Unsteady Landings on Airstrip One

While us penguins continue to wilt in the usual Northeastern Summer heat, pining for the days when a cool iceberg awaits our collectively scorched behinds, thoughts about the upcoming (and too far off) season still seep their way into our Sun-addled brains.

This is the second in a five-part series which intends to examine the ways the Flyers front office, though publicly professing to want to win the Cup by any means necessary, just ends up conducting business as usual year in and year out.

It’s inevitable that the one true face of the Philadelphia Flyers will make his presence known in a big way whenever the franchise he birthed and parented falls well short of expectations.

During the first week of May, Ed Snider appeared glum and angry at turns in front of the cameras, obviously at a loss to explain why the 2010 Eastern Conference champions were unceremoniously dumped in a four-game sweep.

But one thing was for certain: After almost 30 years on the fringe, the Boston Bruins — the eventual Stanley Cup champions and the team that done the dirt to the Orange and Black — were back on the radar as Enemies of the State.

We are at war with Beantown, because we always have been at war with Beantown.

Given this, it’s going to help ease the pain if we view the jarring Carter-Richards trades/Bryzgalov signing in late June through the prism of a knee-jerk reaction to that sudden defeat.

They were beaten by a team whose forwards possess a lethal combination of size and skill, with a goaltender in his 30′s who provided difference-making play to elevate his teammates. They must do everything they can to prevent it from happening again, so the roster must be reshaped to match the new threat.

Or so Snider would like to think.

It’s a narrow, blinding, binding and ultimately failed assumption that the higher ups in the organization have followed for years: when any Flyers club perceived to be superior is toppled by what is perceived to be a lesser opponent, the Flyers are compelled to find ways to match that opponent’s style in order to remain a contender.

The pattern first established itself in the mid-1970′s, during the glory years of the Broad Street Bullies.

Having already won two consecutive Stanley Cups based on hard work, opportunistic offense and supernatural goaltending, Philly put together their finest season yet in 1975-76, setting franchise records in goals (348), goal differential (+137) total wins (51), home wins (36) and points (118) — doing so for most of that season without an injured Bernie Parent and Rick MacLeish.

Despite struggling with Toronto in a seven-game first-round series, the Flyers ripped through Boston in five. The hat trick was not to be, as the dynastic Canadiens stole the limelight and won the first of their four straight Cups with a clean sweep — the last two games coming at the Spectrum. What happened next in the wake of that crushing loss turned the fortunes of the franchise around completely.

To address Montreal’s overwhelming speed and skill, heart-and-soul players like Dave Schultz, Terry Crisp, Ross Lonsberry, Gary Dornhoefer and Bill Clement were traded/phased out in favor of drafting/trading for skaters who had more talent than grit. Tom Bladon, Bob Dailey, Kevin McCarthy, Rick Lapointe, Mel Bridgman and Ken Linseman joined the ranks, but the results were no better.

Philly lost in four games to the Bruins in the ’77 semifinals, then after winning two rounds in ’78, fell once again to Boston. In ’79, the Rangers flat out embarrassed the Flyers in a five-game second-round set.

What Snider and general manager Keith Allen neglected then, was that in their pursuit of the Flying Frenchmen, they forgot all about the Bruins. In that period, Boston, led by the colorful Don Cherry, were the epitome of a lunch-pail club and the complete opposite of the Orr-Esposito offensive juggernaut.

Fast forward to the miracle year of 1979-80 and The Streak. A pro sports record of 35 straight games without a loss, 48 wins and a league-best 116 points all went down the tubes because the upstart Islanders — who finished 25 points behind in the standings — spoiled the party in six games. Never mind that, if you look at the roster (and by some players’ own admissions) it’s a wonder they managed to accomplish so much.

For the first part of the 80′s, the Flyers desperately clawed and scratched and clutched and grabbed at thin air, in a vain attempt to catch New York. The Rangers were ultimately included in the stew after Herb Brooks and his so-called “Smurfs” (who used a free-flowing European style of attack) literally ran circles around the boys two years running, the last time by dumping the first-place ’83 Flyers in a shocking three-game first-round sweep.

Meanwhile, the Islanders won three more Cups and the Rangers turned in a shocking five-game truimph in ’86 based on discipline and a hot goaltender. The Capitals also feasted in three games in ’84′s opening round, capitalizing on discipline and defense.

This painful period of unfulfilled promise ended up reversing the club’s fortunes once more, as the 1982-83 drafts yielded some now-famous names: Peter Zezel, Derrick Smith, Rick Tocchet, Pelle Eklund, Ron Sutter, Ron Hextall, Dave Brown. Ilkka Sinisalo, a free agent from Finland, also made the best of his increased role at the time.

But by the time the ship was righted thanks to the exacting will and organized intensity of Mike Keenan, the Edmonton Oilers were simply healthier and better at everything and proved it twice in a three-year span.

Fast forward to the mid 90s, the Legion of Doom Era, when Bob Clarke returned for a second go-round as GM and Snider was flush with his protracted triumph over getting Spectrum II built. Despite the clear size and skill advantage Eric Lindros brought to the table, the upstart Flyers were subdued by a newfangled invention called the neutral zone trap in the 1995 East Finals by a less-talented (but still Cup champion) New Jersey Devils.

Like the set-ups from Ken Marino’s character “Louie” on MTV’s “The State,” you know what I’m gonna say…As the Flyers engaged in an obsessive chase against a new foe, all traces of small, maneuverable players were erased. Goodbye Kevin Dineen, Dmitri Yushkevich, Rob DiMaio, Brent Fedyk. Hello Trent Klatt, Mike Sillinger, Chris Gratton and Luke Richardson.

Only problem was, despite the creeping dread of another impending series with ye olde Horned Ones, it didn’t actually happen until five years later. By then, the Flyers were gutted by Buffalo (’98), dumped by Toronto (’99), and painfully blew a 3-1 Eastern Finals lead to a Devils club which began to open up offensively with better talent up front.

Where the process has noticeably accelerated, has been in the Paul Holmgren era.

First, there was the ugly loss to Buffalo in the Spring of 2006, which triggered one of the worst years in franchise history. The Penguins had been the target ever so briefly, with two sets of negative results (’08-’09) to show for it, and the beast Chris Pronger became the spoils in the war on Crosby and Malkin and the space in front of the crease.

But this year’s loss once again allowed the powers that be to tap into that endless resource for framing that constant Orwellian “us vs. them” mentality, with the added twist of certain media outlets gleefully pouring gasoline on the fire vis-a-vis Carter and Richards and all that never-really-substantiated locker room business.

Of course, finding anything to demonize aids the franchise’s endless PR cause by giving it the chance to portray itself simultaneously as disrespected by everyone else in the hockey world yet revered on the home front.

But after 45 years at the controls, it’s all too much — Snider is coming across like some grotesque combination of Pygmalion and Ahab crossed with Big Brother — and the ripples caused by these sudden changes in course are spreading further and further outward with increasingly erratic results.

Pulling old enemies into a new narrative should be expected. Pulling two of your own homegrown talents into the vortex with it, no matter what the public excuse becomes, is completely alien and completely unsettling. So is the third wholesale roster change in five years.

Now it’s goodbye Carter, Richards, Boucher, Carcillo, Leino, Laperriere, Asham, Versteeg, Powe, Zherdev and sanity. Hello Simmonds, Schenn, Voracek, Bryzgalov, Lilja, Jagr, Talbot and absolute uncertainty.

Raise your glass of Victory Gin, for we are still apparently winning the war we have always fought.