Three years ago, the Philadelphia Flyers brass came to town and said they had a two-pronged goal for their AHL affiliate in Glens Falls: develop and win.
I sure hope they got what they wanted out of the development end, because they haven’t come close to winning. With 12 games remaining in this season, a path to the playoffs still exists, but it involves optimistic math and quite a bit of help.
And even so, this is what we’re supposed to be excited about? A desperate struggle just for the small chance to be the team who steps in front of the Norfolk tidal wave?
Look, this isn’t about being naive. If the Flyers win the Stanley Cup this year, no one in the organization is going to miss a second of sleep over what happened with Adirondack.
And I get that. Winning in the NHL is first. It should be. The AHL club is there to support that goal and whatever happens here is gravy.
No one expects Adirondack to be Hershey or St. John’s or Charlotte. The only way to guarantee success each year is when you have local owners willing to foot part of the bill to bring in AHL veterans and those situations are few and far between.
But is it too much to ask for the Flyers to supply Adirondack with something more than the worst team in the league the last three seasons?
The Phantoms have the fewest points in the AHL over the last three years. They’ve finished last in their division two straight seasons and are in the basement again with 12 games remaining. They’ve never finished better than 13th in the conference, exactly where they sit heading into this weekend.
Here’s what the Flyers did this offseason to change that in terms of veteran free-agent acquisitions: they signed Jason Bacashihua as a backup goalie — a position already overfilled.
Bacashihua has been a nice player, but those aren’t the kind of moves that put you over the top.
Contrast that to Springfield, another perennially struggling Northeast franchise. Columbus signed former all-star forwards Martin St. Pierre and Alexandre Giroux. Both have more points than anyone on the perpetually offensively challenged Phantoms.
There’s no doubt this season the Phantoms have done a good job of sending fill-in talent to the next level. Marc-Andre Bourdon, Eric Wellwood, Harry Zolnierczyk, Erik Gustafsson, even Brandon Manning of late, have stepped in and done admirable jobs for the Flyers.
Players that developed here last season like Zac Rinaldo and Tom Sestito have also played with the Flyers.
None of those guys may end up as stars, but they helped the Flyers get through rough patches.
That’s to be lauded. And for some, that will be the be all and end all of the question. They’ve helped the Flyers, ’nuff said.
But this support from the Phantoms is a relatively new development. The last two seasons were remarkably free of call-ups. The back-and-forth movement this season is more in line with what most franchises experience.
The Phantoms’ troubles aren’t a recent development. They were in decline before they were sold by the Flyers to Rob and Jim Brooks and moved here.
Their second Calder Cup came in the lockout season of 2004-05, when many players who’d in other years be with the Flyers stayed with the Phantoms. Since then, they’ve won just one playoff series.
After winning division titles their first three seasons, the Phantoms won just one in their final 10 seasons in Philadelphia. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2008.
There’s been a trickle-down effect of trading away draft picks and trying to win immediately through trades and free agency. Recently, the Flyers just don’t count on major contributions from players brought up through the AHL.
Of their 15 leading scorers this year, only Matt Read and James van Riemsdyk have spent any time with the Phantoms in the last four seasons, and they combined for just 18 games.
With fewer draft picks, the Flyers relied on the undrafted free-agent market to fill Adirondack’s roster. And for every home run like Read, there have been many others who just aren’t ready to contribute offensively in the AHL.
The Flyers aren’t the only NHL team trying to win right now, and somehow, other clubs manage to both develop and be competitive. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton manages to field a strong team each season. Hasn’t hurt the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Binghamton won a Calder Cup last year with a purely developmental model.
But no one here is even asking for a championship. They’re asking for the team to not finish in last place for once. To repeat: no one has put a worse product on the ice in the AHL the last three seasons.
Even if you want to look at the AHL as purely a means to an NHL end — and how many Stanley Cups have the Flyers won lately? — doesn’t the NHL club stocking the roster have at least some responsibility to make the team competitive?
If not to the fans who pay for the tickets, then how about to the owners who pay for the affiliation rights?
Look at what happened in Syracuse this year when owner Howard Dolgon felt like Anaheim didn’t live up to its end of their bargain. He opted out. Cut them loose. And Syracuse has had a better record than the Phantoms the last two years.
With a bonanza waiting in Allentown, the Brookses aren’t about to opt out. And Adirondack fans don’t have a choice.
Fans here have been patient. For more than a year they blamed the coaching. Then the goaltending. Then they mostly just accepted mediocrity and hoped for the best this season from a group of largely likeable and hard-working players.
But there’s nothing left to blame except for the one constant the past three years: the organization selecting the players.
The only thing people can do is appeal to the pride of the Flyers front office.
I’ve followed the Flyers since I was a kid and there’s been one trait they use to define themselves: No one wants to win more.
So isn’t there someone in the organization ticked off that their AHL affiliate — once a league model — has become a laughingstock? Isn’t someone embarrassed when they open the paper and see the standings?
It has to be a matter of philosophy or will, because it surely isn’t about money. With what the Flyers paid to stash Michael Leighton, Matt Walker and Johan Backlund here this season, they could have fielded an AHL all-star team three times over.
There are no more excuses. We know where to look this offseason.
Fix this mess. Fix it this summer.
Tim McManus may be reached at email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter (@PSPhantoms) and read his daily updates on the Phantoms Forum blog online.