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April 09, 2019

Al Morganti: Flyers close to breaking point with the loyalty of their fans

There are not many fan bases in all of American sports as loyal as the people who buy everything black and orange and pack whatever building serves as home base for the Philadelphia Flyers.

From generation to generation, and yet another generation after that, fans of the Flyers first packed the Spectrum, and then whatever name placed on the side of their recent home palace. In addition, the fans flocked to outdoor games at Citizen Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field.

No matter what their status in the NHL, the fans have marched through the doors with hopes they could finally win the Stanley Cup, which they last hoisted over 40 years ago. And they have marched through those doors clad in whatever the latest version of orange and black jersey was the style and supported the team through thick and thin, thinner, and now thinnest.

It has been a tumultuous time for the organization and its fans. Imagine a season in which the team employed eight goalies, fired a general manager and coach, and missed the playoffs.

The very best news was that the team appears to have finally found its franchise goalie in Carter Hart. All the while, the face of the franchise became a goofy and wildly popular mascot named Gritty, but even its antics cannot cover up the poor product on the ice.

General manager Chuck Fletcher has had time to assess the situation, and he is facing a summer of great demands to get things done – and get them done quickly. It did not start well as the people’s choice for the next head coach passed when the Florida Panthers hired Joel Quenneville.

Fletcher is faced with expectations from Philly's fan base that he will come away with a top-notch free agent such as defenseman Eric Karlsson, and perhaps even change the core of the team in terms of making huge decisions of Captain Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek.

A combination of no movement clauses and salary structure would make a move difficult with either player, but it is a fair question to pose as to whether it would not be better off to change the nucleus.

The biggest worry is that with this nucleus the club has not benefitted from a development standpoint. As much as you can point to poor goaltending ruining the season, there was also a huge problem in that young defenseman Ivan Provorov had a horrible start, and Shayne Gostisbehere was subpar from beginning to end.

The Flyers have tried to sell a storyline that they are stocked with young talent in the pipeline, but every team has good young talent, and much of it has developed a whole lot quicker than the Flyers' has.

From the beginning of the season though the end, the Flyers simply could not play a winning system. They were leaky defensively, and turned the puck over far too often when they had the puck. It was a team that required an effective power play, but was derailed with a poor start by James van Riemsdyk and the fact that Gostisbehere was so ineffective he was removed from the power play.

The Flyers are also caught in the new reality of the NHL in which much of the physical play that would excite a crowd has been removed from the game – and that is not just fighting. The days of entertaining a team with physical play despite a loss no longer exist.

In addition to all their other problems, the Flyers also suffered from playing basically .500 hockey on their home ice, and that just won’t bring a crowd to its feet – and at this point it might not bring a full house through the doors.

The Flyers are staring at a looming break point with the loyalty of their fans. At the tail end of what was a terrible season, the organization announced a sweeping ticket price increase, ranging from huge increases (with additional benefits) at lower levels to far less in less-than-premium sections.

It was a curious time to make that decision, especially after a season during which both the general manager and coach were fired, and realistically the team was doomed to miss the playoffs before the turn of the New Year.

In the past, there has never been much of a worry that fans would literally “buy” into the view of the future. Look at the recent landscape of Philadelphia’s pro sports teams and you will see that the bulk of Sixers fans simply stayed away while the team went through its painful rebuild, while Phillies fans turned away from a struggling team that had provided so much excitement within the past decade.

In the meantime, the Flyers – who have not won a playoff series in seven years, have managed to keep the building full and hopes relatively high.

Well, the sports sandbox has changed in Philadelphia, where the Eagles are among the NFL’s elite, the Sixers among the NBA’s most exciting, and the Phillies have just thrown their wallet at Bryce Harper to complete a remarkable makeover and turn the team into a powerhouse and the ballpark into a full house.

The saving grace is the presence of Hart in goal, but the Flyers are now facing a summer of “prove it,” to the fans – and not even Gritty will be able to cover up the issues.