Similar Paths, Diverging Course: The Washington Capitals, the Philadelphia Flyers, and The Road Not Taken


Graphic: @epoole88

There are times after a particularly traumatic Stanley Cup Playoff exit that ends a team’s season prematurely, in which fans and some pundits insist that the team in question needs a culture change, from suggestions to trade the team’s best player and/or other core players since it appears as though these players cannot lead the team to the promised land of a Stanley Cup championship.

This description rang true for the Washington Capitals of 2010-11, who finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference, only to be swept by a lower-seeded team in four games in the second round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a sweep that came only one year after being upset in the first round following a season in which the team won the President’s Trophy with the best record in the league and a then-team record 54 wins.  In this piece, NoVa Caps looks at the parallels between the Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers, who followed a similar path from the 2006-07 season through the 2010-11 season, with the following in common:

  • Had a poor season in 2006-07
  • Returned to the playoffs in 2008 and remained in contention for several years
  • Their core group of players were born during or around 1985, with one such player serving as the face of the franchise and eventually being named team captain
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins were an obstacle to their advancement in the Stanley Cup Playoffs
  • The teams were expected to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011 but were victims of an embarrassing Round 2 sweep

The following is a summary of the teams’ progression from 2006-07 and a look at the aftermath.

Poor Season in 2006-07

During the 2006-07 season, the Capitals had been in a rebuilding mode since the 2003-04 season and had been near the bottom of the standings in 2003-04 (23-46-10-3 record), 2005-06 (29-41-12 record), and 2006-07 (28-40-14 record). In 2006-07, there were only three teams worse than the Caps (Los Angeles Kings, the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Philadelphia Flyers).

The Flyers’ prospects before the lockout were much better, as the team finished first in their division with a 40-21-15-6 record, and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. After the lockout, they finished second in their division in 2005-06 with a 45-26-11 record, losing in the first round of the playoffs. However, luck bottomed out for the Flyers during the 2006-07 season, at the end of which they were last in the NHL with a 22-48-12 record and just 56 points. Despite this, they did not win the draft lottery (the Chicago Blackhawks won and chose Patrick Kane), and chose James van Riemsdyk second overall.

Return to Playoffs in 2008

At the conclusion of the 2007-08 season, the Capitals returned to the playoffs despite the fact the team was last in the NHL on Thanksgiving Day and were 28th out of 30 teams in standings points on December 31. The team finished the season first in the Southeast Division with a 43-31-8 record and 94 standings points and were the third seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Flyers did not have the same abjectly bad start to the 2007-08 season that the Capitals did, but finished with a similar record of 42-29-11 and 95 standings points.  Although they had one more point in the standings than Washington, they were seeded after due to the fact that they had a worse record within their division than the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, and New York Rangers.

That spring, the Capitals and Flyers met in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Flyers defeating the Caps in seven games.

The Core Players

Both the Capitals and the Flyers’ key players were born in 1985 or in immediate years before or after. The Capitals had drafted Alex Ovechkin (born on September 17, 1985) first overall in 2004, and he became the team’s best player upon joining the team in 2005-06, and who would be appointed captain during the 2009-10 season. Other core players included Alexander Semin (born in 1984), Mike Green (born in 1985), Brooks Laich (born in 1983), and Nicklas Backstrom (born in 1987), who did not join the team until the 2007-08 season.  The team also had other contributors born in the time frame, including Tomas Fleischmann (1984), Shaone Morrisonn (1983), Eric Fehr (1985), and Jeff Schultz (1986).  The team was also supplemented with veterans, most who were acquired in 2005 and after.

The Flyers’ most notable players included Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who the team drafted in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft and who were both born in 1985, with Richards appointed the Flyers’ captain just before the 2008-09 season. The team also featured Scott Hartnell (born in 1982), Joffrey Lupul (born in 1983) – who they acquired in trades, and Braydon Coburn (born in 1985). The team’s talent was supplemented with key veterans including Mike Knuble, Danny Briere, and Simon Gagne. The Flyers acquired defenseman Chris Pronger before the 2009-10 season, while Claude Giroux was drafted in 2006, played with the team for two games in 2007-08, played nearly half the season with their minor league affiliate in 2008-09 and joined them permanently around the season’s midpoint.

Penguins Blockade

Throughout the years the two teams have been in existence, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the main obstacles to the Capitals advancing far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. During the time frame of comparison, Washington lost to the Penguins in 2009 in seven games. During this time frame, the Flyers also ran into Pittsburgh in their playoff runs. Following first and second round series wins over the Caps and Montreal Canadiens, the Flyers met the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals, losing in five games. The Flyers met their in-state rivals again in the first round in 2009, but lost a series again for the second season in a row. The Flyers did not face the Penguins in either 2010 or 2011.

From 2008 to 2010, the Flyers had much better playoff fortunes than the Capitals, but had no championships to show for it. Washington failed to advance past the second round in that time span, while the Flyers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2008, lost in the first round in 2009, and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010, where they lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks. The 2009-10 season was one in which the Flyers found themselves at the bottom of the league in December, made a coaching change, and turned their season around to earn become the seventh-seed in the playoffs and advance through the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Disappointing Playoff Exits in the Second Round of 2011

For most of the 2010-11 season, the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers battled for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.  That season the Capitals finished with the best record (48-23-11 for 107 points) in the Eastern Conference, while the Flyers finished with the second-best record (47-23-12 for 106 points) in the Eastern Conference, with both teams winning their respective divisions, with the Flyers winning the Atlantic over the Penguins due to a tiebreaker.

With both teams evenly-match, and the season series highlighted by the fact that ALL four matchups had gone to either overtime or a shootout, the chance of a potential Eastern Conference Finals meeting seemed to be a potential reality if the cards fell just right.

