TWO THINGS are always discussed when the Flyers end their season prematurely. One is goaltending, of course, the eternal quest for the next Martin Brodeur even as we watch other teams advance and excel with lesser models. The other is the captaincy, a role emphasized, rightly or wrongly, inside of hockey more than it is in other sports.
The Flyers have struggled with that title more than most teams, both in choosing the right player and in emphasizing its importance. When he slipped out a back door rather than face the media the day after the Flyers fell into an 0-3 hole in the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, Eric Lindros confirmed that the letter on his sweater was more about ability than leadership. Mike Richards, after a playoff loss against Buffalo in which he took a late penalty, repeated that formula, confirming suspicions that he was uncomfortable with the uncomfortable part of the job.
Both were given the title at a very young age - too young in my view then and now - while still honing both their game and their relationship with teammates. For both, others stepped in to fill the void, with mixed results. Veterans Paul Coffey, Joel Otto, Dale Hawerchuk, Eric Desjardins, Rod Brind'Amour helped the 23-year-old Lindros.
It's no coincidence that Richards' best playoff performance came the season Chris Pronger arrived. "At the end of the year, he takes a lot of pressure off me dealing with you guys day to day," Richards said then. "He's a powerful voice. I think that is something we had been lacking in the dressing room before. We had a lot of great leaders, but no real dominant voice in the dressing room and he's been that."
So it was refreshing last week to hear Ron Hextall say, "Our leadership has got to be better" and discuss specifically his captain's role in that. "It's much harder to lead when you're not having a great year," the GM said of Claude Giroux. "You get a little bit more consumed with your own play because first and foremost you have to perform. So it does take away. They do tie together. And with 'G,' yeah, a little bit of that happened this year."
It wasn't a little bit. It was the elephant in the room. Surely the Flyers had other issues - goaltending and depth come quickly to mind - but this team should have been in the postseason, should have scored more, should have displayed more consistency and, really, resiliency.
Giroux was a metaphor for why none occurred. He was up. He was down. Never a taskmaster even amid better times, he was reluctant to call out anyone, especially as his own plus-minus recorded increasingly embarrassing numbers. Much has been made too of Dave Hakstol not getting enough out of this team, and it's a fair criticism. But for most of the season the two players who had fueled last season's run - Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere - were lost inside their own games.
Wayne Simmonds tried like hell to fill the void - "I think I'd probably be the bad cop for the most part," he said on breakup day - and there is an argument to be made going forward that he will remain the Pronger-like voice in the room. He will turn 29 in late August, and has worked hard to make himself an All-Star. He hits people, he fights people, he takes his beatings in front of the net - something that carries a lot of currency when you're taking teammates to task.
Said Simmonds, "I think I've become more of a leader myself. Claude's our captain, but I'm here to help him. G's the nice guy. I'm the man that's yelling. I'm probably more all over guys for some things."
But he was an exception. It's also not clear what guys Simmonds would choose to be "all over" first. Jakub Voracek? Brayden Schenn before his late-season surge? Really, besides Ivan Provorov, who would not be on that list?
If the core is broken up this summer - and Hextall did not refute that possibility - they should think not just of this year, but of the five that preceded it.
"Talk is cheap," said Hextall. "You look at the best leaders in the game and they go out on the ice and do it. When you do it every night, every practice, every shift, play the game the right way, keep your shifts short, do all the right things, that's the No. 1 part of leadership."
The Flyers will look a lot different, a lot younger when next season rolls around. Gostisbehere has already spoken of taking a greater leadership role, using his own rough season to counsel players such as Sam Morin and Robert Hagg through their rough patches. Provorov, 20 going on 30, said he also intends to take a leadership role.
Maybe they can even re-form that core. Take more pressure off their captain as he tries to regain the form that once suggested a dominant force. The Flyers have some pieces coming through over the next few years, something Hextall said calmed him as he watched the first games of this postseason. But it's hard to imagine it working if their nice-guy captain can't at least lead by example.