VOORHEES, N.J. – Hockey maintains a reputation as a sport which doesn’t use excuses to justify failure.
Even so, the Flyers could have been tempted to point to record-breaking man-games lost to explain away their historically bad season.
As players packed their gear at the Flyers Training Center on Saturday and drove away into the offseason, a number of reasons were dropped on the media for why they couldn’t make the Stanley Cup playoffs for a second straight season, something which previously hadn’t happened in nearly 30 years.
General manager Chuck Fletcher held exit interviews with each individual player and somewhere in his message had to be the sentiment this season was downright unacceptable, regardless of injuries, illness and trades.
Interim head coach Mike Yeo has been harping on “bad mistakes’’ almost from day one back in December when he took over at the helm from ex-coach Alain Vigneault.
For some reason, Yeo’s message didn’t seem to get through.
Sean Couturier, who had season-ending back surgery in February, said the Flyers can’t fall back on the injury excuse card to rationalize why elements of their game, such as their 32nd-ranked power play, failed to succeed.
“It was a tough year with injuries, but I think it’s more than that,’’ said Couturier, perhaps the leading candidate to succeed ex-Flyer Claude Giroux as captain next season. “It’s not just injuries. We still have to find a way. We can’t just put it all on the injury excuse. We still have to find a way to be more responsible, take some ownership in our mistakes and learn from them. It seemed at times we didn’t have any grow in our game. It was just a tough year.’’
Center Patrick Brown, who still has one year left on his contract, said the compressed schedule might have had something to do with the inability to sustain a winning culture on this team.
But, like Couturier, Brown said a depleted roster couldn’t be used as an alibi for such poor play.
“Obviously with the COVID season (and the ill-fated Olympic break), the schedule was a little bit more crammed, more games in a shorter amount of time, but that’s part of being a pro,’’ Brown said. “This is a hard game, a long season, it’s 82 games. You got to do everything you can to be ready every single night. Every game is a privilege in this league. You can’t play one good game and you have a flight, maybe to a far city and the next day not be ready to play. You have to do everything you can to be ready to play.’’
Bobby Clarke Trophy (for team MVP) winner Cam Atkinson finished the season on the injured list himself but suggested the Flyers needed to find a way to compensate for the players lost to health issues.
“I guess I’m happy in a way where there was really no finger-pointing within the locker room because man, anything that could have gone wrong, went wrong this year,’’ Atkinson said. “We did a decent job at sticking together through the worst time and we all have to hold each other accountable. It’s a pretty crappy feeling being out of the playoffs by January. Every guy’s got to look hard in the mirror and realize we never want to be in this spot again. What an embarrassment it was for the organization, the fan base and the city itself. It’s hard to build a culture within an organization and it’s just as easy to lose that. We need to find a way to stick together and build that winning culture. Coming to the rink and expecting to win, not hoping to win. I’m just embarrassed, I guess. It’s a crappy feeling. Almost a waste of a year in my mind, but I hope Chuck (Fletcher) is going to do some things in the summer to help this team. I want to be here. I want to win here.’’
Veteran center Kevin Hayes, who was sidelined nearly half the season due to several abdominal surgeries (including antibiotic treatments to fight off an infection), said virtually none of the blame should fall on Yeo.
“Our structure wasn’t there and we had bad habits in our game,” Hayes said. “I don’t think the coach can really change that. He doesn’t play. I think he can show us as many videos as he wants, but it’s on the players. It’s not on Yeo. It’s guys wanting to do the right thing and playing the right way. If you look at the 16 teams that made the playoffs, they all played the same game. That’s what everyone strives to be. With all the injuries, it’s tough to have a very good lineup, build chemistry and new guys in the lineup every night. I don’t think anything has to do with the coach. He did a great job. A lot of ups and downs. He did the best he could. I think everyone appreciates what he did.’’
The 2021-22 season is over and the last-place Metro Division finish should be quickly forgotten by the Flyers. Except for one thing: The list of bad mistakes which got them there in the first place.