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The Flyers are betting on a winning culture that doesn’t exist

Philadelphia’s biggest move of the offseason so far is one that only teams that win can get away with — but they think that’s exactly what they are.

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Philadelphia Flyers v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

At some point in the last six months, most of us have probably thought it.

How on earth do they think they’re going to pull this off?

On January 26, a day after the Flyers had lost their 13th game in a row (in a streak that began a few weeks after they had lost 10 in a row), Chuck Fletcher and Dave Scott told everyone that they were going to look to pull off an “aggressive retool” in the offseason, allowing them to quickly pivot back into something resembling contention rather than possibly embark on a lengthy rebuild. Those two words have been thrown around endlessly since then, particularly in the context of their own unlikelihood of success.

The questions have been plentiful, and largely legitimate: How are they possibly going to do this? With this roster? With that cap situation? With everyone dealing with injuries? Missing some key draft picks? With no high-end prospects? And a GM who may or may not actually be good?

I, personally, have had most of those questions at some point. I listened to the powers-that-be blame circumstances and injuries, understanding that those were legitimate excuses while still not believing that those problems themselves were nearly enough to fully explain the mess we watched last season.

Yet it maybe wasn’t until Friday’s trade and extension for Tony DeAngelo where it really clicked for me why and how the Flyers believe that this is going to work. There is a certain type of team that can successfully make that kind of move, and the Flyers believe they are that type of team.

Let’s set aside the question of what DeAngelo is on the ice. If you made me guess, he’s somewhere around “acceptable No. 4 defenseman on an NHL team” territory, a guy who clearly has offensive talent from the blue line but whose flaws in his own third of the ice lead him to give a lot of that back. BSH Radio’s Charlie O’Connor has a good rundown of him as a player over at The Athletic. Additionally, here’s a tweet and accompanying chart from Corey Sznajder, a Hurricanes fan who — and this is not an exaggeration — watches more hockey than any person on the planet, which should give you a quick sense of what kind of player he is:

Evidently, the Flyers think there is more to him than I do. Maybe they’re right. But, not the point for now.

Of course, in the time since he became a legitimate draft prospect, DeAngelo has come to be known probably even more for off-ice controversy than for what he’s done during games themselves. In his draft year, he was suspended eight games for use of a racial slur at a teammate. After one year with AHL Syracuse and two years after the Lightning drafted him in the first round, Tampa (an organization that does not seem like one that would give up on a talented young player for solely on-ice reasons) dealt him to Arizona for a single second-round pick, and there were talks of attitude issues on the way out the door there, too. After that season in Arizona (which included a suspension for abuse of an on-ice official, something else that also happened to him while in juniors), he was dealt again by the Coyotes to New York, where a few seasons of ups and downs related to discipline were famously capped by him and teammate Alexandar Georgiev getting in a fight after a loss in early 2021. He was waived shortly after that and bought out by the Rangers the following summer.

This is all important background for a team that’s trying to turn around a situation that’s obviously gone south recently. Whatever one may think of him as a player or person*, the big question here pertains to him as a teammate, because it is clear that DeAngelo has caused problems in multiple locker rooms before, and as recently as 18 months ago. If you’re bringing that guy in, you’re confident that those problems are not going to follow him into your locker room.

* This background is to say nothing about DeAngelo’s unabashed and outstated political leanings that have led him to face some public backlash before. Because while those beliefs — which include 2020 election conspiracy theorism and COVID denialism, among others — are bad to a large portion of the fanbase (including, full disclosure, to me), and while any fan is well within their rights to dislike him and not want to root for him for having those beliefs and/or loudly using his platform to voice them, they’re not really the point here. DeAngelo is surely not alone among NHLers and hockey players in having those kinds of beliefs, and they are probably not the cause of much, if any, of the friction he’s produced among the teams he’s been on.

The case, then, that DeAngelo, who turns 27 in October, has put any perceived and/or actual attitude problems behind him rests largely on this past season, during which he played with the Carolina Hurricanes. Your evaluation of him as a hockey player in that time (and throughout all of this) may vary, but there were no major character issues with him that were reported last year, and it sounds as though he was, by and large, liked by the people in that Hurricanes locker room. Which, as a fan of the team that now employs him, feels like good news.

