Flyers at 50: Plenty of changes, still no more Cups

042116_flyers_1200
Claude Giroux, Jakub Vorace and Brayden Schenn wait during a power play against the Washington Capitals.

Fifth in a series

In some ways, the 21st century has been one of upheaval for the Flyers.

They changed coaches seven times in a 16-season period, traded away a goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, who became a Vezina Trophy winner as the league's best goaltender, and dealt the two faces of the franchise on the same dizzying day in 2011.

Oh, and they remained without a Stanley Cup since 1975.

They also traded future Hall of Famer Eric Lindros to the New York Rangers in 2001, ending a sometimes-tumultuous relationship with general manager Bob Clarke, and years later added a wannabe cosmonaut, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.

Yes, for Flyers Nation, it's been a wild and crazy ride in the first part of this century.

Not all of it has been bad, mind you.

There was the emergence of shifty center Claude Giroux, the NHL's top point-producer the last six seasons; the splashy debut of offensive-minded defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere last year; the goal by Keith Primeau that ended the longest game - the fifth overtime in an epic 2000 playoff win in Pittsburgh - in modern NHL history.

There was Simon Gagne's overtime goal that brought down the house at a building then known as the Wachovia Center, forcing Game 7 in the 2004 Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay.

There was the great turnaround in 2007-08, when the Flyers had 95 points and reached the conference finals, one year after having the NHL's worst record (22-48-12, 56 points).

There was the 2009 acquisition of snarling, crease-clearing Chris Pronger, and the journey that no one saw coming - the thrilling run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.

The 2000s included the Flyers' never-ending search for the most glaring positional weakness in franchise history: goaltending.

They lacked patience with Bobrovsky and traded the then-23-year-old goalie to Columbus, where he has flourished.

They signed the always-colorful Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract and then bought him out after two up-and-down seasons.

The good news: For the first time in ages, the Flyers have a plethora of outstanding goaltender prospects in their system, so it appears the position will be stabilized in the foreseeable future.

Goaltending wasn't the problem, however, in 2003-04. Robert Esche was strong in the regular season and the playoffs. Esche had a deep supporting cast, and the Ken Hitchcock-coached Flyers seemed to have the pieces to win the 2004 Cup.

But injuries crippled them in the Eastern Conference finals and they fell to host Tampa Bay, 2-1, in Game 7.

"The disappointment is immense," Flyers forward Jeremy Roenick said after the crushing defeat, one game after the Flyers rallied dramatically for an overtime victory, forcing the decisive matchup. "It's almost to the point you feel you have to throw up. It makes you sick to your stomach."

In the first six seasons of the 2000s, starting with 1999-00, the Flyers recorded 105, 100, 97, 107, 101, and 101 points.

"We had some good teams," said Paul Holmgren, now the Flyers' president. "Maybe [without] the injuries and a little bit more luck, we come out of that stretch with at least one Cup."

By the early 2000s, Lindros and John LeClair were gone, so the Flyers turned to their farm system to build a new identity.

Enter centers Mike Richards and his good buddy, Jeff Carter.

They would be to the 21st century Flyers what centers Clarke and Rick MacLeish were during the franchise's golden years in the 1970s.

That was the hope, anyway.

The Richards/Carter teams would need time to blossom. The Flyers finished with the league's worst record in 2006-07, but a trade that brought in Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen triggered a turnaround.

Pieces were added in the next few years. A Danny Briere here, a Chris Pronger and Matt Carle there.

Giroux and James van Riemsdyk were emerging, and Peter Laviolette was named the coach early in the 2009-10 season. The Flyers, with general manager Holmgren directing things, seemed on the verge of building something special.

They struggled through a mediocre 2009-10 season, made the playoffs with an improbable win on the last day of the regular season - Brian Boucher outdueled the great Henrik Lundqvist in a shootout - and then knocked off the Devils in the first round before falling into a three-games-to-none series hole against Boston.

The Flyers then became the third team in NHL history to overcome a three-games-to-none series deficit - and the first to ever do it while trailing, 3-0, in Game 7 in Boston.

Gagne, who couldn't walk without crutches earlier in the series, scored the game-winner with 7 minutes, 8 seconds left in regulation.

Suddenly, visions of a Stanley Cup swirled in fans' heads. The Flyers looked like a team of destiny. They were peaking at the right time, and their only weakness appeared to be their third defensive pairing.

