It's been over a month since the Flyers season ended in anticlimactic and disappointing fashion thanks to a thorough spanking at the hands of those detestable New Jersey Devils. The f-ing Devils! Ugh. Just when I thought we might be over the Devils, they crush our hopes again in the playoffs.
It's humbling, really. The most ironic thing about it is, I hate the Devils more than the Penguins. I always have. It dates back to when I started watching hockey beginning in early 1995 (at age six), the season of the first lockout. I vividly remember when Claude Lemiuex fired a slap shot that beat Ron Hextall far side from just inside the blue line to win Game 5. He made Hexy look really bad, too. It was one of those ugly, emotionally deflating goals that the mind identifies as the effective end of a series. It happens to us a lot here in Philadelphia, with David Clarkson being the most recent perpetrator, though he was more the supporting actor to Ilya Bryzgalov's lead role. Lemieux's gift goal was also the first time I remember being genuinely hurt as a sports fan. I guess you could say it was the start of a tortuous cycle of fandom for me. Thanks, Evil Claude. Thanks, Hexy. I don't remember caring about sports up until that moment, so what happens against the Devils will always carry a certain emotional element, something extra sentimental.
Submitting myself to the anguish of watching that Lemieux goal to give the Devils a 3-2 win in Game 5 -- that also gave them a 3-2 lead in the series going back to New Jersey, where they closed it out -- is something I haven't done in such a long time. In fact, I didn't even remember it happened with 44 seconds left in the game! I didn't know how much time was left in the game, just that the goal happened late in regulation. On the bright side, I hope you stuck around for the only redeeming part of the video. The hockey robot battle that begins at 1:45 of the linked YouTube video is pure gold. Don't tell me that doesn't make you fondly recall and appreciate the hilarious mid-90's graphics during NHL games on Fox. Bring back the laser puck? No, definitely don't bring back the laser puck.*
(*Ah, the first two seasons after the original lockout... that was truly the last relic of 80's hockey. Seriously, look at the way Hextall tries to make that save, which those puny, 80's style pads. By 1997, Garth Snow and his shoulder pads had already started the league's transformation of equipment for goalies. Pads became bulkier, technology became more sophisticated, goalies became bigger. Those innovations helped fundamentally change the position, which just so happened to dovetail nicely with the sport's commitment to defense that surfaced after the Devils' introduced the trap in that fateful 1995 season. And for those idiots who want to claim the Devils played a trap against the Flyers this time around, please stop watching hockey. That team was sending in two, sometimes even three forecheckers -- all by forwards who were equally committed to back checking -- to harras our defense. The Flyers didn't have time to set up anything in their own zone, and the Devils made it very difficult for them to crisply make it into the neutral zone by taking away the half boards. Then, when Flyers forwards were able to dump the puck in on the forecheck, Marty Brodeur calmly came out and did something with which he's killed teams -- sometimes his own, but mostly the opposition -- his entire career by ably playing the puck and acting as a sixth defenseman.)
Regardless of whether you continued to watch after the Flyers were eliminated, the Stanley Cup playoffs soldiered on. Then the event that could spark such an epic storm of bitterness, second-guessing, self-loathing, and general lugubriousness among Flyers fans came to fruition last week, as Mike Richards and Jeff Carter won the Stanley Cup with their new team, the Los Angeles Kings, a little less than a year after both being unceremoniously traded away from Philadelphia. Them winning the Stanley Cup together with the Kings not even a calendar year later is a gigantic "FUCK YOU" to both the Flyers organization and all their haters, especially those -- the ones who always need someone to blame -- who branded them as cancers. Poetic justice in the core spirit of the literary device, if you will. However, that does not mean I wouldn't do both trades again in a heartbeat. More the Carter deal than the Richards deal, but that's just for the moment. If Brayden Schenn fulfills his potential, the Richards deal will look really damn good, too. Overall, while it was bittersweet to watch so many former Flyers hoist the Cup while wearing another team's jersey, I couldn't help but feel overjoyed for guys like Simon Gagne, Dean Lombardi, and Ron Hextall. Even John Stevens and Mike Richards. Not so much Jeff Carter, of whom I was never much of a fan, to put it lightly.
