PHILADELPHIA – Flyers West has a pretty large fan club bullish on their chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
Those cheers heard down the turnpike for Game 1 are from the original Philadelphia Flyers.
Honest, they insist.
Less than a year after stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were traded on the same day by the Flyers, the duo will skate for the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday night in New Jersey.
But wait, there’s more.
Kings assistant John Stevens is a former Flyers head coach. Kings forward Justin Williams is an ex-Flyer, same with the injured Simon Gagne. Kings general manager Dean Lombardi is a former Philadelphia scout and assistant GM Ron Hextall is on the short list of the Flyers’ all-time greatest goalies.
In the City of Brotherly Love, Flyers fans will watch the Stanley Cup finals through gritted teeth and buyers’ remorse over pricey authentic jerseys of their former stars that hang in the closet with little reason to see daylight.
This series could be tortuous to watch for the orange-and-black faithful. Just not for the ones who run the team.
“You root for them because they’re good players and we had really good years with them,” said Flyers President Peter Luukko. “You want to see your friends do well.”
Luukko is tight with former Kings great Luc Robitaille and they often joked this season, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had Flyers East vs. Flyers West.”
They were half right. Richards, a former Flyers captain, and Carter are still playing for the Kings weeks after the Flyers were eliminated in the post-season. The Devils spoiled the Flyers’ season with a five-game elimination in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Up the turnpike, the Devils will try to win their fourth championship since 1995 while the Flyers are on a Cup drought that stretches to 1975.
“It doesn’t make it bitter at all,” Flyers founder and owner Ed Snider said by phone from California on Tuesday. “Quite frankly, I think it’s more interesting to watch. I am very fond of Richards and Carter. I’d love to see them succeed. As far as Jersey is concerned, they beat us. If they win, at least we know we lost to the best.”
If New Jersey wins the Cup, it would continue a three-year trend of the Flyers getting eliminated in the playoffs by the eventual champion. They were knocked out last year by Boston, lost the 2010 Stanley Cup finals to Chicago, and lost in the first round vs. Pittsburgh in 2009.
General manager Paul Holmgren’s gamble last summer to trade Richards and Carter in the prime of their careers yielded mixed results. The Flyers won 47 games, totalled 103 points, finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and had a six-game post-season series win over odds-on favourite Pittsburgh.
But the run lasted only five more games, thanks to the Devils.
Snider backed Holmgren’s decision to trade Carter and Richards and was steadfast in his belief the acquisitions of forwards Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier—the total haul in the two separate trades—left them more suited to compete for championships down the road.
“I think we’re better off,” Snider said, “but I’m not getting into details.”
Carter and Richards were moved in part to make salary room for goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who frustrated his team and fans more than he dazzled them in net in his first season.
Bryzgalov was never better than in March when he opened with seven straight wins and had shutouts in four of his first five games. He finished 10-2-1 with a 1.43 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
But he’s paid to win in April, May and June. And in the post-season, well, Bryzgalov posted a 3.46 goals-against average. Not good enough.
Snider, moving forward, is counting on Bryzgalov to play more like the goalie who shined in March.
“I hope that’s the guy we traded for. I think it is,” Snider said. “He’s an emotional guy and got off to a somewhat of a rocky start. I think we’re only going to see much better things from him.”
The Kings are pleased with their pickups.
Carter has a hat trick in the Kings’ stunning run to the finals and Richards is third on the team with 11 post-season points. Both were shocked when the only franchise they knew traded them (Carter was originally sent to Columbus) last June only a year removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
“We were pretty mad. I’m not going to lie,” Richards said at Stanley Cup media day. “It’s something I’ve never had before. I’ve never been traded. Jeff has never been traded. For us to be traded at the same time I think was a lot of venting to each other.
“Like I said, everything happens for a reason. If that was the path that was intended for us, that’s great.”
It’s a path that has the eighth-seeded Kings playing the sixth-seeded Devils while the Flyers watch from home.
“It’s not so great for someone like me, when we work our butt off and we think we’re in a position to win and we don’t,” Snider said. “But at least we’re competitive every year. A lot of teams in the last three years would have liked to have gone to the finals once and the second round twice. I’m not saying we’re satisfied with that, but it’s certainly not failure.”