Wednesday, September 10, 2014

For Flyers captaincy, three is a magic number

Heading into the 2014-15 season, Claude Giroux is about to join some elite company.

The Philadelphia Flyers' top forward will be one of just six players given the special letter to denote leadership who will presumably see a third consecutive complete season as team captain.

Given that his first year with the "C" was the lockout-shortened, postseason-less 2013 campaign and last season's "Space Mountain with the lights off" journey resulted in a first-round exit in a terminal contest, there's hope that equilibrium might be reached and the Flyers' playoff journey this year might last into the calendar year's fifth month.

It's been a long time since the Flyers' postseason results from year-to-year resembled something less than the course of a Six Flags roller coaster, and Giroux will inevitably be measured against the following precedents in Orange and Black.

Mike Richards (2008-11): Given the role after the club's surprise run to the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals, the hard-charging young man from Kenora, Ontario had to endure a steep learning curve. He withstood criticism with a step back in a first-round exit to the Penguins, then the tidal wave of expectation following a Stanley Cup Finals berth, and eventually drew the ire of the mainstream media for his unresponsiveness throughout a season which ended in a four-game second-round sweep to eventual champions Boston.

Will be remembered as much for the "Dry Island" controversy, his supposed inattentiveness and distance as he will for "The Shift" despite heading up a club which sat at the top of the conference standings for most of his final season here. 

Eric Lindros (1994-2000): At age 22, also was forced to deal with accelerated expectations after an Eastern Conference Finals berth in the 1995 season, which was followed up by a disappointing second-round loss to the Florida Panthers. Lindros did, however, post his third 40-goal season and first 100-point total in 1995-96 as the head of the Legion of Doom. In Year Three, with team Chairman Ed Snider's promise of winning it all in their first year in a new venue, Lindros produced a mixed bag of results.

After missing the first 23 games due to a groin injury was a direct result of play in the inaugural World Cup of Hockey, Lindros returned and led the Flyers on a 17-game unbeaten streak which vaulted them to the top of the NHL standings. After blowing through three playoff rounds in just 15 games, including a five-game triumph against his idol Mark Messier and the Rangers, Lindros came up with one goal -- with seconds to go in a deciding Game 4 loss -- in the Cup Finals where the Red Wings outclassed and outplayed his team at every turn.

Dave Poulin (1984-89): Assuming the captaincy at Bob Clarke's request following the trade of Darryl Sittler before the outset of the 1984-85 season, Poulin responded the way any Notre Dame-educated, driven hockey player would. He provided a buffer between the machinations of head coach Mike Keenan, gained the respect of his teammates and provided spark in all three zones on the ice.

Already having one Stanley Cup Finals experience in his pocket, plus the long, wearying lessons learned from maintaining that level of success in the wake of Pelle Lindbergh's death early the next season, Poulin really earned his stripes in his third year: he dealt with the health repercussions of the premature birth of twins through the first half of the season, then was forced out of a majority of the Flyers' playoff run due to broken ribs. He made memorable returns to help his team close out the Islanders in a Game 7 and Canadiens in a Game 6, but his will wasn't enough to overcome the Oilers in the Finals.

Bobby Clarke (1973-79): Clarke's first two full seasons as the captain may unfortunately be the standard by which all long-term observers judge present and future players who are selected: it yielded the first and only Stanley Cup titles the franchise can claim, plus the second of three Hart Trophies as the league's Most Valuable Player and a second straight Campbell Bowl as the best team in the East Division/Campbell Conference.

In 1975-76, as the Flyers sought to make it a hat trick of Cups, Clarke was the bedrock of a team which finished second in the league with 51 wins and 118 points He tied a career high in assists (89) and set a franchise record in points (119) while anchoring the top-scoring line in the NHL along with Bill Barber and Reggie Leach. At 26 years of age, Clarke also produced what was then a career-most 136 penalty minutes and racked up a plus-83 rating, then placed second in playoff scoring with 16 points in 16 games but couldn't avoid a sweep at the hands of the Canadiens.

Ed Van Impe (1968-73): Statistics are less important for a defensive defenseman, so Van Impe's 11 assists in 77 games during the 1970-71 campaign shouldn't be held against him. What works in his favor, is that the young expansion club which failed to make the postseason with an NHL-record 24 ties the season before, then rose in the West Division to finish third with a 28-33-17 mark. Chicago whipped Philadelphia in a first-round sweep, leading to the firing of Vic Stasiuk and eventually to the hiring of Fred Shero.
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