- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Teams, unable to learn from their own histories, are sometimes doomed to repeat the foibles of their past.
And so, in less than a month, the Philadelphia Flyers have gone from Atlantic Division contenders and Cup hopefuls to a free-falling team that will be life-and-death to make the playoffs. At the heart of the Flyers' precipitous fall are two issues Philly fans are long familiar with: concussions and the lack of a bona fide No. 1 netminder.
The Flyers haven't won a game since Feb. 5, losing 10 straight times -- eight of which were in regulation -- to fall into ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
As often happens when a team hits the skids, the Flyers have managed to lose in a variety of ways. Saturday, for instance, they dominated the Florida Panthers in all facets of the game, but couldn't score and allowed a Jay Bouwmeester goal with 3.7 seconds left in regulation en route to a 2-1 overtime loss.
During the skid, the Flyers have been shut out twice and scored only one goal in two other games, so the blame hardly lies at the feet of goaltending tandem Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki (although they have managed to give up 32 goals in the past 10 games). Yet, this was the season the Flyers were supposed to finally turn the goaltending reins over to a legitimate No. 1, Biron, whom they acquired from Buffalo at last season's trade deadline.
Biron's 2.73 goals-against average is 27th among NHL netminders. His .916 save percentage is tied for 12th. His 20 wins put him 23rd overall. Those numbers are OK. If all you wanted was "OK," then there would be no problem. But that's not what the Flyers, who finished dead last in 2006-07, needed or expected.
While Biron remains one of the nicest guys in the league, he has reinforced what many observers believed last season -- he simply doesn't have the tools to be the kind of goaltender the Flyers have been searching for since Ron Hextall was in his prime 20 years ago. Biron hasn't been the kind of goaltender who has been able to help pull this team out of its skid and not the kind on whom you pin hopes of ending a 33-year Stanley Cup drought.
Of course, the goaltending issue might not have become problematic had the team's top forward, Simon Gagne, not been sidelined by concussion problems that recently led him to shut it down for the rest of the season. Following past concussion problems with Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau and Jeremy Roenick, one might assume the Flyers would have been ultra cautious in handling Gagne's problems. Instead, there seemed to be confusion about Gagne's treatment and plans governing his return to action. After missing 2 ½ months, Gagne managed just three goals in 15 games before pulling the plug after a minor collision with Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal on Feb. 10.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this week that doctors believe Gagne had not three concussions this season, but rather one that never healed.
Not having Gagne at his best (he had just seven goals in 25 games this season) has had a ripple effect throughout the lineup. Perhaps most affected is Daniel Briere, who was expected to play on the team's No. 1 line with Gagne and Mike Knuble.
Briere, who signed a whopper eight-year deal in the offseason, has been a surprising disappointment with just 55 points in 62 games and only four points during the team's recent skid. He is well off his pace from 2006-07, when he had 95 points with the Buffalo Sabres.
Which brings us to GM Paul Holmgren and the challenges he faces heading into Tuesday's trade deadline.
With Mike Richards, the team's most important player this season, gone for at least three weeks with a torn left hamstring, Holmgren has to make an honest assessment of Philly's chances moving forward.
When the team was vying for the division lead, he might have considered moving draft picks or young players like Jeff Carter for a rental in the hopes of shoring up the Flyers' blue line for a long playoff run. Now, the injuries and the team's inconsistent play suggest that would be folly.
The Buffalo Sabres have lost three of their last five games, but those losses represent the only regulation losses in 15 contests as the Sabres have now returned to the East playoff picture. One of the main reasons for the team's renaissance has been the play of much-maligned Thomas Vanek, he of the seven-year, $50-million contract awarded last summer after an offer sheet was presented by the Edmonton Oilers. Through the first half of the season, Vanek seemed to wilt under the pressure of the new deal and its commensurate rise in expectation. Yet, Vanek has responded of late with 13 goals in 13 games. In an Eastern Conference noteworthy for its mediocrity, Vanek's surge couldn't have come at a better time for a Sabres team that looked unlikely to be in the playoffs not so long ago.
Good thing the Detroit Red Wings built up a monster lead in the Western Conference standings because it looks like they're going to need every point they banked in the first four months of the season. The Wings, crippled by injuries to key personnel, have won just once in their last nine games and were just six points ahead of Dallas for the conference lead as of Monday morning.
The greater concern for GM Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock is the prospect of hobbling into the postseason as opposed to being on a tear. Nicklas Lidstrom is gone for at least a few weeks with a knee injury and there are concerns he has some sort of concussion injury, as well. Niklas Kronwall is still out with a clavicle injury, Brian Rafalski has been sidelined with a bad groin, Dan Cleary is out long-term with a broken jaw and Dominik Hasek remains bothered by a hip flexor. Even the indestructible Chris Chelios won't play for a week or so after taking a shot to the leg in the first period of Saturday's 4-1 loss to Vancouver. At last week's GMs meetings, Holland was talking about injuries as being the only thing for which a GM cannot truly prepare and plan. The Red Wings know that all too well.
