As SB Nation looks at the best teams to never win a championship this week, there are plenty of franchises that have had truly great teams fail to deliver on the biggest stage and the Philadelphia Flyers are no different.
For my money, the best Flyers team to not win a Stanley Cup was the 1996-97 squad.
Led by stars like Eric Lindros, John LeClair, Rod Brind-Amour, Mikael Renberg, and Eric Desjardins, the ‘97 Flyers came oh so close to capturing the franchises’ first Stanley Cup since 1975 —four games close in fact.
A look at the 1996-97 team:
After losing just three games in three rounds on the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, and armed with home-ice advantage, the Flyers preceded to lose four-straight to the Detroit Red Wings in a rare finals sweep (there have been just 20 sweeps since going to best of seven in 1939).
Their postseason run followed a strong 103-point regular season (good for fourth overall) in which Terry Murray’s club finished third in goals for and eighth in goals allowed despite less than stellar goaltending from an aging Ron Hextall (his age-32 season, far past his prime) and an inconsistent Garth Snow (team .897 save percentage below league average of .902) that was often buoyed by the offense provided from the Legion of Doom, and Brind-Amour among others.
They finished a lone point behind the New Jersey Devils for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but never got a chance at them in the playoffs after the New York Rangers dispatched them in just five games in the Conference Semifinals. The Flyers would, of course, plow through the Rangers in the Conference Finals in five games after taking out the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres in five games apiece each.
All told the Flyers needed just 15 games to reach the Stanley Cup Finals that year, outscoring teams 61-39 in that stretch, though their domination would end abruptly at the hands of a dynasty about to begin in Detroit.
Detroit lost in the Cup Finals in 1994-95 and then in the Conference Finals to eventual Cup champion Colorado the following year. But they were primed for more, and they were about to embark on a late 90’s/early 00’s tear through the NHL.
Though the Flyers lost just three times in reaching the Cup Finals in ‘97, the Red Wings weren’t far behind with just four total losses coming in while posting a +10 goal differential. Not quite as dominant as the Flyers, but that included a wild back-and-forth series with a loaded defending champion Avalanche team in the midst of somewhat of their own mini-dynasty (two Cups in six seasons) in the Conference Finals that Detroit needed just six games to win.
While the Flyers had very well peaked, the Red Wings were continuing to ascend and picked up a massive confidence boost in finally taking down their bitter rivals in the postseason.
That extra boost was all a lineup chock full of future Hall of Famers needed to help get over the hump and at the expense of a very good Flyers team.
That Red Wings team featured seven future Hall of Famers including Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Igor Larionov, Larry Murphy, and Viacheslav Fetisov not to mention future Hall of Fame coach Scott Bowman behind the bench.
So why didn’t the Flyers cap off their incredible run with their first Stanley Cup since 1976?
Well for starters the names in the above paragraph explain things a ton as the Red Wings were truly a dynasty in the making. After finally putting things together during the Avalanche series, they’d outscore the Flyers by 10 in a four-game sweep and go on to win the Cup again the following year by sweeping the Washington Capitals. They would cap three Stanley Cups in six seasons with another in 2001-02, though the presence of the equally dominant Avalanche surely prevented at least one or two more in the late 90’s/early 00’s.
But not only were the Red Wings a team of destiny, the Flyers were also a somewhat flawed team in 1996-97, with their most glaring weaknesses directly picked apart and exploited by Detroit.
The Flyers were heavy on offense, relying on a high-scoring attack to mast their deficiencies on defense and in goal. They were so thin on defense that they needed to go out and trade for 35-year-old Paul Coffey midseason. Coffey —a future Hall of Famers in his own right— was past his prime and not the skater he once was, further highlighting the Flyers’ lack of mobility on the blue line that would be their downfall in that series.
A defense corps of Desjardins, Coffey, Janne Niinimaa, Chris Therien, Petr Svodoba, and Karl Dykhuis was a weak point, and the Red Wings took advantage of that group before victimizing whatever Flyers netminder was in that night.
The below of Darren McCarty just undressing one of the Flyers’ better defenders in Niinimaa was a capper on how the Red Wings danced around the Flyers in the whole series.
When the Red Wings weren’t undressing the Flyers’ defenders, they were abusing the goaltenders just as badly.
Hextall —who would play just 69 more games before retiring— and Snow played to a combined .892 save percentage in the playoffs. Splitting time (Snow played 12 games, Hextall eight) did the two no favors as Murray alternated starters in the first three games of the Cup Finals before turning back to Hextall in game four after allowing six goals in game three.
Not only were the Flyers slogged with a slow defense and below-average goaltending, but their top heavy offense met resistance in the form of an air-tight Red Wings defense with the Hall of Famers mentioned above, and a suffocating puck possession system implemented by Bowman.
Detroit’s system suffocated and frustrated the Flyers’ stars, leaving Lindros with just two assists until a meaningless goal with 15 seconds left in game four. The Red Wings’ speed, puck possession, and disciplined defense took the Flyers’ high-octane offense right out of the series and left their weaknesses badly exposed.
In retrospect it’s not hard to see why the 1996-97 Flyers were left without a Stanley Cup at the end of their tremendous run, but it still feels more about the machine that was the Red Wings that about the Flyers’ pitfalls. That team wasn’t the first to lose to a dynasty (or one in the making) and they surely weren’t the last either, but more on those in the coming days.
The 1996-97 Flyers were a flame that burned twice as bright but faded twice as fast. That said, they’re still one of the best Flyers teams of all-time to not win a Stanley Cup —if not the best.
Follow along the rest of the week as we continue to make cases for the best Flyers teams not to win Stanley Cups as part of SB Nation’s look at the best teams to never win championships.