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Welcome to The Week of Pity Against the Second-Rate Rivals Philadelphia Flyers

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The New Jersey Devils will close out the month of April with four games in seven days from Sunday to Saturday against their second most-hated rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. This post goes in on the Flyers as it declares this to be The Week of Pity.

Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils
You read that right. Pity. Not hate. Pity.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

I hate the New York Rangers. I refer to them as Our Hated Rivals. However, the New Jersey Devils have two key rival teams that the Devils fans, the People Who Matter, cannot stand. The other team is the Philadelphia Flyers. The People Who Matter who live in southern New Jersey may feel that they are the most hated. Others may have sharper memories if only because of the Flyers’ famously garish orange and black color scheme. For most, myself included, they are second in hate-ability compared to Our Hated Rivals. I have sometimes called them the Second Rate Rivals. Such as in this headline. That is an accurate description of how they stack up in the eyes of plenty of Devils fans around the world. I understand it has not caught on. Just like the Philadelphia Flyers have not caught on as a big hockey team.

Are the Flyers Really a Big Hockey Team?

I think it is a fair question. The Flyers get plenty of national television coverage, surely not hindered by their Comcast connection. Technically, it is a separate entity from the division in charge of NBC; but the decisions made to put the Flyers on big stages suggest otherwise. The Flyers spend plenty of money on their team. They are currently up against the salary cap ceiling with two players - Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek - representing about 20% of their entire cap expenditure per CapFriendly. They boast a rich history as they were one of the Expansion Six teams that joined the league in 1967 with plenty of quality players to have played for the organization. One would be led to believe that they are one of the more successful teams in the NHL.

That would be wrong. The Flyers have won two Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975. That is it in terms of trophies. That does not impress people much. Certainly not as the years go by as the championship drought lengthens into this decade.

They have made it to the Finals seven other times, which seems impressive. Except few remember them given how they were bodied in each of those seven other appearances. They were swept by the absolutely sterling 1975-76 Montreal Canadiens in ‘76. They were put down in six games by the 1980 New York Islanders. The 1984-85 did quite well and it is not remembered as the 1985 Edmonton Oilers styled and profiled on them in five games. They put up a stiffer fight in a full seven-game series against Edmonton two years later - which Edmonton won and it turned out to be The Great One’s last one, so that’s that. The Flyers returned to the final round in 1997 and were creamed by in a sweep. The most recent attempt for a championship was back in 2010, which ended with Patrick Kane scoring a goal that stunned the Flyers faithful because they didn’t think it was in intiially but it was to end that series in six. Seven series in the Finals and they have won a combined eight games in the four series they did not get swept in. Again: Hardly a rich history on the ice.

This is not to say they have been total junk. Unlike Our Hated Rivals, the Flyers have been fairly regular in the postseason with only one real long stretch of seasons where they did not make the playoffs from 1989-90 to 1993-94. They have won several division titles in the regular season. They even finished first in the entire conference multiple times. Good for banners. Bad for those who wanted an actual trophy like a Stanley Cup or even a President’s Trophy - something the Flyers have never won. Being a big team implies a run of massive success. The Flyers have had plenty of great regular seasons and absolutely no championships since the 1970s.

What is even worse is that their reputation from those two Cups still persist with the organization to this day. They were not just the Flyers in the mid-1970s. They were The Broad Street Bullies. Their nasty, physical play suited them well in an era in hockey where the game was exponentially more violent than it is today. It has been their hallmark, their calling card, and their brand, overtaking the legitimate Hall of Fame talent on those teams like coach Fred Shero (who was brilliant in his time for incorporating system play and took influence from Soviet teams that were dominating internationally at the time); forwards Reggie Leach, Bill Barber, and Bobby Clarke; and goaltender Bernie Parent. Of course, Clarke and Barber were real violent in their own ways too. The Flyers and their fans have reveled in “making it look mean” for decades. From exalting Dave “The Hammer” Schultz to platforming Dan Carcillo and Steve Downie to coming up with Tom Wilson rationalizations real fast when Radko Gudas throws a questionable check. Has it led them to win a third championship? No. Has it helped the Flyers to anything that we could call consistent dominance? Making the playoffs a lot is good, but its hardly dominant, so no. One would think their identity and reputation not helping them succeed would mean it is a hindrance. Only in recent years has that even changed - no one on the 2021 Flyers is what anyone would call “mean” - and a lot of that has to do with the game changing moreso than the Flyers themselves changing. The organization has finally dragged into the 21st century hockey.

