Something Was Rotten in Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Flyers rocked the hockey world and its fan base last week when it traded away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, the two franchise cornerstones ever since they were drafted in 2003. The main question on everyone's mind: Why did it happen at all, and why did it happen like this?

Quite rotten. Toxic, actually. What a complete and utter mess. Now that we've all had some time to digest this bombshell, let's delve into how we got here.

You didn't want to believe some of the things you had heard over the past few years. The whispers and scurrilous rumors about your captain and the team's best goal scorer. How the Flyers' two young star players, cornerstones, and faces of the franchise were living it up perhaps a little too much as rich bachelors in downtown Philadelphia (at the Jersey Shore, too). The rampant partying, boozing, and lewd behavior off the ice that subsequently resulted in certain photos (there are plenty more) circulating around the Internet. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are two of the better players in hockey -- not at that superstar level, but somewhere in the next tier. At the mere age of 26, they both are in the midst of their athletic primes and signed to essentially career-long contracts at reasonable cap hits. Seems like a pretty perfect situation for any team to be in, right? Well, that's because it should be. But here in Flyer land, we've become accustomed to seemingly ideal scenarios blowing up in our faces -- in remarkable fashion, too.

The franchise hasn't been rocked like this in a decade, when Eric Lindros was traded to the New York Rangers in the summer of 2001. Even then, however, we had more than ample time to prepare ourselves for his impending departure. After a year-long dispute with general manager Bob Clarke, every Flyers fan knew it was only a matter of time before Lindros was shown the door. The 1999-2000 season was a tumultuous one, in which the Big E's relationship with Clarke had deteriorated beyond reconciliation. Things came to a head when Clarke stripped Lindros of his captaincy after he criticized team trainers for not properly diagnosing a concussion. The writing was on the wall that Eric probably wasn't long for Philadelphia. Still, after missing the final month of the season and then the first two rounds of the playoffs to recover from said concussion, he returned for Game 6 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals against the Devils. In Game 7, however, Lindros suffered yet another concussion -- this one the most severe of his career -- caused by a devastating body check administered by one Scott Stevens. That hit, which took place with a little over 12 minutes to go in the first period, set the tone for the entire game. The Devils eventually won, 2-1, thanks to a goal by Patrick Elias in the final minutes of the third period, before going on to beat the Dallas Stars and capture the franchise's second Stanley Cup. I still don't think I'm over it.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, speaking of tumultuous times, I'd say this past weekend qualifies. Turns out it was a long time coming, too. Don't believe what Paul Holmgren told the media about these decisions being facilitated by the Ilya Bryzgalov trade. These were NOT purely "hockey moves," and it's going to be a long time (if ever) before we know what truly went down. Everyone is free to believe whatever they want, but you do not trade your captain and leading goal scorer smack dab in the middle of their primes just to clear cap space for immediate and future financial flexibility. Sorry, that's not how things work. There are other players (Matt Carle, Kris Versteeg, etc.) that can be dealt instead. You know when you do make these kinds of trades? When you're looking to fundamentally change the culture of a team. The reality is that jettisoning Mike Richards and Jeff Carter out of Philadelphia had been discussed for quite some time within the Flyers' organization, as far back as the Boston series (and probably before). Something just wasn't right, and rumblings of acrimonious discord between a certain seasoned veteran (see: Pronger, Chris) and the Flyers' young captain were very real. Supposedly the two loathed each other, and given some of the comments Kimmo Timonen and Danny Briere made over the season's final months, it didn't take a genius to read between the lines and conclude there was a troubling rift in the locker room. How many times did we hear about everyone "not being on the same page"? But that was just one element of what was tearing this team apart. I'm not going to extensively theorize about just how bad things had gotten behind the scenes with Richards and Carter because I don't know anything for sure. However, if you do enough digging on the Internet, you'll be able to put some of the pieces together and get an idea. Let's just say that if what has leaked out is true, it's probably for the best that both players are gone, as some of their behavior off the ice was callow, disrespectful, and in a few instances reprehensible.

