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Philadelphia Flyers Post Cup Thoughts

Most Philadelphia sports fans were pleased with the return of the Flyers to the Stanley Cup playoffs this past season, and rightfully so. But there is also an undercurrent of nagging suspicion that they could have or even should have gone further.

Now, part of that is just the city’s sports fan’s “Championship Mania” mentality. Fueled most recently by the Eagles Super Bowl win, and a second recent Villanova NCAA hoops title. Stoked also by the “Process” which has finally established the 76ers as a legitimate contender for the foreseeable future. And the Phillies youth movement and available cash to pursue some major free agent pieces, seem playoff ready for years as well.

Adding to the Philly fan’s uneasiness about their hockey team, is that their only two Stanley Cup Championships were achieved more than forty years ago (now the longest drought among the Big Four in Philadelphia sports). Three of the four teams that competed in the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals this year didn’t even exist forty years ago. The Washington Capitals, winners of this year’s Championship , had only played two seasons when the Flyers last drank from Lord Stanley’s Cup. There are teams that have never won the Cup, including three of the four teams with longer droughts than the Flyers: St. Louis, Buffalo and Vancouver. The fourth team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, winners of thirteen NHL Championships prior to this streak, are tied with the Sabres at the half century mark of falling short. But those thirteen Cups are second in NHL history behind only the Montreal Canadiens record twenty-four Cups. And the Canadiens didn’t even make the play-offs this past season, so there is plenty of frustration to go around the league.

There was frustration and speculation surrounding the Flyers reluctance to make any trade deadline deals. General Manager Ron Hextall was put off by the high price tags of the players being offered,  and he wasn’t alone. Erik Karlsson was probably the most valuable player being shopped, but Ottawa found no takers for the high price tag they attached to him at the deadline. And in fact, the Cup Champion Caps were also one of the teams that sat pat at the deadline. But their finals opponent the Vegas Golden Knights, paid a high price for Tomas Tater who was benched for more than half of the play-off games in favor of players who were already on their roster. Of course, Tater could be a key player going forward for the Knights, but deadline deals are usually executed for immediate results. And the Golden Knights would still have made it to the finals without Tater, and probably lost.

The set up of the Stanley Cup tournament makes it one of the toughest to win in any professional sport. And like any professional sport, there are no guarantees the team or a given player will ever be in that situation again. Football’s Dan Marino’s lone Super Bowl appearance in his Hall of Fame career came in his rookie season with the Dolphins. Blink and you missed it.

If you think you have a chance to win the ultimate prize of the Stanley Cup, or are confident of at least attaining the penultimate, a berth in the final series, history suggests you go for it. It should be your guiding principle come trade deadline decisions in hockey. Or, baseball fans take note, in any sport, unless you are tearing down and rebuilding.  If a team is good enough to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs, three factors give them the best chance of winning,  – a star that can score and carry a team, a hot (not even great) goalie, and team chemistry.

The Caps has the chemistry and the sense of destiny that allowed them to continuously come back in their preliminary series, eventually burying the Golden Knights, who had a bit of a thing going as well in that department. The right mix of players, rather than merely an all-star at every position, is what got both teams to the finals rather than any other two franchises. And while the Golden Knights had the better regular season goaltending. Marc Andre Fleury, as good as he was, ran into s hot Braden Holtby who had come off his worse NHL regular season to outplay Fluery. Holtby, forevermore to be known for “ The Save” in Game Two of the finals, was the very definition of a hot goaltender. The Caps are not in the finals without him. How about a scoring legend carrying the day?  Cup MVP Alex Ovechkin, is a HOF lock based on his regular season play. And reversing his legacy of spotty playoff performances,  he became the inspiration and shooting star that the Caps hitched their wagon to, and pulled them out of their doldrums for the first time. The Caps do not win the Cup without Ovi.

The biggest knock on that Flyers deadline inaction was that Hextall, a former goaltender, did not try to shore up that position for the playoff run. He chose instead to sit pat with a couple of injury plagued netminders. Perhaps that was because he felt that the Flyers were good enough without a goalie upgrade, or one wasn’t available at the right price. But you still have to wonder what the presence of say, Henrik Lundqvist might have made. Perhaps Hextall believed that the Flyers were more than one player away from contending, and that adding a piece or two at a premium cost would not significantly increase their near term prospects of a Cup. And perhaps the Flyers feel that they have sufficient depth at goaltender, and that one of their in house options is the best route to a championship. And maybe, the thinking is that Claude Giroux is the guy who can will this team to a Cup victory like Ovi did for the Caps. And, perhaps the chemistry is so good with this group, that Hextall believes adding support pieces rather than stars will allow his own developing and existing stars to make the deepest of play-off runs in years to come.  We see the on ice chemistry of teams, but rarely an accurate reveal of the team chemistry off the ice, Except for the “he’s a good (or bad) guy in the locker room comments, we are not privy to how things are meshing together, except as it might reflect in the the won-loss column. I do not see any real problems in that respect  for the Flyers, and it appears Hextall does not either.

So, the Flyers were not willing to move the market at the trade deadline this spring, and failed to win a Cup. It will be interesting to see in the offseason, what steps they do take to enhance their chances going forward. A big time goalie or another proven scorer are possible targets, but more likely, some less expensive ( in terms prospects) additions will be made. A two way forward with a PK speciality, and a big, mobile defender are likely targets. And if the off season tweaks lead to more consistent play in the ‘18-‘19 season, and the Flyers feel more confident moving towards next season’s trade deadline, there is always that. The clock is always running in pro sports, and in Philadelphia, the fans are already counting to minutes and hours since the last Cup, and until the next.  You can trust the process, but trust also the window of opportunity ever opens wide.

 

Wayne Heinze
Wayne Heinze

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