Does it suck that things had to happen this way? Of course. But there's also nothing that can be done about it now. Time to look ahead and hope for a better ending next year... as always. And with that, I give you a mock Flyers offseason plan for 2012.
First, something to think about: Apparently, Peter Laviolette's assistant coaches are a group deal? I don't know. Whatever, nobody has to get fired. Just hire Terry Murray. Yes, the same Terry Murray who was the head coach of that Flyers team in 1995. The team he coached at the beginning of this year, the Kings, is now in the Western Conference Finals. Even Darryl Sutter, who took over as head coach out in Los Angeles after Murray got canned in early December, attributes the team's defense-first mindset as a fundamental foundation piece in the team's evolution. Having a superstar goalie -- Jonathan Quick, Conn Smythe winner and likely Team USA starter at the Sochi Olympics -- always helps, too. Which reminds me, everyone get off Ilya Bryzgalov's back. I gave the guy flack during the season when he deserved it for acting like a clown, but he was our best player in the Devils series. Sure, the goal that everyone will put on loop is the "Bryzaster" one (very creative, you lazy jackasses). And yeah, great, it's another ridiculous, only-in-Philadelphia sports backbreaking moment, this one in the form of a goal that ends up being the series-clincher. But, honestly, give it a rest. Stop with the enmity, just this once. Give Bryz another season. This was one of adjustment for him, in all phases of life. Given his -- fine, different (couldn't help myself) -- personality, it's not surprising that the strain associated with playing goalie in this pressure cooker of a market was a shock to his system. Ed Snider even admitted as much. That reminds me, I'm skeptical the Flyers did enough background work on Bryzgalov before acquiring him, or they just vastly underestimated how his personality would jell with this city. Neither of which is an easily forgivable oversight. The push last summer to solve the goalie problem once and for all resulted in a haphazard rush to make a move and left us in perhaps an even worse position than before. Now, Bryzgalov's an introspective guy, and he does have the talent to be a very good goalie. It's just all about the mental part -- both on and off the ice. We saw the kind of goalie he could be in March, when he won the NHL's Player of the Month award. Not coincidentally, Bryz's strong play came at the same time the team was playing more committed defense in front of him. Back-checking hard, refusing to cheat for a chance on offense at the risk of losing your man on defense, giving up the body to block shots -- doing the stuff nobody wants to do, but what they know they have to do to win hockey games in the playoffs. To win the Stanley Cup. Going forward, there needs to be more emphasis on the importance of committing to defense, even if it comes at the expense of offense. Winning with defense might not always be pretty, but it's a lot better than losing with offense.
As far as the actual offseason goes, the Flyers need to resist all their natural impulses to make a splash and chill out for once. It's okay, guys, you don't have to do anything drastic. The core in place is good enough to win a Stanley Cup at some point, but that happening is dependent upon ownership and management exercising a certain measure of patience by letting these young players develop. Look at how L.A. just won the Cup. That core of Brown (2003), Kopitar (2005), Quick (2005), and Doughty (2008) was drafted and allowed to grow together. Over the years, the Kings surrounded them with pieces that would complement and amplify their talents. The Flyers would be wise to follow the same example. Just chill out. I know it's always win-win-win-now-now-now with this franchise, and you have to admire that about the Flyers. In doing so, however, they also turn into their worst enemy because they don't let their core mature into a winner. Patience is a virtue. Please, Paul, be virtuous. Identify the core players -- Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Braydon Coburn (?) -- and build around them.
