The Philadelphia Flyers have entered must-win territory in the final month-and-a-half of the season, and if they don't defeat the rival New Jersey Devils at home on Friday night, this team must make some profound changes that impact the future of the franchise more than the present.
"Every game's the biggest game of the season and it's fair to say that tomorrow is a pretty big game, so we need to make sure we're focused and ready to go," said Flyers captain Claude Giroux on Thursday (via Flyers.com).
"Obviously we feel we can turn this around, we're a good team here and if we can find the way we can play we're going to be a team and like I said we need to go one game at a time and that starts with [Friday's game vs. New Jersey]."
At 12-15-2, Philadelphia sits at the bottom of the Atlantic Division and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings. The Flyers are now five games from the eighth and final playoff spot and the three teams in front of them (New York Islanders 10th, New York Rangers 9th, Winnipeg Jets 8th) all have at least one game in hand.
For the Flyers to climb up the standings and get into the postseason, they must be more consistent. This team has not won more than two consecutive games in 2013, and it's difficult to make up ground in the playoff race late in the season when a team is unable to put together a good-sized winning streak.
"We definitely need a big win, we need to get on a bit of a roll too, one up one down isn't cutting it," said Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette on Thursday (via Flyers.com). "I definitely that think we need to get a big win and build off of it and try to put that in some sort of a streak."
"I think the guys know that they can play a big game and win a big game, they have won big games we just haven't done it consistently enough and that's why we're in the position that we're in, so again, back to the earlier point, trying to find some sort of a run of games where there's a lot more up than down starting with a big game would be a good place to springboard that..."
Dating back to last year's second round playoff series, the Devils have won seven straight against the Flyers by a combined score of 28-12. New Jersey has taken the first three meetings this season, all of which have been played at the Prudential Center.
The Flyers need about 25-30 more points in the standings to make the playoffs, and a loss on Friday would leave them with 19 more games to accomplish this goal. Judging by the way the team has played thus far, this would be a near-impossible challenge.
If the Flyers lose to the Devils for the fourth time this season and take another step backward in the playoff race, substantial changes will need to be made.
The move that should be made first is determining if general manager Paul Holmgren is the right man to build a championship roster in Philadelphia.
The reason why the Flyers are in this mess is because Holmgren has failed to make the necessary trades, free agent signings and draft selections to give the franchise a realistic chance of winning the Stanley Cup now and in the near future.
He traded former captain Mike Richards and top-six center Jeff Carter following the 2010-11 season, and the only player the Flyers got in return in those two trades who looks like a superstar-in-the-making is Jakub Voracek. Another mistake Holmgren made in those two trades was not getting a good young defenseman in return for Richards and Carter.
Trading young goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to the Columbus Blue Jackets for draft picks was another terrible move by Holmgren. Bobrovsky is playing very well this season, but Ilya Bryzgalov's massive contract (which was the worst signing of Holmgren's career) makes it difficult to bench him for an extended period of time.
Holmgren's biggest failure has been his inability to find quality defenseman through the draft, especially in the first, second and third rounds. Starting with his first draft as GM in 2007, Holmgren has drafted 12 defensemen in the 37 selections he's made, but only two of them were taken in the first two rounds.
Those players were Kevin Marshall (2nd round, 2007) and Luca Sbisa (1st round, 2008), and neither of these blueliners are still with the organization. Brandon Manning is Philadelphia's best defensive prospect, and he is not projected to be a top-four defenseman at the NHL level.
At the 2011 NHL Draft, Holmgren took center Sean Couturier with the No. 8 overall pick instead of defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who was selected by the Boston Bruins with the next pick. Hamilton projects to be a No. 1 defenseman and is having a good rookie season in Boston, while Couturier has failed to live up to expectations after a strong 2011-12 season.
The Flyers have arguably the worst prospect pool in the NHL, and they are without an elite prospect at all five positions. Scott Laughton, who was the team's first round pick in 2012, is the only Flyers prospect with the potential to become a top-six forward. Laughton was taken two spots ahead of top goaltending prospect Malcolm Subban, who was drafted by the Bruins with pick 24. Subban would have been a great pick for the Flyers as potential No. 1 goaltender for the future.
Not only has Holmgren drafted poorly in his tenure as GM, he has also failed to manage the team's salary cap well. Philly has 10 players with cap hits of $3.75 million or more for next season, and the team has only $3 million of cap space for next season with 18 players under contract, per Capgeek.
The Flyers have a great coach in Laviolette, but his general manager has not given him a roster that is good enough to win a round in the playoffs in a competitive Eastern Conference.
Making a trade for a defenseman would obviously give the Flyers a better chance to make the playoffs this season, but giving up the few valuable trade assets that Philly has to acquire a veteran blueliner who would most likely be a rental anyway is not a good move.
The team's problems go far beyond upgrading the blue line. For the future of this franchise to be full of success, owner Ed Snider needs to fire Holmgren and hire a new general manager. The Flyers' inability to draft and develop quality defenseman and goaltenders are really hurting this team's ability to contend for a Stanley Cup.
Friday's game against the Devils at the Wells Fargo Center will serve as a turning point in the Flyers' season, or the beginning of the end for the 2013 version of this club. If the team fails to turn its season around quickly and the playoffs become an unrealistic goal, major changes must be made.
At the top of the "to-do" list should be finding a new general manager.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs. All salary information courtesy of Capgeek.
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