Remembrance of Things Past

With every passing day and every passing game as the end of the 2013 season unravels before our eyes during this five-game homestand, it’s important to gain and keep perspective.

We get it. You put your heart and soul and money towards this team. You have Facebook and Twitter, you are upset and have every right to complain about the way the Flyers seem to be circling the drain when a playoff spot is tantalizingly out of reach. You have the means to voice that displeasure, and you do.

But why do those 140-character missives of bitterness and frustration seem to primarily revolve around massive firings and roster reconstructions? Total overhauls of franchises from front office to on-ice product rarely happen and it’s rarer still in teams with consistent histories of winning that encounter a sudden downturn.

It’s also not going to escape notice that some of you will slam Ed Snider’s knee-jerk reactionary influence over transactions, yet are guilty of the same extreme opinions when things go badly.

You think you’re upset? You think you know pain because things aren’t going well with the Orange and Black? You’ve never had it so good with 16 of the last 17 years experiencing extra hockey in the Spring. Try living through an era that was stuck on repeat for half a decade.

Very few fans, mostly those who are over 30, remember the way it used to be. The bulk of this piece will recap those wilderness years when the the Flyers missed the playoffs in the 90s, and what was done to rectify the situation after each agonizing failure until it was turned around.

1989-90: The year of the total nuclear meltdown saw Bob Clarke, then in the sixth season of his first tenure as GM, try to shake things up by recycling veterans for picks and lesser-level players.

In a season which saw the club pinball from worst to first and then back again due to injuries and inconsistent play in a significantly weakened and mediocre Patrick Division, Dave Poulin was stripped of his captaincy then traded a month later for retread Ken Linseman, Brian Propp was dealt to the Bruins for draft picks, and defenseman Jay Wells was shuffled off to Buffalo for a guy who eventually became an NHL official.

There was a then-franchise-record 10-game winless streak (0-7-3). But the low point came on March 17, when three Quebec goals in the third period gave the NHL-worst Nords a 6-3 win at Le Colisee — their 12th and final that year. Still, the Flyers were within a playoff spot in the second-to-last game at Uniondale, and though Tim Kerr gave them a 1-0 lead less than a minute in, the Islanders ended up winning, 6-2, and knocking Philly from the postseason. Things got so bad that they couldn’t even lose their regular-season finale to get a higher draft pick, tying Detroit, 3-3. It was the first time since 1972 that no extra hockey would be played in Philadelphia and the first time in 18 years the club failed to finish with a winning record.

In the aftermath, Clarke lost his job in the ultimate disaster for Snider, who had to choose between losing his biological son as team president or his adopted son as GM when both had opposite ideas of how to move the team forward. Blood won out. Russ Farwell, from the Western Hockey League of Canadian juniors, took over. Linseman was gone, as was Mike Bullard and fan favorite Ilkka Sinisalo.

1990-91: With the fourth pick in the draft, Farwell chose Mike Ricci from Peterborough of the OHL. Third pick, to the Red Wings, was Keith Primeau. New faces on the club given more of the spotlight included the illustrious trio of Murray Baron, Jiri Latal, Martin Hostak, along with Dale Kushner and Normand Lacombe. Paul Holmgren remained head coach, but without Andy Murray, bringing on Ken Hitchcock and Craig Hartsburg as assistants.

Thanks to eBay

Despite half a roster of also-rans, continued groin injuries to Ron Hextall which left Ken Wregget and Pete Peeters as your goaltenders, and Mark Howe missing 61 games, the Flyers were near the top of the division around Thanksgiving, and had third place locked up at the end of February thanks to the emergence of Rick Tocchet. Then, the roof caved in. Holmgren looked helpless as his team skidded to a 2-10-2 March, which included 6-0 losses at LA and Washington. The low points came in their final two home games of the season, losing 3-1 to Pittsburgh and 3-0 to Washington that knocked them out of playoff contention.

Farwell took heat from Tocchet and others for blaming the players for not stepping up, and the players blanched at management for not helping them overcome leadership/effort issues with trades. Holmgren, again, was absolved of blame, backing his players for their professionalism.

In the offseason, Farwell simply did work. Peter Forsberg was taken with the sixth-overall selection. The Flyers, Oilers and Kings then worked a trade, with Philly sending Scott Mellanby, Craig Berube and Craig Fisher to the Oilers for Jari Kurri and Dave Brown, then sending Kurri and Jeff Chychrun to the Kings for Steve Duchesne and Steve Kasper. Farwell stole the Blues blind during training camp, getting Rod Brind’Amour and Dan Quinn for Baron and Ron Sutter. The club also made a huge splash by signing a Russian — forward Andrei Lomakin — and shocked some when Kerr was left out in the expansion draft.

1991-92: Holmgren had things at equilibrium early, guiding the team to an 8-8-1 record, but a nine-game winless streak which hit around the time Murray Craven was swapped for Kevin Dineen in mid-November sunk Homer’s head-coaching tenure. Enter Bill Dineen, who guided the Orange and Black to a winning record (24-23-9) the rest of the way, but it wasn’t good enough.

Courtsey of Flyers History

Still only nine points out of a playoff spot and in the Patrick basement in early March, the Flyers suddenly ignite to win five in a row, but fail to make headway. They drop both ends of a home-and-home to the Rangers to end that run and can’t make up ground, ending up in sixth place, 12 points out, after dropping five of their last seven.

