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Philadelphia Flyers Are Not An Elite Team

Yesterday I wrote about why the Chicago Blackhawks are not an elite team.  It is time to look at their Stanley Cup finals opponents, the Philadelphia Flyers.

It should be even more clear that the Flyers are not a historically elite team.  They are not even one of the top teams in the 2009/10 season.  They finished the season in 18th place and would not have qualified for the playoffs at all if they were not an East Conference team.  Their regular season record had as many losses as wins (they were 41-41 with 6 losses counted as regulation ties).  Their trip to the finals has come by playing the three lowest scoring teams that qualified for the playoffs in New Jersey, Boston and Montreal.  Statistically, they are a clear example of a mid-level team that managed to fluke their way to the Stanley Cup finals.

I argue that the historically elite teams are nearly impossible to form anymore given the NHL’s rules.  The salary cap and liberalized free agency brought in with the 2005 CBA have made it extremely hard to assemble a good team and keep them together.  Before these teams have a chance to reach their peaks they are dismantled.  Elite teams do not have time to be formed before the teams with potential are taken apart.  This has been made worse by the over-expansion in the league that has provided more markets for talent to be spread across - despite the fact that the talent pool the NHL draws from is actually shrinking due to more viable places in Europe for NHL calibre players to play.

The result of this is that fans lose the chance to see elite teams.  They do not exist anymore.  This takes away from the NHL.  It is most evident in the Stanley Cup finals because historically they have been a battle between two elite teams in many years, but they lack that lustre now.  Chicago and Philadelphia is a first round calibre series.  The Stanley Cup playoffs have not built to a big anticipated final.  In the first round, Chicago played Nashville.  Nashville is by any reasonable statistical measure a better team than Philadelphia.  The first round series was a hard fought six game victory by Chicago and could easily be a better series than the finals will be.  The problem with trying to create a league where anybody can win is that if you succeed somebody who is not a particularly good team will win and there is less drama in watching a mid-level team like Philadelphia.  Most fans dreamed of a better team representing the east in the finals to give a more highly anticipated final.

This is not to say that Chicago and Philadelphia cannot play good games.  The problem is that they will not play the great final series that could be provided if two elite teams play against each other - if elite teams existed anymore.

In order to determine if teams are elite, we need a set of conditions that are consistent with history and independent of their result in a given season.  Arguing that team X is elite because they made the Stanley Cup finals is a failure because two teams make the Stanley Cup finals every year regardless of the quality of teams in the league.  I have argued from historical precedent that it is necessary, but not sufficient, for an elite team to have three or more Hall of Fame track players (which may include the goalie) and a top goalie who would rank among the top five or so goalies in hockey at a given time.  Satisfying these conditions do not guarantee that a team will be an elite team.  The team must still play well as a team - but without the top players they will not be an elite team.

Philadelphia fails miserably in the goaltending area.  Michael Leighton is not an elite goalie.  If you had to re-draft the NHL for a new Stanley Cup playoff type tournament, there is no way he would be one of the top goalies picked.  He may have posted good numbers in the portion of the playoffs he has played so far, but that is a function of a hot streak and low scoring opposition.  Earlier this season, he almost played himself out of the NHL.  The Carolina Hurricanes were flirting with last place when they placed him on waivers to allow the Flyers to pick him up.  This was his fifth time to be placed on waivers in his NHL career.  Those kinds of things do not happen to elite goalies.

As for Hall of Fame players, Philadelphia clearly has one in Chris Pronger.  The former Hart Trophy winning defenceman has been a top NHL player for a long time.  When he retires, he is likely a first ballot Hall of Famer.  He is one of the top defencemen in hockey today and I think should make second team all star this year. 

I do not think that Philadelphia has anyone else who is likely on a Hall of Fame track.  There is nobody that I would project to having a Hall of Fame career.  Probably the closest case is Mike Richards.  Richards is a good two-way player who may win a Selke Trophy in his career.  He was good enough to be part of Canada’s gold medal winning team at the Olympics.  However, he is at best a point per game player.  He fell short this year, but was around that mark the last two years before it.  That isn’t good enough for a future Hall of Fame player.  In order for Richards to make it to the Hall, he must improve his offence significantly or maintain a strangle lock on the Selke Trophy (which he has never won) to show defensive dominance.  My best guess is that will not happen and he will fall short of a Hall of Fame career.

