Last off-season, the Flyers were faced with a problem: Their young core - Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul, and recently departed Scottie Upshall - was a tight knit group who liked to party in Old City. This wouldn't be a problem if the team was winning, but when Richards is your captain, it also becomes a leadership issue. So the Flyers officially announced that they needed to acquire veteran leadership.
The acquisitions of Chris Pronger and Ian Laperriere were lauded as going a long way toward achieving this goal; breaking up the Old City Gang wasn't a coincidence either. While the team continued to struggle this past season, many people - including some in the media - began wondering if the leadership problem from a year ago was now a leadership struggle between Pronger and Richards. This led to many calls for Pronger to wear the 'C' and calls for Richards to grow up.
Before Pronger's arrival, Simon Gagne and Kimmo Timonen served as Richards' alternates. Since both Gagne and Timonen are in the same mold as Richards - quiet, lead-by-example types - bringing in two vocal veterans in Pronger and Laperriere was an astute move. Having Pronger (and Carter) rotate with Timonen and Gagne last year, the Flyers had four quiet leaders and only one vocal leader wearing letters.
But then something happened. Pronger and Richards went to Vancouver as Olympic teammates, won a Gold Medal, and returned a better tandem. From the beginning, people wondered (worried?) about how the out-spoken Pronger would mesh with the soft-spoken Richards. What people didn't realize is that the two could be an excellent tandem.
It wasn't hard to see that Richards' stranglehold on the leadership role would be loosened when Pronger arrived. Any team that has Chris Pronger knows that he will be an integral part of your locker room and the center of attention from the media. Instead of looking at the situation as Pronger usurping Richards' role or "stepping on his toes", the situation should have been seen as Pronger filling a void on the team separate from anybody's current role.
It's always a fun exercise of mine to compare Flyers players with Phillies players, but the comparisons between Chase Utley and Mike Richards are numerous. Both are exceptional players who are quiet leaders. The analogy isn't perfect, but neither Utley nor Richards can be the lone voice in their locker rooms. That's just not their style. Sure, the laid-back, calm demeanor works great when the team is winning - not to mention the grind it out, get something started attitude with every shift or at bat - but what happens during a slump? The team, the media, and the fans need some spark, especially in this city.
So as Utley has Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, Mike Richards now has Chris Pronger. Richards will lead with his play and provide the calming influence. Pronger will lead with his play too, but mostly with his mouth. He'll say what needs to be said, he'll deal with the media, and he'll be the veteran presence on a fairly young and inexperienced club.
It certainly helped Richards:
"The Olympics were huge for me to have [Pronger] there," Richards said. "At the end of the year he takes a lot of pressure off me dealing with you guys day to day. He's a powerful voice. I think that is something we had been lacking in the dressing room before. We had a lot of great leaders, but no real dominant voice in the dressing room and he's been that."
A Stanley Cup finals appearance later, and the Flyers can only count on their two leaders to be an even bigger force next year. But who will be their supporting staff? Now that Gagne has been traded, the Flyers can go one of two routes: they can go back to having only two alternate captains or they can put an 'A' on somebody else's sweater. With players such as Laperriere, Danny Briere, and Sean O'Donnell behind the scenes, either path can work.
The Flyers average age right now is 28, so they can no longer be considered an up and coming group. Part of that is three straight playoff appearances with the same core, but the other part is the addition of such 30+ players as Blair Betts, Laperriere, Jody Shelley, Sean O'Donnell, and Matt Walker. With those veterans and their new-found Golden duo, the Flyers leadership should be a position of strength next year, even without Simon Gagne.