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The wisdom of the Philadelphia Flyers’ stubborn goalie philosophy

Apr 25, 2011, 8:48 PM EDT

Michael Leighton, Matt Carle AP

As a hockey fan, if you had to choose between consistent (but less brilliant) success or a mixture of dynamic highs and depressing lows, what would you prefer? This might be a generalization, but I’d bet many casual fans would prefer choice B while most hardcore fans would be happier with the first option.

Ultimately, if you believe that a team can have a great season even if they don’t win it all, then the Philadelphia Flyers rank as one of the most well-run franchises in sports, let alone hockey.

Year after year, people casually bury the team’s front office for failing to put an elite goalie between the pipes. Yet if you take a sober look at their near-constant track record of success, you’d come to a humbling conclusion.

Maybe these guys know what they are doing, after all.

Just take a look at the team’s accomplishments since they last won a Stanley Cup during the 1974-75 season.

  • Sure, they didn’t end up winning it all, but the Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup finals on six different occasions since 75, including 2010.
  • They’ve come close plenty of other times, too. They made the Eastern Conference finals five more times and made two losing semifinals appearances in the era when that was the final round before the SCF.
  • They’ve made the playoffs in all but six seasons since 1975. The Flyers missed the playoffs five straight times from 1989-90 to 1993-94 and one other time in that anomaly season in 2006-07. In other words, Philadelphia’s been irrelevant for one half-decade and one weird season since ’75. There aren’t many (if any) teams in sports that can match their consistency.

At least one “reason to believe” per decade

You can’t just claim that the Flyers’ highest moments were Broad Street Bullies overflow, even if the franchise leans toward physical players. In fact, Philly fans have had a reason to think that their team might win a Cup in every decade since the ’70s Bullies.

Ron Hextall in the 1980s: Anyone who says the Flyers ignored the Bernie Parent element to their success probably slept through Hextall’s innovative, angry days. He won a Conn Smythe in defeat and changed the way goalies move the puck. Hextall even fit in with the team’s rough-and-tumble motif as he was the meanest goalie this side of Billy Smith.

The Legion of Doom line in the mid/late 90’s: Concussions issues leave some “What if?” questions about Eric Lindros, but he still spearheaded a line that received the last great nickname. He also won a Hart Trophy and helped them make the Cup finals, even though they were handled easily by the Detroit Red Wings.

Jeremy Roenick/Keith Primeau in the early ’00s: They didn’t have a long run of excellence, but came within a Game 7 loss of reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 2004. The team also showed some promise with Peter Forsberg, but not to the same level.

Current era: They made the conference finals in 2008 (losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins) and obviously lost to the Blackhawks in the finals last year.


Now, I’m not saying that goaltending hasn’t been a problem in Philadelphia. Instead, I’m hypothesizing that the Flyers recognize that the position is among the most unpredictable in sports, preferring to surround them with great draft picks and strong free agent acquisitions.

It’s not like throwing a bunch of money at a goalie guarantees playoff success, either. The Minnesota Wild spent $7 million on two goalies in 2010-11 and didn’t even make the postseason. The Red Wings moved from paying goalies big money to saving in that area once the salary cap was instituted and they haven’t missed a beat.

Deep down, the Flyers brass would love to have more stability in that area and there have been some curious decisions here and there (especially in this year’s playoffs). But if you think that this team is poorly managed, then you’re ignoring decades of success.

  1. ml3939 - Apr 25, 2011 at 9:03 PM

    The Flyers have been to 6 Cup finals since they won- lost to Montreal in 1976, the Islanders in 1980, the Oilers in 1985 and 1987, the Red Wings in 1997 and Chicago last year.

    • James O'Brien - Apr 25, 2011 at 9:10 PM

      Thanks a bunch on that clarification.

  2. flyerscup2010 - Apr 25, 2011 at 9:34 PM

    that 04 team was great, it’s such a shame they’ve sort of gotten forgotten over time, probably because the lockout occurred right after that season. i still dont know how they didnt make it to or win the cup that year. the flyers/lightning ECF was an incredible series.

    • James O'Brien - Apr 25, 2011 at 9:53 PM

      That Keith Primeau-Jeremy Roenick center combo was something else.