Yet there’s one crucial detail that seems important to note about those Hurricanes, particularly in comparison to the Rangers and Coyotes teams he was on before them, that probably to some extent helps explain why a guy who seems to have had problems in some of his stops in the past didn’t have any problems there:

They won hockey games. A lot of them.

Prior to joining Carolina, DeAngelo’s NHL time had been spent with a Coyotes team that has been helplessly flailing for the entire last decade, and a Rangers team that spent most of his time there executing a rebuild. Those were not good hockey teams. The Carolina Hurricanes? They’re quite a good hockey team. They were very good before DeAngelo got there, they were very good while he was there, and in all likelihood they’re going to be very good again with him gone. So it goes when you have a smart front office that builds a good roster and hires a coach that gets the most out of said roster.

All of which is to say that it’s not impossible that a team could have DeAngelo on it and be good, even be a legitimate Cup contender. It’s to say that a great way to not have to worry about talented players with attitude problems popping off is to reliably win more games than you lose. Tony DeAngelo is not the first talented athlete who’s clearly rubbed his teammates the wrong way before, and history has told us over and over again, in many different sports, that guys like that tend to find the volume dial a lot quicker when the team they’re on is losing. (Here’s another local example.) It is much, much less likely that a guy is going to cause issues and rock the boat when his team wins two out of every three games it plays.

Winning cures everything. It really is that simple. And teams that win a lot of games have a lot more leeway to bring a guy who may have attitude questions onto their team.

And this is where we get back to Tony DeAngelo’s new team, the Philadelphia Flyers.

In case you’re new around here, the Flyers don’t win a lot of games. Last season, only one team in the NHL won fewer. They’ve been a legitimately really good team in probably one out of the last 10 seasons, that one being a 2019-20 campaign that increasingly feels like it took place 20 years ago. That season was Chuck Fletcher’s first full season running the team, and was the season that followed his first full offseason (and, to date, his most successful one) in Philadelphia.

And maybe Fletcher’s mentally set that team as his anchoring point for what this group should be, or maybe he’s just very confident in the lineup of guys he’s assembled, or maybe he just has a feeling deep in his bones that he feels every time he walks into the office that he can’t quite explain, or maybe this goes above him and is driven by the likes of Scott, or Paul Holmgren, or Bobby Clarke, all of whom clearly have some say in how this team is operating.

But whatever the underlying force behind it is, here’s what’s clear: the Flyers think they have a winning culture.

They think they’re a team that wins.

Micro-level, this helps explain a move like the DeAngelo acquisition. You can watch him have a fairly good season like he had in Carolina, on a team that was excellent, and think that you can replicate that success here with no concerns about his attitude ... as long as you think that you’re just like a Carolina team that has reached the second round four seasons in a row. A Carolina team that, as Corey’s tweet above pointed out, had the coaching, systems, and personnel to put DeAngelo in position to succeed, all of which is going to make it significantly less likely that he’s going to be a problem in the room. (The Flyers have all of those things … right?)

Take a step back, though, and think about everything the Flyers have said they want to do — and have begun to attempt to do — since that January press conference. And think about all the questions you were asking as it occurred to you that the Flyers really do believe that they’re going to turn this around this year.

This is a team that has convinced itself it’s going to win if just a few things break right, they make a couple more smart moves this offseason, and they get better health during the season (which sure looks like a big question mark at this moment, but not the point for now). They believe this despite having a group that finished with 61 points last season and no longer having the franchise legend who was also still the best player from that team.

Many different questions have dogged this franchise over the past year and a half, as fans and other observers have wondered whether the franchise post-Ed Snider has lost its way, and whether it needs to get back to Flyers Hockey, whatever that should mean in 2022. And while maybe there are conversations to be had to a degree on those topics, they are mostly things no one would care about if the team was winning games. (Source: early 2020, when no one cared about these things because the team was winning games.) And the front office, for its faults, seems to get that.

So their solution is to just ... convince themselves they’re a team that wins, and conduct themselves as one regardless of whether they’ve actually earned the right to. And once they’ve done that, they can make moves like this one, which is a move that only a team that wins could (and this past season did) get away with, because they think that they’re an organization that has that winning culture and will win unless something out of their control goes wrong.

Of course, then, one has to ask: why do they think that?