VOORHEES, N.J. – Boston. Chicago. Los Angeles. Philadelphia?
The Flyers believe they’re close – very close – to being among the NHL’s most elite teams, despite their rocky start to 2013-14 and their first-round playoff exit.
“Not very far,” Claude Giroux said. “It’s a lot of good teams in the league. Obviously, on paper, we’re a good team. We’ve just got to go out there and play the game the right way.”
The Flyers led the Eastern Conference with seven 20-plus goal-scorers this season. It worked for them, for a while, but posed some challenges, too. All year long, they lacked one go-to guy who could be relied upon to generate offense; this was especially apparent during Giroux’s struggles back in the fall.
Nonetheless, Giroux believes the Flyers still are very close to being an elite team, both on paper and on the ice. They don’t have a dominating defenseman or a 30-40 goal-scorer, but the team’s captain believes they have an impressive roster despite it. They have the goaltending with Steve Mason. They have a solid core in place.
“I think so,” Giroux said. “I think, obviously, it’s easy for me to say, ‘yeah,’ but I really believe in this group. If you ask anybody on this team, they probably think the same way.”
The Flyers were just a pair of goals away from making the second round of the playoffs. Both general manager Paul Holmgren and coach Craig Berube have pointed that out on a few occasions. And both – as well as the players themselves – believe the Flyers could have defeated the New York Rangers had things gone just a bit differently.
"Coming out of that hole that we did, that shows a lot of character," Vinny Lecavalier said. "And I believe we can play with the elite teams. Losing Game 7 was tough, but we could be won that game and moved on."
Wayne Simmonds agreed.
“I actually thought the team we had this year, we could have gone past the first round,” Simmonds said. “Obviously it didn’t happen, and [any offseason changes that are made are] up to management. Whatever management wants to do. If they have to make a few tweaks or if they think they have to do some major moves, that’s up to them. That’s not for the players to decide.”
Speed, a number of players acknowledged, is a big part of what separates them from the Bostons and Chicagos of the league. Looking at the Flyers’ shortcomings, their speed on both defense and offense was often an area of difficulty throughout the season. It was certainly exposed in the seven games they played against the Rangers.
“That’s part of it,” Berube said. “The other is just playoff experience. They’ve been there, those teams. We’ve got to understand that we let one slip away. Game 7, I don’t care where you’re playing it, you’ve got to find a way to win that game, and we lost it.”
The Bruins, for instance, aren't hurting for experience. Nor are the Kings or Blackhawks. The teams that are perennial Stanley Cup contenders often have leaders who have "been there before."
The Flyers, whose core is made up primarily of players who have never been to the Stanley Cup Final, let alone actually won the trophy, don't have that. There's something to that absence.
“We do have a young core,” Brayden Schenn said. “We do have a young group, and for us, still looking obviously to get better and get over the hump. Two years ago we got to the second round, this year it was out in the first round.
"We’ve still got to find a way to get over the hump with our core group of guys we have here.”