Now, let me level with you, Philadelphia is a very passionate sports market. I would even say moreso than the New York Metropolitan area, where passions are really tempered outside of football and baseball. The Philly market may not be as large as New York, but their fanbase shows up, for better or worse, for their local teams. As much as I may not be able to stand some of the fanbase, I do have to respect that. But does that make the Flyers a big team? Not at all. Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Buffalo (until the past few years) also have very passionate fanbases. It does not make them big teams. So, sorry fans, you alone are not enough to elevate this team that has not won anything important like a championship - regular season or playoffs - in over 45 years.

Oh, they also have a fuzzy personification of mange as a mascot that has become a cult figure for reasons that make no logical sense. It is their most relevant contribution to social media since a typo claimed they were going to defecate a beach. That also does not matter. No one calls Western Kentucky University a big sports school because of Big Red.

Ultimately, I remain confused why Philadelphia has this reputation of being a big team. They are seen as a big team by those in the sport and those who broadcast it - and that’s it. If they were a soccer team, then they would be Tottenham Hotspur. A big team that spends a lot of money, gets a lot of attention among the fans, they have this big rep, and absolutely little to show for it. They have not won any trophies in any recent memory. None since 2007-08, which was the League Cup. If you don’t count that as significant, then you need to go back to 1991. It could be easily argued that they aren’t as important as they are perceived to be, yet they were big enough to be invited to the woefully-short lived European Super League to hang with some of the true titans of European soccer. That’s your equivalent in sports for the Orange and Black; a soccer team that is rarely even the best soccer team in their own city most years.

Is this enough to hate a rival? Sure, there’s a lot to dislike about the Flyers and how they perform. I certainly want the Devils to put them in their place all of the time. But, really, I pity them.

The main thesis of Our Hated Rivals was that their over-achieving will be all for nothing. So far, that is looking accurate. The Flyers are in an opposite position. It was expected that they would at least challenge for a playoff spot, if not take one. While no one expected the Islanders to not fall apart or the Penguins to take a step back, no one also expected the Flyers flailing their way out of the postseason weeks before the end of the season. Here they are. As much as they are a rival, the Flyers are the defeated man on the ground after having lost a whole bunch of battles. Kicking them while they are down seems unfair. But life is not fair and the Flyers are rivals so this post exists. Yet, I cannot say I despise the 2021 Flyers like Our Hated Rivals. I mostly pity them.

Goaltending, Goaltending, Goaltending

Philadelphia having bad goaltenders ruin their seasons is a basically a meme at this point. It is also somewhat true, especially this year. Although, I feel that the complete truth is more damning of Philadelphia. The more accurate statement is that the Flyers have had a lot of problems managing their goaltenders.

Let us take a quick look at the Flyers’ history of goaltenders at Hockey-Reference. The most successful goaltender in Flyers history is a legitimate Hall of Famer, Bernie Parent. He primarily played for the Flyers with 10 seasons from their expansion season in 1967 to 1979. The most prolific goaltender in Flyers history is Ron Hextall, who appeared in 489 games for the team across 11 seasons from 1986-87 to 1998-99. Hextall was only a non-Flyer for two seasons in the middle of that run. He would be the last truly regular starting goaltender for the Flyers. Since then, the Flyers have went through the following as potential heirs among many others (I’m not listing all of their backups):

  • John Vanbiesbrouck
  • Brian Boucher
  • Roman Cechmanek
  • Antero Niittymaki
  • Robert Esche
  • Martin Biron
  • Ray Emery
  • Sergei Bobrovsky
  • Ilya Bryzgalov
  • Steve Mason

Most of these goaltenders did really well in Philly. But an off season or a bad playoff run or a retroactively bad decision by management all saw these goaltenders not last very long in Philadelphia. Out of this group, only Mason has appeared in over 200 games with the Flyers. Only Mason and Boucher among this group can say they have been with the team for five seasons or longer, and Boucher’s sixth season saw him play in only four games and he was more or less part of a tandem instead of the primary goaltender in those five other seasons. While the Flyers have had plenty of seasons since 1999 where they seemingly had the offense and even the defense sorted out, the goaltending has continued to be a weakpoint - perceived and legitimate - for the better part of two decades. Not that Hextall was perfect in the 1990s but he at least reliable enough for the organization to keep around instead of shuffling through guys through the draft, free agency, and/or trades. How does a team fail to find and stick with someone in a crucial position within 20 seasons?