  3. dbick - Apr 25, 2011 at 10:28 PM

    Being a Flyers fan it’s definitely hard to find something to complain about other than not winning the cup, but the front office has consistently delivered teams that, at the very least, are in contention to get to the ECF or stanley cup. It seems these days goalies, except 4 or 5 of them, aren’t as dominate as they used to be and can’t string together many great years in a row so it’s hard for me to blame them for not investing a ton in that position when you’re getting to game 6 of the stanley cup finals with michael leighton, or game 7 of the ECF with Robert Esche.

  4. ml3939 - Apr 25, 2011 at 11:44 PM

    I think it is unfair to lump Holmgren into the Bobby Clarke we can get away with a mediocre goalie theory. The current team is really nothing like the over-sized, under-speed teams built by Bobby Clarke. The current team is not very tough or intimidating. Generously speaking, Shelley is a barely an average heavyweight fighter and Carcillo is an average light heavyweight fighter. Richards is just pathetic when he drops the gloves.
    As for the goalie situation, had Holmgren been the GM when the Flyers could have signed CuJo, Richter or the Beezer, I do not think he would have settled for the Beezer. Bob showed some potential this year and could be a very good goalie in the near future. Holmgren has proven he knows how to build a team for the playoffs and fill the holes when they come to light. Last year Leighton ended up giving up some soft goals in the finals but the biggest deficit appeared to be in the 5th and 6th defensemen. Holmgren clearly filled that void. If goaltending proves to be their downfall this year, Holmgren will fix it.

  5. flyerscup2010 - Apr 26, 2011 at 1:26 AM

    the “we can get away with mediocre goaltending” theory isnt necessarily flawed as much as it’s just frustrating. there are only so many truly elite goaltenders in the league. i think having martin brodeur winning 4 cups in jersey during our current span of being consistently good, but consistently having questions in net since the lindros trade in 92 when we sent hextall to quebec, is what makes it even more frustrating. it’s like being phil mickelson during the era of tiger woods.

    but since there are only so many elite goalies, the flyers brass simply tries to build a strong team around average goalies. the main difference between clarke and holmgren is that clarke completely ignored the defense, preferring to have one or two good defensemen and a ragtag group behind them (howe/mccrimmon in the 80s, desjardins in the 90s, kim johnsson in the early 00s) and a built up offense. holmgren has invested significant amounts of money and draft picks (through trades) in building one of the best defenses in the league, if not the best, around questions in net.

    so i dont know. elite goaltending can win cups. we’ve already watched ryan miller steal two games in the current series while watching the team legitimately outplay the sabres in every game. but there’s only one ryan miller. so i guess in that regard, they’d rather not even bother trying to find one (even though sergei bobrovsky looks like he’s got a ton of potential) and they focus on depth in the lineup. again, not flawed, just frustrating

  6. tommytd - Apr 26, 2011 at 6:18 AM

    Good thing they have that moron Chrissy Pronger to tie everything together…he’s their savior…LOL!

    • spiffy53 - Apr 26, 2011 at 8:27 AM

      Tammy td, it’s good that you don’t think your “Chrissy” thing does not get old. by the way, don’t quit your day job. and i am pretty sure you are the only one LOL.

  7. mastadonis - Apr 26, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    A Saviour? That I don’t know.
    What I do know, is whatever Pronger and Clarke (Bobby) do privately, they’re consenting adults.

  8. cshearing - Apr 26, 2011 at 11:43 AM

    Sounds like rationalization to me. Goaltending has been a problem for the Flyers for years. Every year, there’s some supposed savior (Czechmanek, Esche, Boucher, Leighton, Bobrovsky, Boucher (again!). It never ends, just like the Flyer’s cup drought. It’s fine to say “but we’ve been good”, but that’s no substitute for really winning. Just ask those losing Finals teams.

  9. Chris Fiorentino - Apr 26, 2011 at 12:21 PM

    Being consistently good isn’t enough. Especially in a town where the #1 team, the Eagles, already have that label. The fact is that unless the team wins a championship, they failed. Period. There are different degrees of failure, however. The Sixers took a game from the Heat and if they lose game 5, it will be a very small failure of a season for them. If the Flyers lose tonight, this season was a COLOSSAL FAILURE.

  10. derpdederpdederp - Apr 26, 2011 at 10:31 PM

    theres no wisdom in being unable to draft or acquire a legitimate, or even capable, starting goalie

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