Another candidate for a Hall of Fame career on the Flyers include Jeff Carter, who has similar offensive numbers to Richards (with one less point per game season)  and weaker defense.  There are also more established players like Simon Gagne, Daniel Briere and Kimmo Timonen.  None of them have ever been seriously considered among the NHL’s best players and would require a late career rebirth to get their career numbers up to Hall of Fame level.

Philadelphia does not have the players to be an elite team.  They especially do not have the goaltending.  Michael Leighton might have established himself as an NHL level goalie with his play in Philadelphia - but that was in question before he arrived.  He is clearly not one of the best goalies in hockey.  As for the team in front of him, Chris Pronger is a top level Hall of Fame calibre defenceman.  There are a few options in the rest of their core for players who might have Hall of Fame careers, but none are very likely.  Philadelphia is a mid-level team that has made the Stanley Cup finals and the quality of the Stanley Cup finals is compromised because of it.

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Comments

Steve Strowbridge's avatar

The problem is that they will not play the great final series that could be provided if two elite teams play against each other - if elite teams existed anymore.

So, you can predict the future now? How do you know this series will not be great? Greatness is made up of moments on the ice, not paragraphs about the teams deficiencies.

I hope you enjoy game 1 this evening. I think it is gonna be fun!

Posted by Steve Strowbridge from St. John's, NL, CA on 05/29/10 at 01:44 PM ET

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The problem is that they will not play the great final series that could be provided if two elite teams play against each other - if elite teams existed anymore.

Please, tell us ALL the “elite” Stanley Cup Finals in the past twenty years. I’m curious to know.

Posted by jhart on 05/29/10 at 02:02 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

Prior to the lockout, there was at least one elite team in the Stanley Cup finals almost every year.  Since the lockout, the only elite team we have seen is the 2007 Anaheim Ducks - but their run ended quickly when Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer went on sabbatical for the first half of the next season.  The last time two elite teams have met each other in the Stanley Cup finals is the 2001 Colorado vs New Jersey final.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 05/29/10 at 02:21 PM ET

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Nashville is by any reasonable statistical measure a better team than Philadelphia.

I would define ‘playoff games won’ as a reasonable statistical measure of how good a team is in the playoffs.

I think this point has been made time and time again TPSH, but in the NHL, regular season does not equal post-season in terms of how good a team is, There is the world of difference between being a Washington Capital in November, taking on four mediocre divisional rivals most nights, and being a Capital in May, when you’re playing the top teams, night after night, allowing them to learn and exploit all your weaknesses.

The elite teams are those best able to exploit the weaknesses of others and outweigh their own weaknesses with strengths. The Hawks have an incredible array of offensive talent, have role players capable of executing a clear gameplan to defeat an opponent (see the destruction of Luongo in the second round), and have managed to keep their weakness in net (though Niemi hasn’t played badly) under wraps. The fact that they get better as a series goes on (see the second round, again) indicates that they are an elite playoff team.

Same with the Flyers. Deep scoring, committed team defense, and their defensive strength has protected their weak goalie. This was not in evidence in the regular season, but has been in the playoffs. That’s not luck, that’s skill, commitment, and raising your game at the right time - elite qualities.

Your attempts to define whether the Stanley Cup finalists are ‘elite’, based on regular season reasoning, are as flawed as an attempt to judge Michael Jordan as an elite athlete based on his baseball career. Perhaps a better way to define elite would be to have all the best teams in the NHL play against each other, say best-of-7, until one team is left as the winner. We could even give them a little trophy, a nice memento of their ‘elite’ status.

Posted by fcjbencard on 05/29/10 at 02:30 PM ET

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This may be one of the most asinine proposals I’ve ever read. Philadelphia has already played some of the most exciting and entertaining playoff hockey I’ve ever seen this year.

So if this series goes seven games and is decided by an overtime goal it won’t be great because the teams competing didn’t have enough players on the hall of fame track?

What complete, utter rubbish…

Posted by wolfgangpuck on 05/29/10 at 02:42 PM ET

Francis at ShootShoot.net's avatar

The lack of what you call elite teams is a good thing. No one wants to see the same two teams in the final every year. The salary cap has evened the playing field, making it more entertaining hockey for all. And if you think there hasn’t been a build of anticipation this year then maybe you’re just getting bored with your job because this is the best playoffs in maybe a decade.
Shootshoot.net

Posted by Francis at ShootShoot.net on 05/29/10 at 03:37 PM ET

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Wolfgangpuck

yep. TOSH would rather a four game sweep, a la Detroit over Washington in 1998, than the 09-10 Finals because a decade ago, the Wings were elite.