A lack of offense was remedied when Farwell cleared the decks, giving a struggling Tocchet (then the team captain), Wregget and Kjell Samuelsson to the Penguins for Mark Recchi and defensive help came in the persons of Garry Galley from Boston and Brian Benning from LA. But Kasper’s bad knees made his acquisition a total dud, Hextall wasn’t fully healed yet, players like Brad Jones and Mark Pederson weren’t cutting it and the spark, “Flyers hockey,” was notably absent.

Drastic action had to be taken.

1992-93: The Lindros Trade. We won’t go into the details, but the Flyers took a tremendous gamble on the first-overall pick the year before, who beat out Von Hayes for the dubious honor of “most people traded for one guy” in that famous 6-for-1 swap with Quebec which was consummated days after the June draft.

Merci a

The offense begins to hum, but the defense is suspect even in this expansion year. Recchi strikes for 53 goals and a team-record 123 points, but Big E goes out with a knee injury plus carries the drama and baggage from his NHL debut, and an alleged incident at an Ontario bar.

A 2-7-2 stretch bridging the end of January and start of February drops the Flyers into last place and they spend the rest of the year trying desperately to make up ground. After losing five of seven in late March, the club inexplicably goes on a season-ending eight-game win binge which included three victories by shutout. They say hello to guys like Stephane Beauregard, Ric Nattress and Dave Snuggerud and kiss Kasper goodbye.

They finish four points out of a playoff spot and a game below .500. They lost seven of nine games to the Islanders, including all five at Nassau Coliseum. A win and a tie in any two of those, or in the two losses of four games against the Isles at home, would have given them a playoff berth.

Dineen, deemed unable to get a total handle on the club, is given the heave at the end of the year, one in which the club does not actually name a captain. Keith Action turns down a contract offer and Lomakin is let go in the expansion draft.

Left with few options due to the price paid for Lindros, Farwell elects to take shots at fringe free agents, bringing in washed-up vets Dave Tippett, Rob Ramage, plus the younger Jeff Finley and Stew Malgunas. He also dealt Terry Carkner to Detroit for Yves Racine. The front office underwent a shake-up as Jay Snider departed the club in the midst of endless wrangling over the building of an arena to replace the Spectrum, and for lack of any better candidates, former Islanders coach Terry Simpson was hired to replace Dineen.

1993-94: The best move made before the season was locking up Swedish forward Mikael Renberg, who broke team rookie scoring records with 38 goals and 82 points. The O&B bolted out of the gate by winning 11 of their first 14 games, but Lindros suffered another knee injury in November, and the downward spiral continued unabated for the rest of the schedule.

An 0-6-1 run in Jan-Feb pulled the Flyers under .500 permanently, and they finished the year 6-10-6. Lindros was lost for the season in an early April game in Winnipeg, and the defensive-minded Simpson was livid with the second-worst defense in the Eastern Conference and fourth-worst in the NHL that allowed 314 goals. They finished four points out of a playoff spot — which went to the Islanders, and three points below expansion Florida.

From eBay

Reports later emerged that Simpson tried to implement a trap system but was ignored, and that several ranking veterans conspired to undercut him within the organization and in the locker room. Galley and Recchi were later revealed to be two sources of discontent.

Galley even went so far as to publicly proclaim the season “84 games of pure Hell.”

Nonetheless, it was Simpson who had to go, and the Flyers were stuck with finding their fourth head coach in six years since Holmgren took over for Mike Keenan in 1988.

Farwell — who also drew the ire and disrespect of his players — got the boot as Clarke, who had served a largely ceremonial role back with the Flyers in 1992-93, became full-time General Manager once more, as the elder Snider lured him away from the same post with the Panthers.

Terry Murray was hired as head coach, while Clarke set about a roster overhaul. He signed Shjon Podein away from the Oilers, grabbed Craig MacTavish from the Rangers, and swapped Racine for Kevin Haller with Montreal. He also robbed the Islanders, trading Tommy Soderstrom for Hextall. A young, big defenseman out of Providence College named Chris Therien was drafted.

Finally, the organization turned the corner once the first lockout ended.

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For those of you who seem overly-concerned that the current season is “being pissed away” with the lack of moves by GM Holmgren aimed at desperately clawing to a playoff spot, or by his refusal to fire Peter Laviolette for a whole laundry list of crimes both real and imagined: here’s your proof that things take time when those in power don’t exactly have a full grip.

The realities of a cap-driven hockey world make the job more complex — infinitely more so when you have people in charge who are more School of Hard Knocks than MIT. Holmgren has managed a weird equilibrium roster-wise since dragging the club out of the NHL’s basement in 2007, but the see-saw is about to permanently tip downward.

Nobody should fear it, because all the Cup winning teams back to the dynastic Islanders of the early 80s endured down years before being smart enough to build up.

The Flyers may be tantalizingly close to the eighth seed, and dangerously close to 15th place, but let’s not hang our hopes on a magic deal, miracle win streak or sudden collapse which will pull them back into the fray. With 16 games left, there is nothing left to reveal. A total mulligan of a truncated season deserves to be finished as is.

Holmgren should be allowed the space to recreate the roster and the coaching staff — free from pressure from Snider or Peter Luukko and especially from the fan base — one last time provided he realizes that he needs to expand his philosophy and embrace change more so than holding onto the things that got him to this spot in the first place.

But if there’s one more foul-up coming, in light of a season which may be a rare one without playoffs and involving a reduced salary cap, it will finally be time for Holmgren to go.

And hopefully with him the final scent and impressions of Bullies past.