Though we are only partway through the semi-finals of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs it has already been an historic run for the Philadelphia Flyers franchise. Entering the playoffs as a 7th seed, they needed a shootout win over the New York Rangers in the final game of the regular season to even qualify for the playoffs.
Matched up against the powerful New Jersey Devils in the first round no one gave the Flyers a chance. A string of injuries to their goaltenders had left the Flyers depending on veteran journeyman Brian Boucher to outduel the NHL’s all time wins and shutouts leader in Martin Brodeur. However, Boucher proved he was up to the task, and he and his Flyer teammates stunned fans, media and Devils alike as they sent Brodeur, Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and company packing in a mere five games.
The odds looked significantly better in round two as the Flyers matched up against the 6th-seeded Boston Bruins, who’d just pulled off a stunning upset of their own, dispatching the 3rd-seeded Buffalo Sabres in six games. The two teams looked very evenly matched and fans were anticipating a long series. Well, they ultimately got their long series, but in the strangest fashion possible.
Flyers fans sat dejected in their seats following Boston’s game three win at The Spectrum, a 4-1 Bruins’ victory that put them up 3-0 in the series and put the Flyers on the brink of elimination. As only two teams (the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders) had come back from a 3-0 series deficit in the long history of the NHL playoffs no one had any hope whatsoever that the Flyers could come back.
The Flyers refused to roll over despite the historical evidence piled against them. Simon Gagne, previously out with a broken toe, returned in game 4, and salvaged the Flyers’ season with a clutch overtime goal to force a game 5 back in Boston. More adversity awaited the Flyers in that crucial game, as goaltender Brian Boucher left the game partway through with a knee injury. Ironically, it was the first game back for Michael Leighton, who until that evening had been out with injury himself. Leighton came in a slammed the door on the Bruins, preserving Boucher’s shutout, and sending the series back to Philly for a 6th game.
With momentum fully on their side the Flyers won game 6 with relative ease. Leighton was brilliant for the second game in a row and fans and media alike began to wonder if they were witnessing a piece of NHL history.
With all the momentum on their side the Flyers entered game 7. However, the Bruins appeared determined to ruin the party, and avoid earning the dubious distinction as the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead. They stormed the Flyers and quickly built a 3-0 lead in the game. However, the Flyers once against showed their resiliency, overcoming the early deficit to ultimately win the game and the series by the same 4-3 margin.
Entering the semi-finals against the Montreal Canadiens the Flyers were a team with swagger, loaded with confidence and rolling with a seemingly unstoppable momentum. Michael Leighton continued his hot play and after 120 minutes of hockey he hasn’t given up a single goal, as the Flyers blanked the Habs 6-0 and 3-0. With a 2-0 series lead, the Flyers seem poised to reach their first Stanley Cup Final since 1997.
The Flyers are writing another chapter in the story of a franchise as intriguing and with as rich a history as any outside the original six. As great players like Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Michael Leighton, Chris Pronger and Daniel Briere write this latest part of the Broad Street Bullies legend I thought it would be an appropriate time to look back at the top 10 greatest Philadelphia Flyers in the history of the franchise to date. Naturally, with so many greats to choose from, this was a daunting task, and I expect my selections will certainly spark some healthy debate. Here are my picks for the best Philadelphia Flyers of all time:
10 – Dave “The Hammer” Shultz
Okay, it is obvious right off the hop that this list doesn’t just reward pure offensive skill. If that was the case then a player like Rick Macleish, Brian Propp or Mark Recchi would occupy this spot. However, despite the fact that Dave Schultz didn’t put up great offensive numbers (though he did have a 20 goal season once), no one can deny that he had a big impact on the Flyers’ success in the mid-70’s.
Arguably the most feared fighter in the history of the game, Schultz’s nickname “The Hammer” was well-earned, and to this day he still holds the NHL single season penalty minute record with 472 PIMS in the 1974-75 season. Schultz was the biggest Broad Street Bully on them all, and his ability to intimidate his opponents opened up the ice for the Flyers’ skill players. Schultz only played 297 regular season and 61 playoff games with the Flyers, but during his short tenure he cemented his legend as one of Philly’s all-time greats.
