Tocchet and Keenan patched up their differences on the flight home, but already it was too late to keep the issue of Keenan's popularity among the Flyers from becoming a public one. Clarke wasted no time checking in with a vote of confidence for his Keenan. "I'm not firing the coach," he told Al Morganti of
The Philadelphia Inquirer
. "Some of the players are trying to put the blame on the coach, and that's not right. They are professionals. Where does it say they have to like the coach?"
The players admit that Keenan seems to be making an effort to modulate the outbursts that have become his trademark. "The frequency and timing of the tirades has changed," says Flyers captain Dave Poulin.
"There has been some compromise," says Keenan. "I can make adjustments in my style. But I can't compromise the ingredients that go into winning. Those are absolutes." In other words, if you don't like the shouting, buy earplugs.
Even if everything else were perfect in Philadelphia, the Flyers would still be in trouble. Hextall may have been last season's playoff MVP and Vezina Trophy winner, but he is this year's slumping sophomore. Since that same fateful Ranger game on Oct. 26, when he returned from an eight-game suspension for slashing Edmonton's Kent Nilsson in the Stanley Cup finals, Hextall has gone 4-8-2.
"Ron has certain expectation levels for himself, and when he can't meet them, he gets frustrated," says Keenan. It's clear that the 23-year-old Hextall has been pressing. At times even his superb stickhandling and puck-clearing talents have failed him. But even with Hextall's goals-against average hovering near 4.00, everyone figures he will revert to form, a fact the Flyers underlined two weeks ago by signing him to a reported eight-year contract worth about $300,000 annually.
Hextall's problems are not just mechanical and mental. He's too loyal to say anything, but there is the matter of the guys who played so well in front of him a year ago. This season Crossman, normally a solid defender, has looked like someone who played all summer; Howe is off to a lousy start; and Brad (the Beast) McCrimmon is playing in Calgary, not Philadelphia.
Howe's season has typified the team's. A slap shot off the stick of Boston defenseman Ray Bourque cracked a rib and one vertebra in the preseason. His scoring has suffered and, he admits, he has been "making bad judgments." Against Buffalo last week, Howe couldn't even successfully commit a penalty. With only 17 seconds left in the second period, Mike Foligno hurdled Howe—"I had every intention of tripping him," Howe said—bore down on Hextall and tied the game at 2-2.
"Everyone goes through dry times in this game, and I don't think I've ever been drier," said Howe. "It's like somebody's trying to test your character." Also, as he has said, Howe misses the Beast.
All the Flyers do. McCrimmon is one of the NHL's best pure defensemen, the type of stay-at-home, keep-the-other-guy-away-from-the-goal, get-the-puck-out-of-your-zone-fast kind of player that every team had in quantity before Bobby Orr came along and introduced offense to defense. But McCrimmon wanted more money than Clarke was willing to give him, and he was shipped to Calgary for first- and third-round draft picks. What the Flyers still must replace is McCrimmon's surliness and expertise.
Just as Philadelphia's defense has become a bad joke, so too has the team's power play without Tim Kerr. The big right wing scored 58 goals last season but hasn't played since early April. In June he underwent the first of five shoulder operations. "A screw that was used to fuse a bone to the joint fell out," says Dr. John Gregg. "So we had to replace the screw, and then he got an infection around the area of the screw." Gregg performed the most recent operation (to remove a pin) on Nov. 6 and expects Kerr to be back on the ice come March.