When last seen in exiting Mellon Arena last April 23, the Philadelphia Flyers had a 3-0 win in Game 5 of their opening-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins clutched under their arms and the air hung heavy with the threat of a return for Game seven. That threat grew all the more real several afternoons later when the Flyers jumped to a 3-0 lead in Game six.
But a funny thing happened to the guys in the creamsicle jerseys right about the time Max Talbot's fists started flying. They forgot how to play hockey. They haven't remembered since.
The Flyers traded for 34-year old Chris Pronger in the off season, and told the world that they were now legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Pronger would neutralize the other-worldly talents of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and lead the Flyers back to the promised land for the first time since 1975.
Then reality struck.
At present, the Flyers find themselves 16 points out of first place in the Atlantic Division, in 10th place in the conference, two points out of the last playoff spot, and owners of the second-to-worst record in the NHL.
The truth is that, with Christmas coming fast, the Flyers are closer to a lottery pick than a Stanley Cup parade.
How do you fall so far, so fast? In the uber-competitive NHL of 2009 it only takes a couple of mistakes.
Mistake One, Chris Pronger
Pronger was supposed to be the difference-maker against the young legs of the Penguins and Capitals. He has been the difference-maker, but for all the wrong reasons.
Pronger has just one assist, and is a minus-one against Pittsburgh so far this season, and has made some frighteningly bad decisions on the ice that have cost his team.
Worse yet, his leadership skills have somehow evaporated.
Mistake Two, Goal Tending
Teams that win the cup do so from the net out.
Then ask yourself how a guy who was run out of the NHL and KHL fits that picture.
How much different would the Flyers picture look with Craig Anderson in goal? Nikolai Khabibulin? Both were available this summer.
Mistake Three, Depth
As bad as the Emery deal has been, leaving him as the only legitimate starting goaltender in the entire organization was a disaster waiting to happen. Now that he's on the shelf until February, perhaps March, the Flyers find themselves juggling Brian Boucher, Michael Leighton and John Grahame just to keep their heads above water.
Mistake Four, Scoring
The Flyers have practically none. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards are the only dependable scorers the team has had over the last three seasons, and there is no help for them again this season.
Scott Hartnell shows occasional signs of being a really good power forward, but then lapses back into being the usual Flyer winger, biting and fighting his way to nowhere. Again, Pronger was supposed to help here, too, but count him as MIA in this column as well.
Its too early to hit the panic button, but it's time to be sure of its location. This team does not have what it takes to win the ultimate prize. It's not 1975, and this team cannot punch its way to the finals. Forget grit, this team does not have enough pure talent to escape through, past, or around teams lead by Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin in the Eastern Conference.
One trade isn't going to fix that either. Ed Synder is going to have to step out of character and take a hard look at the makeup of his franchise from his management team, to the locker room attendants, and everyone in between, and ask himself if he wants to continue to relive the past, or try and write a new future. Some of those decisions are going to have to be painful and unpopular if they are to work.
The Flyers are such a mess that one trade is not going to change this team's fortunes in 2009—2010. But one could make the argument that the wrong trade last summer is what broke the Flyers.