example on the ice. Dynamic he’s not. In 2002 Eric Desjardins relinquished the captaincy to Keith Primeau. It worked well, and Desjardins remained one of the team’s most respected leaders.

If Richards were to give up his jersey “C,” it would send the message that his teammates will be held responsible for their play by someone who has the experience, the respect and the personality not to put up with any nonsense.

Pronger, unlike Carter, isn’t burdened by long-term personal and social relationships with many of the players, a reality that must make it hard for the current captain to tell his teammates to get their acts together.

Jeff Carter should also withdraw as an alternate captain and let the team give his “A” to Danny Briere.

There will be changes over the summer. Some of this year’s group will be gone. New faces will become familiar. If the Philadelphia Flyers are really going to live up to their potential, a potential that is clear and unquestioned, they have to address the questions about goaltending and attitude.

Isn’t it funny that these are the questions that arise each year after the Flyers don’t quite make it … again? No, it’s not funny. It’s sad, frustrating and relatively easy to fix if they have the will to do it.

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