Just one year after arguably the best comeback in National Hockey League playoff history and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Philadelphia Flyers are sitting on the outside looking in for the last two rounds of the playoffs.
The goalie questions are still present, and more rumors are surfacing that team captain Mike Richards and head coach Peter Laviolette were at odds during the playoffs. Whether this is true or not, there were leadership issues during the first round against the Buffalo Sabres and motivation issues against the Boston Bruins.
Going into the season, the expectations were undoubtedly “Cup or bust.” Being one of the most talented and deep teams in the league, experts all over the county were picking them to win it all. Most Philadelphia fans thought it was a forgone conclusion that they would at least be in the finals.
“It was the best team I’ve seen in my lifetime, and with the promising young goaltender, it feels like someone ripped my heart out,” Flyers fan Matthew Schwalm said.
Up until mid-February, the Flyers season was going according to plan. They were in first place and had a relatively stable goalie situation, something that the Flyers haven’t seen for a few years. Philadelphia put their faith in rookie Sergei Bobrovsky and let him develop his natural talent on the biggest stage. He was, for the first half of the season, the undisputed number one goalie on the team.
After the All-Star break, things just seemed to unravel. The Flyers were content with a first place finish at the break, but there didn’t seem to be any motivation for the second half of the season. By the end of the regular season, Bobrovsky was having problems, and the team entered the playoffs on a low note. Instead of the Flyers being in first place, they entered the playoffs in second. The playoffs, however, are a whole other season, and teams tend to their game in the “second season.”
The leadership just wasn’t there. Richards, who tends to lead by example, didn’t set much of an example in the playoffs. He had seven points in the playoffs — one goal and six assists. Compare that to last year’s playoffs when he tallied 23 points in 23 games — seven goals and 16 assists. He was, at times, the Flyers’ best player during the playoffs last year, scoring clutch goals and getting involved all over the ice.
One really glaring state is his shot percentage. This year, Richards took 43 shots in 11 games and scored on one of them — that’s a 2.3 percent shot percentage. Last year during the Flyers run to the finals, Richards took 63 shots in 23 games and scored on seven of those shots, giving him a shot percentage of 11.9 percent. That means that in half of the playoffs games he played last year, he took more than half of the shots he took this year. He was pressing by the end of the playoffs this year. For example, in game two against Boston, Richards took 10 shots and didn’t score on any of them.
Regardless of his performance, the captain should be able to rally the troops and get a solid effort out of his team, especially in the playoffs.
A key factor in Philadelphia’s early exit was that Chris Pronger didn’t play for most of the playoffs this year. He is a proven leader, a great defenseman and has no problem getting under the other team’s skin. Without him, the team had no life, no drive and no will to win.
Fans will be calling for Richards to give up his captaincy and pass it to a more capable player — but who?
This team doesn’t seem to have many bona fide leaders on the team, except for Pronger. Is he the answer?
There have already been rumors of the locker room being split between Richards and Pronger. Does confirming those rumors make things better?
The Flyers off-season will be a busy one. They have Nikolai Zherdev, Ville Leino, Sean O’Donnell and Nick Boynton all up for unrestricted free agency. One would suspect that Leino and possibly Zherdev could be back next year, but with $450,000 in cap space, there isn’t much wiggle room for a raise for anyone. The Flyers first priority should be to find a suitor for Kris Versteeg, their trade deadline acquisition. There’s no doubt that general manager Paul Holmgren will be looking to shake up the roster to possibly set a fire underneath his employees rear-ends.
Look for new faces in black and orange next year. Adversity isn’t a bad thing in hockey, it’s a motivator, and that’s just what the Flyers need.