Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Flyers' comeback truly resembles their Broad Street glory days
By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com
"We don't expect miracles."
-- Flyers chairman Ed Snider after firing coach Ken Hitchcock and accepting GM Bob Clarke's resignation on Oct. 24, 2006
"You can't always get what you want
but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need."
-- Lyrics from the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
Out of disaster, it would seem, has come deliverance.
Not only are the Philadelphia Flyers poised to become the first team in the NHL's post-expansion era to go from dead last to the Stanley Cup finals in a year, but they're doing it in a way that truly harkens back to their glory days of the mid-1970s.
Great goaltending. More skill and finesse than people give them credit for. A nasty, take-no-prisoners approach that appeals to the hockey fans of Philadelphia and channels the snarling, uberaggressive attitude of Freddie "The Fog" Shero's Broad Street Bullies.
With no apologies. Never, ever apologize.
When Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher slammed Montreal defenseman Francis Bouillon into the end glass face-first during Game 3 of their second-round series, leaving Bouillon bloodied and earning Hatcher a major and a game misconduct, Hatcher certainly wasn't sorry about it all afterward.
"I probably shouldn't have let up," Hatcher said. "If I'd known I'd get five minutes, I wouldn't have let up."
Amen, said the echoes of Bob "Hound Dog" Kelly, Don Saleski and Dave "The Hammer" Schultz.
That attitude, it's fair to say, has been part of the persona of this season's Flyers since the fall, when Steve Downie and Jesse Boulerice were handed long suspensions for dirty, illegal hits and Randy Jones ended the season of Boston's Patrice Bergeron with a quasi-legal hit from behind.
The Flyers, really, haven't been like this for a long, long time. They've been big (the Legion of Doom years), but often oddly passive and certainly not a team filled with pit bulls.
Now, it's different. About 18 months after it all came crashing down, the Flyers are back -- and back to where their fans want them to be.
Ed Snider surely wasn't expecting this kind of miraculous turnaround in such a short period of time when, in late October 2006, he canned coach Ken Hitchcock and accepted GM Bob Clarke's resignation after the team started the season 1-6-1, its worst start in 17 campaigns.
With 74 games left in the 2006-07 season, however, he undoubtedly was hoping Hitchcock's replacement, John Stevens, and interim GM Paul Holmgren would get the team to the playoffs. Instead, Holmgren tore the team up, and the club finished with 56 points, the worst showing for a Flyers team in club history.
|Martin Biron, who was picked up from Buffalo at last season's trade deadline, has given the Flyers stability in net.|
But although Snider might have wanted immediate improvement, what he got was what was really needed, an infusion of talent over six months that has helped fuel one of the greatest turnarounds in NHL history.
Since the NHL moved out of the Original Six era in 1967, only the 1986-87 Detroit Red Wings have made it to the conference finals after being the worst team in the league the season before.
How did it happen? Well, part of the answer lies in the fact that the Flyers might not have been quite as terrible as they seemed a year ago. "Maybe it tells you our team last year was better than what we finished," said winger R.J. Umberger, a playoff terror this spring with nine goals.
What's forgotten, after all, is this was a 101-point team in 2005-06, the first season after the lockout. The drop-off from there -- 55 points -- was actually greater than the improvement this season, 39 points.
The Flyers ended up with a league-worst record because that was their intent; or, at least, there was an organizational willingness to absorb the big hit, to gut the club if it meant repositioning it for the future.
Holmgren, dealing like a young Sam Pollock, made big deals before the '07 trade deadline that continue to pay big dividends. Acquiring Braydon Coburn from Atlanta for Alexei Zhitnik looks like highway robbery. Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent came from Nashville for Peter Forsberg, who proved again this spring that he can't stay healthy long enough to make a difference. Goalie Martin Biron, particularly good in the five-game romp over Montreal, was picked up for only a second-round pick, much less than what other teams have had to pay for a starting goaltender.
By the end of the season, the Flyers didn't have much to compete with, and they won only two of their final 11 games. But they had some useful pieces left over from the previous 101-point season -- Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Mike Knuble, Umberger and, in Holmgren, a GM ready to retool aggressively.
While other teams watched the Nashville situation deteriorate during a bid by Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie to buy the club and move it to Canada, the Flyers capitalized on the confusion, completing a deal with the Predators that gave them rights to negotiate with Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen before they became unrestricted free agents. Both were signed, and the cost was giving Nashville back the first-rounder it had sent to Philly in the Forsberg deal. Timonen has become the team's best two-way defenseman, and Hartnell was added to the youthful forward core that included Richards, Carter and Umberger.
With the third pick in the entry draft -- the Flyers were last, but Chicago won the draft lottery -- Philly acquired highly touted American forward James vanRiemsdyk for the future. Then, for $52 million, the team signed center Daniel Briere for immediate help and star quality. Finally, defenseman Joni Pitkanen was dealt to Edmonton in a deal that brought back hard-nosed defenseman Jason Smith and winger Joffrey Lupul.
In less than six months, Holmgren had added Coburn, Upshall, Parent, Biron, Hartnell, Timmonen, Briere, Smith (who immediately became team captain) and Lupul.
The team then absorbed the big hit by finishing dead last. But it was temporary. Look at 'em now.
Really, the Flyers are back to about where they were two seasons ago. Instead of having to be terrible for years like the Quebec Nordiques (1989-93) or Ottawa Senators (1992-96) to build a promising young team, Philly used some of the parts it had, dumped others and found a way to become competitive again without lavishing huge dollars on multiple free agents or identifying Band-Aid solutions to much larger problems.
In fact, in Coburn, Parent and vanRiemsdyk, the Flyers acquired three players who could be core players for the next decade. At the same time, they made a long-term commitment to 23-year-old Richards (12 years, $69 million) and now have to figure out a way to keep 23-year-old Carter, who was offered to Toronto at the trade deadline for defenseman Tomas Kaberle and could be a highly-sought-after free agent this summer.
It was a superb job of team building by Holmgren that would have been no less admirable had Philly been knocked out in the first round by Washington, as many believed it would be.
Instead, the Flyers are in the conference finals, facing their Pennsylvania rivals from Pittsburgh, still with a chance to win the team's first Cup since 1975. Teams that were well ahead of them a season ago -- Toronto, Buffalo, the New York Islanders -- are in the rearview mirror.
A miracle? Maybe not. Maybe the Flyers weren't as bad as they seemed.
But a big step back paved the way for a bigger step forward.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."