One thing I've come to learn about BSH's membership is that most people are younger than me and became fans during the Lindros era. If you became fans during E's first or second season, you'll remember that things weren't pretty around here back then. However, things started looking up in E's third through fifth seasons, when the team went to the conference finals, were seeded first in the East, and went to the Cup finals. While many were quick to credit the dominance of Lindros and the shrewdness of Bob Clarke, the Flyers' showing in the mid-late 1990s could not have happened without Clarke's one-time successor (and future predecessor), Russ Farwell.
Farwell was hired to replace Clarke as Flyers GM after a disastrous 1989-90 season in which the Flyers missed the playoffs for the first time since 1971-72. The team had been on a decline throughout Clarke's tenure, going from 53-20-7 in 1984-85 (a team largely shaped by Keith Allen and Bob McCammon) to 30-39-11 in 1989-90 (a team which bore Clarke's full imprint viz. trades, drafts, and coaching decisions). According to Gene Hart in his book Score!, Clarke was fired by then-president Jay Snider primarily because of philosophical differences. Snider wanted the team to improve through signing free agents (a process which was MUCH different in 1989-90 than it is today), while Clarke wanted to build through the draft. While we here at BSH are all about building through the draft, let's look at Clarke's notable draft picks (in order selected) during his first tenure:
- 1984: Greg Smyth, Scott Mellanby, Jeff Chychrun (all 2nd round), John Stevens (3rd round), Brian Dobbin (5th round). Mellanby had a long, successful career; Smyth was a minor-league call-up at best; after two healthy seasons for the Flyers, Chychrun battled injuries and was largely absent from teams' lineups; Stevens and Dobbin combined for 116 NHL games and 25 points.
- 1985: Glen Seabrooke (1st round), Tony Horacek (7th round), Gord Murphy (9th round). Of these, only Murphy went on to have a steady NHL career with over 800 games played. Tony Horacek played 154 NHL games for some reason.
- 1986: Kerry Huffman (1st round), Murray Baron (8th round). The Flyers also drafted a very promising Finnish forward in Jukka Seppo who never came to the NHL. This was Clarke's most successful draft in terms of selecting steady NHL presences (Huffman played 401 games; Baron played 988).
- 1987: Darren Rumble (1st round), Jeff Harding (2nd round), Martin Hostak (3rd round). Those three combined for 263 NHL games, 13 goals, 37 assists, -72 plus/minus, and 287 PIMs. Darren Rumble was responsible for most of everything here.
- 1988: Claude Boivin (1st round), Pat Murray (2nd round), Craig Fisher, Dominic Roussel (both 3rd round). Boivin, Murray, and Fisher were all forwards. Since Murray and Fisher combined for a mere 37 games, let's focus on Boivin: 132 GP, 12 G, 19 A, 364 PIM. Roussel was a serviceable backup goalie who played over 200 NHL games.
- 1989: Greg Johnson, Patrick Juhlin (both 2nd round), Reid Simpson (4th round). Johnson developed into a decent defensive centerman who spent the longest stretches of his career in Nashville and Detroit; he never played a game for the Flyers. Juhlin played all of 56 games for the Flyers before having a solid season with the Phantoms in 1996-97, then returning to Europe. Simpson was a journeyman replacement player who played one game in Philadelphia.
With this in mind, it's easy to see why Jay Snider didn't want to build through the draft with Clarke at the helm. So along came Farwell, who was touted as an "expert evaluator of talent" (see the article linked from Farwell's name above). What did Farwell's expert talent evaluation skills get the Flyers during his drafts?
- 1990: Mike Ricci (1st round), Chris Simon, Mikael Renberg, Terran Sandwith (2nd round), Kimbi Daniels, Chris Therien (3rd round), Dan Kordic (5th round), Viacheslav Butsayev (6th round), Tommy Soderstrom (11th round). Of these, only Sandwith and Daniels had zero staying power in the NHL.
- 1991: Peter Forsberg (1st round), Yanick Dupre (3rd round), Aris Brimanis (4th round), Dmitry Yushkevich (6th round), Andrei Lomakin (7th round), Neil Little (11th round). Dupre, of course, died of leukemia at age 24. Brimanis was a replacement player and Lomakin didn't pan out for anyone despite a high pedigree.
- 1992: Jason Bowen (2nd round), Chris Herperger (10th round). Notably missing from this list is first-round selection Ryan Sittler (son of Darryl) who never even got a whiff of the NHL. This was Farwell's one bad draft, especially considering he could have chosen Sergei Gonchar, Martin Straka, Valeri Bure, Michael Peca, Mattias Norstrom, or Nikolai Khabibulin instead of Sittler.
- 1993: Janne Niinimaa (2nd round), Vinny Prospal, Milos Holan (both 3rd round), Mike Crowley (6th round), Paul Healey (8th round). Niinimaa played 741 NHL games; Prospal has played 1090 and is still active with Columbus.