Stuck in neutral
Florida Panthers coach and GM Jacques Martin publicly asked for more from captain Olli Jokinen prior to Saturday's overtime win over Philadelphia. Jokinen happened to score the winner, but that's as far as it went. After getting waxed 5-0 by the New York Rangers on Sunday, you can pretty much again stick a fork in the Panthers. All of this will do little to end speculation that Jokinen could be in play before Tuesday's trade deadline, especially given that Martin and Jokinen apparently don't see eye to eye on how things should be done in South Florida. If Jokinen is still a Panther on Tuesday night, one wonders if this will be the end for Martin, who has failed to bring Florida back to the playoffs since coming aboard at the end of the 2003-04 season.
Our top story lines of the week
1. The Montreal Canadiens are a funny team. They erase a five-goal deficit against the New York Rangers and look like they might be the best team in the East. They look like they're going to do the same kind of thing against Pittsburgh a couple of nights later, but end up falling in regulation only to then get blanked by Columbus on home ice Saturday. All of which adds fuel to the fire suggesting GM Bob Gainey will be making a major offensive addition by Tuesday afternoon. This is a team that has shown many of the qualities Cup winners have: strong goaltending, a good, balanced defense, a nice mix of veterans and emerging young players. But it needs another piece, and whether it's Marian Hossa or Alex Tanguay, watch for Gainey, who was criticized for his inactivity during last summer's free agency period, to land a big fish.
2. What a difference a few days makes. At last week's GMs meetings, Vancouver GM Dave Nonis was being pretty coy about what he might do at the deadline, saying he would be looking only at a "hockey" deal as opposed to rental players or giving up too much youth. And with good reason -- his Canucks were out of the playoff bubble and banged up on defense. Now, the Canucks have vaulted back into the playoff club thanks to a four-game winning streak and a 6-1-1 record over their last eight. The Canucks are getting stellar play from star netminder Roberto Luongo and are finally getting healthy, especially along the blue line. Defenseman Kevin Bieksa, a huge part of last season's surprise run to the Northwest Division title, just returned after a nasty calf injury. Now, with some breathing room in the West (Vancouver and Nashville were tied with 72 points Monday morning, three points ahead of ninth-place Phoenix), Nonis might be looking to bring in some kind of offensive depth.
3. After Carolina GM Jim Rutherford dealt two key pieces of the team's 2006 Stanley Cup-winning team, Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore, to the Ottawa Senators, the Hurricanes immediately lost captain Rod Brind'Amour for the season and looked like their playoff hopes were dashed. Yet, defenseman Joe Corvo, the main ingredient in the Stillman/Commodore deal, has fit in nicely as the Hurricanes continue to open up distance with the rest of their Southeast Division colleagues. Carolina has lost twice in regulation in its last nine games and won its last three divisional contests over Washington, Atlanta and Florida. The Canes still lack enough consistency from netminder Cam Ward to be considered a Cup favorite, but they have revealed an impressive level of intestinal fortitude when it has counted most. It may also give Rutherford more encouragement to add another piece, likely up front, before the deadline.
4. If, as we have been told, Brad Richards would be amenable to waiving his no-trade clause in Tampa, whoever acquires the forward will be getting a better player than many believe. The great issue with Richards is his point totals don't jibe with his contract -- he is due $7.8 million a year for the next three years. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Since the Bolts won the Cup in 2004 and Richards was named playoff MVP, he has played with a host of linemates, not all of which possessed comparable skills. This season, Richards has played through a bout with mononucleosis, and still, whenever there is a key faceoff or crucial moment in a game, Richards goes over the boards. Would he thrive in Columbus playing with Rick Nash? You bet. If Tampa GM Jay Feaster ends up dealing Richards, it's because of financial pressures (having to sign Dan Boyle and acquire a top-flight netminder), not because of any dissatisfaction with Richards as a player or person. A team is going to find that out pretty quickly when he pulls on its jersey.
5. What is the ripple effect of Mats Sundin's predictable intransigence not to waive his no-trade clause? Well, Don Waddell and Jacques Martin must be pleased. The respective general managers of the Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers have slipped in recent days to the point where winning the Southeast Division is a long shot at best. But Sundin entrenched and Peter Forsberg staying in Sweden, Marian Hossa (Atlanta), Brad Richards (Tampa Bay) and Olli Jokinen (Florida) represent the top forwards now on the market and should command top dollar. Jokinen and Richards are especially interesting as they are both centers. Richards, who has agreed in principle to waive his no-trade clause, is drawing interest from a number of teams. The list includes the Chicago Blackhawks, who would love for Richards to become a mentor for rookie sensations Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Stay tuned.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
If you're wondering why the Flyers are in the middle of a free fall, you can point to two reasons all to familiar to Philly fans: concussions and the lack of a bona fide No. 1 netminder.