The fact that the Princes of Old City are within sniffing distance of hockey’s holy grail, though, means about as much to the Flyers’ readiness to win as the price of scotch in Canada. Those two players are long gone. But the Flyers are closer to attaining their quest than they were when Richards and Carter were still wearing the orange and black. It’s just that their window may be closing faster than most realize.
The biggest positive from the Carter and Richards trades, believe it or not, was not the addition of Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier or Jake Voracek. All four players fit seamlessly into coach Peter Laviolette’s system, and Voracek and Simmonds — the only two with considerable NHL experience — produced career years.
No. The biggest positive? Claude Giroux.
To fully blossom into the superstar he is now, Giroux had to get out from under the shadow of Richards and Carter. And from the moment those trades went down, Giroux recognized that the Flyers were his team. The result: a 93-point season that should have made him a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, since the Flyers would not have even made the playoffs without him. And Giroux, 24, is only going to get better.
But it’s not just Giroux. At the time of the trade, the biggest concern was how the Flyers would replace the goals produced by Richards and Carter. Somehowthey finished with five more this season than last. If free-agent Jaromir Jagr doesn’t return to Philadelphia — which seems increasingly likely — the average age of the Flyers’ forwards is just 24.2 years old. They can score — and they are set for years to come.
With such a young core, there will still be growing pains. The team will have to overcome the emotional roller coaster of knocking off the top team in the conference in the first round before bowing out to the sixth-seeded Devils in the next. The Stanley Cup isn’t won in one round.
For now, though, the supporting cast around Giroux and Couturier and James van Riemsdyk works well. Characters like Jagr are interchangeable, a new talented and serviceable veteran can plug that hole if he does not return. The Flyers are seemingly not banking on anything from Chris Pronger for the five remaining years on his contract. But Holmgren will soon need to imagine life without veterans like playoff hero Danny Briere, ironman defenseman Kimmo Timonen and maybe even Scott Hartnell.
Timonen, 36, is on his last legs. Briere, 34, has shown signs of wear-and-tear on that tiny body. And Hartnell has one more year left on his deal. The window with this current group, as assembled, is getting smaller and smaller every spring. Youth movement or not, the Flyers will not be the same without those savvy veterans.
Ilya Bryzgalov is not going anywhere. As shaky as Martin Brodeur was against both the Panthers and Flyers in the first two rounds, he’s proving that you can still win the ultimate prize with a flawed goaltender in net.
Carter and Richards paved the way for Bryzgalov. Humongous contract included, they are still closer to that prize now than they were last summer.
— Frank Seravalli
The Sixers: Better. Still not great.
When Doug Collins was hired as coach of the 76ers in May 2010, he stated that his goal was to make the organization relevant to Philadelphia fans again, to create a strong foundation from which to build a solid franchise. When talk of a championship was brought up, Collins smirked. "We’re not thinking that right now. That’s a few years down the road," he said.
It’s now been almost 30 years since the Sixers last won a title, and that 1983 Sixers team was loaded with superstars: Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Andrew Toney.
The current crop of Sixers is devoid of superstars, though. In fact, it’s devoid of a superstar. Although the team opened eyes this past season by advancing to the second round of the playoffs after knocking off the injury-plagued Chicago Bulls and taking the Boston Celtics to seven games, there are no delusions of grandeur among those in the organization. For Collins’ blueprint to start taking shape in the way the coach envisioned, major overhauls are in order.
The recent playoff run appears to have shown that the organization is set on building with their young backcourt of Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday, and that rookie big men Nikola Vucevic and Lavoy Allen are going to be good, solid professionals. Other than those players, however (and probably Thaddeus Young), almost everyone would be available to another team for the right price. The Sixers, with their new ownership group, appear to be heading toward a busy offseason of buying and selling.
And that might be the norm for the next few offseasons, until the organization can find the team that Collins can work with to contend for the Eastern Conference championship. That is not exactly a quick fix in the NBA, of course. But the Sixers seem to be in a better position to get closer to the top than they’ve been in quite some time. In Collins, they have a seen-it-all, done-it-all coach who has outstanding relationships throughout the league, and could be a very valuable commodity when it comes to luring free agents. In majority owner Josh Harris, they have a leader who says he is willing to spend whatever it takes — to do whatever is necessary — to make the Sixers a contending team once again. And with big salaries coming to an end, they will have the flexibility to assemble the squad they want.
Close to an NBA championship? Not really. Closer than in many years? It certainly appears so.
— Bob Cooney
The Phillies: So close, and yet so far
Our long summer sport, baseball is built for narratives. The Phillies’ is being written already. A terrible April, along with the persistence of injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, were all it took. Even before Roy Halladay also found his way onto the disabled list, a national consensus was beginning to form among the written press about the team. Thomas Boswell, the longtime columnist and author from the Washington Post, put it this way:
The old order changes. Often, it’s hard to know who is arriving. But it’s usually clear who’s leaving. This time it’s the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies.
