An Ugly End to a Disappointing Flyers Season: Media Feuds, Surgeries, and Uncertain Futures

An Ugly End to a Disappointing Flyers Season: Media Feuds, Surgeries, and Uncertain Futures

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.”

Pronger
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.

Flyers, at this point, should sell a few valuable veterans ahead of deadline

Flyers, at this point, should sell a few valuable veterans ahead of deadline

Dave Hakstol’s Flyers returned home from Vancouver on Monday not quite resembling conquering heroes.

Sure, they salvaged two points from their three-game trek to Western Canada, but for a team that supposedly sees itself as a wild card, that just ain’t gonna get it done.

The Flyers required at least four points — ideally, five — from the trip to give us some proof they’re a legit contender for the wild card.

Right now, their wild-card hopes remain on life support.

Yes, they’re only two points behind Toronto. Thing is, the field of wild-card contenders have officially caught up and even passed them.

When the Flyers left for the trip, they were even in points with the Maple Leafs while holding down the 9-seed in the Eastern Conference. Toronto had the second wild card.

Hakstol's team is the 11-seed now. Toronto, Florida and the New York Islanders are ahead of them with games in hand.

This trip should offer enough evidence to general manager Ron Hextall that his team is still floundering.

There are no moves Hextall can initiate at the trade deadline that will guarantee a playoff spot without mortgaging the future.

Since their return from the All-Star break, the Flyers are 3-5-1. Those numbers don’t suggest they’re headed to the playoffs.

And even if the Flyers were to qualify as the second wild card, they would face a very early exit against the Washington Capitals.

Again.

At this point, with the March 1 NHL trade deadline staring Hextall in the face, he has to be a seller at the deadline.

If you trust Hextall’s long-term plan of patience, you understand that what this is about is preserving assets and preparing young players to be integrated into the system next year and the year after, and the year after that.

Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto are two unrestricted free agents who could help someone else right now.

Streit has been strong this season on the power play, which is his forte. He’s the perfect deadline rental.

Even if Hextall would like to have Streit’s veteran leadership on the blue line next season on a one-year, low salary to “tutor” Robert Hagg or Sam Morin or Travis Sanheim, he could still move Streit now and re-sign him later this summer.

Del Zotto, at 26, will get a nice return in draft picks or a prospect. Del Zotto is going to want a big contract this summer (he’s making $3.87 million now).

There’s no incentive for Hextall to go that direction given the sheer number of young, outstanding defensive prospects in the system that will be arriving shortly, all of whom come with very low salary cap hits.

Don’t blame Hextall for not getting involved in the Matt Duchene/Gabriel Landeskog saga that is going on in Colorado. GM Joe Sakic is asking a lot.

Hextall seems reluctant to part with any future prospects or young players just to get the same in return.

Much of the fan base has been saying for a while now it’s time to move team captain Claude Giroux. He's in the midst of his fourth consecutive season in which his numbers have declined, and in some respects, dramatically from his two best seasons — 2011-12 (93 points) and 2013-14 (86 points).

Yet there is no indication from Hextall or anyone in the Flyers' organization that such is even being contemplated.

Or that the organization feels Giroux’s leadership abilities have been assumed by Wayne Simmonds, who is arguably the most popular Flyer, two years running now.

Hextall still sees veterans such as Giroux, who is only 29, as a player who would help the transition of younger pups coming along — Travis Konecny, German Rubtsov, Nick Cousins, Jordan Weal, etc. — and he also believes Giroux can recapture his offense.

In short, Hextall is not going to tear his roster apart nor is he going to make a blockbuster trade next Wednesday. But he will likely try to sell veteran assets that make the team younger in some way.

Which is the correct thinking for the Flyers now and right into this summer, as well.

Why the Eagles should ignore big names and buy low at wide receiver

Why the Eagles should ignore big names and buy low at wide receiver

It won't be a surprise if the Eagles go after a big name wide receiver.

The team's receivers were a disaster last year. There's the fact that among the Eagles' receivers, Jordan Matthews' 11 yards per catch led the group (minimum 10 catches). Matthews' also led the receivers in touchdowns with four. The team dropped 24 Carson Wentz passes, the fourth-most for a quarterback last season.

So Alshon Jeffery or DeSean Jackson would be a no-brainer, right? Maybe not.

At the moment, the Eagles' cap situation isn't ideal. Surely they'll take a few more steps to clear space, but signing a high-priced receiver isn't the right way to allocate that money.

Jeffery and Jackson have their pros and cons. Jeffery had two elite seasons in 2013 and 2014, but his last two seasons have been mired by injuries and a PED suspension. Despite being 30, Jackson still has the ability to stretch the field, but his red flags are well-documented. According to Sprotrac, Jeffery is scheduled to become the sixth-highest paid receiver, while Jackson will be the 19th-highest paid.

Sure, there are other options. Veteran Kenny Britt enjoyed a renaissance season under new Eagles receivers coach Mike Groh in L.A. and he's still only 28. He's also coming off a 1,000-yard season and could cash in on that. There's also Kenny Stills, who is only 24 and coming off a season where he averaged 17.3 yards a catch and caught nine touchdowns for Miami. Terrelle Pryor is still learning the position but finished with 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns for the Browns.

Any of those guys makes the Eagles' offense better immediately. But in reality, just about any decent receiver would make this group better. Howie Roseman is better off buying low in free agency and building the receiver corps through the draft.

CSNPhilly.com Eagles Insider Reuben Frank recently highlighted the lack of success the Eagles' have had in signing free-agent receivers. The list is basically Irving Fryar and a bunch of guys. While the occasional trade (Terrell Owens) has worked out, the Eagles have been better off drafting receivers.

Looking ahead to the draft, this receiver class is extremely deep. There may not be the elite talent of the 2014 receiver class, but there are plenty of intriguing players to explore. In the first round, Clemson's Mike Williams or Western Michigan's Corey Davis could be available to the Eagles. Oklahoma's Dede Westbrook or Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp could be there in the second. Even in the middle rounds, guys like Louisiana Tech's Carlos Henderson, Western Kentucky's Taywan Taylor and ECU's Zay Jones could be impactful.

As far as free agents go, the Eagles have other options beyond the big names. Kamar Aiken of the Baltimore Ravens is an intriguing name. The 27 year old had a breakout 2015 (75 catches, 944 yards, five touchdowns) followed by a disappointing 2016 (29 catches, 328 yards, one touchdown). He lost snaps to a healthy Steve Smith, free-agent signee Mike Wallace and former first-round pick Breshad Perriman. The Eagles can buy low on Aiken and hope his production is similar to 2015.

Kendall Wright, also 27, had a breakout season in 2013 (94 catches, 1,079 yards) but has fought injuries and inconsistencies over the last few seasons in Tennessee. Then there's Brian Quick from the L.A. Rams, another 27 year old who hasn't quite put it together. He had a career year in 2016, hauling in 41 catches for 564 yards under new Eagles receivers coach Mike Groh.

The Eagles' best bet would be to take a flyer and buy low on one of these receivers and dig deep on this draft. Aiken or Wright and two rookies could help overhaul the position and create serious competition.

Can the Eagles count on Roseman to deliver the next Irving Fryar? The safer bet is him delivering the next DeSean Jackson... instead of the actual DeSean Jackson.