Five straight losses. Going from second the conference to on the brink of being on the outside looking in. Being compared negatively to the Sixers. Another concussion. Costly turnovers by should-be-Phantoms. No skate that fits. No clear-cut number 1 in net. Again.
All these elements have many Flyers fans digging through closets for baseball gloves and fastidiously reading reports on pitchers and catchers in Clearwater. In Philly, we know all to well how to rush the season, talkin' Mel Kiper Jr, fifth outfielders, and ping pong balls. But it's nowhere near time to write off this Flyers team. I'm not saying don't go out and have a 37º catch in the yard. By all means... Just don't get off the Orange & Black bandwagon before the homestretch.
True I may not have seen the worst of these recent Flyers games. Someone had to look pale and out of shape by a pool in Arizona while all ya'll chipped ice off your windshields and played bumper cars on 76 and the Blue Route. But I have a theory about these recent losses: They're a good thing...
Virtually every great season sees a time of failure and futility—a slump. Slumps are inevitable over a several-month season, whether you're talking 162+playoffs on the diamond, 16+ on the gridiron, 80+ on the hardwood, or 82+ on the ice. Pretty much every decent-to-great team has that reality check, look-in-the mirror, cold-shower leg-sweep. But as long as two very important things are part of the equation, there's no need for alarm.
These two elements are fairly simple in theory: (1) the team must learn about its weaknesses and make adjustments to correct them; and (2) the timing must be good. The first is easy enough to understand, but undoubtedly harder to implement. The ability to make these improvements is what separates Theo Epstein from Ed Wade, Bill Walsh from Andy Reid. The timing thing is more tricky, and has a lot more to do with luck than anything else. But its importance can't be discounted. Ask the Patriots if they'd have liked to lose their only game of the season on a Sunday afternoon in week 8 or intermittently between multimillion dollar commercials. The timing of a slump is everything. Too early, and you may slump again later, peaking too early. Too late, and it can spoil the playoff run. But timed just right, it can be one of the keys to going deep into the postseason.
So how does Goldilocks feel about this pile of porridge the Flyers are in? It might be just right. For starters, it's before the trade deadline. Adjustments can still be made, and the rumors have been flying about puck-moving defensemen, and of course, Peter Forsberg, although the latter seems less likely with every passing day. Paul Holmgren has made some great adjustments since taking over, so we can be confident in his ability, but will he be able to part with any of the pieces he so recently brought in? Time will tell, but I'd bet on him.
One rumor had Scottie "Menage" Upshall being tradebait, but his lingering lower-ex ailments could hurt his return value more than his playing time. Also, if there's one thing about this year's batch of trade rumors, it's that they definitively lack substance. First Rob Blake is a target, then he's not willing to play in the East. Tomas Kaberle. Dan Boyle. Your dad. The reason we haven't covered the trade scenarios is that there's just no reason to. Most of them have no possibility of happening, although there's a good chance something will.
Finally, as I wrap this up, and not a moment too soon, it's important to remember who this team is. One year removed from finishing dead fucking last in the league, the worst season in franchise history, a GM in his first full season has made a very complicated cocktail of leadership and potential, and many of the faces on the roster weren't even here last season. It's entirely unreasonable to expect them to hold on to first place in the division all year, or even to finish there. Also, have you seen the NHL playoffs? Seeding doesn't matter much, and you can get the same shitty match-up with the Devils whether you're the 3 playing the 6 or the 7 playing the 2.
There's a great chance that the playoff inclusion and seeding will continue to shuffle for the duration of the season. Over the past several months, most teams have traded spots multiple times, and we've seen nothing to indicate that the trend won't continue on into that first week of April. Don't get me wrong, I'll be pissed if the Pens win this division. But it's not the end of the run if they or the Devils or even the Rangers (ha!) do.
So even if the Flyers drop 2 of 3 against Montreal and Ottawa, let's not get too hasty to call it a season. They're still the same team that played with an air of dominance for long stretches this season, but they're also still getting to know exactly who they are and what they've got.