Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and You

Since the Flyers were unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs in the second round by the Boston Bruins, the reactions out of Philadelphia have been loud and quite negative. There are calls for everyone's head, from the coach to the captain to the team's leading goal scorer. The fallout has been a mix of frustration, embarrassment, valid criticism and downright overreaction. And frankly, this is nothing new with the Flyers and their legion of fans.

Bearing the biggest brunt of the fans' ire have been Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, the two players Ed Snider and his Flyers decided to build their franchise around. And while right now seemingly everyone under the sun is demanding Mike Richards be removed from his captaincy and Jeff Carter shipped off to a land far, far away, I'd like to take a moment and remind Flyers fans everywhere — both the rational and irrational ones — just how fickle we all are with the recent Flyers teams and especially Richards and Carter in particular. So let's take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

In 2005, both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter broke into the NHL as two highly touted rookies thrust into the thick of things with a veteran team that was used to winning — well, in the regular season anyway. Surrounded by hard-working veterans like Mike Knuble, Sami Kapanen, Simon Gagne, Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher, Kim Johnsson, Michal Handzus and Keith Primeau still around, Carter and Richards, along with fellow rookie R.J. Umberger, were certainly expected to contribute, but the majority of the pressure was on their veteran teammates.

Both Carter and Richards had outstanding rookie seasons, with Carter posting 23 goals and 42 points in 81 games, skating at a plus-10, while Richards had 34 points himself and was a plus-6 in 79 games. Together, they helped lead the Flyers to 101 regular-season points and home-ice advantage in the first round. But the good feelings wouldn't last.

Just one season (and one lockout) after coming within a game of reaching the Stanley Cup Final, the Flyers were ousted in the first round by the Buffalo Sabres. And the following season was an unmitigated disaster. The team's biggest star, Peter Forsberg, couldn't stay healthy. Keith Primeau could not come back from his concussion trouble from the year before. And many of the other veterans either were off to greener pastures or began to fade. Before long, Ken Hitchcock was run out of town in what was framed as a player mutiny, and in came John Stevens. Slowly but surely, Stevens phased out the old and passed the reigns along to the youngsters, most notably Richards, Carter, Umberger and rookie Scottie Upshall.

What resulted was the worst season in franchise history. The Flyers finished dead last with just 56 points, one season after posting 101 points. It was an alarming fall from grace. But as horrid as that season was, hope was on the horizon. While the youngsters struggled along with the rest of the team, they showed promise and talent and potential, giving the fan base something to be excited about. For once, the Flyers were no longer going to be the aging, lumbering team that defined them in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Something new was right around the corner. And while Richards and Carter took a slight step backward in that year, the Flyers faithful had nothing but good vibes about them.

The next season, they would both validate those feelings. Ed Snider, never hesitant to pull all his resources to improve his hockey franchise, gave the go-ahead for some major changes. In were Danny Briere, Joffrey Lupul, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Jason Smith. Gone were Forsberg and Primeau and a handful of others. And now the team was handed over officially to the young forwards. Sure, defensemen Derian Hatcher, the newly acquired Timonen and Jason Smith provided a much-needed calming influence on the blue line, and Knuble, Gagne and Kapanen provided stability up top, but it was time for Richards and Carter to really make this team their own. And that's exactly what they did.

Richards in particular made an enormous leap, turning into the player that everyone proclaimed was a captain in waiting. He scored more goals and tallied more assists in his third season than he did in his first two seasons combined, finishing with 28 goals and 47 assists and skating to a plus-14 in 73 games. Just as impressively, he really showed his true self by going up against and more times than not shutting down the opposition's top line. He began his trademark of playing in all situations, becoming one of the team's top penalty killers and regular on the power play. And for his efforts, he was named an all-star, leading the Flyers in points and assists and even outshining the high-profile free agent acquisition Danny Briere. Briere, by the way, was no slouch, leading the Flyers with 31 goals and finishing second behind only Richards in assists (41) and points (72), though he was somehow a minus-22. Try and figure that one out.

Richards clearly asserted himself as the team's best player and in many people's eyes the clear captain of the future. But along the way, Richards sustained an injury and was out for a few weeks. All eyes turned to Jeff Carter to see if he could fill the considerable void with Richards out. And Carter, who was having a relatively quiet season to that point, did not disappoint.

When the Flyers really needed him to step up, Carter did just that, elevating his game to new heights. When it was all said and done, he registered 29 goals, tied for second on the team with Knuble, and added 24 assists. And when Richards was sidelined, he carried the team. For their combined efforts, Richards and Carter led an historic turnaround, going from 56 points the season before to 95, making the playoffs. And it got even better. They stunned the Washington Capitals in the first round thanks to some game 7 heroics by Joffrey Lupul.

Then they discarded the Canadiens in five games and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before they were sent home by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins. And as painful as it was to lose to the team from across the state, the Flyers were clearly headed in the right direction.

Everyone in Philadelphia was excited about the turnaround and thrilled with the play of the youngsters. The core of Richards, Carter, Umberger, Upshall, Hartnell, Lupul, Briere, Knuble and Gagne gave the Flyers a group that could grow together and conceivably only get better. And there was no denying it now, the Flyers were Mike Richards' and Jeff Carter's team.

