The Broad St. Bullies got bullied this time around.
The Philadelphia Flyers and their fans are used to getting what they want, Stanley Cup notwithstanding. Big name free agent? Sign on the dotted line. Big trade acquisition? Come on down. Except this offseason when the Flyers once again played the big name lottery - they lost. What hurts the most is their biggest loss was not the talent they didn't acquire, it's the talent failed to hold onto, and the consequences of it.
The Flyers had one big need heading into the offseason - defense. The loss of Chris Pronger clearly hurt the team and how they play within Laviolette's attacking system. No longer did they have their quarterback on the blue line to carry the load for key moments in games, define defensive roles, and lead the way while the rest of the team focused on putting the puck in the net. The Flyers talent on the blue line while decent, needed to improve to be successful playing in a system where even mediocre defensive play gets exposed. Where Chris Pronger could no longer hold down the fort.
However rather than focus on an area of need and how to smartly address it, the organization once again had to have the biggest prizes on the market - Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. I also say smartly address it because there were pitfalls to be avoided. Pitfalls such as the notion that Chris Pronger needed to be replaced in one foul swoop - like by pursuing Suter and Weber - or paying too much for defensemen with high pricetags due to market demand. Unfortunately the Flyers fell prey to both pitfalls by going after Suter even though they failed to sign him.
They also showed a total lack of focus altogether when they bid on Parise. The Flyers offense was an incredible strength last season, there was no simply no need to add to it, even with a talent such as Parise. Once upon a time - before the salary cap - throwing money at Parise had no consequences, but doing so now with the way the NHL is structured was flat out arrogant and irresponsible considering the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
But still the Flyers waited for Parise and Suter to make decisions on the enormous contracts mistakenly offered to them by the team. The Parise offer never should have happened for reasons listed above. The Suter offer while at least making sense from a 'needs' perspective should have been pulled due to time constraints on the availability of free agents and what should have been a better assessment of his indifference towards the Flyers franchise.
The Broad St. Bullies, historically known for pushing others around, were the ones being held hostage by two big name free agents, while the rest of the market was being fed upon. On top of that the Flyers' own Jaromir Jagr and Matt Carle - who had served well for the franchise - were told to wait for 'bigger name' mercenary free agents to decide if they even wanted to be Flyers. They of course rejected that notion, rightfully so, and went elsewhere.
And so while the Flyers waited.... Jagr? Gone. Carle? Gone. Then Parise and Suter went elsewhere and the Flyers decided to make one last desperate attempt at solving the 'Pronger Situation' by offer sheeting Shea Weber. And when that failed and the smoke cleared suddenly the Flyers were the last ones without a date to the dance.
The franchise still in need of defensive help decided to make the previously rumored James vanRiemsdyk for Luke Schenn swap come to fruition. Instead of adding to the defensive corps that already needed improving, they merely substituted Schenn for Carle. They lost Jagr and JVR, both considered top-six forwards, added a bottom-six forward in Ruslan Fedotenko, and swapped out a proven second pairing defenseman (Matt Carle) for a player (Luke Schenn) who's merely hoped to be a second pairing defenseman. Sounds more like subtraction than addition to me.
All of this because they placed more importance on getting the biggest names out there ahead of anything else. So exactly where did this offseason leave the Flyers? Ironically, where everyone expected them to be after they traded Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
Last season the Flyers were supposed to be too young and inexperienced. It was supposed to be a transition year for the team. But thanks to adding a 'win now' veteran in Jagr and a 'win now' goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov (let's just set the debate on this one aside for the moment, okay?), the Flyers desire for rebuilding seemed a bit... confusing. They had a mix of young players, players in their prime, and veterans.... a mix usually necessary to compete with the best. And much to the surprise of many, that's what they did....well until that Devils series, which I will not speak of.
Their young forward talent - Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and Matt Read - was allowed to come alive without pressure, on the 3rd and 4th lines behind the top two lines comprised of more experienced players like Claude Giroux, JVR, Jagr, Scott Hartnell, and Danny Briere. But now only one season after bursting onto the scene, the Flyers young guns are taking on the look of not ready for prime time players. Thrusting them into such primary roles among the top two lines with only one year of experience under their belts may not have been the best idea.
The defense without Pronger, previously consisting of Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and Nicklas Grossmann as the main four was decent, but needed to be improved for this upcoming season or at the least kept together. Neither of those things happened. Obviously Andrej Meszaros is back, but he is coming off injury and even so, if one were to delve into the - dreaded by the casual fan - advanced stats, they might find he is at his best playing the role of second fiddle to a more apt defenseman with whom he's paired. Looking ahead with Timonen on his way out, the Flyers should have focused a core of Coburn, Carle, Grossmann, and Meszaros, balancing size with speed. Instead they are too slow with Timonen, Grossmann, Meszaros, and Luke Schenn.
As it stands if Timonen were out of the equation the Flyers would have one top pairing worthy defenseman in Coburn and then.... it gets real hazy after that. Grossman if healthy is a second pairing guy, Meszaros if he's at his best is a second pairing guy, and the Flyers hope Luke Schenn can get back on track to being a top four defenseman. Foster is a stop-gap and Gervais is unproven. There's a lot of "if's" in there.
