Monday, September 15, 2008

Where Do They Go From Here?

by Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

The start of the NHL regular season is 26 days away, and training camps for all 30 teams are set to begin later this week. It’s the perfect time to come out of hibernation for the first official Flyers post of the 2008-09 campaign.

I don’t think one can argue at the success of last season. Old-school conventional hockey wisdom says that clubs are judged on their play in a reverse fashion, from back to front.

That makes the Flyers’ trip to the Eastern Conference finals look that much better when weighed against the six-and-ten-game losing streaks they had to plod through in December and February.

It puts a shine on a fourth-place finish in the Atlantic Division and it casts the embattled head coach in a more flattering light.

It makes the contributions of Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Braydon Coburn, Randy Jones, Joffrey Lupul and the departed R.J. Umberger stand out against the spate of suspensions and mini-scandals created by questionable hits and subsequent penalties stretching from September to January.

It’s not surprising that the Flyers, looking to go full-stop after the disastrous 2006-07 season, corrected course so quickly, and managed to shock more than a few fans, writers and higher-seeded opponents.

But does it make for a logical progression from one season to the next? Team history suggests the current edition of the Orange and Black might have to take a step back before they can take a step forward.

Remember the lockout-shortened 1995 season…

After five straight years out of the playoffs and a dismal 3-7-1 start, the Flyers rip off win streaks of eight and nine games, then win the Atlantic. With a two-seed in the playoffs, they enjoy home ice for all three rounds. They take down Buffalo before a thoroughly shocking four-game sweep over the defending Cup champion Rangers but fall to an equally-surprising Devils squad.

The following year, with the “Legion of Doom” line firmly entrenched, the Flyers gut out some troubles with an early injury to Lindros and inconsistent play mid-season to win the Atlantic again, this time with the top seed in the conference. After a circus-like slop-fest six-game series against Tampa Bay, the Flyers stumbled badly in the next round and lost to the Florida Panthers.

How about 1986…

In the previous year under rookie head coach Mike Keenan, the Flyers’ marauding band of kids rocketed to the top of the NHL with a club-record 53 wins and 113 points. They took down the Rangers in three, the Islanders in five and the Nordiques in six before succumbing to key injuries and the dynastic Oilers in the finals.

That next season, a 15-2-0 start and franchise-best 13-game win streak was overshadowed by the sudden death of Pelle Lindbergh in mid-November. Keenan and the team pressed on, and wound up winning 53 games again with another division title. However. the strain of the mourning process plus a suddenly-opportunistic Rangers team featuring proverbial “hot goalie” John Vanbiesbrouck overwhelmed them in a first-round defeat.

It is a 30-team league these days, with no less a shortage of playoff hopefuls looking to take down the newest club vying to become one of the NHL’s elite.

The burden of expectation now fully rests with this year’s edition of the Flyers. We will see how the lessons of last season wear on the young forward core, on the reconstituted defense, and on starting goaltender Martin Biron.

Particular scrutiny will also fall on John Stevens and his assistants, now that sage veteran Terry Murray has departed for the top spot in Los Angeles.

On the other side, there are a deluge of positive questions which might lead one to believe the best is yet to come.

Who knows how good the Flyers could be with all cylinders firing at the same time? Granted, injuries are an everyday fact of life and almost every player will miss time.

Still, what impact will Simon Gagne have if he puts in a full season at his goal-scoring best? Or if Lupul doesn’t miss a month and a half because he avoided a hit from his teammate? Or if Danny Briere finds a consistent two-way game through the middle 40 contests? Or if the defense matures and leads as expected? Or if Stevens is able to instill a sense of urgency behind the scenes that allows the club to play a full 60 minutes without mental lapses?

It’s a telling sign that some quarters have revealed the Flyers made the best non-move in the entire Eastern Conference simply by having a presumably fully recovered Gagne at their disposal. He should more than make up for the financial decision to cut Umberger loose.

The path for the club’s ascension, in the Atlantic Division at least, has become less steep. Salary cap concerns hit the Penguins hard. The Rangers are undergoing a roster resection. The Devils did what they always do, and the Islanders look like they will be the platform upon which the other four teams raise themselves.

If the Flyers really are hungry for more, as this year’s slogan suggests, they have from the drop of the puck in the first practice through an open-ended conclusion to prove it.

1 comment:

md said...

Good article, Bob, though I think it's time you retire your high school yearbook photo.