The following season, the Flyers were among the best in the league nearly all year long, and it was Carter and Richards who led the way, finishing first and second for the team lead in points and plus-minus. Taking a cue from the newly minted captain, Carter had a breakout season, leading the Flyers with 84 points and 46 goals, which was second only behind Alexander Ovechkin in the entire league, and he made his first all-star team. He also led the Flyers as a plus-23. And while Richards was snubbed from the all-star game, he had his best statistical season of his career in his first season as captain, leading the Flyers with 50 assists to go along with 30 goals, a plus-22 rating and a league-leading 7 shorthanded goals. All the while, he continued to assert himself as one of the premier two-way players in the NHL.

But, as the season was winding down, the Flyers began to choke away their hold among the top spots in the conference. And on the final day of the season, on Easter Sunday no less, they choked away home-ice advantage for the first round.

We all know what happened next. The Flyers were quickly disposed of in the first round by the same Pittsburgh Penguins who had ended their season in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before, on their way this time to hoisting the Stanley Cup. And that's when fan's perceptions of Richards and Carter first began to change.

Despite outstanding regular seasons, Richards and Carter were ineffective against Pittsburgh, both finishing as minus players. With the team's slump down the stretch that cost them home ice and carried over into the playoffs, Richards' captaincy was truly questioned for the first time. Was he too young? Was he a strong enough personality? Could he really fill the shoes of the veterans who wore the C before him? But at least his heart wasn't questioned, at least not yet. Night and night out, Richards threw his body around and played in all situations, never once complaining.

The same could not be said for Carter. Repeatedly against the Penguins, Carter missed wide open nets and couldn't find a way to light the lamp after a season of piling up the goals. His hesitance to hit didn't endear him to fans, and the failures in the playoffs only made things worse. After two very impressive seasons and a run to the conference finals, doubt finally started to creep in to the minds of the fans. But as much as they were frustrated and the questions started seeping in, no one was ready to give up on Carter and Richards yet. That would just be foolish. Here were two young all-stars with a world of talent. Sure, the team underachieved, but at the same time, the season before they overachieved. The next year would be the real test.

Besides, it was the high-priced Danny Briere that drew the majority of the fans' ire, having played just 29 games as the "injury-plagued" label started to rear its ugly head. And the rest of the blame was laid at the feet of John Stevens (especially by me). Still, the seeds of doubt about Richards and Carter were planted.

Then last season happened. We all remember it well. Chris Pronger was brought in to join forces with Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn on the blue line and give some guidance to Richards in the locker room. Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk were the new youngsters in town expected to contribute, Ray Emery was the new goaltender taking over for the unfairly judged (in my mind) Martin Biron, and the Flyers were expected to compete for the Cup. But then they got off to an awful start, and off came John Stevens' head. In came Peter Laviolette to save the day, but for the longest while, it looked like the Flyers were dead in the water.

All the while, Richards was being branded as a moody, horrible captain, incapable of leadership. This despite having 31 goals and 31 assists and continuing to be a force defensively. Carter was called soft and heartless, this despite leading the team with 33 goals and finishing second behind Richards for the team lead in points. Every fan under the sun wanted Briere traded for not living up to his contract, even though he was always money the playoffs. And as Scott Hartnell's goals decreased and bad penalties increased, Flyers fans couldn't wait for him to be shipped off (myself included).

Then a funny thing happened. The Flyers snuck into the playoffs with a shootout victory on the final day of the regular season and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, coming up just two games short of finally breaking the drought.

Briere and Hartnell had an incredible playoff along with Ville Leino. Suddenly no one wanted either of those two gone after that. They wanted the team's best line in the playoffs back and together for a full season. Carter basically had two broken feet and only played in 12 playoff games, but he still managed 5 goals. Though he was ineffective and looked out of shape against the Blackhawks, it could be forgiven after the injury in the first round against the Devils. There was never a peep out of anyone about Richards' leadership in the immediate aftermath of the playoff run, and Richards did finish second behind only Briere in playoff points for the Flyers.

And Peter Laviolette was hailed as the second coming. His remarkable use of timeouts, fiery demeanor and demanding style instantly rendered him a fan favorite. Hell, many fans were even happy to bring back Michael Leighton after he saved the Flyers' season numerous times despite his status as a career journeyman and his underwhelming performance in the Final. The good times were killing us, and with the beefing up of the blue line and expected improvement from Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk, the expectations for this season were through the roof.

For most of the year, the Flyers met those expectations, skyrocketing to the top of the standings and staying there damn near all season. That is until the final third of the year. Just like they had in John Stevens' final full season, the Flyers slid down the stretch, lost the top seed in the conference and could never regain their bearings. Why? Because Jeff Carter is a pussy and choke artist in the playoffs, so the story goes. Because Mike Richards is a shitty captain and moody guy and hates everyone from his coach to his giant defensman teammate, so they say. Because Laviolette lost the team and failed to address the power play, word is. Now everywhere you turn you hear cries to trade Carter (guilty here, but only for a top-notch goalie), strip Richards of his C and/or trade him too, hold Laviolette more responsible, etc.