Say what you will about Paul Holmgren and his questionable asset and salary cap management over the years, but one thing about the guy is certain: He's got some big, brass cojones. What he did last Thursday -- and you can be sure it was predicated on an absolute directive from owner Ed Snider -- sends a clear message to the rest of the players on the current roster and anyone around the league who might join the Flyers in the future: No one is bigger than the team. Not the leading goal scorer, not even the captain. It doesn't matter if you sign a long-term contract at a team-friendly cap hit. If you don't behave in a way commensurate with what the franchise expects, you will no longer be a part of it. Snider is a very proud man, and the Flyers are his most prized and cherished possession. He doesn't put up with any crap, especially not when it compromises his hockey team. Holmgren may have pulled the trigger on these trades, but there's little doubt in my mind that Snider was the one holding the gun to his head. Based on what I've been able to find out (all within the last week), Snider was extremely unhappy with Mike Richards on a number of levels -- presumably stemming from his alcohol-infused escapades, to his petulant behavior in the locker room and when dealing with the media (and even some team staff members). He wasn't thrilled with some of Jeff Carter's off-ice behavior, either, and apparently felt neither player was living up to the commitment he'd made to the organization. And if Ed feels that way, well, something's going to get done to rectify the issue.

They were dubbed "The Old City Gang" by the media and fans who were all too aware of their nightlife indulgences. Joffrey Lupul, Scottie Upshall, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter were the main culprits, taking Philadelphia by storm one bar/club at a time. The subject of their partying was first raised early in the 2008-2009 season and became a disconcerting theme, to the point that Paul Holmgren (a former alcoholic, by the way) was forced to address it in an interview after the team had bowed out in the first round of the playoffs to the hated -- and eventual Stanley Cup champions -- Pittsburgh Penguins. I'm not going to sit here and pontificate about morality and whatever else. If I was young, fit, handsome, filthy rich, and in the prime of my life, you better believe I'd be living it up in whatever city I was calling home. However, when you're a professional athlete, you have responsibilities to a lot of people aside from yourself: teammates, coaches, management, ownership, and the fans. It's one thing to go out and party and drink and fornicate from time to time... it's another thing to do it ALL THE TIME. It doesn't matter if these wild nights took place when there wasn't a game the next day. Such habits -- the partying and drinking, not so much the cavorting -- directly impact a person's ability to take optimum care of their body and stay healthy. When you're an athlete, it's even more magnified.

Management, just like everyone else with Internet access, was aware of the debauchery and soon took action. Upshall was the first to go, shipped to Phoenix for Dan Carcillo at the 2009 trade deadline. Next up was Lupul, one of the league's more infamous playboys, who was part of the package that brought Chris Pronger from Anaheim to Philadelphia on the day of the 2009 draft. But Upshall and Lupul were no Richards and Carter. Both were former first round picks, but neither came up through the Flyers' organization. Rather, they were acquired via trade and, quite frankly, easily replaceable. Richards and Carter, however, were developing into upper echelon players. Both had been selected by the organization twelve picks apart in 2003 -- a draft that will go down as one of the best in NHL history -- and immediately labeled the future building blocks of the franchise. They won a Calder Cup in 2005 with the Flyers' minor league affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, and a Stanley Cup championship seemed to be next somewhere down the line. By 2009, Richards and Carter had been in the organization for six years, which made it easy to forget that they were only 24 years old. What do normal young adults that age do at night, especially when they're flush with cash? Exactly, they go out to bars and clubs and drink their faces off while looking to find a suitable parter for fornication. That's going to happen, it's just human nature. The real problem is when such behavior starts to affect people other than the perpetrators, and it's pretty obvious the lifestyle some of the younger players -- specifically Richards and Carter, it would seem -- led had become an issue with some of the older veterans over the past few seasons.

You see, Chris Pronger's acquisition, to me, resonated on multiple levels. Not only was he brought here because he was viewed as the final piece to the Flyers' Stanley Cup puzzle, but I'm sure it was also management's hope that he'd introduce a certain level of professionalism for the youngsters to emulate. I think it also sent a clear message that the adults were firmly in charge, and it was time to really get serious. Kimmo Timonen and Danny Briere are consumate professionals and undisputed team leaders, but something tells me their mere presence doesn't command respect quite like Pronger's does. We're talking about a former league MVP, captain, Stanley Cup champion, and surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. He also stands at a hulking 6'6" and is infamous for his, um, not-so-nice -- fine, dirty -- play, so it's of little surprise that he had no interest in entertaining the frat boy culture that had dominated the Flyers' locker room. As such, I think Mike Richards viewed Pronger as a direct threat to his standing among the other players -- somebody who was coming in not necessarily to help him grow into his role as captain, but rather to undermine his authority and eventually take his place. And you know something? Given what has transpired over the last two years, Richards probably had every right to feel that way. Even so, I think there was some insecurity and immaturity on his part that made this whole soap opera the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The 2009-2010 season started off ideally, with the team coming out like gangbusters and going 12-5-1 through the first month and a half. But in mid-November, things started to go south. Fast. A streak of six losses in seven games got John Stevens -- who, if you remember, was also the coach of that 2005 Phantoms team -- fired. Here's the thing about Stevens, who was hired in December 2006: He was never going to take this team to the promised land, and he seemed like more of a buddy to the players than an actual coach. He was severely lacking as a tactician and always looked overmatched. The Flyers lacked structure in their play, and that's putting it nicely. Most of the time it just seemed like the players were left to their own devices on the ice -- they could barely even execute a simple breakout from their own zone. Yeah, the Flyers made it to the Conference Finals in 2008 with Stevens behind the bench, but that was because goalie Martin Biron played out of his mind in the first two rounds. It was always my opinion that Stevens was merely a stopgap -- an easy-going, player-friendly coach who provided a relaxed atmosphere in which Mike Richards and Jeff Carter could grow as players and eventually flourish without an intense taskmaster like Ken Hitchcock breathing down their necks. It worked, and both players blossomed; Richards in the 2007-2008 season (28 G, 47 A, 75 PTS), and Carter in 2008-2009 (46 G, 38 A, 84 PTS). Stevens had served his purpose, and it was time to bring in a coach who could push this team to the next level. Enter Peter Laviolette, who won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006. If the Pronger acquisition didn't get the point across, management further emphasized its message with the canning of Stevens: We are NOT messing around, so get with the program.

