The Flyers are one of the most successful franchises in the history of the NHL. They have the most victories of any team outside of the Original Six, trailing only the Canadiens and upstart Golden Knights in all-time points percentage. As such, rebuilds on Broad Street (for the Flyers, at least) are all but unheard of. A rebuild is almost certainly on the horizon though; an All-Star break firesale looms as the Flyers lick the wounds of their second double-digit losing streak of the campaign. While this vintage of the Orange and Black is certainly on its own, it is worth remembering just how well the Flyers’ only sustained overhaul to date went.
The Flyers of the 1980s were, more than anything, victims of circumstance. They began the decade by running straight into the burgeoning New York Islanders Dynasty, losing the Stanley Cup in 6 games with some help from an infamous missed call by linesman Leon Stickle. They would graduate from Trottier and Bossy to Gretzky and Messier, dropping two more Stanley Cup Finals to the Edmonton Oilers in 1985 and 1987, respectively. By 1989-1990, the writing was on the wall: the Flyers had their shot and missed it. Franchise heroes Bob Clarke and Bill Barber were long retired. Mark Howe and Tim Kerr, though still effective, could not stay healthy for any considerable length of time. Brian Propp would depart midseason as the team’s 3rd all-time leading scorer. Former All-Star player Paul Holmgren could not stop the bleeding on the bench, failing to clear the .500 mark before his dismissal in 1991-1992. The bleakest period in team history necessitated major changes.
The early ‘90s were the only truly sustained period the Flyers had ever had outside of the playoffs. That was due to the implosion of the ‘80s core group and the incremental replacement of those players. The last star of the previous decade to depart was Rick Tocchet, who briefly served as captain before being moved to Pittsburgh as part of a deal for stout winger Mark Recchi during the 1991-1992 season.
Recchi was being groomed as a sidekick to superstar centerman Eric Lindros, who after much deliberation was traded to the Flyers from Quebec for a package including gritty forward Mike Ricci, former Conn Smythe-winning goalie Ron Hextall, and an astounding $15 million. The pairing yielded results in the scoring column if not the standings; together on the “Crazy 8s” line, Recchi would notch 123 points while Lindros cruised to the All-Rookie Team. The next piece of the puzzle to fall into place was big Swede Mikael Renberg, who arrived as a rookie in 1993-1994 after two seasons of gestation in the Swedish League. Renberg smashed the team’s rookie scoring record with 82 points as the team again missed the playoffs despite All-Star Seasons from Recchi and Lindros.
The Flyers’ playoff drought emphatically ended in 1994-1995, largely due to perhaps the greatest trade in Flyers history. After 10 lackluster games, Mark Recchi was shipped to Montreal in exchange for Eric Desjardins and John Leclair. Desjardins remains the second-best defenseman in the history of the team next to Howe, challenged only by Chris Pronger’s brief stopover in Philadelphia. Leclair scored for fun beside Lindros, notching 40+ goals in five consecutive seasons. The duo, along with Lindros and 1991 trade acquisition Rod Brind’Amour, would form the nucleus of the Flyers for nearly a decade. Lindros succeeded Kevin Dineen as captain and collected the Hart Memorial Trophy as the team topped their division for the first time since 1986-1987.
The Flyers, jointly led by 15 postseason points from Lindros and the powerful Brind’Amour, would lose just a single game on their way to the Conference Finals. They would yet again run into a dynasty, this time the stingy defense of the New Jersey Devils. Despite their 6-game loss, the Flyers had given their loyal fans something to watch after years of sustained mediocrity. Famously, when accepting his MVP award that summer, Lindros tearfully declared “we’re getting better, and we’re gonna do it.” While his words would go painfully unfulfilled, the Flyers fans have been waiting for a team of that caliber ever since.
Lessons from the Lindros Teams
The eventual failure of Lindros to win the Stanley Cup came down to subpar goaltending and overreliance on ancient depth players. Still, aggressive pursuit of superstar talent and repeated deep playoff runs are the sorts of things that are almost foreign to the modern Flyers fan. They proved that a team can achieve nothing without great ambition, a message that the franchise, an irrelevancy since 2013, would do well to note.