Nevermind that the goaltending was a joke. Nevermind that the team's best defenseman, truly a difference-maker on the ice, missed practically the entire playoffs. Nevermind that Richards played the entire season with a fucked up wrist. Nevermind that Carter and Richards were tied for third in points on the team with 66, trailing only Giroux and Briere on the league's deepest scoring team, and that Carter led the team in goals while Richie was second in assists. Nevermind all of that. The Flyers lost to a deeper, more physical, more healthy Bruins team that had much better goaltending and revenge on its mind because Richards and Carter played with no heart and don't care about winning and won't take responsibility, they say. That's just the facts, according to a loud contingency.

To which I simply say, bullshit. It's not Richards and Carter who have changed, it's the fans' perception. One year, they're the future of the franchise. Then they're superstars and all-stars and untradeable. The next season they're choke artists who have no heart and no leadership. Then they're a team with nothing but heart that never quits. Finally, they are a bunch of quitters who just don't care.

Give me a break. Maybe Richards isn't the captain you expect him to be, and maybe he did have an immensely disappointing postseason. But to say he doesn't care, he takes no responsibility? Please. The guy never complains about ice time or injuries or his teammates, despite rumors of the contrary. He busts his ass out there every time he takes the ice and is still one of the best two-way forwards in the league. And he played nearly the entire season with an injured wrist, one that required surgery after the season.

Am I disappointed with how he played, especially after Kris Versteeg came over? Absolutely. But I'm not disappointed with his effort. Mike Richards spent the entire first half of the season with a revolving door of wingers and never complained. In fact, he was having one of his best starts ever, making every player that skated with him better. But now after a late-season swoon and disappointing exit, everyone conveniently forgets that. It's easier to label him a whiner, a moody jerk, a heartless captain that doesn't know how to lead. Because, you know, a guy who's been to two Eastern Conference Finals and a Stanley Cup Final in six seasons in the NHL clearly has no leadership capabilities.

And sure, I get frustrated with Carter not playing physical, not coming through the way he does in the regular season during the playoffs. But Jeff Carter is a natural goal-scorer, something that doesn't just grow on trees. He's a much better defensive player than people give him credit for, and like Richards, he plays in all situations, power play and penalty kill included. And he's improving in the faceoff circle, and accepts moving to wing to accommodate the logjam at center. Oh yeah, he also played in a Stanley Cup Final with pretty much two broken feet. So don't give me this no heart nonsense. I'm tired of it. I really am.

Mike Richards and Jeff Carter aren't perfect hockey players. Few players are. And this season has left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth. But do you know how many teams would kill to have one or both of those guys in their locker rooms, on their teams? Dozens, because they're really good players, winning players. No, they haven't won a Stanley Cup. Neither did Ron Hextall or Rick Tocchet during their time in Philadelphia or any number of the fan favorites. Hell, it took Rod Brind'Amour, a player every Flyers fan in the world adores, 17 seasons before he got his mitts on the Cup. It's not an easy thing to do, yet Flyers fans often sound like all it takes is for Richards and Carter to care a little more and try a little harder and the Cup is theirs.

Honestly, I don't even know why I just wrote thousands of words on the topic, because I'm not going to change the minds of those that are calling for the heads of two of this team's best players. But I guess I felt compelled to try and stop the insanity, as futile as it is.

The Flyers certainly underachieved this postseason, and players didn't perform up to snuff when it was all said and done. That happens in sports. It's rare that players just wake up one morning and instantly turn into champions. Most of the time, they have to go through the growing pains, the ups and downs, the painful losses and unexpected victories, the overachieving runs and underachieving disappointments before they finally climb the mountain. Some players never get there. Some players get there sooner than others. Sometimes as fans, I think we need to remember that.

Sports is a reactionary indulgence, and an overreactionary endeavor. It's the nature of the beast. And that's clearly evident when it comes to the relationship between Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and the Flyers fans and media.


  1. Awesome post. But you forget one thing, Carter and Richards for the past three seasons were going out every night, drinking, carrying on, banging random girls, etc. There is nothing wrong with that when you're in your mid 20's, but when you're in your mid-20's and you're getting handed $5 million a year, there's plenty wrong with that.

    When you see them out every summer in Sea Isle getting completely fucked up, and haven't won anything...there's a problem. The reason they got rid of Upshall, Lupol, and Umberger was because they carried on too much off the ice...they were like college drinking buddies, problem is..they weren't in college anymore-they are in the professional business world (as athletes). If any of us making $40,000-$50,000 a year came into work with an "i know it all" attitude and went out the way they did, we would be on the unemployment line.

  2. **Lupol, Briere, Upshall, Umberger, Richards, and Carter carrying on**

  3. Very good point. And I'm sure that played a part in what happened yesterday. But it didn't seem to really affect their play much when you look at their production. Maybe enough was enough though.

    Certainly will be interesting to see what happens.