On Friday, the Philadelphia Flyers started Dale Weise at second-line winger (pushing down $7 million-man James van Riesmdyk to the third line) and demoted a legitimate NHL prospect in Nicolas Aube-Kubel in exchange for the human, less-orange AHL equivalent of Gritty to play on the fourth line. The result? Naturally, a 4-0 victory.
Then on Saturday, the Flyers took on the Leafs. You could say they got taken to the cleaners, but that might be an insult to cleaners. A ghastly performance by Calvin Pickard meant a 4-0 deficit and a hat trick by Andreas Johnsson (who?) not even halfway through the first period. Final score: 6-0.
The Flyers don’t make sense. Hockey doesn’t make sense. That’s why the big picture is what matters, tempting narratives be damned. And the big picture shows that the Flyers are sitting 13th out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, with a 10-11-2 record that is entirely deserved and highly disappointing.
We all know what happens next. The coaching staff will make a handful of changes, mostly elevating players already overextended in their current roles at the expense of the younger ones. The front office, And the Flyers, despite a rogue hot streak or two, will ultimately fail to make it past the first round of the playoffs.
For years now, Ron Hextall has preached patience and keeping the long view in mind. In a vacuum, it’s one of the most desirable traits you can have in a general manager. It allowed him to get out from underneath the many hefty contracts that his predecessor had left behind, from Vinny Lecavalier’s to Nicklas Grossman’s, and build for the future while still maintaining a relatively competitive team.
The problem is that here, in the fourth year of Dave Hakstol’s tenure, “relatively competitive” seems to be the best we can possibly hope for with this combination of coaches, players, and front office members. In other words, the Flyers are exactly where the Sixers were before Sam Hinkie arrived in town. His is a name that certainly elicits strong reactions from all members of the fanbase, but even the fiercest anti-Process fans cannot dispute that the bright future the team has is a direct response to Hinkie’s rejection of mediocrity.
Progress isn’t linear, but mediocrity is. It’s one long, flat line that stretches into infinity. If it were on a hospital heart rate monitor, it would literally be signifying death. The FiveThirtyEight article from a few months back wasn’t wrong. This is the most mediocre team in professional sports, varying wildly from game to game but always returning to where they belong, eventually.
Obviously, the Sixers model does not apply to this team. You can’t tear down a team and feel confident that success will be achieved through the draft and savvy management of assets. Superstars are basketball’s only currency, while in hockey they are extremely valuable but not vital. Still, what everyone in the Flyers organization needs to understand is that where this team is, right now, is wholly unacceptable.
Change is scary. There is no silver bullet when the problems run as deep as they do in this case. But with a clear-eyed look at all of their systemic flaws, it may be possible to repair this team and this season, one issue at a time.