Wednesday, May 07, 2008

How Good Are The Philadelphia Flyers?

One of the stories of the playoffs so far is the Philadelphia Flyers. Last season, they finished in last place and this season they have made it to the semi-finals. It is a reasonable question to ask how good they really are and if their turnaround is as dramatic as it seems at first glance.

Lat season, despite their last place finish, they were not a team that was totally without hope. They had several young talents in Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and RJ Umberger who looked likely to make a big step forward. They had some talented established players in Simon Gagne (who missed much of this season due to concussion problems) and Peter Forsberg (who was traded to Nashville for a bounty of young players. Despite this potential, things did not work out in Philadelphia last year. What went wrong with the Flyers was poor goaltending and a slow defence. They had trouble keeping the puck out of their net. They were not your traditional hopeless last place team. They merely had a significant weakness that overweighed any of the positives. They got off to a slow start and never turned things around.

The Flyers acted to shore up their weakness. They traded for goaltender Martin Biron, who played much better than the two sub .900 saves percentage goalies they used in 2006/07 in Antero Niittymaki and Robert Esche. They jumped the gun on the free agency period, by trading for and then signing free agents to be Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. They acquired a young Braydon Coburn who took a big step forward this year in a trade deadline deal with Atlanta. They signed Daniel Briere as a free agent. They traded for Joffrey Lupul from Edmonton. They watched as their young players, especially Mike Richards, took big steps forward. They were a pretty active team at the 2007 trade deadline and into the summer. They made enough moves to turn this surprise last place team (who was better than most last place teams) into a mid-level NHL club that had a chance at the playoffs.

If things went well in the 2007/08 season, Philadelphia could make the playoffs. If they didn't they would probably be one of the better non-playoff teams. They made the playoffs with three more points (and one less win) then the ninth place Carolina Hurricanes. This likely was not a team that would travel too far in the playoffs. However, given the parity in the NHL if they got hot at the right time anything could happen.

They were lucky to match up with the Washington Capitals in the first round. Washington was the third seed in the east, but actually had one less regular season point then Philadelphia did. They earned their seeding by winning the weak Southeast Division. If any of the top four seeds looked likely to be beaten it was Washington. Sure the Capitals had been hot in the stretch to merely qualify for the playoffs, but they were the weakest of the top four seeds. It was a tough series, but Philadelphia won in seven games.

Philadelphia moved on to play Montreal. Montreal may have won the East Conference in the regular season, but they were not as strong as a traditional conference winner (this is a hallmark of parity; the bad teams are not as bad as they traditionally have been and the good teams are not as good). Montreal only had five more wins than Philadelphia in the regular season. If things went wrong for Montreal while going right for the Flyers this series could easily be an upset. It turned out Montreal had goaltending problems in the series and Philadelphia won.

That is the story of a parity filled league. The best playoff teams are not much better than the worst playoff teams. In a short playoff series either team can win.

Philadelphia has been somewhat lucky to not face any good teams in the playoffs that are playing at the top of their game so far. The Pittsburgh Penguins will be their first such opponent and will likely knock off the Flyers.

Philadelphia in 2006/07 finished last, but there were teams with far less talent than the Flyers had. Merely by doing nothing in the off-season, it was very likely the Flyers were going to improve. They didn't merely do nothing. They made many changes that added a lot of depth to the team and shored up their glaring weakness in keeping the puck out of their net. After these moves, the Flyers were a roughly average NHL team. They remain a roughly average team despite having made it to the semi-finals. That playoff success has required some good play from their stars (Daniel Briere, Martin Biron and supporting players such as RJ Umberger and Vaclav Prospal) as well as some luck to not play any top teams at the top of their games. The worst to first story is still a fantasy. Philadelphia is far from the best team in the league and remains unlikely to win the Stanley Cup. Despite their last place finish, they definitely were not the worst team in the league last year in terms of overall talent. As long as the NHL remains a parity filled league, there will be more stories such as the Flyers improvement. The downside to this is problem with parity, while no team is really bad in the NHL; no team is really good either. Fans no longer get to see really good teams play if none exist. That is a shame.

And by Ryan Carter, you mean Jeff Carter, yes?
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