Though if you've been following the incessant rumors circulating for weeks -- which have only intensified at the draft, an incubator for gossip that always results in a complete balagan -- odds are you're expecting the Flyers to be up to their old tricks. Rick Nash? Bobby Ryan? Trading up into the top 10? Shea Weber would be cool, and everyone let their imaginations run wild for a bit with the fantasy of him in a Flyers jersey, but that's not happening. Maybe next offseason if he even becomes a free agent. I know it's less fun, but let's try to focus on more realistic options for improving this team.
To start, though Holmgren has expressed confidence in getting Matt Carle re-signed, perhaps even at below market value, I get the sneaking suspicion Carle might have a change of heart if another team throws a big contract his way come July 1. I'm far from Carle's biggest fan and he's one of the most polarizing players for fans, but I'm not so jaded as to deny that he's a legitimate top-four defenseman (who's at his best when playing Robin to his defensive partner's Batman). On the positive, he sees the ice very well, moves the puck, creates offense, and blocks shots. On the negative, he's not physical, has a weak shot, and is prone to brain farts in his own zone. Love him or hate him, Matt Carle is as durable as they come (only missed two games the past three season) and a lock for 20+ minutes of ice time. He's a valuable player, but not one who's irreplaceable. If the Flyers can get him for something like four years and $18 million, I'd be fine with bringing him back. I just get the feeling Carle will be looking for a bigger payday and cash in elsewhere. Word is that Jason Garrison rejected the Panthers' five-year, $25 million offer. I'd love to sign him to replace Carle, but it sounds like his price tag will be too high.
Assuming the salary cap goes up to $70.3 million...
Jakub Voracek - Qualified for $2.25M, but I think he'll end up signing an extension. Let's say 2 years at $7.3 million ($3.65M cap hit).
I could see a deal that sends JVR and Bobrovsky to Toronto in exchange for the fifth overall pick. Odds are Holmgren would have to add the 20th overall pick in order to make Brian Burke bite. It's a steep price to pay, but if the Flyers have their eye on someone -- and word is that's the case -- they'll do everything in their power to get him. Could it be Matthew Dumba? Griffin Reinhart? Maybe they surprise everyone and trade up to take a forward, like Filip Forsberg or Teuvo Teräväinen?
Another possible JVR landing spot could be Phoenix. Rumblings are that the Coyotes, given their enviable depth on defense and precarious financial situation, have put Keith Yandle back on the block. He has long been one of my favorite non-Flyers, and being able to acquire him would be nothing short of an incredible coup for this team. Signed at a $5.25M cap hit through 2015-2016, Yandle, who'll turn only 26 in September, is one of the league's premier offensive defensemen -- guaranteed minimum of 10 goals and 30 assists -- and a legit top-pairing guy. For that reason, however, I doubt he'd be available to the Flyers in a deal that didn't include one of Sean Couturier or Brayden Schenn -- and I'm not interested in trading either of them unless it's for Shea Weber. But if the asking price for Yandle is, say, JVR, the 20th overall pick, and a bottom-six roster player or prospect, I'm making that deal and never looking back. That said, for whatever reason, I'm getting the gut feeling that speculation about trading JVR ends up being just a whole lot of noise and he's a Flyer in 2012-2013.
Edit: Dear gut feeling, you're stupid. I'd describe my reaction to the JVR for Luke Schenn trade as ambivalent for the moment. I will say, however, that I'm most excited about the possible effect this could have on Brayden, who I feel is going to be a major impact player for the Flyers.
WRITTEN PRIOR TO ANNOUNCEMENT OF TRADE: I don't see Sergei Bobrovsky being on this roster next season. It's a shame because he's so lovable, but the Bryzgalov signing pretty much pushed him out the door. I think trading Bob to Columbus, who's in the market for a starting-caliber goalie, for their third round pick (#63) and seventh round pick (#182) is a fair deal. If Homer can squeeze Columbus's second second round pick (#45) out of Scott Howson, even better. I'd love to get David Savard, one of their top defensive prospects, but doubt he'd be moved in this scenario. Other defensive prospects around the league who would be of interest to me: Michael Stone (PHX), Maxim Goncharov (PHX), Danny Biega (CAR), Alex Petrovic (FLA), Mark Alt (CAR), Radko Gudas (TB), Victor Bartley (NSH)
Edit: Bobrovsky has been traded to Columbus for their second second round pick (#45), a fourth round pick acquired from Vancouver (#117), and a fourth round pick next year acquired from Phoenix. Pretty good haul.
