Like ’em or not, the Philadelphia Flyers have something most teams do not. They have a brand; an orange and black identity that so many other franchises would kill for. It is a collective persona that goes back to Bobby Clarke and Rick MacLeish, taking ingredients like hustle, size, skill and a commensurate amount of violence, and mixing up a team that has the skill to go around you or the will to go right through you—whichever is required.
Another, more recent addition to that brand, has been poor goaltending. Not since Ron Hextall in the late ’80s has Philadelphia had a goalie to get excited about. That, too, is an integral part of the Flyers identity; their fatal flaw, to be sure. So the fact that reclaimed goaler Steve Mason has been Philadelphia’s best player thus best illustrates how messed up things are in Philly right now. More than the 1-7-0 record, or the fact the Flyers are the first team since 1964 to begin a season without reaching three goals in any of their first eight games.
It is the worst start in franchise history, one that featured the firing of head coach Peter Laviolette after just three games. That after a training camp during which the management team didn’t take care of the short strokes, spending too much time on too many prospects, while neglecting to work on special teams or catch up certain players (Luke Schenn) who showed up in less than top shape. That was confirmed by incoming coach Craig Berube’s admission that his team wasn’t in adequate physical shape, and should be a red flag for the next general manager who considers Laviolette for a job.
Add to those systemic problems the fact Andrej Meszaros is the priciest ($4 million) healthy scratch in Flyers history—if you don’t count the $23 million spent to buy out Mr. Universe, otherwise known as Ilya Bryzgalov, over the summer. And then, injuries. Claude Giroux severely injured his hand in an, er, golfing mishap over the summer. He has zero goals on just 18 shots through eight games. It’s never good when your best player defines the art of failing to deliver off the top of a campaign. And Vincent Lecavalier, a distributing centreman who can help others out of slumps when he’s on, got hurt after five games. Same with Scott Hartnell, a heart and soul guy whose will is much needed right now. Oh and With those guys out and no Chris Pronger- or Mark Recchi-type to right the ship, Philly’s leadership is also being questioned.
Out of shape, out of practice, and already out of the playoff picture. That describes a Philadelphia team that is naked, searching for a blanket that can only come from two places this early in a season: within, or from some other flailing franchise like Buffalo and Edmonton. And that’s where the fun begins.
You have to go back, like, 25 years to find 10 impactful trades conducted in the month of October, but this year could be different.
In Edmonton, where the Oilers are similarly mired at 1-6-1, GM Craig MacTavish promised bold moves when he took the job, and has all kinds of roster needs. The Oilers have the scoring wingers that Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren seeks—Ales Hemsky, Nail Yakupov—and a shopping list that includes size and grit (Wayne Simmonds), a defenceman (Braydon Coburn), or a young centreman with some size (Sean Couturier).
In Buffalo, Sabres fans are literally showing up at games and chanting for GM Darcy Regier to be fired. Regier has a pending UFA in Tomas Vanek who could be the Flyers’ short-term fix, and his Sabres are 1-7-1. He’d take some youth, even if it meant taking a few more dollars back in the bargain.
There is a feeling in Philadelphia that Holmgren has perhaps overplayed his hand when it comes to grit and size. As the rest of the league edges a little further each season towards speed and skill, Philadelphia may have missed that train. Because the Flyers team we’ve watched these past few games is trying like hell. They’re just not very good, and have zero confidence. Six times this season they have trailed by only a goal after 40 minutes, yet the Flyers haven’t earned a single point out of those games. That tells us that the carrot is in sight. They’re just not good enough to get their hands on it.
The Flyers will stew on that 1-7 mark for a week now, with their next game Oct. 24th versus the Rangers. In the meantime Paul Holmgren, owner of the NHL’s itchiest trigger finger, and one of its hottest seats, will field phone calls.
His desk is no place, as they say, for a nervous person.