9 – Tim Kerr
For some reason the #9 spot was the hardest for me to peg. Tim Kerr’s contributions to the Flyers were underappreciated throughout his career, and unlike those who snubbed Kerr in the 80’s I didn’t want to ignore the achievements of this hulking forward.
Yes, he was a “garbage man”, scoring the bulk of his goals from two feet in front of the net, tipping in pucks and sweeping in rebounds before helpless goalies could react. But remember that Phil Esposito played a very similar style, and no one contests his place among the all time greats.
True, Kerr didn’t put up numbers quite as prolifically as Espo did, but he did enjoy an impressive 4 consecutive 50+ goal seasons in the mid-80s, and potted 363 goals in just 601 games with the Flyers.
8 – Reggie Leach
His nickname was “The Rifle”, and it was a moniker that he earned, with interest. Reggie Leach could fire a puck like few others in his day. He arrived from the California Golden Seals at the beginning of the 1974-75 season and had an immediate impact, scoring 45 goals that season. The following year he would be even better, scoring 61 goals, a Flyers’ record that still stands today. In the playoffs he added another 19 tallies, an NHL record he shares with past Edmonton Oilers’ star Jarri Kurri.
Leach would cool off for a few seasons, before finding his scoring touch once more, enjoying a renaissance year in 1979-80 as he reached the 50 goal plateau for the second time in his career. Together with Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber, Leach helped form one of the deadliest lines in league history, and his ability to shoot the puck puts him in a class with such greats as Bobby Hull, Mike Bossy, Brett Hull and Alexander Ovechkin.
7 – Ron Hextall
If there has been a common lament among Flyers’ fans over the past two decades it has been the team’s inability to secure a bona fide number one goaltender. That failure has led to one playoff failure after another and fans have been forced to wonder what might have been had team management been able to secure a star between the pipes.
This wasn’t an issue back in 1987. Following an incredible regular season that saw the rookie keeper win the Vezina Trophy, Hextall led the Flyers on an incredible playoff run, taking the immensely powerful Edmonton Oilers, led by a bevy of stars that included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey, all the way to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Though his Flyers would lose that 7th and deciding game, Hextall earned the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.
Over the next several season Hextall would continue to put up great numbers for his club, and he revolutionized the goaltending position, frequently coming out of his net to fire pucks up to breaking wingers. He made history in 1986 by becoming the first goalie to score a goal by shooting it into the empty net. He would later trump the feat when he became the first tender to score a playoff goal, short-handed to boot!
6 – John LeClair
Though their has been no shortage of legendary lines in the long history of the NHL, in recent years perhaps none has been as famous or as feared as Philadelphia’s Legion of Doom line. Following his acquisition from Montreal, hulking winger John LeClair teamed up with Eric Lindros, and talented Swede Mikael Renberg to form a line that was equally capable of punishing you in the corner or on the score sheet.
Though he’d been an impact player during the Canadiens’ 1993 Stanley Cup winning run, for the bulk of his time with the club LeClair hadn’t been able to consistently dominate the way the Habs hoped he would. Near the beginning of the lockout-shortened 1994-95 seasons the Canadiens shipped LeClair off to the Flyers.
The move would prove to be a spark for LeClair’s career. He blossomed there, scoring 25 goals in just 37 games with the club, and helping Lindros capture the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP that year. Over the next 5 seasons, LeClair would be a scoring machine, eclipsing the 40 goal plateau in each of those years, and the 50 goal mark three consecutive times. Injuries would eventually cause the big winger’s production to dry up, but during that 5 year run he was one of the best power forwards in the game.
5 – Mark Howe
When one hears the name Howe, the immediate reaction is to think of Gordie Howe, and with good reason. #9 is one of hockey’s greatest legends. However, though he could never quite escape his famous father’s immense shadow Mark Howe managed to carve out a pretty good name for himself during a distinguished career that saw him play over 1,300 games in the WHA and the NHL.