The current tandem is continuing the tradition of goaltending woes. Brian Elliott, currently with Philly, was brought in to be a veteran 1B goaltender and he has posted overall save percentages that have decreased with each season with the Flyers. This is his fourth and he is rocking an 89.2% as of April 22. The current golden boy of the crease is Carter Hart. He’s 22. He was pretty good in this first two seasons. Hart will surely succeed where Vanbiesbrouck, Boucher, Cechmanek, Niittymaki, Esche, Biron, Emery, Bobrovsky, Bryzgalov, and Mason fell short. Hart was a star in junior. This season, Hart has an overall save percentage of 87.7% as of April 22. That is not a typo. That is indeed an 87.7%. It is not even close to 89%, much less 90% or the league median. The young man literally has a save percentage right now that would not even be a good in the late 1980s. Hart has been a total liability. Compounding that pain is the fact that this is contract year; his ELC ends this season. I am sure his agent is demoralized by Hart’s performances this year as much as the fans have been. Should Flyers history hold up, Hart will not be a Flyer for very long. Neither will Elliott, which is more understandable as he is a pending UFA and over the age of 35 in addition to being bad at stopping pucks.

Like Zagreus running through the underworld, the Flyers will be looking for a goaltender once again. Since 1999, again and again and again. And I would guess they will do it again after they find the next golden boy for the crease in a few years when he likely turns out to be pyrite.

Underperformance All Over

Of course, compounding the goaltending woes is a sentiment of underperformance for this year’s Flyers team. In way, this is not entirely true. The Flyers have decent to good 5-on-5 stats. They have five players with at least 10 goals this season, two on the cusp, and five players with at least 30 points. In a 56-game season, that is pretty good production. Even better, those players include their top forwards: James van Reimsdyk, Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, and Travis Konecny. There is some validity to the idea that the Flyers skaters have been undercut big time by incredibly awful goaltending. And it is a plus they do not have a player on the roster who can just be overly violent when things are not going their way or just because they feel they need to “get things going.”

However, with a closer look, I am left underwhelmed with some of the Flyers performances over the season. For example, despite spending over $52 million in cap space on their forwards, the Flyers are only around the middle of the league in terms of generating shot attempts, shots, expected goals, and goals. Their power play is similarly around the middle of the league too. For the amount of money spent on talent at forward, I would have expected much more than being around the middle of the league in terms of creating offense - production aside. Despite a team defense that looks solid in 5-on-5, the Flyers tried to dump Shayne Gostisbehere on waivers (and failed due to his $4.25 million cap hit) and their penalty kill is only more successful than the Devils as of April 22. For a team that has $80.6 million spent out of a maximum of $81 million on their cap, I’m left asking: this is it?

Stuck In It

And after looking at their cap, I’m also asking: how do you fix this? Let us start with those six forwards. The Flyers are locked into Claude Giroux for two more seasons and there’s a real chance he waives his NMC in 2022 to play for something. The current Flyers skaters are built around Giroux, who is legitimately a great forward and a first-line player on any team in the NHL. And the Flyers have won little of value with that. It is a shame his best chance at a Cup will be as an Old Guy Without a Cup player. The Flyers are also locked into Jakub Voracek at $8.25 million for another four seasons. The salary portion of that contract is decreasing and he has no clause, but if this 31-year old starts to age poorly, it is going to get ugly to dump that deal. James van Reimsdyk has been very productive, but like Voracek, he’s 31 and his deal is not ending soon - the $7 million cap hit ends in 2023. There is no clause but that will be a tough move in two to three seasons too. Good luck if or when the Flyers want to dump Kevin Hayes and his ridiculous $7.1 million. In comparison to those four, Konecny at $5.5 million until 2025 and Couturier at $4.33 million until 2022 are great contracts. They are very fine deals on their own. I cannot imagine Couturier not wanting a big raise after next season. It will take an effort for the Flyers to make the space to keep one of their best centers for a little longer. Of course, he’s 28 so if they have him a Hayes-like deal (Hayes is 28, by the way), it may become another problem in a few years.

The defense is also similarly bloated. Again, the Flyers placed Gostisbehere. Clearly, they do not think he is worth the $4.25 million he is on the books of this and next season. While Ivan Provorov has had some stellar games in both ends of the rinks, he has had some nightmarish performances. For $6.75 million per season until 2025, that is a problem. With Phillippe Meyers, Robert Hagg, and Justin Braun signed through next season, it will be easier to re-shape the blueline. It will be harder to do without potentially ruining the some of the solid play they have provided this season. To do so under a budget will increase the challenge.

