One of the things that comes with being a Flyers fan is an expectation of nuclear detonation at some point in the offseason. A huge trade. Someone getting fired. A big free agency pickup. Part of this is born from the hunger of a franchise aching to win a Stanley Cup and willing to do to whatever is possible to win one now, but the careful wording of this statement reveals a part that cancels out this effort: whatever is possible, not what is necessary.
In the Flyers GM playbook, free agency is a method by which they get who every team wants; Vincent Lecavalier, Mark Streit, Jaromir Jagr, Ilya Bryzgalov, Matt Read, Daniel Briere, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Peter Forsberg, R.J. Umberger, Derian Hatcher, and Jeremy Roenick were all among the most sought-after free agent prizes, and one way or another, the Flyers managed to acquire them. This shows the rest of the NHL that the Philadelphia Flyers are a first-class organization, and it’s not just about money; Briere turned down a slew of more expensive offers because he was convinced that Philadelphia was the best fit. Lest we forget, Flyers GMs have also tendered offer sheets to Ryan Kesler and Shea Weber, much to the chagrin of the rest of the league.
But of these players, which ones would be addressing needs? Timonen, once acquired essentially for Forsberg, stabilized the defensive core for years. Certainly Ilya Bryzgalov, who, love him or hate him, was the best goalie on the market when the Flyers needed a starting goalie. Shea Weber would have been an ironclad replacement for Chris Pronger, who proved to be an organizational need when he carried the team to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. A case could be made for a few others to a lesser extent, but with all this star power, how many Stanley Cups has the organization gleaned?
There’s nothing wrong with a few bold moves to galvanize the fanbase. Briere is probably the best example of that, as he became a symbol that the Flyers would not accept a repeat of their worst season ever, then later a subject of fierce debate between factions of fans praising his post-season scoring ability and excoriating his defensive liabilities. It’s not that the Flyers are categorically incapable of addressing needs, either; Nicklas Grossmann was precisely the type of player the Flyers needed when he was acquired in a trade. Was it a flashy move? No player whose own team couldn’t spell his name right is a headline pickup, but he fixed an epidemic lack of shutdown defense caused by Pronger’s departure.
The problem is that the Flyers are overspending on players they want and allowing players they need to slip through the cracks. Mark Streit is a good example of a recent expensive, flashy acquisition that did not address the organization’s problems with reliable defensive defensemen. Last offseason, which was probably the worst in Flyers’ history, saw Paul Holmgren chasing Parise and Suter before making a pass at Weber. The move backfired when he lost Carle and Jagr, then scrambled to replace them with Foster, Gervais, and Fedotenko. No single offseason better describes how this strategy of getting the players everyone wants doesn’t work, particularly because they aimed for the stars and ended up digging in the basement when there were still some decent defensemen that would have kept their feet on the ground. The result, of course, was missing the playoffs for only the second time in a generation.
While draftees should be taken based on long-term organizational needs and exquisite talent, targeting a series of free-agents should be a move calculated to assist a team in both the
short term and the long term, depending on the contract, and doing so only makes sense if the player fits into a given coach’s framework. The Flyers clearly like offensive defensemen, but it’s quite possible that they don’t understand their role in the sport; generating offense from defensemen should be considered a plus, not an absolute, and while a guy like Streit puts up points, it’s very possible that he’s not the guy you want on the ice in the final few moments of a game where the team leads 3-2.
In Peter Laviolette’s system, which is driven by a consistent attack, offensive defensemen are not the tonic. Yes, they can attack, but if every other player on the ice is attacking, no one else is defending, as proven by Timonen’s track record of giving up shorthanded breakaways when quarterbacking the powerplay. Chris Therien got a rough ride from Philadelphia fans during his tenure because he didn’t score, rarely hit, and never fought, but he was a plus player every season, and that wasn’t an easy job since he was sidled with wiping Desjardins’ bottom every time he pinched and screwed up. If you have any doubts about this opinion, watch each goal against the Flyers this past season and catch the confused looks of defensemen who wonder how the opposition player managed to get in scoring position. It’s embarrassing.
You can’t fault the Flyers brass for trying. In fact, it’s been just about all they’ve done since the mid-seventies. The Flyers want to win a Stanley Cup. Who doesn’t? Until they figure out what they need to compete, the situation in South Philly will continue to deteriorate.