Next year? Flyers still waiting for elusive Stanley Cup

Make that 37 and counting.

Tuesday’s 3-1 completion of their second-round, five-game elimination by the Devils means it’s now 37 years since Bob “The Hound” Kelly and current TV analyst Bill Clement scored the decisive goals, while Bernie Parent stopped everything, and the Flyers clinched their second consecutive Stanley Cup in Buffalo.

And in those 37 years, it’s debatable if any of their aborted Cup runs had such a dramatic about-face in the course of two weeks as this one. One moment, Peter Laviolette’s club was finishing off Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the hated Penguins, a team many believed would be hoisting Lord Stanley before all was said and done. The next — after squeezing out a Game 1 overtime win on Danny Briere’s goal — they were in the dreaded handshake line, wishing the Devils well while they begin their long summer vacation.

So now it’s back to the drawing board for a Flyers team that, in fairness, did a pretty good job remaking itself a couple of times this season. After undergoing a complete makeover when GM Paul Holmgren traded captain Mike Richards and leading goal-scorer Jeff Carter for some needed youth, most expected this to be a season of growing pains.

Of course, the greatest pain would come on the heels of their greatest success. But there were plenty of watershed moments along the way, not the least of which was the loss of top defenseman and new captain Chris Pronger due to severe concussion symptoms. There’s a good chance Pronger’s career is over. To their credit, the Flyers refused to feel sorry for themselves without their fallen leader, as Claude Giroux emerged as a star and Scott Hartnell enjoyed a breakout season.

Then there were all those kids, the ones obtained in the Carter and Richards deals — Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, along with 25-year-old rookie Matt Read. They provided life and energy, not to mention a ton of offense to the revamped Flyers attack. They’re only going to get better in the days ahead.

That won’t be enough to make Year No. 38 the one that breaks the Cup drought. To get over the hump, the Flyers still need better puck-handlers on defense, ones who can bust through the kind of forechecking the Devils threw at them. Fourth-line center Max Talbot, who scored the lone goal in Game 5, suggested they need something else.

“A little more experience is always good,” said the 28-year-old Talbot. “If you look around this room, there are a lot of guys who were going through their first playoffs. But this team is going to be good for awhile to come.”

How good remains the question in a sport where the regular season seems to mean little. Consider the NHL’s Final Four, which includes the sixth-seeded Devils and either the No. 1 Rangers or No. 7 Caps in the East, with No. 3 Phoenix and No. 8 L.A. out West.

For the Flyers to have a real chance to get to that level Holmgren will have to make some hard decisions. Voracek, a restricted free agent, flashed greatness periodically and should return. But what about Jaromir Jagr? The 40-year-old was a steadying influence in the locker room, but his play deteriorated as the season wore on.

The other uncertainty deals with defenseman Matt Carle. He’ll be seeking a multi-year deal in the $5 million range. If the plan is to make a serious run at either of Nashville’s premier free agent defensemen, Shea Weber or Ryan Suter, the Flyers will need to create salary cap space. It would be hard to do that bringing back Carle, especially since Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn and recently acquired Nicklas Grossmann are already locked in.

And Pronger? No, he won’t retire. That would absolve the Flyers of paying the rest of his contract. Instead, just like Ian Laperriere, whose three-year deal is finally up, Pronger will technically remain on the books, and the Flyers will be permitted to allocate his salary elsewhere.

Finally, for the 38th straight year, there is the issue of goaltending. By signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract, the Flyers thought they had solved that nagging problem. Clearly they haven’t. The can only hope that Bryzgalov can be more consistent from start-to-finish next year. It’s also likely backup Sergei Bobrovsky will land somewhere else.

This is all conjecture, of course. In the weeks and months to come the Flyers will try to hammer out a more concrete game plan of how they intend to move forward. And after the tricks he pulled off last season, don’t discount Holmgren coming up with something truly creative.

Still, it’s been 38 years since Gene Hart cried out, “The Flyers win the Stanley Cup. The Flyers win the Stanley Cup. The Flyers have won the Stanley Cup.” Then they did it again the following season — and never since.

Which makes it so much harder to believe it can finally happen every time you hear them say, “Wait until next year.”

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