Not First Time for Massive Changes in Philadelphia

By David Strehle
NHL H
ot Stove Managing Editor

Over the course of the summer, there seemed to be a growing sentiment in the hockey community that the Philadelphia Flyers would crash and burn in the upcoming campaign following the deluge of personnel changes during the off-season.  To say that the there is a shroud of uncertainty surrounding the Orange-and-Black could be taken as one of the great understatements of the entire summer.

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Richards and Carter (Courtesy of jbehindtheglass.com)

While there is no doubting the 2011-12 version of the Flyers will be a new-look team, that doesn’t necessarily mean their eventual destiny will all be negative.  Pundits have panned some of the moves, while wondering aloud how the team can succeed.

One of the good things about watching the team for so many years is that you can draw off past experiences when looking to the future.  This is not the first time in franchise history that we have seen such a myriad of new faces in Philadelphia heading into a new hockey season, which in turn led to speculation of a possible miserable year.

As a matter of fact, the feel of this Philly off-season is very much like that back in the summer of 1984.

There are two glaring differences between the two years:

Management

  • 1984:  The team fired GM / head coach Bob McCammon amid chants of “Bob Must Go” from the angry Spectrum crowds, replacing him with a Flyer legend.  Bobby Clarke, the Hall-of-Fame centerman, retired as a player to become Bob Clarke, the GM of the team.  In a rather bold move, he promptly hired Mike Keenan to lead his club.  “Iron Mike”, who despite success at the AHL and Canadian college levels, had never led an NHL club.  Both Clarke and Keenan were new to their respective jobs and at the time, it remained to be seen just how well they would perform.
  • 2011:  The hockey operations are well-grounded with GM Paul Holmgren and head coach Peter Laviolette providing a constant from a changing of the guard of the team’s forward and goaltending ranks.  Both have had success in helping their clubs reach the Cup Finals, with Laviolette winning Lord Stanley with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

Established Goal-Scoring

  • 1984:  The roster contained players who were proven goal scorers.  Tim Kerr led the way the previous year with his first of four straight 50-goal seasons (54), followed by Brian Propp (39), Dave Poulin (31), Ilkka Sinisalo (29), and Darryl Sittler (27).
  • 2011:  After leading goal-scorer Jeff Carter (36) and sidekick Mike Richards (23) were traded, the top remaining goal contributors are Danny Briere (34), Claude Giroux (25), Scott Hartnell (24), and James van Riemsdyk (21).

While the NHL of the 1980′s were much more goal-friendly than the defense-first philosophy of today, the mid-80′s club possessed a ton of firepower that were known commodities.

Claude Giroux (Courtesy of jbehindtheglass.com)

The potential is there for some of the younger players to excel – especially with Giroux and JVR assuming bigger scoring roles with the exit of both Richards and Carter - but the number of consistently reliable NHL snipers is lacking.  The addition of 39-year-old Jaromir Jagr should also help with offensive output, as well as bringing along some of the younger players in their development.

And that’s about where the extent of major deviations between the two summers ends.

The list of similarities is rather lengthy:

Coming Off a Disappointing Season, New Direction Needed

1984:  That team was coming off another disappointing playoff finish.  Although they had racked up 98 points during the year, the Flyers would fall in the first round of the postseason for a third straight year – this time to the Washington Capitals, after two consecutive bitter losses at the hands of the hated New York Rangers (AKA “The Smurfs”, for those of you old enough to remember those disappointments).  The defeat by Washington ran the streak of consecutive playoff game losses to nine.

2011:  The current version of the club is just 15 months removed from a surprising trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, but the results of this past season were surprisingly disjointed.  After storming out of the gates and battling for the overall league-lead in points into mid-January, the club staggered down the stretch and into the postseason.  The playoffs were a major disappointment – struggling to outlast an overmatched Buffalo Sabres club in seven games in round one, before being swept away by the eventual Cup champion Boston Bruins.

A Trade Leads to the Search for a Captain

Dave Poulin

1984:  Clarke’s retirement caused a need for a replacement to act as captain.  On the day that Sittler believed he was to be given the “C”, he was instead informed that he had been traded to the Detroit Red Wings in return for a young forward named Murray Craven.  The change in direction led to Poulin being named the seventh captain in team history, a position he held until December of 1989.

2011:  The deal that sent Richards to the Los Angeles Kings for Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds sent shock waves throughout Philadelphia, as well as the overall hockey community – especially coming less than an hour after the announcement of Carter’s trade to the Columbus Blue Jackets.   The vacancy at captain was filled by Chris Pronger last Friday.

A Large Group of Young Forwards with Promise

1984:  A tremendous group of young forwards made a mark in their respective rookie seasons; Rick Tocchet, Peter Zezel, Craven, Derrick Smith, (and Todd Bergen as a late-season call-up), as well as the Sutter twins (Ron and Rich), who were still in their NHL infancy, each made an impact on the roster and pushed the club to one of the most successful years in team history.

2011:  A youth movement is in the wings up front for the Flyers – literally.  Weak on the flanks in past years, Holmgren acquired big, young wingers Jakub Voracek, Simmonds, and Schenn in the Carter and Richards deals.  Schenn is a natural center and will almost certainly make the team, but may end up playing the wing because of the club’s wealth at the pivot position.  Add in returning youngsters Giroux and James van Riemsdyk - and possibly 18-year-old first-round draft pick Sean Couturier, as well as Matt Read, an undrafted free agent signing earlier this year, and Ben HolmstromMike Testwuide, Eric Wellwood, Zac Rinaldo, and Tom Sestito, all of whom will be in a battle to secure a roster spot- and Philadelphia appears to be building a solid core of forwards for years to come.  It just remains to be seen if this impressive stable of youngsters can become the same type of difference-makers right off the bat as the 1984-85 group.

