PHILADELPHIA - Somewhere in Los Angeles, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter had to be sharing a chuckle.
And in Phoenix, the Coyotes unleashed a big exhale for more reasons than having new ownership.
Eleven months after the Philadelphia Flyers decided their once-future cornerstones were worth dumping, Richards and Carter are thriving with the Kings along an improbable route to the Western Conference finals. The Coyotes, meanwhile, have no second thoughts about trading goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and adding Mike Smith, because they'll be on the other side of the ice against the Kings playing for the right to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
And then there's the Flyers. They will be watching the rest of the post-season from home.
General manager Paul Holmgren's major gamble last summer to reshape the direction of the franchise yielded mixed results. The Flyers won 47 games, totalled 103 points, finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and had a nice six-game post-season series win over odds-on favourite Pittsburgh.
But the run lasted only five more games, thanks to the New Jersey Devils. Bryzgalov allowed one of the franchise's all-time bloopers of a goal and the Flyers' offence ran out of fuel in a 3-1 loss Tuesday that left them without another game to play—or a championship banner to hang in the rafters.
The Flyers haven't won a Stanley Cup since taking consecutive titles in 1974 and 1975. And clearly, that's a line that's been said before.
Just like most of the last 36 seasons, goaltending was a deciding factor. Bryzgalov had his moments of proving he was worth the $51 million, nine-year deal he signed to steady the net. But the Flyers needed more than moments. They needed a wall. They needed a game-changer who could carry them to the Cup.
All the Flyers really got were odd comments and odder goals allowed.
"Better teams go further, you know," Bryzgalov said.
The Flyers clearly were not the better team against the Devils. Though they should have been.
Of course, it's impossible to know how the Flyers would have fared had they kept Carter and Richards. Even if the Kings win the Stanley Cup, the Flyers remain steadfast in their belief that a dose of short-term pain—and perhaps, embarrassment—is worth the long-range potential of forwards Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier—the total haul in the two separate deals for Carter and Richards.
But either way, it's back to the drawing board—again—after Round 2. In fact, after a surprising run to the Cup Finals in 2010, coach Peter Laviolette has only led the Flyers as far as two straight trips to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they are a combined 1-8 the last two seasons.
"There's a couple games that I'll look back on, I think, with disappointment," he said. "We didn't play a better brand of our hockey, and then in the other three games, I thought that our guys were trying to play that style and trying to play that brand. But I think you have to give New Jersey credit for the way that they played defensively and kept it from being the game that we wanted.
"We could never seem to get down that road."
Laviolette will return for a fourth season. Veteran defencemen Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger, and forward Jaromir Jagr, face more uncertain futures.
The 37-year-old Timonen knows he's running out of time to win a championship and was visibly beaten down by injuries at the end of the season. Pronger, the captain, may never play again because of severe post-concussion syndrome.
Jagr, an unrestricted free agent, had a solid first season in Philadelphia after playing three seasons in Russia. He was third on the team with 54 points, but faded in the playoffs and was a non-factor against the Devils. Jagr loved his first season in Philadelphia and called it "probably the most enjoyable year I ever had." No Flyer was more devastated in the locker room after the Game 5 loss.
"From the organization to the last player on the team, and the fans, they were so nice to me," Jagr said. "I hate to finish it right now. That's the worst feeling. You finish the whole story, the whole year, that's a sad day.
"I want to cry right now."
Flyers fans know the feeling all too well. Watching another team celebrate with the Stanley Cup held high over their heads has become a rite of spring in Philadelphia.
But the potential for a future deep run is found within this nucleus. Forward Claude Giroux continued his ascension into one of the game's elite players. He posted a 28-goal, 93-point, All-Star season. Giroux earned the "best in the world" moniker from Laviolette, after posting six goals and eight assists vs. the Penguins. That title might be a little strong, especially after Giroux was suspended a series later for one game, but he did finish third in the league in scoring during the regular season, and his 17-point playoff total will likely lead the league for at least a week more.
Forward Danny Briere has plenty of juice left and stamped himself as one of the franchise's all-time great clutch playoff performers. He finished with eight goals and 13 playoff points. And forward James van Riemsdyk will be expected to stay healthy and pick up where he left off last post-season when he earned a $25.5 million, six-year contract extension.
Holmgren's belief in van Riemsdyk and Giroux at this time last year was the spark to trading Carter and Richards. So, looking back on it, Holmgren may not be able to stomach the thought of Richards and Carter celebrating a championship in Los Angeles.
But, either way, he's used to the feeling of watching some other team have all the fun in June.