Ready to get dizzy?
The captain’s curse. The goaltender carousel. The trade mill. True, only the last two work metaphorically with the concept of spinning, but if you put a serious headache on top of that, it’s not going to take too long for you to throw up and pass out. The Flyers seem to be on this staggering path as an organization, and it becomes more and more likely each season that the team is headed for a meltdown of epic proportions.
Let’s say it started with the Big Lockout. The Flyers seemed to be trending upwards, having been within one game of a Stanley Cup Final. There’s rigorous debate over whether or not the Flyers would have beaten the Flames if they’d downed the Lightning, but with Primeau in beast mode, I’ll say it was a forgone conclusion. Robert Esche outplayed two stellar goaltenders. Simon Gagne was entering his prime. The pool of prospects included Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Patrick Sharp, Dennis Seidenberg, and Joni Pitkanen. Okay, maybe it would have been a little deeper if Bob Clarke didn’t have an allergy to second round draft picks (the Flyers traded every 2nd pick between 1999 and 2005), but it was a better stable than most teams.
What happened? Clarke seriously misjudged the new NHL and spent every season reminding us of that until he stepped aside. Sharp was traded for Matt Ellison, supposedly because he didn’t get along with Ken Hitchcock. Seidenberg was tossed aside for Petr Nedved. Esche was forced to split time with Antero Niittymaki. When Paul Holmgren took over, the effect of rebuilding the roster around a youth movement was felt instantly: from the worst team in the league to an Eastern Conference Finalist, and to within two wins of the greatest trophy in professional sports two years later. Holmgren was (rightly) hailed as a genius for his astounding stewardship. Then what happened?
Richards and Carter looked like the faces of the franchise when they were signed to 15 and 11 year contracts, respectively, and then they were spectacularly binned about a season and a half later. Theories circulated that these young, long-term Flyers didn’t get along with Chris Pronger, partied too much, and had possibly fallen out with their coach. It was also obvious that Richards didn’t get along with the local media. I’ll add another theory on top of that: the franchise was afraid of having the on-ice leader and top goal scorer dictating terms in the locker room due to their hefty contracts with no-trade clauses. Any way you slice it, an $127 million dollar investment was liquidated in the blink of an eye. If Pronger, who played 13 games after Richards and Carter left, was responsible in any way for their dismissal, you can be assured that the Flyers brass held a private self-torture session that season. More on that later.
The Briere buyout warrants mention, but is understood to be a necessary move. He lived the life of his contract, always delivered in the postseason, and had a cap hit that was just too large for the Flyers to retain. I’ll get back to that later too.
Then came Streit. For those of you who didn’t read my earlier article on the Flyers ludicrous expenditures on defense, the team, who already has Timonen under contract at a $6 million cap hit, added Streit at $5.25 million, tying up $11.25 in two offensive defensemen close to the end of their careers when last season clearly showed a team in need of defensemen who play defense. With their backs against the wall, the long talked about buyout of Bryzgalov became a certainty. His sins? Not meeting expectations, having a huge contract, and having a poor relationship with the media. I’ve always thought Bryzgalov was terrific, both as an athlete and a person. As I stated previously in my obsolete article on Jonathan Bernier, his shortcomings have been a window into the soul of the Flyers, and now his departure has become an effigy for the poisonous philosophy guiding the Flyers’ franchise: Win now by throwing money at your problems.
The Philadelphia media’s love affair with Bryzgalov as cannon fodder was pockmarked by the obsessive inclusion of their favorite thing about him in each article: $51 million dollars. The suggestion boiled over to the point that writers and fans would have you believe he was stealing this money. Unfortunately, that’s one thing for which Bryzgalov can’t be blamed. His agent negotiated his contract with Paul Holmgren, and Ed Snider provided the cash. All Bryzgalov did was play great in Phoenix and sign on the dotted line.
That’s the same thing John LeClair did after five consecutive 40-goal seasons: cash in for $45 million over five years. His best goal output in one season after that? 25.
That’s the same thing Daniel Briere did after a 95-point season in Buffalo: cash in for $52 million over eight years. He was worth the money in the playoffs, but his best statistical achievement in six regular seasons was leading the team in goals once.
It is fair to ask what my point is. Simply this: the Flyers have a long, sad history of overcommitting millions of dollars in their search for a Stanley Cup, and recently these mistakes have been more costly, more capricious, and made faster than ever before. Is there a rumor that someone’s had an affair with another player’s spouse? Trade someone. Does a player disagree with the coach? Trade him. Do the players publicly admonish the coach? Fire the coach and trade some players. Is drinking affecting the Flyers’ on ice performance? Trade someone. Some players aren’t getting along with a veteran and the media? Trade them. Sign an enforcer for $1.1 million a season. Re-sign a retirement-bound defenseman for $6 million a season. Trade high draft picks for rental players. Let a scoring forward and offensive defenseman walk out while trying to sign another scoring forward and offensive defenseman. Sign a new goaltender to a contract and buy him out. Assign a new captain every year (except Richards).
Taken in bits, this information might not seem horrendous, but taken the wide view, it’s impossible to believe that the Flyers are doing anything other than continuously sacrificing long-term success for short-term success, which is precisely what lead to Clarke’s ‘resignation’ and Ken Hitchcock’s firing almost a decade ago, but now these moves seems to have more urgency as solutions to petty in-fighting and covering mistakes than attempts to improve a hockey team. If Bryzgalov’s teammates really did sell him out to the media, that says a lot more about their integrity than it does Bryzgalov’s. If Pronger played a part in getting rid of Richards and Carter, that’s just as bad.
Is it possible that this is all the paranoid delusion of an obsessed fan? Absolutely. If there is any truth to it, however, and disagreements among teammates can lead to wasting over $178 million wrapped up in three men (Richards, Carter, Bryzgalov) once thought of as franchise players, the culture around this team could get toxic fast. Imagine the future conflagration of anyone bordering on being unpopular: some whispers, a few quiet words to the media, and he’s gone.
I’m not entirely a fatalist. There are numerous good things on this team. It is the nature of a good fan to cheer no matter what, and the nature of a true fan to do so while complaining. Philadelphia is easily the best hockey market, and part of the reason good players come here is because the fans are unrivaled and the organization gives them first-class treatment. I’d just hate to seem them leave after discovering the opposite.