Now comes the leap of faith.
It's easy to figure out what's wrong with the Flyers. When you're the worst team in the NHL, coming off what general manager Paul Holmgren called a "crappy year," that's not the challenge. Neither is deciding what it will take to get the team back into contention in the short term.
"I think we need to get better both at defense and at forward," coach John Stevens said yesterday, pretty much putting all 10 of his fingers on the problem areas.
The real question is whether Holmgren and Stevens are the right men for the task at hand. It's a legitimate question, since neither has much of a track record in his current job. The reality is that, by the time they have track record enough to judge them, this pivotal off-season will be over with. The salary-cap space and draft choices available to right this wrecked ship will be spent.
And so it's leap of faith time.
Holmgren and Stevens spent a big chunk of yesterday at the Flyers' practice facility in Voorhees, holding one-on-one meetings with the players who survived this season. They listened as well as talked in those meetings, trying to make sure every possible lesson could be learned from what this franchise just endured.
Can you learn from the worst season in franchise history? You might as well.
If nothing else, a season like this leaves you without illusions. No one thinks the Flyers are one player away from winning the Stanley Cup. But Holmgren and Stevens both said they felt the turnaround was already under way. Holmgren started reshaping the roster with a series of trades, and Stevens took a hard look at how the players responded to adversity and the different situations they faced.
"We're too young in a lot of areas this year," Holmgren said. "But I think some of the players who went through this year will be better for it. I think we have to add somewhat of a veteran presence on this team. I don't expect wholesale changes, but there is definitely work to be done here."
Holmgren has a solid reputation as a talent evaluator when it comes to the amateur draft, so that's not a major worry. But this team will be shaped much more by free agency this summer, and it will be Holmgren's first signing period with the GM title. He will have the cap space, the checkbook, and a clear list of needs.
Can he bring in the right mix of experience and youth, of talent and of character? That's the make-or-break question. In a way, it's better to have no history than the kind of history Bob Clarke or the GMs for other Philadelphia teams have. Holmgren has a fresh opportunity to establish his reputation and earn the fans' confidence.
It will be months before he can do much. The Stanley Cup playoffs are just about to begin, which means 16 teams aren't ready to think about their 2007-08 rosters. The serious trade talk won't start until near the June draft, and free agents can't sign until July.
If Holmgren wanted to make a splash, he could change head coaches. It is telling, and actually kind of encouraging, that he is sticking with Stevens.
"I think John is a tremendous young coach," Holmgren said. "I know he'll be better next year. Getting a training camp under his belt, getting things in place the way he wants, will make a big difference. I like his style."
Stevens faced a truly thankless task this past season. Promoted from the minor-league Phantoms after Ken Hitchcock's sudden dismissal, he had to deal with injuries, with the fallout from a poor start, with the uncertainty surrounding Peter Forsberg's availability, with constant roster upheaval.
If Stevens had led the Flyers to a huge turnaround and a playoff berth, it would be easy to stay the course. That didn't happen. Holmgren is going on what he saw behind the scenes as the season evolved from disaster to rebuilding project.
"He came into a hornet's nest," defenseman Derian Hatcher said. "I think he was a little overwhelmed at first, but he did take control. I definitely saw that transition. By the end of the year, he had a grip on things."
Stevens will not draw a lot of attention to himself. He will not charm the media, a la Hitchcock, with colorful quotes and amusing stories. He doesn't scream at his players, but he established that he won't back down from them, either.
Maybe the main reason to trust Holmgren and Stevens is that they just lived through a truly depressing and dispiriting hockey season. Nobody can want to turn this team around any more than the men who endured this disaster.
Now it's just a matter of taking the leap with them.
Oct. 5: The Flyers open the season at Pittsburgh and get buried, 4-0. The Penguins will eventually win all eight games against the Flyers, a franchise first for each team.
Oct. 17: In Buffalo, the Sabres win, 9-1. It's the second-worst loss in Flyers history. The defeat lays the groundwork for the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock.
Oct. 22: After a 1-6-1 start, Hitchcock is fired and general manager Bob Clarke resigns, although it appears he was forced out. John Stevens is named head coach, and Paul Holmgren is named interim GM.
Oct. 26: At the Wachovia Center, Stevens gets his first NHL head coaching victory, 3-2, in a shoot-out against Atlanta.
Nov. 20: Stevens signs a two-year contract through 2007-08.
Nov. 30: Mike Rathje is diagnosed with piriformis syndrome, a back condition. The defenseman misses the final 59 games of the season.
Dec. 8: The Flyers announce that Peter Forsberg will miss the next four games while he searches for a solution to his right foot problems.
Dec. 27: The Flyers lose their franchise-record 10th in a row, 3-1, at Florida.
Jan. 6: The Flyers lose, 4-3, at Boston and hit the midpoint of the season with 26 points. They are dead last in the NHL. The year before, they led the NHL with 60 points.
Jan. 20: At the all-star break, the club is in the midst of an eight-game losing streak as Forsberg flies to Sweden to consult with foot specialists about continued problems with the fit of his right skate.
Jan. 29: Forsberg has the first of several meetings with the Flyers' front office about a new contract.
Feb. 3: In Atlanta, the Flyers break an 0-25-2 streak when trailing after two periods with an explosive four-goal third period to stun the Thrashers, 5-2.
Feb. 8: The Flyers hold Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby without a point in regulation, but he gets the game-winner, 5-4, in a shoot-out.
Feb. 12: For the first time since April 2006, the Flyers win two in a row at home with a 6-1 victory against Detroit.
Feb. 15: Forsberg has an afternoon meeting with club chairman Ed Snider in which he again refuses to re-sign. Snider wants an answer soon. Forsberg leaves the meeting angry. Hours later, Forsberg is traded to Nashville for forward Scottie Upshall, defensive prospect Ryan Parent, and two draft picks.
Feb. 27: The Flyers acquire goalie Martin Biron from Buffalo at the trade deadline. Biron eventually agrees to a two-year contract extension.
March 10: The Flyers rout Boston, 4-1, but are eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since 1993-94 as Toronto defeats Ottawa.
March 14: Holmgren is given a two-year contract extension as GM through 2008-09.
March 30: The Flyers lose, 3-1, to the Devils in their final game at Continental Airlines Arena. They finish 22-44-6-2 all-time at the Meadowlands.
April 5: Defensive prospect Parent becomes the 15th rookie to play this season, a club record. Forty-nine players have played at least one game for the Flyers, eclipsing the record of 45 players set in 1998-99.
April 7: The Flyers lose to the New York Islanders, 4-2, assuring their place as the worst team in franchise history. The most points the Flyers can finish with is 56, two fewer than the previous low, in 1969-70.
April 8: The season ends with a meaningless 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
- Tim Panaccio