Yesterday, the Philadelphia Flyers fired head coach Peter Laviolette. Often, when a team falls from grace, the head coach is the first to go. In this case, however, Laviolette’s firing is just the latest step in the long, slow erosion of a team that in 2010 was just two wins away from sipping out of the Stanley Cup.
It’s been a strange, unpredictable ride for the NHL’s most tumultuous team, and one that really deserves exploring. In chronological order, here are the highlights.
June 9, 2010: Patrick Kane wins the Stanley Cup
It was an ugly goal–a really ugly goal for Flyers fans–but it got the job done.
The 2010 Finals went six games, but four of the six–including three of the Flyers’ four losses–were decided by just a single goal. In a physical series, Flyers’ star Chris Pronger (as he often does) particularly earned the enmity of the opposition, inspiring the Chicago Tribune to post a photo-shopped picture of him as a figure skater:
June 30, 2010: Michael Leighton signs a two-year extension
Michael Leighton was fantastic in the playoffs as the Flyers came so close to winning it all, so it was perhaps understandable that Philadelphia moved to quickly lock him up to a two-year contract.
It was a mistake. Leighton would play just two more games for Philadelphia in the regular season, allowing a total of nine goals on 62 shots. He would also make frequent trips back to the place the Flyers snatched him from in the first place: the waiver wire:
June 7, 2011: Philadelphia trades for Ilya Bryzgalov.
The Flyers took to heart their mistake of the previous summer, when they’d signed Michael Leighton to be their starter. Rather than hope for the best from a reclamation project, they decided to make a big splash, sending a minor-league enforcer and a pair of draft picks to Phoenix for the rights to Ilya Bryzgalov:
They would sign the pending free agent to a nine-year, $51 million contract later in the month.
June 23, 2011: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter sent away in separate deals
Needing to make room for Ilya Bryzgalov’s big-ticket deal, the Flyers shocked the hockey world with a pair of moves, sending two high-profile young players with long-term deals out of town. Team captain Mike Richards had led Philadelphia in scoring in 2009-10 and been a point-per-game forward in the post-season; he was dispatched to Los Angeles for a package of young talent. Jeff Carter, who had averaged 38 goals per season over the last three campaigns, was sent to Columbus for a similar group of players.
The talent coming back was excellent, but Carter and Richards were both exceptional players in the prime of their respective careers. Both would go on to win the Stanley Cup with Los Angeles (Carter was flipped there after a short and unsuccessful stint with the Blue Jackets). Naturally, this is something that comes up occasionally among Flyers fans:
July 25, 2011: The “Dry Island” story breaks
The seemingly bizarre decision to jettison two of Philadelphia’s core forwards was a story that wouldn’t die, and in July a pair of anonymous Flyers told reporter Dan Gross of Philly.com that “the Flyers front office was disappointed in Carter and Richards' longstanding party lifestyle and that teammates were concerned about the pair's drinking.”
This one involved Laviolette, too, who asked players to sign up for “Dry Island,” pledging not to drink for a month–with both Carter and Richards conspicuous by their absence. This is another topic that occasionally comes up in Philadelphia:
October 24, 2011: Chris Pronger takes a stick to the face
It looked bad at the time, and it ended up costing Pronger six games initially, but nobody knew how bad the long-term ramifications of Mikhail Grabovski’s errant stick were going to be.
After missing six games, Pronger came back and played five more before a knee injury took him out of the lineup. A month later, the Flyers announced that Pronger was out indefinitely with post-concussion syndromes. General manager Paul Holmgren sounded cautious but not unduly concerned in a TSN report at the time:
We said it was a virus at first because we weren't sure what we were dealing with and just over this last two or three days where he's had a very persistent headache and a real sluggish feeling. We didn't know what we were dealing with then and I'm not sure we do now but the concussion-like symptoms continue to persist and we're just going to get him checked.
Pronger, the team’s captain and one of the NHL’s best defensemen, hasn’t played since.
October 27, 2011: Bryzgalov is “lost in the woods”
The Flyers scored eight goals against Winnipeg. They lost the game because Winnipeg scored nine. Afterward, Ilya Bryzgalov gave what in hindsight was probably the defining interview of his time with the team.
January 2, 2012: The Winter Classic
The Flyers' lost the NHL's annual outdoor contest to the New York Rangers, but the result of the game itself wasn't the only reason this mattered.
HBO's 24/7 series followed both the Flyers and Rangers in the lead-up to the marquee event, and their coverage further established Ilya Bryzgalov as an exceptionally strange character.
In hindsight, the narrator may have preferred to use a phrase other than "adjusted well."
June 22, 2012: Sergei Bobrovsky dealt to Columbus
After Michael Leighton failed to solidify the Flyers’ goaltending position, the team eventually turned to Russian import Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky had a solid rookie season, posting a 0.915 save percentage over 54 games, but failed to earn the confidence of the team’s brain-trust, which is why Bryzgalov was brought in.
Bobrovsky stumbled badly as Bryzgalov’s backup the next season, so Philadelphia shipped him to a Columbus team that was desperate for goaltending, taking back a trio of mid-range draft picks. Bobrovsky rebounded in a big way and looked good doing it:
July 4, 2012: Matt Carle signs in Tampa Bay
Philadelphia’s number three defenseman for their run to the Stanley Cup Finals, Carle occasionally earned the ire of Flyers fans, though those who were paying attention appreciated his value to the club:
Carle signed a long-term deal with Tampa Bay. The Flyers failed to find someone else to adequately replace his minutes.
July 24, 2012: Nashville matches the Shea Weber offer sheet
That isn't to say the Flyers didn't try to shore up a defense that had lost both Pronger and Carle in less than a year. They took aim at one of the best in the game, the Nashville Predators' Shea Weber. After attempting to trade for Weber's rights, the Flyers signed the restricted free agent to a massive offer sheet with a 14-year term and total compensation exceeding $100 million:
If it had worked, the Flyers would have rebuilt their blue line in a single move, albeit at the cost of four first-round draft picks. Instead, Nashville matched.
June 20, 2013: Flyers initiate a compliance buyout of Daniel Briere’s contract
To free up cap space, the Flyers decide to buyout Daniel Briere:
In their official statement via their website, Paul Holmgren announced that it was a difficult decision to make, saying “has been a tremendous player, person and role model in all aspects and for that we thank him.”
Don’t feel too bad for Briere, though; things worked out okay for him:
June 25, 2013: So long, Ilya Bryzgalov
Two years nearly to the day after signing Ilya Bryzgalov to solidify their goaltending situation, the Flyers made the biggest buyout in NHL history to get rid of him:
It was probably a necessary move–the signing was ill-conceived from the get-go–but it still leaves the Flyers with questionable talents in net. Sadly, Bryzgalov (who has real talent) seemed incapable of handling the pressures of the Philadelphia market.
October 7, 2013: Peter Laviolette fired
Laviolette was hired midway through the 2009-10 season; under his watch the Flyers went from playing 0.500 hockey to the Stanley Cup Finals. It would be wrong to give the coach all the credit, but in his first two and half seasons behind the bench the Flyers enjoyed a lot of success:
The decline started last year, then came rumors that he was in danger of being ousted, and finally the 0-3 start which sealed his fate. Laviolette’s departure didn’t exactly come as a surprise; he’d been the odds-on favorite to be the first coach fired this season.