Howe spent the bulk of his NHL career with the Flyers, and during that time he was one of the best all around defensemen in the game, strong in his own end, while racking up points in the offensive end of the rink. Howe’s best season would come in 1985-86 when he scored 24 goals and reached 82 points in just 77 games. He helped the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup Finals on two occasions – in 1985 and again in 1987 – and is widely regarded as one of the best defensemen of the 80’s.
4 – Eric Lindros
Though Bobby Clarke might object I think it would be an absolute crime to have a list of the top 10 best Philadelphia Flyers of all time that didn’t include this dominant power forward.
Fans might argue that the addition of Lindros ultimately crippled the franchise, as Flyers’ brass paid an exorbitant price to land the prized center, dealing Ron Hextall, Mike Ricci, Peter Forsberg and much more to the Quebec Nordiques to bring Lindros to Philly. However, though the price to get him might have been too high, in his first several years with the Flyers Lindros set out to prove that the cost was justified.
For a time Lindros may just have been the most unstoppable power forward the game has ever seen (though Cam Neely and Alexander Ovechkin fans might argue), running over even the biggest defenders with bone-crushing checks, while scoring highlight reel goals on an almost nightly basis.
Ultimately, Lindros’s style of play would lead to injuries that would reduce the centerman to a former shadow of himself, and his ongoing conflict with GM Bobby Clarke would ultimately see him move on to greener pastures. However, even Clarke can’t deny the impact Lindros had as a Flyer. With 659 points in only 486 game and a Hart Trophy, Lindros earned his spot among the greatest Flyers ever.
3 – Bill Barber
Though he toiled under the shadow of Bobby Clarke during his entire career, longtime Flyers fans appreciate the skill of this career Philadelphia Flyer. Barber was a key cog in the powerful Flyers teams of the 1970s, and his offensive contributions helped the Flyers hoist consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975. Barber was a prolific goal-scorer, playing alongside Clarke. He eclipsed 30 goals on 9 different occasions, including the 1975-76 season where he netted 50. Over his tenure with the team he scored 420 times, more than any other Philadelphia Flyer in team history. His 883 career points in just 903 games place him second behind Clarke on that list as well.
2 – Bernie Parent
One of the most colorful characters in the history of the NHL, Bernie Parent is, without question, the greatest goalie to ever suit up for the Philadelphia Flyers. From 1973-1975 Parent put on a display of goaltending that is arguably the greatest two year stretch the NHL has ever seen. Over that span he had 24 shutouts, and had a goals against average of under 2.00. He set the NHL record for wins with 47 in 1973-74, a record that stood for more than three decades, before Martin Brodeur finally broke it (in an era of overtime and shootout wins).
As great as he was in the regular season, Parent was even better in the playoffs, and in both of Philadelphia’s cup-clinching games Parent pitched a shutout, sealing the victory in style.
1 – Bobby Clarke
This choice for the #1 spot on the list of the top 10 greatest Flyers of all time will come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the game. Bobby Clarke was the ultimate Flyer.
A diabetic, Clarke’s ability to even play in the NHL was questioned. He spent his Hall of Fame career proving the skeptics wrong, Though he was a gifted goal scorer and playmaker, Clarke’s legendary determination and will to win really cements him as the best Flyer of all time. He would do whatever it took to win, sacrificing himself time and again for the good of the team.
Clarke is widely regarded as one of the dirtiest players to ever pick up a hockey stick (just ask Valery Kharlamov), and his 1,453 career penalty minutes attest to the fact that he had no problem wielding his stick like a weapon. However, he could also turn that weapon into a tool of grace, and in his 1,144 career games (all as a Flyer) he racked up 1,210 career points.
Clark earned an impressive 3 Hart Trophies during his career, and his Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward shows he knew plenty about playing on the other side of the puck as well. Love him or hate him, Bobby Clarke is, without a doubt, the greatest Flyer of them all.