When we think of the Flyers of the mid-late 1990s, we think of players like Mikael Renberg, Chris Therien, Dmitry Yushkevich, Janne Niinimaa, and Vinny Prospal. All of them (except Yushkevich) were on the Eastern Conference championship team from 1997. Of course, we also think of Eric Lindros, John LeClair, Eric Desjardins, and Rod Brind'Amour, among others. These players were all acquired via trade. While Farwell's real strength lie in the draft, he also had some trades which helped to shape the Flyers' future.
- 1991: Traded Scott Mellanby, Craig Fisher and Craig Berube to Edmonton for Dave Brown, Corey Foster and Jari Kurri; Traded Jari Kurri and Jeff Chychrun to LA for Steve Duschesne and Steve Kasper; Traded Ron Sutter and Murray Baron to St. Louis for Rod Brind'Amour and Dan Quinn.
- 1992: Traded Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson, Ken Wregget, and a draft pick to Pittsburgh for Mark Recchi and Brian Benning; Traded Mike Ricci, Chris Simon, Peter Forsberg, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duschesne, Ron Hextall, draft picks, and cash to Quebec for Eric Lindros.
So we have Farwell to thank for Lindros, Brind'Amour, Renberg, Recchi, Niinimaa, Therien, Yushkevich, Prospal, and Soderstrom. I added Recchi and Soderstrom to this list because Bob Clarke 2.0 traded them for valuable returns. Clarke got Ron Hextall 2.0 and a draft pick (Dmitri Tertyshny, again RIP) from the Islanders for Soderstrom, and he acquired Eric Desjardins, John LeClair, and Gilbert Dionne from Montreal for Mark Recchi and a draft pick. Are those moves possible if Farwell hadn't made his prior? Maybe, but probably not.
So if Russ Farwell was so wonderful, why isn't he still here? Despite his success in the draft, Farwell's ultimate undoing happened due to poor personnel decisions and bad trades. While Farwell made a number of acceptable lateral moves (i.e., trading Gord Murphy for Garry Galley, trading Murray Craven for Kevin Dineen) and gave us the first "Lindros" line (the Crazy Eights with Lindros, Recchi, and Brent Fedyk), all too often he acquired marginal players via trade or free agency who failed to help the Flyers into the playoffs. Mark Pederson, Mark Lamb, Rob DiMaio, Andre Faust, Rob Zettler, Greg Hawgood, Stew Malgunas, Yves Racine, the end-of-the-road versions of Rob Ramage, Dave Tippett, and Ric Nattress, and countless others come to mind here.
Furthermore, Farwell forced the the Flyers to start over from scratch after gutting them with the Lindros deal in the summer of 1992. They had a decent, young, up-and-coming team at the end of the 1991-92 season. After a horrendous start, they went 18-16-2 after the All-Star break; their 18 post-ASB wins were tied for the league lead with Chicago. Not only that, they had Peter Forsberg waiting in the wings and would have had their first-round picks from 1993 and 1994 available. Those picks were eventually used on Jocelyn Thibault and Nolan Baumgartner, respectively, but who's to say whom the Flyers would have selected? Kenny Jonsson, Adam Deadmarsh, Todd Bertuzzi, Jason Allison, and Saku Koivu were also available in 1993, and Jeff Friesen, Mattias Ohlund, and Patrik Elias were there for the taking in 1994. The team would have been radically different, but they might well have done something great. At least they would have had the extra pieces / draft picks / prospects to trade to fill certain needs (like goaltending), which they essentially lost with the Lindros deal.
In addition to bad trades, Farwell made a huge mistake at the end of the 1992-93 season by firing well-liked head coach Bill Dineen and replacing him with Terry Simpson. In essence, Dineen was the fall guy for Farwell's gutting of the team to acquire Lindros. As for Terry Simpson, he will always be remembered for the quote, "All they have to do is dump the puck in, and the dumb (expletive)s won't do it!" The players all hated the coach that year, the two goalies (Roussel and Soderstrom) hated each other, and both were terrible. The defense was terrible too. The Flyers could score at will but could not stop the opposition. It was a mess, and Farwell had done his part to create it. So after moving slowly but steadily forward for his first two years, he hit the reset button in 1992 and made a bunch of lousy moves in 1993 and 1994 to try to save his job. Hence, he was axed.
With all of that said, Russ Farwell's work in the draft is one of the primary reasons why the Flyers were eventually competitive in the mid-1990s. Clarke 2.0 helped by being more adept at trades than Farwell, and by being better at the draft than he had been during his previous stint at General Manager. The man bought Simon Gagne to Philadelphia. I rest my case.
The point of this long post is to compare the Flyers now to where they were at the end of 1991-92. They had a good core with help on the way through the draft, but then a BIG SPLASHY MOVE forced them to start all over again. While they still had a solid core, they no longer had the assets to get over the final hump and take home the Cup. Now the Flyers are in a similar place with a good young core and help coming through the draft but lots of questions heading into the offseason. Whoever is in charge needs to make like Russ Farwell and focus on the draft, but also make like Clarke 2.0 and improve the team through effective trades and free-agent signings. It won't be easy - especially with the salary cap - but the Flyers have come out of this situation on the winning side before, and I believe they'll do it again.