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Free fallin'

Panic sends the Flyers into a death spiral

Posted: Tuesday October 24, 2006 3:41PM; Updated: Tuesday October 24, 2006 3:41PM
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The underperforming Flyers deservedly learned that the bench was not a very pleasant place with Ken Hitchcock behind it.
The underperforming Flyers deservedly learned that the bench was not a very pleasant place with Ken Hitchcock behind it.
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Eight games into the season, and the Philadelphia Flyers are in full panic mode, emboldening us to feel that we can safely predict this team is going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1994.

First, franchise-icon Bob Clarke, the team's GM for the past 13 years, resigns complaining of burnout. This epiphany came to him three games into the season. Once the heart and soul of the franchise, Clarke said he'd been on a mental walkabout since last summer, which helps explain why the team made no major moves in the off-season despite some obvious needs.

Then the owner, Ed Snider, eyeing the team's 1-6-1 start -- its worst in 15 years -- and listening to the grumbling of some players, fires coach Ken Hitchcock, saying that the team had "tuned him out."

Eight games into the season... that's one short attention span. Never mind that the demanding Hitchcock had a 130-77-39 record in three seasons with the Flyers, and had turned in one of his finest coaching performances last season, leading the team to a 45-26-10 record despite having to cope with a staggering 388 man games lost due to injury. Forget that in his 10 seasons as a head coach with Dallas and Philadelphia, he'd won one Stanley Cup (1999), gone to the finals another time (2000) and had eight 40+ win-100+ point seasons.

Hitchcock had obviously started taking the stupid pills. He was, according to center Mike Richards (who hasn't scored in 26 games) "barking" at players behind the bench. Barking? The head coach? When not one of the Flyers on the current roster has a positive plus-minus rating this season? What could there possibly be to bark about? What made Hitchcock's firing even more surprising was that a month ago he was given a two-year, $2.2 million contract extension.

This is what happens when you go more than 30 years without winning a Stanley Cup, as the Flyers have. The old Broad Street Bullies are now a team without an identity: not a skill team, not a tough team, not a team with heart, and now not even a team with front office stability. They're lost.

Clarke never really got the new-look NHL. The Flyers he assembled had one scoring line -- Peter Forsberg - Simon Gagne - Mike Knuble -- a big defense that couldn't effectively carry the puck, and inconsistent goaltending, where Robert Esche and Antero Nittymaki have been taking turns in the doghouse.

They're through, now. Onto the rebuilding phase.

The chances of replacement coach John Stevens and interim GM Paul Holmgren turning this ship around with the roster Clarke left behind, even with 74 games remaining, are about as likely $1.89 gasoline. Stevens coached 11 of the current Flyers in the minor leagues and has promised to be more tolerant of youthful mistakes than Hitchcock was. If that doesn't sound like a coach who's rebuilding, nothing does. Mindful of the Flyers' anemic goal-scoring (1.88 per game, last in the NHL; 4-for-55 on the power play), Stevens has stressed that he wants the team to loosen up, not grip their sticks as tightly, and learn to enjoy the game again. He might also mention something about playing in the defensive zone. The Flyers have allowed 4.00 goals per game, 28th in the NHL.

Of course, such numbers are pretty meaningless after just eight games, which is why the Flyers' wholesale housecleaning seems to have been driven by panic. Six of those first eight games were on the road. Now the team comes home for a stretch in which it plays 7 of 8, including the next five. Could Hitchcock have turned things around, given a chance? We'll never know, but history certainly suggests he would have. The man is 408-249-100 as a head coach and has never had a team with a losing record. He believes in holding his players accountable, and playing a disciplined defensive system. That formula works anywhere -- new look, old look, or soon-to-be look NHL.

Not to worry about Hitch. He'll land on his feet somewhere. Some team will lose patience with its coach and be thrilled to turn to a guy with his track record.

Whether Stevens sticks with the Flyers remains to be seen. The team went through five head coaches in six years before Clarke hired Hitchcock. But one way or another, signs are this is going to be a long, cold winter on Broad Street.

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