They brushed aside Montreal in five games to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Michael Leighton, a journeyman for most of his career, had three shutouts in the series.

Briere, who would finish with a franchise-record 30 playoff points, seemed on his way to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the best playoff performer.

But the parade plans were canceled. Leighton and his defense crumbled in the Finals. Chicago won in six games. In Game 6, Patrick Kane did to the Flyers what Joe Carter did to the Phillies in the 1993 World Series.

He put a dagger in their hearts.

Before the 2011-12 season, then-general manager Holmgren shocked the hockey world by making two bombshell trades on the same June day: Richards was sent to Los Angeles for young forwards Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, along with a second-round draft pick.

Carter was dealt to Columbus for Jake Voracek and draft picks that turned out to be Sean Couturier (first round) and Nick Cousins (third).

"Looking back, we felt we needed to get bigger on the wings," Holmgren said the other day. "The trade worked out for Mike; he won a couple Stanley Cups, and then Jeff was traded from Columbus [to Los Angeles] and he has a couple Stanley Cup rings."

The Flyers haven't won any Cups since those deals, but the trades made them stronger, bigger, and younger.

"At the time, Claude was an up-and-coming young center and we wanted [to give him more playing time] and we felt we would get Couturier with the eighth pick, and the players we got are all key players of our organization right now," Holmgren said.

Simmonds and Voracek have blossomed into stars, and Schenn has become a reliable scorer, while Couturier has become a defensive whiz and has shown scoring potential. Carter is still among the league's top scorers, and Richards is out of hockey.

Holmgren also made a bold move two years earlier, acquiring Pronger from Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, two first-round picks, and a third-rounder.

Pronger was making his mark until his Hall of Famer career abruptly ended because of concussion symptoms early in the 2011-12 season. Ever since that injury, the Flyers - who tried unsuccessfully to sign restricted free-agent Shea Weber in the summer of 2012 - have been searching for a true No. 1 defenseman.

They may have found one in Ivan Provorov. The rookie is the top defenseman on the current team, an inconsistent group that is still searching for an identity.

So what does the future hold for the Flyers?

The farm system has been restocked since Ron Hextall became the general manager, going from one of the league's worst to one of the best.

In addition, Hextall will finally have some salary-cap space after the season because numerous contracts expire, including Mark Streit's at $5.25 million.

"I like where we're at," said Hextall, now in his third year as the GM. "If you would have told me two years ago this is where we'd be at, I'd be happy. We're getting there."

In the summer, the Flyers could add a free agent like right winger T.J. Oshie (who played for Dave Hakstol at North Dakota) to help an unreliable offense. Hextall has not had much success in the free-agent market, but should have more money to spend in July than at any time in his tenure.

He will approach free agency cautiously.

"Yeah, we'll probably have money July 1, but what about July 1 the next year? What do we do then?" he asked. "Do we start trading young players? It's not quite as simplistic as it seems. On July 1, 2017, we should have money. On the other hand, we have to look ahead and make sure we're not forced to trade a young player [down the road] because we signed someone for six or seven years" this July.

"You have to be really careful there," said Hextall, mindful that Gostisbehere's contract expires after this season and he will get a significant raise.

In addition, the contacts of Provorov, Travis Konecny, and defensive prospect Travis Sanheim will expire after 2018-19, when they will be restricted free agents. Sam Morin, another highly regarded defensive prospect, can become a restricted free agent after 2017-18.

As for the end of their 50th anniversary season, the Flyers are on the playoff bubble. They had a 10-game winning streak earlier in the season, but have struggled in recent weeks.

A year ago, after visiting ailing owner Ed Snider at his California mansion, they returned home in early January and were a more focused team. Using the cancer-stricken Snider as an inspiration, they were one of the league's best teams in the season's last few months and secured a playoff berth.

Snider died in April.

"The Flyers," Holmgren said, "wouldn't be possible without Mr. Snider."

Holmgren said the team's logo has "stood for character over the years" and that the ultra-passionate Snider was the man behind it. "It was his vision and it's been carried on today with the same vision and culture that was put in place 50 years ago."

Holmgren said everyone connected with the organization will be thinking about Snider when the Flyers face Pittsburgh in an alumni game Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

"Mr. Snider would be pleased," Holmgren said, referring to the return of players from every decade of Flyers hockey. "He's probably watching from a pretty good seat, anyway."

scarchidi@phillynews.com

@BroadStBull