YOU HEAR IT from Flyers high-ups every year, and every year there is a ring of truth to it. The league, the officials, still see the Broad Street Bullies every time that familiar jersey hits the ice. They still see Dave Schultz, they still see Bob Kelly and Ken Linseman and Dave Brown.
Heck, they still see Paul Holmgren, who was suspended eight times as a Flyer, more than any of them.
And they call more penalties than their aggressions warrant.
So what have the Flyers done this offseason? They added a goalie known to mix it up on the ice. They added 35-year-old Ian Laperriere, who scored seven goals and amassed 163 penalty minutes for the Colorado Avalanche last season. And they traded two first-round draft picks, 19-year-old Luca Sbisa and Joffrey Lupul for 34-year-old Chris Pronger, a 6-6 machine of mean who is just one season removed from receiving an eight-game suspension for stomping on a supine player.
"We figured, [screw] it, how many more can they call?'' Flyers chairman Ed Snider said yesterday.
He said it with a smile and a twinge of delight. Snider's teams have tried everything over the years to win that elusive third Stanley Cup, going big, going small, going mean, going not as mean. The regular-season dominance of his huge, "Legion of Doom" line back in the late 1990s may have even made that clutch-and-grab, trapping style palatable for longer than it should have been this decade. It is an extreme NHL irony that Snider was part of the rules committee that unshackled the league after the Flyers were beaten, 2-1, by Tampa Bay in the seventh game of the 2004 Eastern Conference finals.
Snider recalls the third period of that game to be infested with holds, hooks and uncalled penalties.
"When the second period ended, I told people I was with we might as well go home now," he said. "It wasn't even competition."
Snider likes the game now: the speed, the passing, the precision. And really, he was only joking when he expressed the above philosophy about Pronger. He believes what Holmgren, his general manager, believes: That Pronger will make the entire defensive corp better and that Laperriere will make the Flyers, in Homer's words, "Harder to play against.''
"I look at it from the other side,'' Holmgren said. "Those guys we got will do anything it takes to win. And that's what we're trying to do here.''
As Pronger pointed out, he has adjusted to a league that has become less tolerant of physicality.
"I think I'm better," he said. "I think I'm obviously a smarter player. I think I control my emotions a little bit better, I'm a little more relaxed. I think that can translate into keeping things calm on the bench if I'm not so hyper."
His penalty minutes cascaded downward last season from 128 to 88, and on an Anaheim team that is the Western Conference answer to the orange and black. The only team to amass more penalty minutes than the Flyers last season? That would be Pronger's Ducks, by just a few ruffled feathers.
"We'd look up sometimes and we'd have nine penalties to three for them,'' Pronger said. "Refs watch games, read and hear what people are saying. I had [an official] tell me last year that he was watching for me. And then he said, 'But we don't hold grudges.' Yeah, right.''
Pronger brushed it all off like, well, a duck does water. And like the Flyers undoubtedly will have to.
"When you take a penalty that's a dumb penalty, it's usually a hooking or a holding in the offensive zone,'' Holmgren said. "Those are the penalties that often bite you. If you take a penalty because you are trying to break up a play, or it's a physical penalty, over the course of the season they don't come back to bite you.''
Later, Flyers coach John Stevens spoke of shaving down those types of penalties as his top priority in training camp. The Flyers, he pointed out, accumulated more penalties in each of the first two periods than they did in the third. They had one of the league's best winning percentages when leading after the first and second periods, but the attrition got to them. When down after two periods, their winning percentage was toward the bottom.
Adding two noted nasties into the mix wouldn't seem to be an antidote. Unless you buy that the two veterans will tutor the younger core about time and place. Unless you buy that their presence, especially Pronger's, will eliminate the need for others to hook, slash or elbow.
Holmgren does. "I don't even worry about that," he said when asked about how this looks to the league and its officials.
"We've added character guys," he said. "And those are what you need to win." *
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