For so much of last season, and pieces of the new one, the Philadelphia Flyers managed to make news in all the wrong ways.
Philadelphia's Jesse Boulerice, left, was suspended for 25 games in October.
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Their only superlatives from last season arose from its being the sorriest in franchise history, a 22-48-12 record that was every bit as bad as it sounds. Early this season, two of their players threw ugly hits that prompted the suspension-shy N.H.L. to hand down 45 games’ worth of punishment.
But lurking beneath the bad and the ugly, the Flyers have also built a team that might be awfully good. From the rubble of last season, the Flyers have constructed a suddenly scary offense and a team, with a few exceptions, that is less reliant on the thuggery that brings flashbacks to the days of the notorious Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s.
“We like the direction we’re going,” Flyers Coach John Stevens said this week. “Our fans are excited. The crowds at home have been just terrific and people are saying we’re an exciting team to watch, and that means a lot. But if we are going to fly under the radar a little, that’s O.K., too.”
So far, the all-new Flyers have sprinted to a 5-1 start with consecutive 4-0 victories against Atlanta and the Devils. They have scored at a surprising clip — they chased the All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo in the first period while scoring eight goals against Vancouver — and have allowed only 10 in 6 games. This was a team that gave up 303 goals last season, a mind-boggling 106 more than the league’s top defensive team.
But what most people know about the Flyers is that the minor leaguer Steve Downie sent Ottawa forward Dean McAmmond to the hospital with a vicious check to the head in a preseason game, and that the journeyman Jesse Boulerice chopped Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler in the face with his stick earlier this month. Downie was suspended for 20 games and Boulerice for 25. Both remain with the franchise, assigned to the American Hockey League’s Philadelphia Phantoms, while under suspension.
“Things happen,” Flyers center Daniel Brière said. “I hear a lot of comments that people blame the coaching staff or John Stevens for not controlling his players, but you look at the two incidents, it’s not like John sent them out there to do that. It’s sad that it’s taken over the success of the team, but things like that happen and you’ve got to deal with it.”
Brière is perhaps the best measuring stick of the Flyers. He was one of the N.H.L.’s most attractive free agents this summer, a 30-year-old, slick-skating center who helped make the Buffalo Sabres one of the league’s most dangerous teams over the last two seasons. The Flyers wooed him with an eight-year, $52 million contract, but Brière said that would not have been enough had the Flyers not already started their rebuilding.
They had begun at the trading deadline, sending the high-priced and often-injured Peter Forsberg to Nashville for forward Scottie Upshall, the 19-year-old defenseman Ryan Parent and two draft picks.
They snatched goalie Martin Biron from Buffalo for a second-round draft pick. They shopped at Nashville’s fire sale again at the draft, grabbing defenseman Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell for a first-round draft pick. Then, as they were wooing Brière, they traded for defenseman Jason Smith and forward Joffrey Lupul for the underachieving defenseman Joni Pitkanen, forward Geoff Sanderson and a draft pick.
The Flyers still had the elite scorer Simon Gagné, who scored 47 goals in 2005-6, and the promising young forwards Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and R. J. Umberger.
And perhaps most tellingly, Biron decided to forgo being an unrestricted free agent and signed a two-year, $7 million contract before last season ended.
“You can’t just look at the surface,” Brière said. “You have to look a little deeper. Looking all the way back to the beginning of last season, more than half of the team was new faces. There is too much talent in this room not to make this turnaround. You never know for sure. But for me, I thought there was a lot of upside.”
Brière has been centering Gagné and Mike Knuble, two of the few holdovers, and already has four goals and four assists.
“For the guys who are remaining, this is fun,” Knuble said. “All of us who lived through last year, on a team that was the worst in a proud franchise’s history, it was tough to take.
“Granted, we have 77 more games, so you can’t plan the parade yet, but the start is everything. You build your momentum, whether it’s positive or negative. Last year it was negative and it carried throughout the year. This year, teams realize we’re back.”
And although they may welcome Downie and Boulerice back to their lineup when the suspensions are over, the Flyers have not been shy about decrying what they did to earn them. They believe the lesson has been learned though the suspensions, even though Boulerice was once suspended from junior hockey for a season for a stick attack. Boulerice, who clobbered Kesler late in a game the Flyers were winning handily, apologized after the game.
“It has taken a lot of attention away from our team, but rightfully so,” Stevens said. “Those are incidents we have to remove from our game. The one in preseason with young Downie, it’s a situation where you never want to see a player get hurt. We’ve got to do our part to try to eliminate that. The other one with Jessie, that just has no part in the game.”
The Flyers still have forward Ben Eager, who led the league in penalty minutes (233) and misconducts (5) last season.
But the face of this team has suddenly become the fresh face of Brière, who is 5 feet 10 inches and 179 pounds and looks closer to 18 than he does to 30.
“I believe we have a good combination right now,” Brière said. “I think our team is built more around skill and speed than it is around toughness and tough guys. We are not the old-time Broad Street Bullies.”