As I was sitting in my basement watching the Flyers and the Sharks, I was wondering how we got here.
No, not me. I know, I should be asleep. But I’m actually thinking about these once-proud franchises that had more hopes and dreams in the afternoon’s World Junior games than their nightcap.
They ended the night as two of the five worst teams in hockey. Neither has much cap space. The Athletic considered both to have below-average prospect pipelines coming into the year. It’s easy to argue these teams are in the worst position of any in the league. The Coyotes might be playing in front of 12 people, but at least they have cap space and a well-regarded prospect pool.
I really should’ve just went to bed. Regardless, fixing either situation is going to be difficult and take time.
There is a key difference, though: I understand how San Jose got here.
The Sharks have been a perennial contender for much of the 2000s and 2010s. They have the fourth-most wins since the 2004-05 lockout and, despite being the NHL’s posterchild for playoff disappointment, did make a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2016. Understandably, the team continued to push to compete with its core. They acquired Erik Karlsson and extended him. They handed out big contracts to Brent Burns, Logan Couture, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. As a result of their success, they didn’t get premium draft picks and those they had were often trade bait to try to get over the hump. Now, they’re paying for it.
The Sharks tried to maintain success. The Flyers tried to maintain mediocrity.
Philadelphia has only won one playoff round since 2012. The Flyers have won their division once since 2003-04. They have been to one Final since 1997. The Bullies were almost years ago. This has not been a successful organization no matter how much pride it has.
This has taken a number of iterations.
After the Cup run, Paul Holmgren desperately tried to push his team to a championship, but Andrej Meszaros and Ilya Bryzgalov proved imprudent and Mark Streit wasn’t going to replace Chris Pronger. In hindsight, the 2010 team was a seventh seed that caught lightning in a bottle and probably wasn’t as close to contention as it felt, but clear eyes did not prevail and the team spent itself into a dead end up against the cap.
Ron Hextall took over and cleaned up the cap, recouped some assets, but never truly committed to a rebuild. This led to teams buoyed by Claude Giroux, good enough to be a fringe playoff team but not quite enough to do anything memorable. The farm system was always well-stocked, but with more depth than elite talent. Nolan Patrick didn’t pan out and he left the team in a similar spot.
After this retool stalled, Dave Scott wanted a “bias for action” and brought in Chuck Fletcher. He’s returned the team to salary cap hell. He acquired $30 million per year on Cam Atkinson, Tony DeAngelo, Ryan Ellis, Kevin Hayes, and Rasmus Ristolainen on deals that are on the books at least through at least next season. Extensions that total $13 million for Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim, two players who may ultimately be role players on a good team. All the while the team’s working on its third straight season outside the playoffs.
Over time, teams get old. Some deals will age well and some will age poorly. But which of these teams was really worth investing in?
Even when they did spend aggressively, the Flyers didn’t acquire elite players. When Jack Eichel or Erik Karlsson or Mark Stone were available, they were never heavily discussed in those rumors. They have consistently overpaid for role players to support a core that never achieved more than mediocrity. If you’re an average team, you probably need to find players better than your core guys or find a new core. So when I look at the Sharks’ mess, I at least understand how they talked themselves into supporting into a group that got close. The Flyers constantly spent to the cap on Band-Aids that never had a chance to make a fringe playoff team elite.
Over the holidays, my brother-in-law mentioned that back in the day the Flyers always seemed to be in the mix but now feel like they’re barely a part of the city’s sports culture. The last decade of Flyers hockey has been meaningless. You can sell winning or hope. The Flyers haven’t won and haven’t felt like they had a group coming that could compete for a Cup.
So, how did we get here? Turns out, just like San Jose, it’s an easy explanation, even if it’s less defensible. This organization has been delusional. This predates Fletcher and Scott, though they’re certainly not immune from blame. We’ve had a generation of teams that were convinced they were a player or two, maybe a year or two away from having a Cup team, overvaluing its nucleus and using up any cap space to tread water instead of actually taking steps to change the course of the franchise. We’ve all heard that the Flyers don’t rebuild, the Flyers always go for it. Both parts have proven to be bullheaded.
It feels like this team is finally hitting a dead end, without any compliance buyouts or huge cap increases the organization could view as a life raft to try for another rushed turnaround. In actuality, those would be anchors, only allowing it to perpetuate the same cycle that got us here. Maybe Chuck Fletcher’s gone soon. Maybe whoever takes over will be more patient and build a successful organization. This franchise needs real change. Either way, remind me to go to bed instead of watching Tuesday’s game in Anaheim.