First, a quick apology for the lack of Flyers coverage in the wake of the Boston sweep. I've been out of town for a wedding and some much-needed vacation time. I love Philly sports as much as the next guy, but there's great recuperative value even in taking a break from something that's supposed to be relaxing. We get immersed in the daily events surrounding a team, particularly in the playoffs, from the games themselves to the minutiae that emerge in postgame comments and off-day injury updates. The view from a distance is quite different, checking in on twitter/online only once or twice a day and even then, taking only the most cursory look to see what's in the news. All told, it was a pretty great week to be off the grid.
The reactions by fans following the Flyers' meltdown weren't surprising, and everyone has a right to be disappointed if not downright pissed. The financial support of the fans from their trips through the turnstiles to their eyes being counted in ratings analyses is what puts the players on the ice and money in the pockets of the stakeholders. More than just money though, we allow ourselves to be psychologically invested and spend a lot of our time in the hopes of appreciating the best of what our team has to offer. And, for yet another season, the team came up well short.
For most of us, this is the story of the Flyers in our lifetimes. They're almost always good, but never quite good enough. What's worse, they can often aptly be labeled an underachieving team, and that is certainly the case for the 2010-2011 season and playoffs. A team loaded with talent lacked cohesion down the stretch and fell apart in the second round. Along the way, the fanbase's worst fears about the goaltending situation were realized (again) and new issues emerged.
We'll be looking at some of the many questions facing the team over the course of this off-season in the coming weeks, but there has been no shortage of storylines emerging out of Flyers camp just a few days into it. As you might expect coming out of a season that crash-landed so far ahead of schedule, there aren't too many positive topics dominating the landscape at the moment, and there's little reason to assume that will change over the course of the summer. We take a look at those below.
The Mike Richards Story I Don't Care About, But Probably Should at Least Mention
Team captain Mike Richards is receiving a large amount of scrutiny over his ability to lead the team, which I guess is fair given that they didn't play to their level of talent. The same scrutiny should fall on other team veterans, as well as head coach Peter Laviolette, but mostly it should fall on any players who themselves weren't playing to their ability. Mixed and matched with numerous linemates throughout the season, Richie did make the players around him play better on an acute basis. It's nearly impossible to accurately or objectively quantify his strengths or shortcomings as a leader other than in that regard, except to say that as long as the team doesn't win the Stanley Cup, there's room for improvement. In looking at the remnants of a lost season, the captain will be held partly accountable by many fans. This may be a harsh assessment, but in a hockey mad city like Philadelphia, a city that's been starving for a Stanley Cup for over thirty-five years, anything less than a Stanley Cup is looked at as a failure.
The story making the rounds today isn't an on-ice discussion though, or even a locker room story. It's no secret that Richards hasn't had a great relationship with the local media in Philadelphia, although it usually doesn't seem to be as bad as often characterized either, but it took a turn for the worse on Tuesday. Richards took exception to CSN's Tim Panaccio labeling him as "moody and withdrawn" in an article Panaccio posted last night on the relationship between Laviolette and Richards, and via his twitter account, Richie accused the reporter of publishing statements that aren't true. It's not the first time Richards and a media member have had a scrape like this one, and we're not holding our breath that it's the last either. You don't have to be a reporter in the locker room every night to see that Richards often doesn't seem to appreciate the questions being asked, even after wins, but especially after losses. It's understandable—to a point. Some of the questions seem to be leading to a desired quote, others are repetitive in a game-by-game context, and some are somewhat confusing. I'm not blaming the media either, who must come up with a narrative after 82+ games a season that reads like more than a textual box score. Familiarity can also breed contempt, and despite the influx of quite a few new media outlets into the press box ranks lately, Richards has largely been fielding questions from the same faces for a few years now and apparently reading up on some of the articles they derive from the postgame quotes.
I'm not going to get into who's right and who's wrong on this one. I'll just say I'll be glad when it blows over, because the answer to that question has nothing to do with what's consuming me at the moment, which is whether this team will be better next season than it was this season. Richards is one of the best two-way players in the league, and his teammates, coach, and GM say he's a good captain. He plays his ass off on a nightly basis, and he isn't the reason the Flyers are cleaning out their lockers right now. Richards is not on my list of concerns heading in to 2011-2012.
The Long Limp to the Surgery Suite
That is, unless you count the fact that Richards is among the sizable list of players who will have off-season surgery. The day after a team exits the playoffs on a parade float or in a figurative body bag, the list of the skating wounded is revealed, and so far, there are five Flyers set for surgery and another very possibly on his way to joining them. Richards, Kris Versteeg, Michael Leighton, Blair Betts, and Andrej Meszaros are all set for surgery, and Chris Pronger's list of injuries could land him back there as well.
