Sam Donnellon: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter in finals, but Flyers still better off

The Los Angeles Kings' Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (77) celebrate Dustin Penner's overtime goal against the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Arizona, on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. The goal gave the Kings a 4-3 win and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
The Los Angeles Kings' Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (77) celebrate Dustin Penner's overtime goal against the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Arizona, on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. The goal gave the Kings a 4-3 win and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Posted: May 25, 2012

FOR MOST OF US, it’s a no-brainer. In a few days, either the New Jersey Devils will again be in a Stanley Cup final or the New York Rangers and their Darth Vader coach will be. Either way it doesn’t really matter, because we’d pull for a team with Darth, Lord Voldemort, the real Bundy (not Chris Therien) and the real Lucipher before we’d pull for either team.

But that still leads to some uneasiness for some Flyers fans, who for most of this season lived with a sense of relief that the trades of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter last June were smart and prudent moves, resulting in benefits both immediate and long term.

Even now, who really wants to reverse the deals that brought Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn and 19-year-old Sean Couturier to the Flyers as a result?

Say Ilya Bryzgalov wasn’t signed to that big fat deal, that Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren did not need to clear the cap space? Would Claude Giroux have emerged as this team’s leader? If not, are you OK with that?

Are you confident that the purported edge between current coach and his previous captain have dulled or sharpened, especially given the absence of Chris Pronger?

Most of all, would the Flyers have fared much differently?

Remember, when Richards and Carter were traded within 30 minutes of each other last June, there was a great concern about where the goals would come from. Scoring goals was not a problem for the Flyers without both, even during an off year for Danny Briere. The Flyers’ 264 goals were more than any team other than Pittsburgh and Boston, both first-round victims. Matt Read, Voracek and Simmonds all had more points than Richards, who scored just once over 35 games between Christmas and mid-March, and ended the regular season with 44 points, his lowest total in 5 years. Carter, injured on and off, was worse, with 34 points. Both players spent much of the season unpopular with their new fandom because of this, and Flyers fans spent much of the season thinking Homer sure knew what he was doing. There was even understandable outrage that he was one of the nominees as the league’s best GM.

The problem for this team was in its goals allowed, an offshoot of Bryzgalov’s erratic play, the loss of Chris Pronger at the blueline and Peter Laviolette’s high-risk, high-reward system. If you want to take a shot at Homer, there’s your opening. He thought he had enough good blueliners and he didn’t, at least for the style of play his coach prefers, if not demands. It was an interesting disconnect in that final press conference after the season ended, when Holmgren’s suggestion that their style of play might become more defensively responsible over the summer was followed by Laviolette’s edgy defense of it.

A refresher: I asked Holmgren if the goals allowed was more linked to the goalie’s erratic play or to the system.

"That’s a good question," Holmgren said. "That is probably a question for the coaching staff. There is no question in my mind that we have to do a better job with goals against. It is related to Ilya a little bit. It is related a little bit to how we play. We are an offensive team that can score. We just finished a five-game series where we didn’t score a lot of goals. We certainly didn’t generate a lot of offensive chances. We have to look at what happened there and what you are going to do about it when you get into that situation next year."

When asked about his system a little later though, Laviolette said, "I don’t know. Do you think that attack systems have ever won Stanley Cups before? Do you think that attack systems have ever gotten to the finals before? We needed to do a better job certainly in a lot of areas. I think, defensively, we could have been better. Offensively, in the playoffs, we generated the least amount of shots and opportunities, in the playoffs. Certainly I think there are things that we need to do better. All teams need to play good defense to win championships. Pittsburgh and Detroit did it a few years back …"

In Pittsburgh, after the Flyers eliminated the Penguins, much of the what-went-wrong analysis centered around the erosion of defensive presence from their 2009 Cup winner, largely due to the salary cap and free agency. Sergei Gonchar, Hal Gill, Darryl Sydor and current Flyer Max Talbot were all part of the Penguins’ successful run that year.

That team, though, scored 269 goals during the regular season and allowed 239, roughly the numbers recorded this season by the Flyers. The difference was that the team tightened over the final weeks of the season, finishing 18-3-4 after Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as coach.

They also allowed 63 goals and Marc-Andre Fleury got his name on the Cup with a .908 save percentage.

So would Richards and Carter have changed the way it ended for the Flyers this season? Would you reverse the deals now if you could? The answer for most of us is no. But that doesn’t make the upcoming finals, regardless of who wins it, any less torturous to watch.

Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com

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