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Soaring!
Michael Farber
January 13, 1997
After a slow takeoff the big, talented Philadelphia Flyers have shot to the top of the NHL
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January 13, 1997

Soaring!

After a slow takeoff the big, talented Philadelphia Flyers have shot to the top of the NHL

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The swap would be considered a steal if Coffey, who is expected back this week, hadn't already been stolen more often than the Maltese falcon. It's a wonder he hasn't gotten terminal writer's cramp from all the change-of-address cards he has had to fill out in his 17-year NHL career. No Hall of Famer has played for more than five teams; Philly is Coffey's sixth. At 35 he remains a defensive risk but a supreme offensive force, capable of adding dash to a miserable power play that through Sunday ranked 21st in the league. He also provides Philadelphia with a strong veteran voice. While Coffey hasn't played especially well in the last two playoffs, Stanley Cups have had a way of following him around. He had a chief supporting role with the Edmonton Oilers when Wayne Gretzky won his first Cup, in 1984, and he was a power-play force for the Pittsburgh Penguins when Mario Lemieux won his first Cup seven years later. Coffey should be good company for Lindros, who is in his fifth year and welcomes the help.

"Coffey's got this air of confidence that's amazing," Lindros says. "He'll have the worst shift in the world and come back to the bench, and you'll try to talk about it and he'll say, 'It's over. Don't worry about it. I won't even discuss it.' Then on the next shift he's his old self again. Coffey gives us a lot."

The whole team, in fact, seems more grounded. "We're more mature on the ice," Lindros says. "Examples? We're playing St. Louis. The Blues are struggling, they've changed their coach, and we know they're going to come out flying. It's the second-to-last game before Christmas. In past years we haven't come to the rink with much enthusiasm in those situations. Well, we shut out St. Louis. The next game in Chicago, I thought there was a hook [on a Philadelphia defenseman that went unpenalized], and the Blackhawks score on a two-on-one, and we're down two goals early. But we came back to tie the game."

Lindros neglects to say that he spearheaded that comeback, scoring both goals and exhorting his teammates on the bench. Certainly he has better listeners than he has had in years past—improving role players like second-line forward Trent Klatt, third-line winger Shjon Podein, and rookie defenseman Janne Niinimaa of Finland, who sees the ice exceptionally well. LeClair, who has had 12 goals and 11 assists during the 16-game streak, is displaying a newfound confidence in the open ice, occasionally lugging the puck between zones instead of handling it like burning toast and heading for the net. In the second season of a five-year contract that pays him $9 million, LeClair is the best value in hockey. Clarke has signed four star players—LeClair, Renberg, forward Rod Brind'Amour and defenseman Eric Desjardins—to multiyear contracts for less than $2 million annually, some neat bookkeeping.

About the only asset Clarke hasn't wrapped up is Murray, who has instilled defense and discipline in a team that hadn't made the playoffs in five seasons when he took over in 1994. But he hasn't been able to ignite an emotional spark during the postseason, a failing that was particularly evident last spring when Philadelphia went flat at the end of its quarterfinal series against Florida. Murray is finishing the final year of a three-year deal, with no extension in sight. Clarke and Murray often work out together, and while the subject of Murray's contract came up during some of their summer jogs, Clarke hasn't raised it during the season. When rumors of Murray's imminent firing surfaced two months ago, Clarke assured Murray that they were nonsense. Murray said fine. But as he studied tape of the Avalanche in his hotel suite last Friday, he conceded that he wished "something would be taken care of."

"Murray's given us a good game plan," LeClair says. "When we started slowly, it wasn't because of anything he wasn't doing. So do they really have faith in him? I do. But I don't look that deep. I take things at face value."

The Flyers don't want to dig too deep. Look at them and you see the best team in hockey midway through the season, a team with a premier line and a defense that has allowed 30 or more shots in a game just four times, a team that has rallied to win or tie eight games in the third period. Look again and you see a power play at 13.4%, a coach who is waiting for the phone to ring, and a goalie, Hextall, whose overaggressiveness makes him good but has also been his downfall. But everything—the contracts, the power play—will sort itself out. Right now it is enough to say that when their will is tested, the Flyers play with the resolve that marked those superb Philadelphia teams of the 1970s and '80s. They are first because they own the third.

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