Is that a tear dripping from the statue of Kate Smith outside the old Philadelphia Spectrum?
No one would doubt the spirit of the late, great singer of God Bless America has turned away from her beloved Flyers across the parking lot at the Wachovia Center in what could be their worst season in franchise history.
If the Flyers don't pick up six points in their remaining four games -- starting tonight against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre -- they'll come in lower than the 1969-70 club, an expansion-era team that compiled 58 points in 76 games. Even during a crisis in the early 1990s, the Flyers never dipped below 70, recovering to finish first or second in the Atlantic Division for 11 years in a row.
Regarding their present woes, most blame the man who made the Flyers feared around the NHL. Bob Clarke never ceased trying to shape the team in the mean image of his Broad St. Bullies, but misjudged the lay of the post-lockout land. Clarke made approximately a dozen moves he believed would fix matters after a first-round playoff exit against the Buffalo Sabres last spring, convinced the free-flow NHL would revert to its plodding ways.
He added clutch-and-grab elements instead of shoring up support for Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne. Names such as Randy Robitaille, Marty Murray and Nolan Baumgartner filled out the roster in the autumn. Clarke's successor, Paul Holmgren, has made about the same number of deals during the winter to try to undo the knots.
Though the immobility of big defencemen such as Derian Hatcher (minus-27) was a hot topic in October, he has adapted.
The Flyers hope they have solved the inconsistent goaltending of Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki with the acquisition and signing of Martin Biron, who inked a two-year extension last week.
The Flyers are expected to make an off-season pitch for Daniel Briere, who is slated to become unrestricted on July 1. The roster cleanup has freed up more than $20 million US in salary cap space. John Stevens will return as coach next season.
"We like what we have now, adding size and speed with Braydon Coburn, Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent," Stevens said. "We can't turn things back. There were so many personnel issues we didn't know we'd have to deal with out of gate -- Keith Primeau (retiring), the goalies getting banged up and (Forsberg) being hurt.
"It may have taken a year to tighten up, but we have some young players in Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, R.J. Umberger and character veterans."
"Highlights" from the Flyers' fatal season:
- Lost seven of their first eight, 14 of first 17.
- Shut out five times.
- Have nine home wins all year.
- Lost all eight games to state rival Pittsburgh, out-scored 42-21.
- Lost all four games to 14th-place Washington, out-scored 20-9.
- Have used five goalies this year. Last in NHL with a 3.60 goals-against average.