While it took some time for the players to adjust to Laviolette's up-tempo, high-pressure style, eventually the move started to pay dividends. There were some rough patches along the way, and we heard about possible fractures in the locker room between the players that sided with Richards and those that backed Pronger. An obvious power struggle was taking place, with the two main leaders butting heads, and the team limped toward the finish line and came perilously close to missing the playoffs altogether. Had the Flyers not done the unthinkable and beaten the Rangers in a shootout (we suck at shootouts) on the last day of the season before embarking on that improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals, I have a feeling the changes you saw last week might have happened during the 2010 offseason instead. Winning has a tendency to sweep festering problems under the rug -- until the team starts losing again. Not surprisingly, we didn't hear anything about a disharmonious locker room during the first half of this past season, when the Flyers had the best record in the league and looked poised to capture the exquisite silver chalice that eluded them the previous spring. It was enough to make you forget about the fact that maddening and stupefying inconsistency had been the hallmark of this team for the better part of four years.

Things were peachy, life was good. Then Pronger broke his hand February 24 against the Islanders (he still played the next four games before an X-ray revealed the injury and he got surgery). At the time, the Flyers record stood at a robust 40-15-6; they were first in the Eastern Conference and had a comfortable lead over second place. The team finished the season 47-23-12 -- that's a 7-8-6 record with Pronger injured (6-4-6 with him out of the lineup) -- and nearly lost the division to a Crosby- and Malkin-less Penguins squad. And it's not like the team was playing well during that span and just had some bad luck. The players looked like dogs out on the ice. The group that had responded so well to Laviolette for the past 15 months played passive, uninterested, dispirited, listless, and lethargic hockey. Some of the efforts were downright embarrassing. Fans, outside observers, and media alike were mystified -- this team had way too much talent to look so pitiful. What was going on? Where was the leadership? Paul Holmgren even had to reprimand the team and tell them to step up in a closed-door meeting during the last week of the season! That shouldn't have to happen. That it did showed me there was a void in the locker room. Someone wasn't standing up and taking control, or the players just weren't responding. Either way, it was a bad sign. The first round series comeback win against Buffalo staved off the inevitable day of reckoning for this franchise, but the humiliating sweep at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back (for Ed Snider, at least).

Looking back on it now, the immediate aftermath of the season was very ominous. First came the reports that a significant schism between Richards and Laviolette had developed, to the point that the two barely spoke to each other over the final months of the season. Members of the media attacked Richards, spewing vitriol that ranged from calling him "moody and withdrawn", to suggesting -- nay, demanding -- that he be stripped of his captaincy. It was like a witch hunt, a case of the media just needing someone to scapegoat... until some of the team's head honchos added fuel to the speculative fire by endorsing their captain in a way that could only be described as lukewarm. Pronger talked about Richards still "growing" into his role as a leader; Laviolette sidestepped directly answering a question about his relationship with Richards, instead choosing to say that it was "still evolving." But the most telling interview came from Snider, who professed that he wasn't the person to ask about Richards and the captaincy because he wasn't down in the locker room or involved in day-to-day happenings. Uh, bullshit. He always has his finger on the pulse of the franchise and is about as invested as any owner in all of professional sports. Then Holmgren, after asserting that the reported rift between Richards and Laviolette was "crap", admitted there seemed to be a "wall" between the captain and organization -- as if they couldn't get through to him, or that he simply didn't want them to and was distancing himself from the situation. Just like that, whether we realized it or not, the groundwork for Mike Richards's exit had been laid.

