by PuckStopsHere on 05/29/10 at 12:42 PM ET
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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