Unrestricted Free Agent Signings:
Sami Salo (D) - 2 years/$5.5M ($2.75M cap hit)
Even though he'll turn 38 a month before the season, I think Sami Salo is exactly the kind of player the Flyers could use on their blue line. The veteran Fin is big, has a booming shot -- he's right-handed, too! -- from the point, and is coming off a nice bounce-back season with Vancouver, posting nine goals and 16 assists while playing 20:27 per game, after an injury-plagued 2010-2011. He's cerebral, steady, and plays a calm, mistake-free game. Though Salo suffered a concussion as a result of a Brad Marchand low-bridge hit, he still managed to play in 69 games in 2011-2012 and would look great as a second/third pairing guy and power play specialist.
Yann Danis (G) - 2 years/$1.5M ($750K cap hit)
Journeyman backup goalie who's toiled away in the minors -- and the KHL for one season -- most of his career but has had respectable success in limited NHL action.
Hartnell ($4.2M) - Giroux ($3.75M) - JVR ($4.25M)
Voracek ($3.65M) - Couturier ($1.375M)* - Briere ($6.5M)
Simmonds ($1.75M) - Schenn ($3.11M)* - Read ($900K)
Sestito ($605K) - Talbot ($1.75M) - Wellwood ($580K)
(Shelley - $1.1M)
*Cap hits will decrease if bonus cushion is part of new CBA.
Coburn ($4.5M) - Grossman ($3.5M)
Timonen ($6.333M) - Meszaros ($4M)
Gustafsson ($900K) - Salo ($2.75M)
(Lilja - $737.5K)
TOTAL CAP HIT: $62.7028M... of course this is highly unrealistic, if only because there's no way the Flyers spend $8M below the cap limit.
Draft (Edit: Updated to reflect Bobrovsky trade):
1 (20): Slater Koekkoek - D - Peterborough Petes (OHL), Matt Finn - D - Guelph Storm (OHL), Tomas Hertl - C - HC Slavia Praha (CZE), or Ludvig Byström - D - Modo Jr. (SWE-JR.)
2 (45): Seth Griffith - RW - London Knights (OHL), Jordan Schmaltz - D - Green Bay Gamblers (USHL), Calle Andersson - D - Farjestad Jr. (SWE-JR.), or Mark Jankowski - C - Stanstead College (HS-QC)
3 (78): Max Iafrate* - D - Kitchener Rangers (OHL), Tomas Hyka - RW - Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL), or Brandon Whitney - G - Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)
*Yes, son of former NHL star Al Iafrate.
4 (111): Charles Hudon - LW - Chicoutimi Sangueneens (QMJHL), Gustav Rydahl - C - Frolunda Jr. (SWE-JR.), Anthony Stolarz - G - Corpus Christi IceRays (NAHL), or Joonas Korpisalo - G - Jokerit Jr. (FIN-JR.)
5 (141): Oscar Sundqvist - C - Skellefteå Jr. (SWE-JR.), Toni Kallela - LW - KalPa Jr. (FIN-JR.), or Michael Houser - G - London Knights (OHL)
7 (182): Thomas Spelling - RW - Herning (Denmark), Jaynen Rissling - D - Calgary Hitmen (WHL), or Ben Hutton - D - Nepean Raiders (CCHL)
7 (201): Eli May - D - Eagan (MN-HS), Alexandros Soumakis - LW - Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL), or Sven Andrighetto - RW/LW - Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
Special thanks to Mike Alloy for his contributions to this article and general role as a sounding-board