It took one hour. One hour for Jeff Carter and Mike Richards to be traded to Columbus and Los Angeles, respectively. One hour for the Flyers' organization and fan base to be shaken to their core. An eight-year bond destroyed in a single measly hour. The Carter trade was just as much about clearing cap space as it was getting him the hell out of Philadelphia. His agent claimed Holmgren promised Carter that he wouldn't be traded; after all, he had just signed an 11-year extension back in November with the intent to spend the rest of his career in Philadelphia. Supposed broken promises aside, trading a guy seven months after inking him to a lengthy contract is a total dick move, regardless of the fact that sports is a business and part of a general manager's job description is to lie so no one knows his true intentions. Still, you have to wonder how the treatment of Richards (who just finished the third year of his 12-year deal) and Carter by an otherwise upstanding, reputable, and steadfastly loyal organization will affect other potential free agents when they consider the Flyers as a potential destination. Maybe both players got too comfortable, had an air of entitlement about them, and felt they could do whatever they wanted without the threat of significant repercussions. I don't know. Whatever the case, it was obvious management felt something had to change with this team going forward, and it viewed Mike Richards and Jeff Carter -- the very two players expected to bring Philadelphia it's first cup since 1975 -- as the ones who needed to go. Who knows, maybe the trades will end up being a swift kick in the ass for both players, the wake-up call they need to get it together and fully rededicate themselves to the game. I think Richards will be fine once he's healthy again and recovered from wrist surgery. There's no denying what he brings to the table as a hockey player, and I hope he returns to form and succeeds in Los Angeles -- except when he plays the Flyers, of course. For Carter especially, the trade -- and divorce from the guy with whom he's been attached at the hip for his whole professional career -- could end up being the best thing that ever happens to him as a hockey player. He has some elite skills (skating, shooting) and the ability to score 40-50 goals. But here's the rub with Carter: He's only dominant when he plays with a mean streak, which is far too infrequently. If the unceremonious way he was treated by the Flyers doesn't piss him off to the point that he channels his anger into his play so he can really stick it to the organization, nothing will. I hate to admit it, but the only thing that might make Carter realize his potential is getting traded away.

I will say this about the two trades and subsequent signing of Ilya Bryzgalov: At least there now appears to be a real commitment to building a team the right way, and that's from the net out. Personally, I don't feel as though losing Richards and Carter sets us back nearly as much as some of the more apoplectic fans think. In fact, I'm actually excited. The only thing that would have made me apoplectic is if we traded Claude Giroux, who, by the way, will be the team's next captain after Pronger retires. These transactions made us bigger (which was necessary), younger, and, who knows, perhaps even hungrier. One thing is for sure, and that is the locker room should be a better, lighter place. Whatever you do, wait until free agency has run its course -- we're going to go hard after Erik Cole, one of Laviolette's former charges in Carolina, and I'm okay with that as long as it's a short-term deal because of his recent injury history -- before judging the team's outlook for next season. For now, let's take a look at the newest Flyers (and other assets acquired in the trades).

From Columbus for Carter:

- Jakub Voracek, a 6'2" / 214-pound winger, was the seventh overall selection in the 2007 draft and brings a wealth of skill to the table. You can be sure the Flyers' scouts who monitor the province of Quebec are familiar with him from his days in the QMJHL. Voracek will turn 22 in August, and I think a change of scenery might be just what the doctor ordered.

- The Flyers also acquired the eighth pick in this past weekend's draft and selected Sean Couturier, a 6'4" center and elite two-way forward who at this time last year was the unanimous choice to go first overall. He's going to be an NHL player (perhaps as soon as this upcoming season), and a damn good one at that.

- Third round pick, used to select Nick Cousins, a pesky yet skilled center who a number of pundits had labeled as a sleeper. I'll be keeping a close eye on his progress in the OHL this upcoming season.

From Los Angeles for Richards:

- I'll just say this about the way Wayne Simmonds, a 6'2" / 183-pound winger, plays the game: He's going to be a fan favorite immediately. Gritty, physical, tough as nails, and has 20-goal potential.

- Brayden Schenn, a 6'0" / 196-pound center and younger brother of Maple Leafs' defenseman Luke Schenn, is widely regarded as the top prospect in all of hockey -- or, as Holmgren put it, "the best player outside the NHL." You know who he's compared to? Yeah, Mike Richards.

- Second round pick in 2012.

Welcome to a new era of Philadelphia Flyers hockey, boys and girls.

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