Baseball always had its long cycles of dominant teams that mature, milk their success for years then gradually succumb to age, injury, horrid contracts, minor league systems eviscerated by win-now trades, internal conflicts and life in general.
But we may have to wait a long time to see three teams as rich, adored in their home markets, still loaded with name stars but so very much in trouble.
Boswell is not wrong, not about the Phillies and not about 2012. They kidded themselves about when Howard might be ready to return from his Achilles injury, and they kidded themselves about Utley and his aching knees, and now they are stuck with a power-challenged team that often struggles to score runs. It is what they are this year. And it is what they will be this year (unless they can acquire a bat or unless, sometime this summer, Howard and/or Utley can contribute in the way they used to contribute).
Yes, this is destined to be a struggle of some significance. But anyone who writes off 2012 in early June really needs to take a good look at the National League East standings. It is hard to imagine any team running away with the division. It is almost impossible to imagine the final wild-card playoff berth being out of reach in August. The Phillies should be buyers at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, not sellers. Even with all of their injury issues, it will be an upset if they cannot grab at least one of those wild cards.
And here is the other point: it is only one season. The Phillies have some momentous contractual decisions to make in the coming months, starting with pitcher Cole Hamels. This team could look very different in 2013, and beyond. But as long as they are one of the highest revenue-producing franchises in a sport without a salary cap, there is no reason for anyone to alter expectations. The Phillies should still be competing for championships — for as long as the license to print money at Citizens Bank Park remains valid. Because while money cannot necessarily buy you happiness — or baseball wisdom — it can paper over a lot of mistakes. Especially the big bills.
— Rich Hofmann
The Eagles: 2012 or bust
The Eagles’ chances of winning a Super Bowl anytime soon begin and end with Michael Vick.
The quarterback turns 32 next month. In 2010, he had a Pro Bowl year, the kind of year (most of it, anyway) that could project to a championship. In 2011, Vick was neither healthy nor effective enough to say that. Coach Andy Reid noted after the season that the final four quarterbacks contesting the AFC and NFC titles all played in every game; the Birds lost two of the three games Vick missed with a rib injury, and the other two games he left early after getting dinged.
Let’s be clear: The Eagles enter 2012 as contenders. Yes, they missed the playoffs last season at 8-8 — one game worse than the New York Giants, who ended up winning the Super Bowl. And the Eagles won at the Giants Nov. 20 without Vick. Most observers would probably rank the 49ers, the Packers and maybe the Giants as better shots to win the NFC right now, although as the Packers found out a year ago, back-to-back Super Bowl berths are almost unheard of these days. Nobody is quite sure where to rank the Saints, who will spend the year playing under interim coach Joe Vitt after the Bountygate suspension of coach Sean Payton. The Eagles probably look like the third- to fifth-best NFC team, more than three months before meaningful games are played.
Nobody will field a stronger, deeper defensive line than the Eagles, who notched 50 sacks in 2011 and then devoted first- and second-round picks to the d-line: defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Vinny Curry. The linebacking corps was a problem in 2011 that the Eagles feel they have solved by trading for DeMeco Ryans and drafting Mychal Kendricks. The cornerbacking was a disappointment in 2011, partly because of muddled roles and conflicting styles, as defensive coordinator Juan Castillo tried to juggle Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha. With Samuel gone, Castillo should be able to press the way he wants. Safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman still have a lot to prove, but if the d-line, linebackers and corners are solid, the safeties shouldn’t have to be exceptional.
All the offense really needs to do to be championship-worthy is cut down on turnovers (and keep Vick and LeSean McCoy healthy, of course.) Losing All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters to an offseason Achilles’ tear was a huge blow, but one the Eagles ought to be able to withstand.
Aside from the question of Vick, possible barriers to a title seem to rest less with personnel than with coaching. It’s hard to get around the fact that this is Reid’s 14th season, and he hasn’t won the Super Bowl. Exactly one coach – Pittsburgh’s Bill Cowher – has won a Super Bowl that far into his tenure with one team. It is no coincidence that the Eagles, who set about signing key players to long-term deals this offseason to set the table for a championship run, have not moved to extend Reid’s pact, which expires after the 2013 season. It’s pretty clear that he needs to return to the playoffs, for the 10th time, to continue coaching here, and he might need to win the Super Bowl, something team president Joe Banner indicated in a 2011 interview.
If the team disapponts and this ends up being Reid’s last season, lots of dominoes will fall, probably including Vick. The team would enter a rebuilding phase that logically would push it out of title talk for a while.
The Eagles don’t enter 2012 as a dominant, overwhelming favorite, but they do seem to be in the Super Bowl hunt, not that far off the pace.
— Les Bowen