It's actually this season that the Flyers find themselves in true rebuild mode. Last season they had achieved a fine balance with the experience level on the team. Right now? Not so much. They now have gone too far into the rebuild spectrum - which is okay - it's just not what was expected after last season's surprisingly smooth transition. The roster names of Jaromir Jagr, Matt Carle, and James vanRiemsdyk have been replaced by Luke Schenn, Bruno Gervais, Scott Laughton, and Eric Wellwood. Players like Couturier, Schenn and Read now need to score. Even if they have the talent, it's different when you have expectations to live up to rather than be pleasant surprises.
So... what should have been the Flyers offseason game plan?
The answer: hedge their bets. The Flyers needed to realize there was no easy fix out there for Pronger, assess the realistic expectations of Parise and Suter wanting to be Flyers, and understand they already have a very talented team that for once did not need the addition of the biggest names available. The franchise should have remained patient and continued to develop the young talent they have under the radar, maintained the surprising cohesion that had been achieved, and looked to add target needs. As for the how...
1) Immediately resign Jagr and Carle (and therefore not need to move JVR to acquire defensive talent)
At first I did not consider the loss of Jagr and JVR to be a big deal. Jagr's production dropped off in the second half of the year and the inevitably the Flyers would have to move on without him due to his age. JVR was in and out of the lineup. What needed more consideration was their presence on the top lines, which if nothing else filled top six forward spots and drew the attention of opponents, and allowed for players like Read, Schenn, Simmonds to sneak up on teams who didn't have the depth to mark all the forwards the Flyers possessed. It also allowed for Couturier to be a monster defensively and develop as a great duo with Maxime Talbot, a duo which has since been broken up due to line shifting to make up for the loss of JVR and Jagr. Both Carle and Jagr I believe would have stayed had the Flyers not shown such indifference towards them in their quest for Parise and Suter.
Then you still have a top line of Hartnell-Giroux-Jagr and JVR-Briere to work with on the second line. Now you have flexibility with Voracek, Schenn, Simmonds, and Read. You can keep Couturier and Talbot paired together. The roster suddenly looks much deeper and more difficult to contend with. Sure Jagr would eventually be done due to his age, but I believe he still has a couple more years left in the tank, and why not use him to help the youth develop in the trenches out of the spotlight?
2) Target second-tier defensemen
There were defensemen available out there to be had and even if the Flyers didn't want to overpay, a suitable strategy would have been to stand pat with keeping Carle. Grossmann had already been added and Meszaros was eventually coming back. Going into the season with Timonen, Coburn, Carle, Grossmann, and Meszaros would not have been by any stretch terrible. And then you make your move if there is one around the trade deadline. The Flyers did not need to find a direct replacement for Pronger, they just needed to build around what they had, and prepare for what they're eventually going to lose with an aging Timonen.
Simply put, the Flyers should have played things close to the vest this past offseason, kept their young talented team together, continued to develop their youth, and stayed patient waiting for the right defensive acquisitions to present themselves. Instead they chose to break up some of the cohesiveness they were so lucky to develop with a young team by doing their usual 'jersey chasing'.
And now in a cruel twist by the organization's own doing, instead of choosing to be patient, they are going to be forced to be patient. The Flyers are too young, too inexperienced at defense and forward. The organization has no choice, but to wait and see if this especially young group of players can realize their potential and do it, in the here and now, with a fanbase expecting to see results. That's the path the Flyers' front office risked going down when they put everything on hold for Parise and Suter, and now they are down it with no going back.
Blame Bryzgalov? No. Sure he's not worth his contract (how could he ever be?) and he has given up a couple goals this season he'd like to have back, but the Flyers team defense and offensive woes are much more to blame.
Fire Lavy? No. Laviolette needs to make adjustments, his attacking system that leaves team defense exposed has to be changed for this team this season. If he fails to do that then a legitimate gripe can be had with him. But if you're expecting him to turn what is a team overloaded with youngsters into champions, forget it, he's not Gordon Bombay.
Just get the powerplay going? Unfortunately I think the power play is more of a symptom of the current construction of the team rather than a cause of their problems.
The Flyers like to be brash in the name of winning. Wherever you stand on the whole Richards and Carter thing, the trades themselves gave the Flyers equal value back. We saw that last season when the key acquisitions involved from said trades helped the team do something they failed to do with Richards and Carter leading the way - defeat the Penguins in the playoffs. The Flyers brashness worked out for them in 2011-2012. It may have failed them in the shortened 2013 season.
That is the risk the Flyers now run in the new NHL when they opt for brashness or to gamble on the 'big name free agent'. It's a risk that carries consequences that can't so easily be fixed as it could before. And when the gamble fails, it especially hurts when it was unnecessary in the first place. But it's not as if the Flyers are headed in the wrong direction by any means, they just went into more of a rebuild mode than they expected to due to the fallout of this past offseason. They are a talented, very young team with a lot of promise. Unfortunately unlike last season's team, they just might not be ready to win... yet.
But hey, at least the Flyers finally learned their lesson about always needing to make the biggest splash in the free agent market.... right?.... Right?....sigh...