These Flyers aren't that bad, but team must face music
Weep not for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Not that the thought would have occurred to you in the first place, of course.
The Flyers, when good, have been a punishing, kick-sand-in-your-face team blessed with more money than common sense (at times) because of a deep, hard-core following in the City of Brotherly Love. But they haven't exactly engendered a great deal of affection and warmth across the NHL in the four decades they've been in existence.
Even last summer, the Flyers raised hackles everywhere by putting out a free-agent offer sheet to Vancouver winger Ryan Kesler, an ultimately fruitless effort that once more created angry mutterings around the league.
But that's always been the Flyer way, from the days when Dave Schultz, Don Saleski and friends were raising hell, to today, when the club's powerful owner, Ed Snider, always seems to be trying to gain an edge for his team, often through complaining.
So, the fact Philadelphians are likely to experience the greatest single-season fall in NHL history isn't going to produce a flurry of sympathetic phone calls.
Offers of anchors disguised as life jackets, yes. Sympathy, no.
The previous record drop was set by the 1971 Detroit Red Wings, who went from a 95-point team during the 1969-70 campaign to a 55-point squad a season later. Earlier this season, the Flyers were on pace to obliterate that mark with losing streaks of 10 and nine games. Now, on pace for 56 points after finishing with 101 last season, they're merely on track to nudge aside the dubious achievement of the Dead Things squad.
But as awful as the Flyers appear to be as they sit dead last in the 30-team NHL, it's a bit deceiving. They're just not that bad, something demonstrated Monday night when they obliterated Detroit on home ice by a 6-1 score, perhaps the team's best performance this season.
Some of the team's stats show the reasons for its lamentable season -- a 27th-ranked power play, a league-worst 139 goals against in five-on-five situations. But a quick perusal of the Philly lineup reveals reasons for optimism that this will be a playoff team again next season.
There is, after all, 29-goal man Simon Gagne at the top of the roster, still only 26 years old and one of the NHL's top five two-way forwards. Youngsters such as Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Joni Pitkanen all have solid pedigrees, although injuries have affected their production this season.
That better-than-average core is why no one in the hockey industry saw this Philly collapse coming.
When NHL vice president Colin Campbell briefly considered taking over for the departed Bob Clarke as GM early in the season, he saw a roster of talent and some depth, not a hopeless situation.
Injuries (211 man games lost so far), a slow and mediocre defense (Derian Hatcher hasn't scored in 110 games), iffy goaltending and a remarkable inability to win on home ice (only five victories all season) have made the Flyers what they are.
But, ultimately, those dreadful elements might just net Philadelphia the top pick in this summer's entry draft and a young blue-chip player to either plug into the lineup next season or combine with Richards, Carter, et al., down the line.
"I wouldn't see it as a rebuilding team next year," said center Peter Forsberg. "Definitely not. I think this is going to be a good team next year. It would be easy to rebuild it. We've got a lot of good, young players, and maybe all we need is some older guys to fill in the spots."
There's no question, of course, the Flyers have suffered a major loss in prestige this season, and the home fans have responded by selling out less than a dozen games after buying every seat for 39 of 41 games at the Wachovia Center last season.
But it's not like this is suddenly the worst place in the NHL. Veteran winger Sami Kapanen demonstrated that (plus a keen understanding of new NHL economics) when he took a pay cut to get a new two-year deal out of the Flyers. Forsberg, meanwhile, told Snider in a weekend meeting that he's not looking to flee the city because of the team's fall from grace. "I said I wanted to stay," said Forsberg, the hottest unrestricted free agent-in-waiting on the rumor list as the Feb. 27 trade deadline approaches.
The man they call Foppa is the most immediate of three pressing issues the Flyers franchise has to confront to return to its accustomed place in the upper echelon of NHL teams.
• While Forsberg wants to stay, the prospect of signing him to a new multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal (he's making $5.75 million this season) is a tricky proposition for the Flyers, particularly given the fact he will turn 34 this summer and has experienced problems all season with his surgically repaired right foot.
In 100 games as a Flyer, Forsberg has registered 115 points, but has missed 38 games along the way, and hasn't played a full season in more than a decade. He was banged up enough last winter that Snider implored him not to participate in the Torino Olympics, but Forsberg did anyway and was part of the Swedish team that captured the gold medal.
Signing him is a risk. Trading him before the deadline could net the Flyers a sweet package of prospects and/or draft picks, plus open up cap room to sign one or more veterans next summer. It's a decision the Flyers have less than two weeks to make, which leads into their next major team issue.
• Who's going to be making the management decisions for this team? The resignation of Clarke, the departure of highly regarded Ron Hextall to become assistant GM in Los Angeles and the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock left a major leadership void in the organization that was quickly filled by former Flyers players.
Paul Holmgren is GM and Dave Brown the director of player personnel, while minor league coach John Stevens took over for Hitchcock and has former Philly coach Terry Murray and former Flyers enforcer Craig Berube as his assistants. Another ex-Flyer, Kjell Samuelsson, is guiding the minor league team.
The team has started to play better, going 4-2-4 over its last 10, but you can't ignore the previous three months. Holmgren signed off on the curious acquisitions of two veterans from the Islanders, defenseman Alexei Zhitnik and forward Mike York. And with Clarke moving back in as senior vice president, Holmgren is in the unenviable position of having not one but two former Flyers GMs (Keith Allen is still around) watching over his shoulder.
There are those who would argue the Flyers need to do something similar to what Pittsburgh did in hiring Ray Shero -- bring in an executive from the outside to implement a thorough housecleaning to start fresh.
The last time the Flyers did something like that, Russ Farwell was brought in from junior hockey in 1990 to succeed Clarke. Things went so awry, Clarke was brought back to replace Farwell after four seasons.
Snider, then, has to decide whether now is the time to break with the past, which will play a major role in determining the type of team personality the Flyers want to cultivate.
• Which brings us to the third major issue. The city still wants the Flyers to be a big, intimidating club. Whenever they lose, there's no shortage of callers to sports radio shows suggesting they need to goon it up or run the enemy goalie or whatever Bob "Hound Dog" Kelly would have done back in the day.
When the Flyers hammered the Wings on Monday, a big part of the effort was a strong physical assault that included defenseman Denis Gauthier's coming to the aid of Gagne after he'd been hit by Andreas Lilja and taking a four-minute double minor in the process.
However, it was the Flyers, while shorthanded, who scored. Afterward, one and all agreed Gauthier had done the right thing. That approach, however, has been part of the Flyers' undoing for years, and thus far the club has resisted going to the smaller, quicker roster that has proved so successful for Buffalo and Nashville.
If anything, Philly would probably prefer to emulate Anaheim, which leads the NHL in fighting majors, not surprising given ex-Flyers farmhand Brian Burke is in charge.
Between deciding what to do with Forsberg, determining a management direction and mapping out a new vision, or recommitting to the same old one, the Flyers have work to do over the next six months.
The likeliest scenario: They won't be sucking the exhaust fumes of the rest of the NHL for long.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.