Will the Flyers Ever Learn?

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With word leaking that the Flyers have agreed in principle with Mark Streit on a four-year, $21 million contract (still have to shed salary elsewhere before it can be finalized), I found myself doubting the team’s future direction. Do they even have a direction? Is there some salary cap responsibility, or is the front office content to fly by the seat of its pants? Inevitable as the signing was, I have to question why four years and $21 million was committed to a player who turns 36 next season — a player who will now be earning $5.25 million through his age 39 season. If Streit was THE missing piece that put this team over the top for Stanley Cup contention? Ok, I could live with such a move. But that description does not fit the Flyers. It’s almost as if the organization learned nothing from what happened with Chris Pronger. No matter how durable Streit has been, with the exception of missing the entire 2010-2011 season, a career-ending injury — not to mention natural decline of skill — becomes more likely with advanced age. Simply put, this is the opposite of a smart and shrewd investment.

The Flyers will forever fall victim to their overriding “win now at all costs” mantra. There was a commitment 10 years ago to holding on to draft picks and building organically (instead of mortgaging youth for veterans and splurging on free agents), which remained in place for five-plus years but then started to fall apart starting with the Chris Pronger trade. A leopard never changes its spots, you know? It almost worked that first season, too! Then the franchise tried to double back and recommit with the Mike Richards and Jeff Carter trades (which were done for more than just on-ice reasons). Now the franchise is stuck in limbo, trying to balance a present versus future approach. At the core, however, there appears to remain a lack of patience, devoid of a long-term view that values development, growth and chemistry. It’s what drove the organization to give up on now-Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky at age 22, after his first season in North America. Reread that sentence. Is there another team in hockey that would pull such nonsense? And for that team to be the Flyers, whose missing piece has always been a franchise goalie? Then to throw a nine-year, $51 million contract at a mentally fragile goalie who’d never had to handle the gauntlet of a major media market with crushing expectations AND whose skill set dictated he could only succeed in a defense-first system that his new coach didn’t employ? Unfortunately, the Bryzgalov signing was almost surely an example of what happens when the owner influences personnel decisions. No matter what is said to the contrary, I have to believe getting Bryz was mandated by Ed Snider, the result of a knee-jerk reaction from a man who all but admitted he’d finally snapped with regard to the embarrassing goalie carousel. Oh, and now it’s almost certain that $51 million dollar mistake will be a compliance buyout, along with Danny Briere… so the Flyers can create cap space that, we hope, won’t be wasted (aside from the Claude Giroux contract extension) on myopic free agent signings.

As far as I’m concerned, when the Flyers traded Mike Richards and Jeff Carter two years ago, they made a commitment to building for the future and cultivating a young core that could grow together. Chris Pronger succumbing to career-ending post-concussion syndrome should have only hastened that commitment. Instead, the Flyers doubled down on desperation. The 2011-2012 season was a combination of overachievement and luck, while the 2013 strike-shortened season was the easy-to-predict bump in the road. Now the Flyers want to have their cake and eat it, too. Why do I say that? Because of the where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire rumors about offering Sean Couturier or Brayden Schenn (with Couturier’s name being the most prevalent) for a defenseman like, say, Keith Yandle. Yandle is a pseudo-top pairing defenseman, a dynamic offensive talent who’s adequate at best in his own zone and needs to be paired with a defensive stalwart. You see, the Flyers don’t need more offense from their defense, as the team ranked ninth in goals scored. What the team needs is better defense from the defense (ranked 22nd in goals allowed), as well as a team-wide commitment to defense (looking at you, cherry-picking forwards). Trading the team’s best defensive forward in Couturier will produce the opposite effect. It’ll be the type of trade that sets the franchise back even further. I wouldn’t trade Couturier or Schenn for anything short of a young, cost-controlled, bona fide #1 defenseman who’s the total package at both ends of the ice and can be a franchise cornerstone. Even if that kind of player were available (he’s not), it would take more than a one-for-one swap (with the Flyers having to add more).

Listen, I appreciate the aggressiveness and wanting to do everything possible to improve the team each season, but there comes a time when this mindset is counterproductive. The Flyers are the living, breathing embodiment of this conundrum, and we’re about to see it play out over the next few weeks. I’ve already mentally prepared myself for Couturier getting traded in an ill-advised deal that comes back to bite the Flyers when the returned player doesn’t live up to expectations and Couturier goes on to become a franchise cornerstone for his new team. It’ll probably be my breaking point as a die-hard fan, when the piece of me that emotionally invests itself in this franchise decides enough is enough and consciously decides it’s time to stop caring so much. I sincerely hope, I pray, it doesn’t come to that.

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