Stability on the Blueline

1984:  Headed by the pairing of Mark Howe and the late-Brad McCrimmon manning the blueline, the Flyers had one of the best collections of defensemen in the league.  Stay-at-home defender Brad Marsh, Doug Crossman, Thomas Eriksson, Miro Dvorak, and Eddie Hospodar rounded out the strong cast.

2011:  The list of rear guards heading into this season is also currently among the best in the NHL.  The top three pairings of Pronger-Matt Carle, Timonen-Braydon Coburn, and Andrej Mesazaros-Andreas Lilja should provide excellent protection for their netminder.

Success Dependant upon Health of a Future Hall-of-Fame Blueliner

1984:  Howe’s chronic back problems – caused by a horrific freak incident while playing for the Hartford Whalers, where he was almost impaled by the sharp edge on the backing of the old-style nets - were worrisome for most of the decade.

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Pronger (Courtesy of jbehindtheglass.com)

2011:  Pronger is coming off an injury-plagued campaign in which he was only able to suit-up for 50 regular season games and three playoff contests.  The most troublesome of the trio of maladies was back surgery he underwent after the club was ousted from the playoffs.

One of the keys to the good fortunes of the 1984 version was their heavy reliance on Howe’s ability to remain in the lineup and play at an elite level.  There is no question that the Flyers overall success this year will hinge greatly on Pronger’s health, and being able to perform up to his usual high standard of play.

Meltdown Between the Pipes Causes Need for Change

Though the result was not identical in the area of the crease, both summers being examined did have ripple affects from the previous year’s play of the goaltending.

1984Pelle Lindbergh was looked upon as the number one goalie for the 1983-84 season after a very good rookie season the year prior.  But when he struggled mightily, rookie Bob “Frosty” Froese took over the starting duties.  Froese faltered in the 1984 postseason, and a change was necessary.  Instead of looking outside the organization, Lindbergh took back the reigns in a big way in 1984-85.  He ended up winning 40 games and led the Flyers all the way to the Finals, then took home the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender at season’s end.

2011:  Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky took over the number one job for a good portion of the season with Brian Boucher serving as the backup after Michael Leighton was injured in pre-season.  Bobrovsky stumbled a bit down the stretch, but still was the Game One starter in the postseason with the Sabres.  He played well in that contest (a 1-0 loss), but was pulled after yielding three Buffalo goals in Game Two and oddly banished to the press box.  With Boucher handling the starting duties, Leighton – who played most of the season in the AHL after back surgery and had appeared in just one NHL game all year – was brought up to serve as backup.  As each goaltender took a turn – and Bobrovsky playing well in a Game Four loss to the Bruins upon making a return to the now three-goalie rotation – it was apparent that a new direction was necessary.  Holmgren traded for the rights to the top UFA goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov.

How the Two Clubs Finished

1984:  Even though they suffered a five-game loss to the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Finals, the season couldn’t be described as anything other than a complete and utter success.  New, young leaders emerged to carry the team through one of the most prosperous stretches the franchise ever experienced – probably second only to the consecutive Cup wins in the mid-70′s.

2011:  ???  (Yet to be determined)

Until the games are actually played and we get to see firsthand what the results of Holmgren’s off-season roster tsunami yields, there will be continued speculation.  But that will not be the case for too much longer as the pre-season commenced last night, and the regular season is only two weeks away.


Pre-Season Game One Notes:  The team looked very impressive in its first pre-season game last night, picking up a 4-0 victory over the Maple Leafs in Toronto.  Even though it was just a pre-season game and both teams didn’t play with their full NHL rosters, there were some very good signs:

The standout performers included many of the young forwards mentioned above – Couturier (goal and an assist, +2), Simmonds (PP goal in which he deflected Carle’s point shot past Toronto goalie James Reimer, resembling Holmgren as a huge body wearing #17 in front of the opposition net; also played aggressively on the PK, tipping a pass away from the point man and nearly scoring a SH goal on the subsequent breakaway), Schenn (assist), Voracek (assist, showed good hands the entire game by threading the needle with beautiful passes), Read (assist, showed great speed and quickness; likely to make the opening night roster if he continues to play like he did last night, especially with the one-way contract), Rinaldo (beauty of a goal off Read feed, culminating with a backhander between Reimer’s legs in tight) and Testwuide (goal, +2).  As a matter of fact, the line of Voracek-Read-Rinaldo was impressive all night, along with the rest of the squad.  The play of the youngsters could lead to a further shake among forwards, which could come at the expense of Andreas Nodl , who was expected to make the opening night roster.  6′ 5″, 225-pound winger Tom Sestito could also give incumbent enforcer Jody Shelley a run for his money.  The play of the fresh faces could also mean a very short stay for two older veteran players attending camp on a tryout basis, namely soon-to-be 39-year-old Michael Nylander and 32-year-old Adam Mair…Yes, it was pre-season, and you can’t take too much away from it, but it was good to see the Orange-and-Black dominate play.  If not for the play of Reimer - who only faced 22 shots, but more of the difficult variety - the score would have certainly been even more lopsided…Bobrovsky turned 23 yesterday and celebrated by stopping all 27 Toronto shots for his first-ever shutout for Philadelphia.  The birthday boy made several difficult saves, and was particularly tested on four Phil Kessel offerings.  “Bob” played well enough that the planned splitting of the game with Leighton didn’t end up happening.  The pair are vying for the right to back up Bryzgalov, who is slated to get the start in tonight’s rematch with the Leafs at Wells Fargo Center.


If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter – @David_Strehle