And that challenge is now. Per CapFriendly, the Flyers have four pending UFAs outside of the taxi squad and their AHL team: Matt Niskanen (suspended without pay this season, so he’s not on the books anyway), Brian Elliott ($1.5 million), Alex Lyon ($700k), and Samuel Morin ($700k). Their pending RFAs include Travis Sanheim ($3.25 million), Carter Hart (oof), Nolan Patrick (ELC ending), and someone called Carsen Twarnyski. They will need new deals and the Flyers are projected to have about $11 million in cap space with these RFAs and needs to make improvements in depth and especially in net. All to keep this core going as they continue to age into their huge contracts.

What is the goal exactly? To win a Stanley Cup? To make it to the Stanley Cup finals? To make it back into the playoffs? That may be it. It has been a recent trend where even years see the Flyers make it and odd years do not since 2013. In those even years, they made the playoffs four times and won just one series against a Montreal team in 2020, who would not have been in it under normal playoff circumstances. Next year is an even year, so I guess they’ll do that? But that is hardly ambitious. This is a big money roster, with a couple of heavy contracts lasting for at least a few more seasons, and their achievements have been going 1-4 in playoff series since Giroux became captain. The only breakout players among their recent crop of youngsters appears to be Joel Farabee and Carter Hart prior to this season. Their window is now and nothing looks like a trophy in their current vision. Sure, blame Alain Vigenault. Blame some other coaches, past or present. Blame some other nouns as to avoid the elephant that is entering the room. This core is not a Cup winning core or a division winning core or a core that can reliably win a playoff series for the first time since 2012. This is a Flyers team that may need to be blown up sooner rather than later. A re-build seems to be on the horizon. Let me tell you, they are not at all easy.

Of course, they can’t do that. Not now. They are apparently a big hockey team, after all. Re-building would mean fewer national games and marquee appearances in stadiums. Re-building could mean less attention paid to a team who gets it without the success one would expect for it. Re-building could lead to a run of seasons without the playoffs not seen since the early 1990s, which could really test the patience of a passionate and vocal fanbase that has not endured such a thing in a long time. On purpose or not, they have been following the Lou way of not re-building, but reloading as evidenced by the recent bouncing in and out of the postseason. But it’s been 8 years since the Flyers were a consistent playoff team (2008 to 2012) and short of the Flyers finding the next golden boy for their crease and playing like their reputation, the team as constructed is limited in terms of how far they could go. Hockey is a chaotic sport where luck can play a role in success for any team. The Flyers would need a whole lot of it. It certainly has not happened to them this season or in many of the past years of the Giroux Era. They’re stuck in it. And it stinks.

I Pity These Fools

Similar to the last post of this kind, I do want to be clear that this is not meant to say that I think the 2021 Devils are better than the 2021 Flyers. That would be false. Especially as the Devils are limping into these four games against the Flyers and have already been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs after last Tuesday’s loss. With the Flyers’ playoff chances being fewer than 1% per MoneyPuck as of April 22, there is nothing at stake but bragging rights and wanting to get a few wins before the season ends. There are plenty of bragging rights in favor of New Jersey in case this series goes awry. Like the facts that the Devils have won more Cups than the Flyers (3-2), playoff series between the two teams (3-2), and the Devils’ golden era set a template for a lot of teams that elements are still in place to this day whereas the Flyers’ golden era set a template that no one has followed for a long, long time. The Devils have still achieved more glory than the Flyers in less time and more recently than them. This set of four games in seven days between two playoff-less teams really does not matter a whole lot in the bigger picture. It is also another reason to call this The Week of Pity.

However, few people thought the 2021 Devils were going to be good enough to compete for the playoffs. And they are not. More people thought the 2021 Flyers would be playoff-worthy. They have been proven wrong. The Flyers have disappointed and underachieved as much as Our Hated Rivals have overachieved and given the media and their fans a lot of false hope. The Flyers are treated as this big team that they are decidedly not. Sure, the Flyers are an annoyance for various reasons and many find how their fanbase exalts them to be irritating. But, again, it is hard to really raise this to outright hatred like I would with Our Hated Rivals. It is a team that failed to live up to this year’s expectations and a team that continually fails to live up to their reputation. It is a team that amazingly fails over and over in filling a goaltender position. It is a team that has not even been beyond the second round with Claude Giroux since 2010. It is a team that has a very passionate fanbase that is repeatedly let down. They are not even the Devils’ biggest rivals; they are only the second. To paraphrase the pop-icon and philosopher Mr. T, I pity these fools.

Hate the Flyers as much as you wish. I can’t control how you feel. Still, I declare this week to be the Week of Pity. May the Devils come out ahead in this one to be just a little less pitiful than the littlest big team in the NHL; the Second Rate Rivals themselves - the Philadelphia Flyers.