A letter to the 2017-18 Philadelphia Flyers

The losing streak is over! Now let’s talk about what we actually want this team to be this season and get to it.

TO: The Hockey Team, The Flyers
3601 S. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19148

***

Dear The Flyers,

Hey! What’s up? Based on how things have been going for most of the last month, I’d love to be able to say “long time, no see”, but we both know that would be a lie.

Nice win on Monday! First in a while, of course. I’m happy for you guys. I’m sure that feels good. Not the prettiest win you’ve ever pulled together, for sure, but any win that you’ve waited nearly a month for is a pretty one, let’s be honest. Plus, nice job not just taking every shot at the point and instead fighting for chances the hard way. Habits are tough to break, but when you’ve lost 10 games in a row, you gotta try. Good job at it.

So with that all said … we have to talk. We’ve had to talk for a while, frankly, but it’s been so hard to have substantive conversations with you when you’ve spent the better part of the past month stepping on rakes. Everyone’s been pissed off and sad, even by normal Philadelphia sports standards, and often times that’s not a conducive environment in which to have calm, rational discussion about the best long-term course of action for a professional organization. I’m all for making change when change is necessary, but sometimes people make poor decisions when they’re angry.

But now that the 10-game losing streak is over and the “everything is awful, nothing matters, eat Arby’s” phase is somewhat behind us, let’s have a real chat about this season.

We’ll officially reach the one-third mark of your 2017-18 NHL regular season tonight in Edmonton. By the time that game starts, you all will be at least eight points out of a playoff spot, potentially more if both Pittsburgh and Washington pick up points in their games tonight. And in terms of league-wide pecking order, you’ll be somewhere around 27th in the NHL in standings points percentage.

That’s bad. You know that. And worse, it’s a step back from last season, which we all agreed was a total mess of a year where everything went wrong and, yet, was still a year in which you finished the season just seven points out of a playoff spot and 19th in the league in points percentage.

Sure, there’s time to turn that around. Your last two playoff teams both shook off ghastly Octobers or Novembers to get back on track. If Claude says it’s a playoff team, he has earned the benefit of my doubt that it could, in theory, happen.

But you also know that even with that time that’s left, you all are facing tall odds to make yourselves a relevant team in this year’s playoff picture. The odds don’t all agree with how tall those odds are, but when you really look them — 23 percent, 14 percent, eight percent — you can’t really concern yourselves with the differences, because you realize we’re talking about the difference here between how tall Ben Simmons is and how tall Joel Embiid is. Pretty damn tall, either way.

(Yep, we’re making Sixers-themed jokes now, because at this point we need a reminder that at least there’s one team that regularly plays sports in your house that has a winning record and plays to packed home crowds.)

To be honest, we’re not used to this. Over five years ago, we made note of the fact that you hadn’t gone at least five years without a “Final Four”/Conference Finals appearance at any point in franchise history. Oops. That streak is currently running on seven seasons, and if you think it’s not about to become eight, I admire your optimism.

You also haven’t missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 1994. 1994! I wasn’t even three years old the last time you did something that you are, by all means, on track to do again this season. I didn’t even know what you were the last time this happened.

We may not be used to this. But you’re getting used to this, aren’t you? Don’t get me wrong here, this isn’t a “this core is rotten, throw it out” argument — anyone who’s actually watched Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek play hockey this season ought to know how thoroughly ridiculous it is to drop this mess on their shoulders. But since the most recent lockout, you’ve collected five playoff wins, zero playoff series wins, and three playoffs-less seasons. Mediocrity is what’s been expected of this franchise for the better part of this decade.

And yet, up until really the past couple of months, there’s largely been a sense of calm around your fanbase for a while now. There’s been a lot of confidence that things are, slowly but surely, moving in the right direction. And while I had my minor concerns, particularly when it came to NHL-level talent acquisition and evaluation, I’ve long been firmly in the “things are going to get good soon” camp, as well.

Because it always seemed like there was a plan. A direction. A clear goal in mind. After a near-decade of ol’ YOLO Paul running the team, doing whatever he could in that exact moment to make his team better with no thought whatsoever for the long run, there was an obvious mantra under Ron Hextall. Hit on (and keep) your top draft picks. Develop young guys and be patient with, but confident, in them. Don’t sign giant regrettable contracts. Have, as someone who shared 3601 South Broad Street with Hextall for nearly three years once said, the longest view in the room.

Despite three seasons under Hextall that, outside of a magical rookie season by Shayne Gostisbehere and a late-season push for a playoff spot in 2015-16, have been pretty forgettable on the NHL ice, we’ve largely remained optimistic for the future. And despite a 2016-17 season that was a meaningful step back in a lot of ways, this fanbase was as ready as ever to see some patience pay off. To see that group of young defensemen you’ve been talking about prove its chops. To see the guy who was the near-consensus top prospect in the 2017 NHL Draft start his Flyers career. To see that there is light at the end of this crowded I-95 tunnel we’ve — and you’ve — been stuck in for years now.

To say “it hasn’t happened” would be both stating the obvious and not nearly going far enough. And right now, fans are more frustrated with your front office and coaching staff than they’ve been at any point in their respective tenures.

