You know the drill. Philadelphia is at 44 years and counting since the Flyers last won the Stanley Cup, so the annual tradition continues. Everyone knows it by heart. Everyone assesses the two teams that reached the Final – this year, the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins – and asks, How did they do it? And why can't the Flyers do it?
Let's commence with the reflection and analysis and observations, then:
– In beating the Bruins in seven games, in embarking on a remarkable turnaround after having the NHL's worst record as recently as Jan. 3, the Blues won the Cup in the manner that the Flyers had tried, for years, to win it: They changed head coaches. They changed goaltenders. They hoped that those changes would inspire them to play better. The results were beyond anyone's reasonable expectations, and Craig Berube and rookie Jordan Binnington ended up hoisting the Cup on Wednesday night – a sight that had to be particularly frustrating to Flyers fans, given that Berube had coached here for nearly two full seasons and that goaltending has bedeviled the franchise for so long.
A team has to have enough talent, depth, and experience already on its roster to pull off such a feat, though. The Flyers came close in 2009-10, when Peter Laviolette took over midseason and, as the Eastern Conference's seventh seed, they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the Stanley Cup Final. But even that run required the Flyers to walk the wire twice: They qualified for the playoffs in a shootout on the last day of the regular season, and they became just the third team in league history to rally from a three-games-to-none deficit when they beat Boston in the second round. Last season, the Flyers didn't have the requisite depth or goaltending – until they called up Carter Hart – to do what the Blues did, no matter who their head coach was. To his credit, their general manager, Chuck Fletcher, appears to recognize as much.
"Both those teams are built a little differently, but they have a pretty good mix of youth and experience," Fletcher said Monday. "If you go through, both those teams have four lines that can contribute and actually more than six (defensemen), as you can see with some of the guys getting banged up. They don't really have any weak links. I think that's when it shows you how important depth really is and obviously, your goaltending. ... I think we just need to get a little bit deeper here. We have good players. We need more of them. We have some good kids coming, but we certainly have a few holes we need to fill."
– For a more patient segment of the Flyers' fan base, the Bruins' appearance in the Final could have generated the same measure of frustration that the Blues' victory did. Here's why: Boston, generally speaking, has been the sort of team that former Flyers general manager Ron Hextall wanted to build here – one with staying power, one with a reasonable chance to win a championship every year.
Over the last 12 years, the Bruins have won one Stanley Cup, advanced to the Final three times, and reached the playoffs 10 times. They've done it with a core of respected veterans who have been around for most, if not all, of that time (Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krecji), with two terrific goaltenders (Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas), and with a farm system that has replenished the roster (Torey Krug, David Pasternak, Jake DeBrusk). In the Flyers' recent history, only under Hextall did they commit to that replenishing, and only Hart has provided hope that the franchise finally has a long-term answer to its goaltending question.
– Earlier this month, Fletcher did something that the Flyers had done before but he hadn't. The NHL has a quirky rule that allows a team to trade for the exclusive right to negotiate with an impending free agent before the league's official free-agency period begins. So Fletcher traded a fifth-round pick to the Winnipeg Jets for the chance for a few sit-downs with center Kevin Hayes ahead of June 23, when any and every team will be able to make its free-agent pitch to Hayes.
Fletcher had spent nine years as the GM of the Minnesota Wild, from 2009 to 2018, and he had never pulled off a similar maneuver. But his (relatively) new boss had. In 2007, under comparable pressure to improve a Flyers team that had just missed the playoffs, Paul Holmgren traded a first-round pick to the Nashville Predators so he could negotiate with – and eventually sign – Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. Did Holmgren recommend that Fletcher follow the same formula?
"No," Fletcher said the other day, "we were in our meetings last week, and I think it was a consensus of the group that this would be the right approach."
It's possible, of course, that Hayes won't sign with the Flyers. But his relationship with Alain Vigneault, who coached him in New York, and the modest cost of a late-round draft pick made this a risk worth taking. Yes, Hayes is a 6-foot-5 center who score and can kill penalties, and the Flyers could plug him into their lineup immediately. But more importantly, the Flyers simply need more good, seasoned players, at every position, and if Fletcher can acquire some without having to surrender any of the organization's young players and prospects who might yet develop, he should.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mike Sielski is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.