It is rubbish.

Posted by jhart on 05/29/10 at 03:45 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

JHart

When the number three in the regular season plays the number 18 team, a four game sweep is a somewhat likely event.

Of course the quality of a hockey series is not fully determined by the number of games it lasts.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 05/29/10 at 03:55 PM ET

cainer4wingsglory's avatar

When the number three in the regular season plays the number 18 team, a four game sweep is a somewhat likely event.

As a previous poster mentioned (not like anything would ever sink into your thick unevolved skull TPSH) The Flyers have played some of the best playoff hockey and if you think for one minute the talent level is 3 v 18, then you are sorely mistaken. The Flyers have a lot of skill and a ton of grit. Sure their goalie is a non-name journeyman, but the Hawks have similar issues in net.


And if you think there hasn’t been a build of anticipation this year then maybe you’re just getting bored with your job because this is the best playoffs in maybe a decade.

I would have to disagree and say that these playoffs are nothing special. And in fact I’m quite disappointed with the glaring lack of thrilling OT games. There was only one game that went into 3OT, and save the SJ/Avs and Wash/Mon series, was there many OTs at all? I can just remember years when something like 20 games went into OT. While there has been a couple of games 7’s and the crazy 0-3 comeback, I think the Conference semi’s and finals were not very competitive, in terms of long back and forth series’. I do agree with you that it’s good for the league to have different teams in the finals, rather than just two elite teams year after year.

Posted by cainer4wingsglory on 05/29/10 at 04:20 PM ET

Evilpens's avatar

So, you can predict the future now? How do you know this series will not be great? Greatness is made up of moments on the ice, not paragraphs about the teams deficiencies.

I hope you enjoy game 1 this evening. I think it is gonna be fun!


I don’t think he is intelligent enough to understand that with a Slary cap they aren’t going to be GREAT TEAMS every team is going to have it’s weaknesses

Posted by Evilpens on 05/29/10 at 07:20 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

The general consensus from these comments is that it is better that the game is close and perhaps goes to overtime than it is well played by elite teams with elite players.

In that case, I know some great games played by 5 year olds that were close that would make you happy to replace any lopsided games that may occur in the finals.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 05/29/10 at 08:00 PM ET

Moq's avatar

My advice would be to spend more time on NHL games, and less time watching 5-year olds play hockey.

Posted by Moq from Denmark on 05/29/10 at 09:21 PM ET

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every team is going to have its weaknesses

Actually, that’s the point TPSH is trying to make: he doesn’t want teams with ANY weaknesses.

Posted by Matthew McCallum on 05/30/10 at 09:52 AM ET

Evilpens's avatar

Actually, that’s the point TPSH is trying to make: he doesn’t want teams with ANY weaknesses.

UMMMMMM With a Salary Cap every team is going to have a Sizable weakness rolleyes

Posted by Evilpens on 05/30/10 at 10:00 AM ET

Chris from NOHS's avatar

What teams have NO weaknesses?  Almost none since expansion.

Posted by Chris from NOHS from Columbus, OH/Grand Rapids, MI on 06/03/10 at 02:30 AM ET

Chris from NOHS's avatar

I think the biggest fail is that entire paragraph explaining why Leighton is not elite.  That’s why this article fails.  Noone is saying anything different about the Flyers.  They are a gritty, hard working team with talent.  Not all time “elite” but not many are.

Posted by Chris from NOHS from Columbus, OH/Grand Rapids, MI on 06/03/10 at 02:32 AM ET

Chris from NOHS's avatar

And btw, using Hall of Fame requirements to make a team elite is a fail in itself.  If in their prime, three players had incredible years together, could do no wrong, but only had this happen for a year or two, that would mean more than a couple players who will be heading to the hall of fame for past or future production.

Posted by Chris from NOHS from Columbus, OH/Grand Rapids, MI on 06/03/10 at 02:34 AM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

And btw, using Hall of Fame requirements to make a team elite is a fail in itself.  If in their prime, three players had incredible years together, could do no wrong, but only had this happen for a year or two, that would mean more than a couple players who will be heading to the hall of fame for past or future production.

State a historical example of when this has happened and we can discuss its applicability.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 06/03/10 at 01:44 PM ET

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.

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