- Rob Parent
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In Philadelphia, home to major-league misery and commonly crying sports fans, the usual spring lament is that the Flyers have all the money in the world and never use it to advance beyond hyped regular season hopes.
Not so unusual for a fanbase that last paraded a Stanley Cup down Broad Street nearly 30 years ago.
Yet the people paid to see beyond fan expectations characterize the Flyers as one of the league's most successful franchises. They may be criticized for postseason failures, but the Flyers have been to four conference finals and one Stanley Cup final within the past 10 years. Of course, they've also blown it in the first round, even when management and coaches thought it was their shining spring.
But after several weeks of stewing over his club's latest conference finals loss, this one to eventual Cup champion Tampa Bay, Flyers general manager Bob Clarke can't quite agree with some fans' assessment that this team was just another playoff disappointment in the city of losers.
He knows his Flyers of 2003-04 not only extended the Cup-winning Lightning to seven games, but could have or would have taken things to a higher level were it not for a series of ill-timed injuries.
While trying hard to avoid listing the injuries to his defense as an excuse, Clarke has been at the office every day during this uncertain summer trying to build up his club's depth, tweak his roster and still find some way to slash overwhelming payroll commitments that easily top $50 million for next season.
He has allowed Mark Recchi to go to Pittsburgh as an unrestricted free agent, yet has signed both Turner Stevenson and Mike Knuble to get bigger up front, which Clarke thinks might be another reason the Flyers didn't get out of the East.
Clarke is also trying to bring back last season's successful rental, Alexei Zhamnov, who is likewise pursuing free agency, and has re-signed captain Keith Primeau, who Clarke said personifies the character of his team.
As for other matters, Clarke spoke this week to ESPN.com about trying to keep his team Cup-competitive while dealing with the anticipated reality of lower payroll restrictions if and when the NHL resumes play with a new collective bargaining agreement.
ESPN.com: Could you assess your team's performance last season in both the regular season and playoffs?
Clarke: We felt we were good enough to compete for the Stanley Cup and I think we did. Injuries can't be used as an excuse, but when you lose people on defense like we did and play the level of competition that we did, it catches up to you. I felt that happened to us.
ESPN.com: Did your club show more consistency during the season than it had in recent years?
Clarke: We got off to a real good start on the season and that helped carry us through all year. Even when we hit lulls during the season, it didn't hurt us because we never fell behind because of that good start. We were able to stay in front.
ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides and had perhaps the biggest impact on your team?
Clarke: Keith Primeau became the real key to our team. He's developed the ability to keep our team together (hence a four-year, $17 million contract in June); he keeps it united and keeps it going in the right direction. We had veteran players around him who helped him do that by falling in line with the way he led. So we didn't have any of the internal problems that can hurt a team.
ESPN.com: Is there a player or two who you think might have taken a step back and needs to show improvement whenever the league continues play?
Clarke: I don't think I can say that about anybody on our club this year. It was one of those seasons where we had so many injuries, but so many other guys stepped up and played well. So overall, I think it was a pretty impressive performance by everybody on our team.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system and is he ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis now?
Clarke: It looks like both (Jeff) Carter and (Mike) Richards and possibly (newly acquired R.J.) Umberger are all either ready now or are close to being ready. But whenever you have a good team, it gives a (prospect) like that a chance to learn and develop the way he should. No matter how good they look, it still takes two or three years for that to happen.
ESPN.com: Could you pinpoint one primary top priority for you to improve the club or the organization now?
Clarke: We're trying to sign (unrestricted free agent Alexei) Zhamnov. I really think that over the past few years we've been missing a playmaking center; a guy to play on a line between Primeau's and (Michal) Handzus'. That's the top priority for us right now. Alex is perfect in that role. We'll see what he does.
ESPN.com: What about Jeremy Roenick in that center spot?
Clarke: We think he can play really well on the wing (with Zhamnov). We'd like to see J.R. there. If we can't sign Zhamnov, J.R. would be that guy at center, I guess.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
Clarke: The best moment was when Primeau scored to tie it at the end of Game 6 in the (Eastern Conference) finals. That was a real highlight.
ESPN.com: And your least favorite moment?
Clarke: Obviously, losing the last game of that series. But you have to give Tampa credit. That loss for us wasn't due to a lack of effort or a lack of anything. They just beat us.
ESPN.com: What distraction or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Clarke: In this job, nothing can take you far away. You can't be far away from the phone on any day. Right now, (in spite of the anticipated lockout) the league is operating just like it has in the past. It's business as usual. We're trying to sign our Group II free agents and we're waiting to see if any of them apply for arbitration ... you've got to spend time preparing for all of that. So in that respect nothing's changed.
Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.