Fly­ers aren’t quite ready to com­pete with elite

The Citizens' Voice - - Sports - MIKE SIELKSKI

To add some con­text to the Fly­ers’ 2-1 deficit in this first-round se­ries against the Pen­guins, and to un­der­stand why it was never all that re­al­is­tic to think that the Fly­ers would win the se­ries in the first place, let’s con­sider two sam­ples of in­for­ma­tion — one that’s re­veal­ing, one that’s mis­lead­ing.

The first one, the re­veal­ing one, is this: For six con­sec­u­tive sea­sons, from 2002 through 2009, the Los An­ge­les Kings did not make the play­offs. Not once. In the midst of that streak, in June 2006, they hired Ron Hex­tall as their vice pres­i­dent and as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager. Three years af­ter that streak ended, in 2012, the Kings won the Stan­ley Cup. Two years later, in 2014, they won it again.

By then, Hex­tall had re­joined the Fly­ers’ front of­fice, and a month be­fore the Kings won that sec­ond Cup, he be­came the Fly­ers’ GM. Since that pro­mo­tion, Hex­tall has re­ferred to that post­sea­sonempty pe­riod as a dif­fi­cult but in­struc­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for him as a player-per­son­nel ex­ec­u­tive; he has said it has in­formed his gen­er­ally de­lib­er­ate think­ing and de­ci­sions as a gen­eral man­ager, his be­lief in build­ing from within. A tal­ented young player isn’t nec­es­sar­ily ready for the NHL, and a tal­ented young player who is ready for the NHL isn’t nec­es­sar­ily ready to be a star right away, and woe to the ex­ec­u­tive who too of­ten tries to skip steps in this de­vel­op­ment process.

The sec­ond sam­ple of in­for­ma­tion, the mis­lead­ing one, is this: The Fly­ers haven’t missed the play­offs in con­sec­u­tive sea­sons in more than 20 years, since

1992-93 and 1993-94. Now, in one sense, that fact is quite re­veal­ing. It’s a tes­ta­ment to the Fly­ers’ op­er­at­ing ap­proach for most of that time: Ev­ery sea­son was an all-in at­tempt to win the Stan­ley Cup. But it’s mis­lead­ing be­cause it gives no in­di­ca­tion of just how far the Fly­ers re­ally were from chal­leng­ing for cham­pi­onships much of the time. Over those 23 sea­sons (in­clud­ing this yet-un­fin­ished one), they missed the play­offs four times and were elim­i­nated in the first round eight times.

That dis­tance from Cup con­tention has re­mained rel­a­tively vast dur­ing the four years of Hex­tall’s ten­ure as GM. When it comes to the play­offs, the Fly­ers have gone miss-make-miss-make, but it’s easy to for­get that those two makes were nearly misses. They clinched a post­sea­son berth in their penul­ti­mate reg­u­lar-sea­son game in 2016 and in their fi­nal one this year. If a cou­ple of shootouts, for in­stance, had played out dif­fer­ently, the Fly­ers might be look­ing at a fouryear play­off drought under Hex­tall, and the re­al­ity of where they are would be more ap­par­ent.

And where are they? They’re in tran­si­tion. They’re still at a stage where ac­com­plish­ing what they did this sea­son — im­prov­ing 10 points from last sea­son, earn­ing a post­sea­son berth, learn­ing that Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny can in­deed be vi­tal parts of their fu­ture —should be re­garded as a net pos­i­tive.

They were un­likely to beat the Pen­guins in this se­ries and are still un­likely to beat the Pen­guins in this se­ries be­cause they’re not ready to beat the Pen­guins in this se­ries.

And they won’t be ready un­til those young play­ers around whom Hex­tall is build­ing — Patrick, Konecny, Ivan Provorov, Travis San­heim, oth­ers still in the sys­tem — are more ex­pe­ri­enced and sea­soned.

There’s enough ev­i­dence now of what the Fly­ers have been and can be with this core — Claude Giroux, Jake Vo­racek, Wayne Sim­monds — that ex­pec­ta­tions should have been tem­pered long ago. They had plenty of veteran sup­port around them in 2012, when the Fly­ers beat the Pen­guins in six games for their last play­off se­ries vic­tory. They had Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere and Kimmo Ti­mo­nen. But with this trio as the Fly­ers’ nu­cleus, we now know what they’re go­ing to de­liver, and it isn’t much. Giroux has two goals in his last 16 post­sea­son games.

Vo­racek has three points in his last nine. Sim­monds hasn’t scored a goal in his last 10, and with his 30th birth­day ap­proach­ing in Au­gust and af­ter a sea­son in which his goals-per-game av­er­age was the low­est of his seven years with the Fly­ers, he saw just 12 min­utes of ice time Sun­day in the Fly­ers’ 5-1 loss in Game 3.

“He’s a guy (who) we’re go­ing to look to,” coach Dave Hak­stol said, “and he has to be a guy (who) helps us real quickly get over the dis­ap­point­ment of (Game 3) and come back and play a com­plete game in game num­ber four.”

Ac­tu­ally, we’ll know that the Fly­ers are mak­ing real progress when they can re­main com­pet­i­tive in a play­off se­ries, or even win one, with­out Sim­monds at his best. Or Vo­racek. Or Giroux. They’re just not there yet, and they may not be for a while. It’s mis­lead­ing to sug­gest oth­er­wise.

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