"Hey, Didn't He Used to Be Good?": The Flyers' Goalie Gamble with Ray Emery
Lord Stanley’s Cup gets awarded Friday night.
Once again, the Flyers will be watching on television, just like the rest of us.
I always make a point to try to watch the Stanley Cup get paraded around, regardless of playing—which is a good thing, since I wouldn’t ever get to see it if I were waiting for the Flyers to do it.
There was a time in my youth when, every year, you felt like the Orange and Black had a legitimate shot to win the Cup.
But not now.
The Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, the first expansion team to win hockey’s holy grail. I was but a wee toddler and have no recollection of the event.
My hockey memories begin with Pelle Lindbergh’s tragic death in 1985 (?). I was a street hockey goalie; he was my idol.
I was devastated.
Then came Ron Hextall. The feisty, talented netminder, drafted by the Flyers in the sixth round of the 1982 NHL entry draft, led Philadelphia to bring of glory 1987, forcing Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers dynasty to a decisive seventh game.
The Cup was skated around the building that night—but not by the Flyers.
But Hextall was so spectacular that season and postseason that he won the Veniza Trophy for best goaltender, and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP—one of the few players in NHL history to be named MVP in a losing effort.
Back then, it was only 12 years removed from the last time the Flyers had won the Cup. There was still optimism that Hextall could lead them back for a third.
Twenty-two years later, the Flyers have still lifted the chalice but only twice, and I have a son the same age I was when it happened.
In the meantime, the Flyers have had backstops come and go.
We’ve seen Chico, Beezer, Garth Snow, Sean Burke, Brian Boucher, Roman Chechmanek, Robert Esche, Marty Biron, and Antero Niittymaki to name a few.
Even Hextall left and came back. And 10 years after his first finals appearance, he took the Flyers back in 1997, before running into a Red Wings dynasty.
Twelve years later, Detroit is back in the Finals yet again, as defending Stanley Cup Champions. In fact, the Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups since the Flyers last did, and try to make it five on Friday.
So the only two goaltenders to lead the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in my lifetime (born 1974) are Bernie Parent, whom the Flyers selected from the Boston Bruins in the 1967 expansion draft, and Ron Hextall.
The similarities? Both were drafted.
Oh, they’ve tried the free agent route (Beezer, Chechmanek). They’ve tried drafting (Maxime Oullet, Brian Boucher).
Some have shown promise. Others, not so much.
None have delivered.
Meanwhile, across the Delaware River, Martin Brodeur has put his name on Lord Stanley’s Cup with the hated New Jersey Devils, and will some day be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto as one of—if not THE best—goaltender of all time.
Wednesday, the Flyers announced the signing of goaltender Ray Emery.
Ray Emery used to be good—the Flyers saw that first hand against Ottawa in the playoffs a few years back.
Then Emery got in his own way, and was released by the Senators, and had to play in Russia’s KHL last year.
Emery has been reported to have anger issues, and has undergone counseling.
But the team assures us “he’s all better now.”
Now Emery is the closest thing to Ron Hextall the Flyers have seen since—well, Ron Hextall. But Hextall was never accused of being a bad teammate.
Perhaps the fiestiness will be good for the team?
My fear is that this is just another goalie retread—someone the Flyers can afford because his best days are behind him, and no one is willing to give him that big contract.
History has shown us that great goaltenders aren’t usually available on the discount rack. The best ones are identified early on, sometimes even before they reach juniors.
Sometimes, teams can steal great free-agent goaltending, like Detroit did luring Dominick Hasek away from Buffalo.
But Hasek didn’t come cheap. And there’s a reason for that:
He was good. Damn good. Hall-of-Fame good.
John Vanbiesbrouck was good. But he won’t be enshrined in Toronto. And his best playing years were arguably behind him by the time he donned the orange and black.
So what needs to happen?
The Flyers need to draft star-quality goaltending or trade for a blue-chip prospect. And let him play.
Nitty showed promise. But could never earn the job full-time. Same with Boucher, and I really liked the guy.
Goaltenders are known to be a little off—I should know! Playing a position that requires confidence as much as skill, these young guys cannot afford to be looking over their shoulders, wondering if they’re going to lose their job if they give up a goal or two.
If the Flyers really want to win a Cup, find a guy you believe in—honestly believe in—and put him between the pipes.
No hedging your bets.
No sharing the job.
If Emery is the guy—and Lord Stanley knows, I pray he is—then don’t bring in another guy to battle for the job.
Put a true “backup” the bench, one who might get to see a dozen games all season, and let Emery own the job.
Because those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
And there’s an awful lot of failure in those history books lately.
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