This was supposed to be the year the Flyers put it all together. This was supposed to be the year there were no more moral victories, but on the heels of another unimpressive home loss to Colorado, The Flyers are now officially off to yet another slow start. What’s missing? Well, for starters...how about an identity?
What does it mean for a team to truly have an identity? Why does it even matter?
In the most basic of terms, a team’s identity is built by simply having a trait or two that tends to be the means by which they stand out. These traits, usually, lead to wins and the combination leads to a literal personality that resonates throughout the league. It’s not just a colorful t-shirt slogan, it’s a mission statement, backed by intent and preparation, that translates on the ice.
In the early 90s and 2000s the New Jersey Devils were a suffocating defensive team, hellbent on squeezing off every offensive chance in the neutral zone. They weren’t the most talented team, though they were still very good, but they were entirely committed to their tactics and they worked. At the same time the Detroit Red Wings were an extremely talented, high pace, puck moving team, with a decidedly Russian flare. These two very different style teams coexisted in the same league with the same set of rules.
The Broad Street Bullies of the 70s beat teams into submission in route to two Stanley Cup wins, while the Flyers of the 90s blended skill and size into a tamer, but still tough, team. In the 2000s players like Mike Richards, Danny Briere, Simon Gagne, Keith Primeau, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Pronger and others created a different culture (Dry Island not included), but also had personality and hints of past toughness. What about today’s Flyers? The two words that come to mind are patient and inconsistent.
Is it possible to develop an identity in today’s evolving landscape? Does it always have to evolve into “toughness”?
For an answer look no further than the league’s most recently formed team, the Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights, a team literally plucked from oblivion via expansion draft, quickly cultivated a very prominent identity. A group of players deemed entirely expendable by their NHL clubs became not only a team, but a group that managed to challenge for a cup in their first year, eventually losing in the Stanley Cup Final. While this meteoric rise to contention seemed improbable and certainly involved a little luck, it happened by design.
The Golden Knights identified a type of player they wanted for a style of game they intended to play. They wanted to play a very fast, high pressure, style of hockey. Make plays, or make mistakes, but make them at speed and recover with speed. They hired a coach who preached that style of hockey and acquired a goalie who had familiarity playing behind a team that played decisively and aggressively in the past. The Vegas Golden Knights, in short, set their sites on an achievable goal by creating an identity and managing a set of variables and conditions that made success possible. This wasn’t coincidence, it was actually shrewd planning and growing self-belie, through execution of smaller tasks. The best teams take this route, knowing winning rarely happens without direction and intent.
The best teams, in fact, not only have skill and ability, but also the aforementioned direction. It is this direction, or identity, which allows them to compete by leaning on their traits and training, as a military unit leans on its training when pressured. In the absence of overwhelming talent, a team reverts to its inherent nature or it’s training, allowing it to thrive, not wilt, under pressure. These things become the tools with which they dismantle their opponents, making it even more imperative to build for fit and function.
For the better part of 3 decades, the orange and black struggled mightily to hang onto the Broad Street Bully mentality, hearkening back to a time where intimidation through pure physicality could be achieved without significant suspension. The Flyers of this age were polarizing to outsiders and loved by the faithful, but they were universally remembered for being utterly miserable to play against. The fans took on this identity themselves, making Philadelphia one of the more hated places for opposition players to play. The arena was almost always loud and lively. The team, like it’s fans, won and lost with fire.
The Broad Street Bully version of hockey has been legislated out of the league and Hextall’s version of this team has largely been one besieged with contractual wrangling, draft picks and asset management plans. While it’s clear that all these things were needed, the end result, at the NHL level, has been an inconsistent though talented team that has at times appeared to be adrift, devoid of a discernible identity. The Wells Fargo Center, once boisterous, now sometimes suffers from malaise.
The team was then surrounded by coaches who, in turn, had not yet developed their own NHL coaching identity. Dave Hakstol, known for his management of North Dakota’s NCAA program, was brought in to replace Craig Berube, with no NHL or AHL coaching experience in any capacity. While there’s no doubt Hakstol knows hockey, he’s still, to a large extent, finding his way in the NHL, let alone Philadelphia, where fans have taken issue with his perceived lack of emotion.
Another coach, who Dave Hakstol inherited, is Ian Laperriere. Once a gritty, gut-it-out, warrior on the ice, Laperriere was brought on as the penalty kill coach in 2013-2014. To that point, Laperriere had extensive penalty kill experience in the NHL as a player, but he had never coached at any level. So, while no one should ever assert that Laperriere had no experience to warrant a shot at coaching the PK, fans can and probably should, question whether his coaching methods have actually been effective. Unfortunately, during his tenure, the Flyers have ranked 27th, 20th, 21st and 29th in regular season penalty kill efficiency. Admire Lappy or not, there’s clearly room for improvement.
Even Dave Scott, now the President presiding over the Flyers, came to do so having never run a pro sports team. Although clearly a very talented business person, Scott took over for Peter Luukko, unexpectedly, on an interim basis. Scott soon took over on a full-time basis and then found himself without the benefit Ed Snider, the franchise’s guiding light and sounding board. Scott has, by and large, said the right things regarding the state of the Flyers, but he’s also acknowledged what we all knew already, which is that he’s no Ed Snider.
We all wondered how Snider’s passing might change things in Philadelphia and I think now, years out, we can see exactly where his presence is missed the most. Snider was a massive personality, who was above all else, passionate and committed. Despite any of the mistakes he may have made as an owner, Snider fueled the identity of this team by demanding excellence of his staff and his players. He was always evaluating and his passion either trickled down to you or you likely wouldn’t be here very long.
The league has changed since Ed Snider founded the Flyers and so has this team. The organization is now tasked with finding a new identity…one that consistently wins; one that, again, expects to win, but that process can only happen through honest self evaluation and tough choices.
Now nearing the end of October, the Flyers have shown the same inconsistent play of the last 5 years or more. The team of today has become a team we desperately want to see as improving, but often become frustrated with when they continually show themselves to be, endlessly patient and inconsistent. We wait, like a candle burning at both ends, for the future.
The time for the acceptance of an incomplete process as an excuse for a lack of performance must pass. In its place, accountability. Success won’t simply happen, success, for our purposes, requires a plan to prevent one rebuild from gradually boiling over into a newer one. Success requires an identity.
With the hard task of managing the cap and building the prospect base well in hand, it’s time to bring back an identity and build the team to fit a plan, just as Vegas did in 2017-2018. It’s time to stop making things fit and instead start engineering solutions to fit. It’s time for patience, only where deserved, but change where necessary.
Passion, once overflowing, now waits to be rekindled in the only way it can be for the Flyers...by winning.