Some fans called out Richards and Versteeg for their playoff performances, particularly the latter, who was brought over at the trade deadline to make a deep forward corps even deeper, while also adding some playoff experience after winning a Cup with the Blackhawks last season. But it's now been revealed that Richards was playing with a ligament injury in his wrist for the duration of the season and playoffs, and Versteeg needs surgery to repair what may be a sports hernia.
Paul Holmgren addressed the injuries with the media earlier today as follows: “Right now we have five guys that need surgery. Kris Versteeg needs a stomach muscle wall repaired, Michael Leighton’s hip, Mike Richards’s wrist, Blair Betts’s finger, and Andrej Meszaros’s wrist. The guys that need to be evaluated for surgery, Hartnell and Carter, will both be evaluated for hip issues, and we’ll probably know more on
Friday where we need to go with that. The last one is Chris Pronger. We’re still not sure where we’re at with him, what’s needed, what the root of the problem is. It’s probably safe to say it’s a lower back, lower body issue. He’s had some diminished leg strength and will see a couple of doctors today who will try to get to the bottom of it. I’ll let you know as soon as I have an answer.”
The Pronger injuries are the biggest story for me right now, far more so than Richie and Panotch's tete a tete. The defenseman's age and duration of contract were called into question when the Flyers signed him, but last season he quieted those concerns temporarily by playing a ton of minutes and being among the best d-men in the league. This season though, he missed a pair of games at the outset after off-season surgery, then a mid-season stretch, and finally a spate of injuries saw him miss the end of the season, most of the first round, and the final three games against the Bruins. The troubling part is that all the absences were due to something different. Getting blasted in the hand with a shot has nothing to do with age, so the games missed at the end of the season are not themselves alarming. But Pronger's inability to get back on the ice without suffering setbacks elsewhere in his body is. The concern now isn't the already once-repaired hand, but the back issues that still haven't fully come to light. It's yet unknown whether Pronger will need surgery, but after seeing him play just 50 games this season and then have difficulty coming back is concerning.
This is one of the two biggest stories to watch as the off-season begins. Pronger's contract is currently set to be on the books through 2017, at just under $5 million per season. But more than simply needing the player allocated that portion of the salary cap to be a performer over that time, the Flyers showed that despite adding depth on defense, they weren't deep enough to be without Pronger for an extended period. Their record with and without him isn't indicative of the impact he has on the flow of the game regardless of which way the action is heading on the ice.
It's premature to speak in dire terms about Pronger, but safe to brand it an area of concern.
What to Do About the Masked Men
Although we haven't done full a postmortem on what went wrong with the Flyers down the stretch and in the playoffs, it's safe to say goaltending will be on the list. Whether the focus is on how the individual guys themselves played or how they were managed, the goaltending simply wasn't good enough in the playoffs. I'm not breaking any news here, obviously. The question now though is, how will the situation be rectified? We'll get more into that at a future date, but today we're wondering which of the current goalies is likely to be back versus allowed to leave, one way or another. Sergei Bobrovsky, Michael Leighton, and Johan Backlund are under contract next season. While that doesn't guarantee they'll all be here, it sets them apart from Brian Boucher, who just played the final season of his current 2-year deal with the Flyers.
When asked about Boucher earlier today, Holmgren praised his season, acknowledged his playoff struggles, but was non-committal at best about the future. “I think Brian had a tremendous year for us," Homer said. "I thought Brian, like a lot of guys in the playoffs, struggled with things. We will see how that plays out. I have not had my meeting with Brian. I know he wants to continue playing, I know he likes it here, his family likes it here. But, we’ll see."
On the Flyers' other goalies, Holmgren had this to say: “Johan [Backlund] had a hip issue last year that he struggled with even at the start of this year. He really didn’t start playing a lot until the end of the season and started playing good at the end of the year. I think it’s a big summer for Johan to see where he fits in. He needs to come to training camp and basically try to win a job. And Michael Leighton, his situation is probably not all that different than Johan. He played in one game this year in L.A. and we won 7 to 4. At that point, we made a decision that he needed to go down and work on his game, which he did. When he came back to the team, he played a little bit of the one game, the overtime loss, I thought he played good. Then he got his chance to start and he didn’t play good. He is sort of in the same boat as Johan. I think Michael’s got to, with the hip surgery he needs, he’s got to be around here all summer, working with our medical staff and our training staff to get that strength and to get ready for training camp. I think he’s probably going to want a job in training camp too."
We'll see indeed, on all of the above. It should be a very interesting off-season in Philadelphia, as is usually the case. The issues this team has may not be easily remedied though, as they are equal parts a conference-leading group of talent and a club that made early exit in the playoffs.
Thanks for your patience while I was out of town and to the other Levelers for filling in for me while the team was still alive (if only on life support), and thanks to all of you for your participation in the site over the course of the season, whether reading or adding to the discussion in the comments.