There it was. The atrocious return from the lockout season the Flyers suffered through in 2006-2007, literally earning the league’s worst record with their badly put-together roster and equally bad play. Just eight games into the season, GM Bob Clarke quit his post (he was replaced by Paul Holmgren) and head coach Ken Hitchcock was fired (and replaced by John Stevens).
On many nights, the biggest cheers at the Wells Fargo Center came in the third period, after an overweight guy in a plain orange sweatshirt (who is now known to us as in-game host and team employee Shawn Hill) completed his dance moves during a commercial break from his perch in the top few rows of an end section in the mezzanine level. I know this because I was there on many of those nights – unable to sell or at times even give my seats away. Sometimes, I went by myself, unwilling to eat both tickets and willing to stomach the bad hockey as though I were a scout determined to help figure out who should stay and who should go.
Holmgren made some shrewd moves at the trade deadline, moving the meager veteran assets he did have, such as defenseman Alexei Zhitnik to Atlanta for Bryadon Coburn and Peter Forsberg to Nashville for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent and, more importantly, a first-round pick that was sent back to Nashville in the off-season in order to acquire exclusive negotiating rights to both Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. Holmgren also acquired goalie Martin Biron for a second round pick and signed him to an extension.
While the wisdom of that move can be questioned, many feel that Biron was acquired to help Danny Briere – a close friend of Biron’s – choose the Flyers as his free agent destination that offseason. Holmgren knew he had cleared a lot of cap space and he wanted to make a long-term commitment to a star center. Holmgren later confided that while he preferred Briere, he absolutely did not want to come up empty-handed. Because of that, there was a short window of time where the Flyers had tendered offers to both Briere and to their second choice in the free agent sweepstakes – Chris Drury (who later signed with the Rangers). Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. Or in the Flyers’ case, better to be lucky than simply bad.
By virtue of their horrible season on-ice, the Flyers earned one of the top two picks in the 2007 NHL draft. While there was not necessarily a consensus top player, certainly not in the mold of a Lemieux or a Lindros, the Blackhawks won the coin toss and selected Patrick Kane, while the Flyers selected James van Riemsdyk. It marked the first time that US-born players went in both the #1 and #2 spots.
The biggest difference between Kane and van Riemsdyk – other than the obvious size and style of game differences – is that nearly everyone knew that Kane would step into the NHL immediately, while JVR would not. Some felt that it was the Flyers who were not in a hurry, since the perception was that it would take the Flyers time to return to contention.
But when the Flyers made a run to the conference final in the very next season, my question to Flyers CEO Peter Luukko about how it feels to watch Kane playing at an all-star level in the NHL while JVR was playing at the University of New Hampshire was met with a response that made it clear that JVR and his family had a lot to say about when JVR would be ready for the NHL.
Was this another Eric, Bonnie and Carl Lindros situation brewing? JVR’s seeming refusal to go “all in” to an NHL career – or for that matter go “all in” on a game in, game-out basis once he reached the NHL annoyed me, and quite possibly did not escape the attention of the Flyers’ brass. It may seem like a minor thing, but it did not help matters that JVR grew up a Rangers fan.
The unavoidable comparison with Kane was before our eyes in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. JVR had a coming out party in Game 7 of the Flyers’ second round rally from being down 3-0 to Boston. After blitzing through Montreal, the Flyers set up an opportunity for Kane and JVR to square off head-to-head. Kane got the Cup-winning goal and the Discover Card commercials with Peggy, while JVR continued to toil in relative obscurity and maddening inconsistency.
One game, JVR would be among the top handful of players on the ice, using nearly unstoppable power forward moves to drive to the net and score goals or clear space for a teammate. But then a week or a month might go by where you wouldn’t even know if JVR had suited up. Many of us were stunned to learn in a Flyers “skills competition” that JVR has a 101 mph slapshot. We practically never saw it in a game.
I had the opportunity to pose the question that gnawed at me in that offseason to none other than Ken Hitchcock about whether in his opinion the Flyers would have won the Stanley Cup if they had Kane and the Blackhawks had JVR. While I acknowledged that it wasn’t exactly a fair question, and that I understood that Kane had a head start in the NHL, Hitchcock paused and pondered the question for what seemed like an eternity. He finally answered that Chicago would have won anyway – that they had enough other firepower and overall superior depth that he felt would have prevailed regardless. While I respect Hitchcock’s opinion immensely and appreciate the thought he put into the question and the sincere response he gave, I to this day believe there are three primary reasons the Flyers lost in the 2010 Cup final (in this order):
1. Their third defense pair was exploited too often.
2. They had no goalie better than Michael Leighton.
3. They had JVR rather than Patrick Kane.
In other words, maybe it wasn’t the key reason, but I refuse to dismiss it from being among the top reasons.
After a strong playoff in 2010-11, a new contract (now at a rather hefty $4.25 million per season through 2018), a lot more was expected from JVR in 2011-12, especially with the major roster turnover that sent Mike Richards and Jeff Carter packing. Richards’ Captain’s Corner box was dismantled in favor of JVR’s MVP’s, an opportunity for local charities to send people to watch a Flyers game. The team wanted JVR to be one of the key faces of the team. Unfortunately for him, injuries and more inconsistent play turned JVR into an expensive spare part on the Flyers.
The very trade that ended up happening – straight up for Luke Schenn – was rumored in-season, but JVR was injured. It’s also possible that the Flyers weren’t ready to give up on JVR’s star potential to acquire a player who is steady, but not a star. Perhaps ironically, it was Schenn’s younger brother Brayden’s physically dominant play in the Flyers’ series win over Pittsburgh which may have once and for all convinced the Flyers that holding onto JVR was a luxury they could afford to live without. The trade also likely signals that the Flyers will not be able to lure Ryan Suter or Shea Weber away from Nashville. It also gives a further clue that Chris Pronger’s career is over, as now the Flyers have Schenn, Nicklas Grossmann and Andrej Meszaros as physical presences on the backline to go with Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, perhaps Matt Carle, Andreas Lilja and the cast of rookies pressed into service last season (especially Marc-Andre Bourdon and Brandon Manning).
In the end, it’s not Patrick Kane that Flyers fans will compare JVR’s future career to. Nor will it be Sam Gagner, Jakub Voracek, Logan Couture, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds and Jamie Benn – each of whom was picked after JVR in the 2007 NHL draft (the first 5 were first-rounders) and each of whom is arguably better than JVR.
From now on, Flyers fans will hope that Luke Schenn (picked #5 in 2008) will contribute more than JVR would have.