When Wayne Simmonds first began to practice as a Flyer in the summer of 2011, he was introduced to Danny Briere.
A year removed from an unsuccessful trip to the Stanley Cup finals, Briere, then 33, had just produced the most goals of an NHL career that had begun in 1997, despite a tumultuous year in which the off-ice behavior of the team’s younger stars and leaders, including the captain, dominated discussion about its uneven play – and led to the controversial trades that moved Simmonds from Los Angeles to here.
“I know I don’t have too many years left in me,’’ Simmonds recalled Briere telling him. “So you better come here ready to play and not mess around.
“And I was, like, `No problem, Mr. Briere, sir,’ ’’ Simmonds said. “You know what I mean? That type of thing. A sign of respect.
“The guy had played so many years in the league and had so much to offer. A guy like that speaks, you listen. That’s how I’ve gone through my whole career, listening to those older guys. They know better than you. You’ve only been here for a short amount of time, and they’ve been through the ringer.’’
Simmonds is that older guy now, and he’s been through the ringer, playing through the masked rebuild of the Ron Hextall regime and two coaching changes. He’s barely 29 years old, but 10 years of playing a hard and honest game amid some uneven and heart-wrenching results have left him, too, with a jagged intolerance for the tepid effort often associated with a young player’s growing pains.
And the Flyers are going to have a whole lot of young players on the roster this season. There might be five rookies on the ice when the 2017-18 season starts Wednesday night in San Jose. There’s a slew of other players with less than a year or two of experience. After this summer’s trade of Brayden Schenn, Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and team captain Claude Giroux – all still younger than 30 – are the grizzled vets of this squad.
And like Briere back then, they see their window of opportunity closing.
“It’s time,’’ Voracek said during exit interviews last April, “for us to take that kind of responsibility.’’
“Oh, of course,’’ said Giroux, who is coming off a season in which offseason core muscle surgery severely limited his productivity. “And the game is getting younger and younger. … When I got here, it was different. We had Richie [Mike Richards] and Cartsy [Jeff Carter] and Hartsy [Scott Hartnell] and all those guys who were the go-to guys, and you’re just coming in and trying to find a role. A place on the roster. We’re in a position right now where we have those young guys coming in and they’re making a difference right away.’’
That puts added pressure on the Core 3, whose latest season ended with all three addressing questions about their leadership — including from Hextall himself. Each said then that they could and should have done better, and each has answered with the same “That’s in the past’’ when asked about it during training camp.
Simmonds, though, was more expansive. An edge has never been his problem, even in his early, more quiet days with this team. Giroux might be the captain, but Simmonds’ undeniably identifiable role with this team over the last few seasons has been one of fire and brimstone inside the room and out.
“And that will never change,’’ he said.
No problem, Mr. Simmonds, sir.
“But I don’t do it out of hatred or something negative,’’ the Flyers forward said. “I try to do it so it’s constructive. If you’re not going and you should be going, I’m not afraid to tell you to pull up your bootstraps and go work. But at the same time, if I’m not doing it, I have no right saying it to someone else. So first and foremost, I’ve got to look at myself and make sure I’m doing the work so that when I do go and say something, guys will actually listen.’’
That’s an important point.
Briere had been to the finals when he met Simmonds and had carved a reputation for playing big when it mattered. With the exception of Giroux’s early playoff success, the Core 3 have no such resume. More than any of their youthful teammates, they’re the ones on the spot this season — something they are painfully aware of.
“It starts with us. Yeah, it definitely does,’’ Simmonds said. “The three of us. We lead by example, and have the trickle-down effect from there. Because, to be honest, it’s still a team game. I’m not saying we’re all stars or the greatest players in the world. But if you don’t have 20 guys going every single night, every night, it doesn’t matter who you are — you’re not going to win.
“We have, what, won one series vs. Pittsburgh in six years together?’’ Voracek said. “It’s not good enough. We’re in our prime years. We’ve got to make sure that we step up our game and get this team to the playoffs and start winning some series. Because if we don’t, it’s going to get broken up.’’
Some of that has already happened, the most notable casualty being the dispatch of Schenn, despite his 25-goal season. There were rumors that Voracek was on the block, as well.
“I think if you’re in Philly and you don’t win a championship, the next year you have a – how do I say it? – an expectation to play better and do better,’’ Giroux said. “That’s why I like this city. They keep you on your toes. And if they don’t like the way you’re playing, they’re going to let you know it. It kind of pushes us and forces us to play better.
“It’s not easy. But at the end of the day, you’re here to do a job.’’