Both powerhouse teams won their first round series, as the Capitals beat the New York Rangers in five games, a series that involved three overtime games, and moved on to play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.

The Flyers, meanwhile, won their first round series against the Buffalo Sabres in seven games that were marked by a goalie controversy and up-and-down play by Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller. The Flyers advanced to the second round to play the Boston Bruins, despite using three goalies (Sergei Bobrovsky, Michael Leighton, and Brian Boucher) and none of them wearing a long leash.

The Capitals’ playoff misfortunes continued as they suffered a four-game sweep at the hands of the Lightning, ending their season before the end of April.

The Flyers, meanwhile, were pitted in second round series against the Boston Bruins. In each of the first three games, both Boucher and Bobrovsky played, with Boucher getting the bulk of the minutes in three losses. Bobrovsky started the next game, which Philadelphia also lost, suffering a sweep themselves. The Bruins eventually went on to a Stanley Cup victory.

2011 Offseason Reactions

The front offices of the Capitals and Flyers reacted very differently to their second round losses, with the Flyers’ decisions outlining a potential “road not taken” for their counterparts in Washington.

The Caps’ offseason moves, which highlighted the organization’s big push to win, included trading goaltender Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a first-round draft pick in 2012 and a second-round pick, signing veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun as a free agent, trading their 2011 first-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for right wing Troy Brouwer, who had won the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, signing wingers Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern and veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik in free agency. The Caps would also run a tougher training camp with then-Head Coach Bruce Boudreau demanding more accountability from players.

The Flyers’ changes were even more drastic. Feeling a need for a more experienced goalie, the team acquired the rights to pending free agent Ilya Bryzgalov, who was unable to agree to a deal with then-Phoenix Coyotes, ultimately signing Bryzgalov to a nine-year deal worth $51 million. In order to fit Bryzgalov’s contract into their salary cap situation, the Flyers traded Richards and Carter, each who had signed identical 10-year deals worth $6 million a year and a no-trade clause. However, the “no trade” clause would not kick in until the 2011-12 season. On June 23, Carter was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Jakub Voracek, a 2011 draft first-round pick (used to select Sean Couturier) and a 2011 third-round pick (Nick Cousins). Richards and a prospect named Robert Bordson were traded to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, and the Kings’ second-round draft pick. The Flyers figured that they could build the team around rising star Claude Giroux, and Richards and Carter were now expendable.

Related Reading
NBC Sports: Flyers Sign Bryzgalov to 9 Year Deal
NHL.com: Flyers Trade Richards to LA Kings
NHL.com: Flyers Trade Jeff Carter to Columbus
NBC Sports: Players Blame Richards/Carter Departures on Partying
Philadelphia Inquirer: Did Partying Imply Parting
NBCSports: What We Don’t Know About Laviolette and Dry Island
NHL.Com: Caps Acquire Troy Brouwer
NHL.com: Capitals Sign Tomas Vokoun
Washington Post: Capitals Sign Tomas Vokoun
Capitals Sign Joel Ward to 3 Year Deal
Wash Post: Caps Training Camp — Fitness Put to Test

2011-2012 Season and Aftermath of Moves

The Capitals started off the 2011-12 season well but then slumped during November, which resulted in the firing of Boudreau as Head Coach and replacing of him with Dale Hunter  They fired Head Coach Bruce Boudreau and replaced him with Dale Hunter. The team eventually made the playoffs, where they defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in seven games before falling in the second round.

The Flyers were fortunate to have gotten a good return for Carter and Richards. In addition, they had a star in Giroux, and had appointed defenseman Chris Pronger as Captain. The Flyers won their division that year but lost to the New Jersey Devils in the second round.

Afterwards

The Flyers’ fortunes after the 2011-12 season declined.  Since the lockout of 2012-13, the Flyers have alternated between missing the playoffs entirely to barely qualifying for the playoffs. Pronger was unable to return to the NHL, as a result of an eye injury and a concussion he received early that season.  Bryzgalov, the goalie whose contract ultimately led to the trades of Carter and Richards, was ultimately bought out after the 2012-13 season.

The Kings won a Stanley Cup in 2012 thanks in part to the contributions from Richards and Carter, and another Stanley Cup in 2014, but their fortunes have fallen since.  Richards was no longer effective and was released after the 2014-15 season, and signed a contract with the Capitals during through the 2015-16 season, and has not played in the NHL since.

Conclusion

The Flyers’ personnel decisions after the 2010-11 show what could have happened to the Capitals had they handled things differently.  While the Caps made several offseason moves to change the culture of the team, they did not make as drastic moves that the Flyers did.

If the Caps had reacted as the Flyers did, they may have signed Vokoun to a long-term deal, instead of the one-year deal, which in light of Vokoun’s subsequent injuries, would have seriously backfired. At the time, Neuvirth had finished his first NHL season and Braden Holtby was still with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, plus the team had drafted Philipp Grubauer, making a long-term commitment to a veteran goalie unwise.

The Flyers’ trading of Richards and Carter would have been the equivalent of the Caps potentially trading both Ovechkin and Semin in hopes of changing their culture. There were plenty who wanted Semin traded, as he was widely considered enigmatic and never signed a long-term deal to commit to the Capitals. Semin ultimately left the team after the 2011-12 season in free agency.

Perhaps the Flyers would not have ultimately fallen as far had Pronger not gotten his eye injury and concussion during the 2011-12 season.  However, the trading of Carter and Richards, long the heart and soul of the team, clearly hurt and the Capitals staying par for the course with the majority of their core eventually led to the team lifting the Stanley Cup some six seasons later, while the Flyers have yet to return to the Stanley Cup Finals.

By Diane Doyle.

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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