PHILADELPHIA – With one errant swing, Claude Giroux nearly unraveled a summer of change for the Flyers.
Armed with an eight-year extension, Giroux hit the links for some mid-August golf, one of his final chances to relax before the grueling season kicks off when NHL training camps open this week.
Giroux, Philadelphia’s captain, took a routine swing when—fore!—his club shattered in his grip and he suffered damage to tendons in his right index finger. The Flyers’ captain needed surgery, a splint and some time off. Up to six weeks because of the mishap.
Paul Holmgren—perhaps the busiest general manager in the league this summer—would have had to work more overtime if he had to call around to find an offensive threat to replace Giroux. But, at the worst, Giroux will miss some preseason games. The former All-Star is back at Philadelphia’s practice facility skating and about to shed his splint, his regular season saved.
It’s just the kind of good news out of a long, tough 365 days that Philadelphia needed.
For the Flyers, indeed this was a longer off-season than usual. Uncharacteristically, the team that made the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, and then the second round each of the next two years, did not qualify for the playoffs during the 2013 lockout-shortened season.
Several changes to the roster and front office later, the rested Flyers are ready for a rebound.
“I like the pieces in place,” Ron Hextall, assistant general manager, said.
Hextall, a former Flyers goaltender, spent the last seven seasons with the Los Angeles Kings as vice-president and assistant general manager. He’s only one new face on the block. The overhaul of an underachieving roster was in full force: former Tampa Bay captain Vinny Lecavalier, Islanders defenceman Mark Streit and Chicago goaltender Ray Emery all came on board, along with the $64 million extension for Giroux.
“I like our team, I like our chances,” Holmgren said. “I think we have a good mix of young and old, some skills, some players who maybe are a little more gritty.”
Hextall would like to help transfer the success had by Flyers West into the real Flyers East.
The Kings earned the Flyers West nickname after importing Philadelphia players such as Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter, and front office personnel and coaches that included Hextall, Dean Lombardi and John Stevens to win a Stanley Cup in 2012.
Hextall and Lombardi had a strong working relationship with the Flyers, and had similar values in what it takes to build a winner, one reason there was an influx of orange and black in Hollywood.
“I kind of got a kick out of Flyers West,” Hextall said. “But I certainly wouldn’t have left L.A. to go anywhere else. I really didn’t have a ton of thoughts about leaving, period. It was a pretty good situation there with the team we built.
“But again, it just felt like the right move at the time.”
Hextall had good reason to enjoy his time in Los Angeles. The Kings have a championship for those moves, while the Flyers’ Stanley Cup drought stretches back to 1975. This year, the organization will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Broad Street Bullies team that left a lasting mark on the league, but has done nothing to get them closer to holding that third championship parade down Philadelphia.
Hextall helped get the Flyers close to a crown, when he ruled as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL.
Sporting a swift stick that helped to redefine the goaltending position and opening the door for a generation of puck-handling netminders, Hextall played 11 seasons for the Flyers, appearing in 489 regular-season games across three different stints with the team (1986-92, 1994-95, and 1998-99). He went 240-172-58 and posted a 2.91 goals-against average. His 45 playoff wins are the most in Flyers history.
Hextall will get an up-close look at the latest goalies that will try and win a championship.
With Ilya Bryzgalov gone after two underachieving seasons, the Flyers turn to retreads Ray Emery and Steve Mason. Mason, the NHL’s rookie of the year in 2008-09, was 4-2 with a 1.90 GAA after he was acquired from Columbus.
Emery went 16-11-1 in his lone season with the Flyers before he was diagnosed with avascular necrosis in his right hip and underwent surgery to repair the condition. After nearly a year of recovery and rehabilitation, Emery signed with the Anaheim Ducks in February of 2011.
He had two solid seasons in Chicago and teamed last season with Corey Crawford to win the William M. Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goaltending combo of the team that allowed the fewest goals in the league. As a backup this summer, he also won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in June before signing with the Flyers in July.
Hextall is perched on the short list of all-time great Flyers goalies. He knows the value of having one netminder get hot enough to carry a team.
“I think you’re always stronger when you get a guy that steps up and he’s your go-to guy,” he said. “But that’s going to have to play out. Both guys are certainly capable. They’ve proved it in the past. It’ll be up to the goaltenders to see who plays the majority of the games.
“Hopefully, someone emerges.”
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette spent part of his summer prepping with Team USA for his role in next year’s winter Olympics. He was back on the bench Friday when the Flyers opened rookie camp, and the full squad is set to report this week. Giroux can’t do much more than skate, but he’ll be on the ice.
Maybe the 40th anniversary won’t mean a championship. But just making the playoffs will at least give them that shot.
“I thought we were a team good enough to be in the playoffs, but we just had a lot of bad things happen to us,” Holmgren said. “It’s easy to say now. Our aim is to rectify that and get ourselves into playoff position.”