Well, that’s because we just lost 10 ga—”

No. That’s not wh… OK, yes, fans are obviously annoyed about your losing 10 games in a row. Fair.

But that’s not the big problem here. Crappy teams can lose several games in a row without it being an indicator of genuine design flaws which had previously gone unnoticed. Heck, even average teams can do that with enough bad luck.

The problem here is twofold. First, we don’t know what the direction and plan are anymore. Is it to win games now and get back in the playoffs, or is it to keep that long view and develop young guys? Or is it both? And second, whatever the answer to the first part is doesn’t really matter, because you’re currently coming up short at both short-term results and long-term development.

If the team wasn’t getting much of a contribution from its new guys, but was clearly in the thick of a playoff race in one of the deepest divisions in recent NHL history, fans would probably accept it. If the team was struggling to put wins up in the standings, but was seeing obvious progress from young players, fans would at least have something to look forward to.

You thought you could do both. We thought you could do both. And right now you’re doing neither. You have more wins than just two other teams in the NHL. And the only newcomer that you clearly trust is a 22-year old defensive defenseman who spent the previous four seasons in respected professional leagues. Not the No. 2 overall pick from six months ago, who is currently bleeding shots and scoring chances whenever he’s on the ice. Not one of the best-scoring rookie defensemen in the AHL last season, who seems closer to the press box than he does to top-4 minutes despite being successful by nearly every underlying on-ice measure you can find. And not one of the other half-dozen guys who are banging on the door in Allentown so loud that you can hear it from an hour down 476.

I understand that to write this two months into a season after spending the last three years being excited is very much an abandonment of the patience that we’ve been trying to preach for so long. Yes, you will probably finish higher than 27th in the standings. Yes, the young guys will probably look better by the end of the season, four months later. But the issue is that I don’t know what you, as an organization, would deem a successful 2017-18 at this point.

My hope here is that you, the Flyers, do know what you would consider to be a success from this point forward. What’s done is done, ten straight losses and all. What I want now is for you to decide what needs to happen between now and April 7, when the regular season ends, for this season to be considered a success (if you already know, then great!). I want you to make as much of your decision-making as is realistically possible revolve around achieving that end goal(s). And if it’s not reached, I want you to make sure people are held responsible for those failings.

If you decide the goal is “get back in the playoffs”, no matter how tall the odds currently are? Go for it. After all, you told us not to call this a rebuilding season back in August. Hell, you said this was still a playoff team last week after consecutive loss number nine, so I have to imagine this is the plan. Play what you think is your best lineup every single night, whatever you think that may be. Bench a young guy if you think he’s not going to help you win. Give fourth-line-caliber veterans second-line minutes because they’re Reliable and you Know What You’re Getting From Them. Do what you have to do. If you really, truly believe it’s the best thing you can do for the 2017-18 Flyers, do it.

But if it doesn’t work out, it’ll be time to stare down the reality of the situation a bit. We’ll be talking about a team with two high-dollar stars entering their twilight years (and, once again, it’s important to stress that this is not their fault) as a team that is going to need significant changes and improvements. Big ones, small ones, and in all likelihood behind-the-bench ones. To declare the playoffs the goal (again), miss out on them (again), and then not make meaningful changes would rightly mark the point at which this fanbase’s patience ends.

Now, if, instead, you’ve reached the point where you know the playoffs probably aren’t going to happen, and have decided it’s time to really focus on setting some long-term groundwork in place? That’s OK, too! In fact, if what I’ve been seeing on social media is any indication, there are probably a lot of people that would be totally fine with this. But you’ve really got to stick with it, and more than anything, you have to show some confidence in these kids that you’ve told us are the next wave of this organization.

Don’t regularly scratch/place them low in the lineup in favor of players who are neither key contributors now nor meaningful long-term pieces in the organization’s future. Give them some minutes in high-pressure situations, knowing that they’re going to be better for the experience even if it may occasionally burn you in the short-term. Call up players who are lighting the AHL on fire, and actually keep them here if they play well. And if a guy is struggling (which some of them will! Chances are — rookies, do not read this — that not all of these guys will end up being good!), try and figure out what in a player’s game is correctable and what may just never change, and plan for the future accordingly.

Of course, this plan also shouldn’t be considered risk-free, or one that doesn’t involve anyone being held accountable. Ideally, there are some benchmarks in mind for how some of these guys are going to look and what they’ll be capable of by the end of the year, and if those aren’t being met, it’ll be tough for anyone to say with confidence that this coaching staff is the right one to really help these guys reach their peaks. If, come March and April, Robert Hagg is still the only rookie on the team that the coach is comfortable playing in high-leverage situations, that’s a bad look for the folks that are supposed to be turning Travis Sanheim and Nolan Patrick into all-around NHL threats.

In sum … I just want you to figure out what you are, or what you’re supposed to be, and I want you to go and be it. And if you’re not being it, then I want to know what the plan is for you to become it and find some people who are going to get you there. Because I don’t want to believe that the answer to what you are is “a team that is 27th in the NHL and isn’t getting much from its big-name young talent”. We’ve been too patient to believe that this was the reward. And as upset as we are, I still think (and I think that most fans still think) that reward is coming at some point.

Don’t make me change my mind.

Go Flyers. (Go you? Go you.)

Love (because I still know no other way),
Kurt

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