To add some context to the Flyers’ 2-1 deficit in this first-round series against the Penguins, and to understand why it was never all that realistic to think that the Flyers would win the series in the first place, let’s consider two samples of information – one that’s revealing, one that’s misleading.
The first one, the revealing one, is this: For six consecutive seasons, from 2002 through 2009, the Los Angeles Kings did not make the playoffs. Not once. In the midst of that streak, in June 2006, they hired Ron Hextall as their vice president and assistant general manager. Three years after that streak ended, in 2012, the Kings won the Stanley Cup. Two years later, in 2014, they won it again.
By then, Hextall had rejoined the Flyers’ front office, and a month before the Kings won that second Cup, he became the Flyers’ GM. Since that promotion, Hextall has referred to that postseason-empty period as a difficult but instructive experience for him as a player-personnel executive; he has said it has informed his generally deliberate thinking and decisions as a general manager, his belief in building from within. A talented young player isn’t necessarily ready for the NHL, and a talented young player who is ready for the NHL isn’t necessarily ready to be a star right away, and woe to the executive who too often tries to skip steps in this development process.
The second sample of information, the misleading one, is this: The Flyers haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons in more than 20 years, since 1992-93 and 1993-94. Now, in one sense, that fact is quite revealing. It’s a testament to the Flyers’ operating approach for most of that time: Every season was an all-in attempt to win the Stanley Cup. But it’s misleading because it gives no indication of just how far the Flyers really were from challenging for championships much of the time. Over those 23 seasons (including this yet-unfinished one), they missed the playoffs four times and were eliminated in the first round eight times.
That distance from Cup contention has remained relatively vast during the four years of Hextall’s tenure as GM. When it comes to the playoffs, the Flyers have gone miss-make-miss-make, but it’s easy to forget that those two makes were nearly misses. They clinched a postseason berth in their penultimate regular-season game in 2016 and in their final one this year. If a couple of shootouts, for instance, had played out differently, the Flyers might be looking at a four-year playoff drought under Hextall, and the reality of where they are would be more apparent.
And where are they? They’re in transition. They’re still at a stage where accomplishing what they did this season – improving 10 points from last season, earning a postseason berth, learning that Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny can indeed be vital parts of their future – should be regarded as a net positive. They were unlikely to beat the Penguins in this series and are still unlikely to beat the Penguins in this series because they’re not ready to beat the Penguins in this series. And they won’t be ready until those young players around whom Hextall is building – Patrick, Konecny, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, others still in the system – are more experienced and seasoned.
There’s enough evidence now of what the Flyers have been and can be with this core – Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds – that expectations should have been tempered long ago. They had plenty of veteran support around them in 2012, when the Flyers beat the Penguins in six games for their last playoff series victory. They had Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere and Kimmo Timonen. But with this trio as the Flyers’ nucleus, we now know what they’re going to deliver, and it isn’t much. Giroux has two goals in his last 16 postseason games. Voracek has three points in his last nine. Simmonds hasn’t scored a goal in his last 10, and with his 30th birthday approaching in August and after a season in which his goals-per-game average was the lowest of his seven years with the Flyers, he saw just 12 minutes of ice time Sunday in the Flyers’ 5-1 loss in Game 3.
“He’s a guy [who] we’re going to look to,” coach Dave Hakstol said, “and he has to be a guy [who] helps us real quickly get over the disappointment of [Game 3] and come back and play a complete game in game number four.”
Actually, we’ll know that the Flyers are making real progress when they can remain competitive in a playoff series, or even win one, without Simmonds at his best. Or Voracek. Or Giroux. They’re just not there yet, and they may not be for a while. It’s misleading to suggest otherwise.