The reality in the NHL’s salary-cap era is that the difference between the top and bottom isn’t nearly as big as it used to be. And thanks in large part to the Carolina-Edmonton Stanley Cup final last season, owners have high expectations these days.
Flyers boss Ed Snider did. And coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Bob Clarke paid for it as the team staggered to a 1-6-1 start.
“There’s no out-and-out, cut-above-everybody-else kind of teams,” said Los Angeles Kings coach Marc Crawford. “You look at the teams at the top on our side, Dallas, Anaheim, San Jose, Minnesota – they’ve all had really close games and they’ve won games in overtime and got points in overtime.
“It’s not like it was when you had Colorado, Dallas and Detroit were the Big Three and you knew they were going to be there and you had to be great to upset them.”
Crawford, whose own team is on a rebuilding curve, agrees that turning a developing team into a contender takes less time in today’s NHL.
“But if you’re with a team like Philadelphia, where they do have high expectations, it’s managing those expectations that becomes so, so important,” he cautioned. “I don’t know whether or not it’s realistic that there’s going to be 20 teams a year that can possibly do it, but I guess that’s probably what we’re dealing with.
“Deep down, you’ve just got to make sure that inside your organization people know what’s going on and that they have realistic expectations of the team.”
Snider’s decision to pull the trigger will likely pay dividends in the short-term. That’s because Philadelphia, which opened with six of its first eight games on the road, has seven of its next eight at home, including dates against Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington and the New York Islanders – very winnable games.
“Philly’s had a lot of change, their leadership took a hammering, they’ve got young kids that haven’t learned to do it yet but are probably going to be good,” said a veteran NHL coach who requested anonymity. “But where’s the patience from ownership? Unfortunately I think this scenario will be repeated around the league.”
Perhaps no one is in a better position to speak freely on what happened in Philadelphia than retired captain Keith Primeau, who knows the guys in that dressing room. While Clarke and Hitchcock have fallen on the sword, Primeau believes the players must take some of the blame.
“I wouldn’t single out a player but I think collectively they’re all culpable,” Primeau said from Philadelphia. “Hitch takes some responsibility, too. But part of their responsibility lies on the shoulders of the players and I’d like to know that they accept part of that responsibility.”
So what went wrong?
“You have to look at the turnover in personnel,” said Primeau. “The first five-six years I was here we had a core group of players that everybody loved and there was a lot of character there. But at the end of the day we’d be given enough chances to try and win a championship and we weren’t able to provide one. So it was time to go in a new direction. And the lockout was the right time to go in that new direction. So a lot of guys were moved out and a lot of guys were moved in that were expected to have character and play with pride.
“They’re just not connected to the organization yet from a personal standpoint. They’re still disconnected from the sweater that they wear. Until they gain some pride in that sweater, they may struggle.”
Primeau’s loss last October to a serious concussion and his inability to come back is a major reason behind the Flyers’ downfall. He left a leadership void in the Philadelphia dressing room that remains to this day. He was Hitchcock’s liaison to the rest of the team.
“I had to have an adjustment period with Hitch myself,” said Primeau. “And the reason is he’s an intense man, he’s very passionate about what he does. But once you comprehend what he’s selling, it becomes an easy game. I guess what I’m saying is, with Hitch there’s two ways you can approach it: you can buy what he’s selling or you can use it as an excuse. And certain times guys use it as an excuse.”
A tiresome theory also bandied about is that Hitchcock had been “tuned out” by his players. Just like last year when Andy Murray was “tuned out” in Los Angeles, Pat Quinn was “tuned out” in Toronto and Crawford was “tuned out” in Vancouver.
“I don’t think it happens,” Crawford said. “Because basically what you’re saying with that is that players aren’t professional. And that’s not true because players are professional. Yeah, OK, it’s definitely true that a new coach can give a fresh perspective and maybe the freshness is something that’s good.
“But a lot of people in the media underestimate just how professional players are. They know they’ve got a job to do.”
Primeau, forced to retired in September because of post-concussion syndrome, doesn’t like the “tuning out” theory in Philadelphia either.
“That’s not a fair assessment,” he said. “If it is the case, then the players are at fault. Everybody wants to draw on Hitch’s intensity and his demeanour and the way he approaches coaching and the possibility that he wears guys down. But most of these guys have had him for one year, or less than one full season.
“So that to me is a wrong assessment and an unfair assessment on Hitch’s behalf.”