PHILADELPHIA -- Bill Dineen walked into his first pre-game Philadelphia Flyers locker room on Dec. 5, the day after he replaced Paul Holmgren as the team's head coach. The Flyers, on an 0-6-1 skid, were about to take on Washington. Dineen wanted to gauge the mood in the room.
"Nobody said a word," Dineen recalled recently. "Quietest locker room I've ever been in. Scared the hell out of me."
That might be the area in which the Flyers have improved the most in the past four months. Dineen's folksy manner and the emergence of some boisterous, upbeat personalities have helped the Flyers' morale and their record.
"All the guys who were negative toward the organization are gone," defenseman Mark Howe was saying the other day. "For the first time in the last 2 1/2 years, there's a really positive atmosphere."
General manager Russ Farwell credits Dineen for the turnaround and should be announcing the 59-year-old coach's return for another season any day now.
"He did a good job," Farwell said. "He did what he does, you know, kind of shuffles and hems and haws, but guys feel 'D obligated. Bill has a genuine concern about guys, and he's not afraid to confront things that aren't right, but he doesn't have a lot of things, he doesn't overdo it."
Dineen aside, a huge key was the Feb. 19 trade that sent disgruntled team captain Rick Tocchet to Pittsburgh. Tocchet had begun the season as the team's key player, but he endured a crushing slump. Off the ice, he never understood or endorsed the long-term rebuilding agenda of Farwell and team president Jay Snider. Tocchet, impatient to play for the Stanley Cup again as he neared his 28th birthday, didn't want to hear about where the Flyers thought they might be two or three years down the road. His frustration and uneasiness were tangible in a locker room that badly needed a sense of optimism.
Now, with 24-year-old Mark Recchi (97 points) and 21-year-old Rod Brind'Amour (77 points) leading the way, the Flyers clearly have a future. That wasn't clear a year ago, when they ended what had been a solid season with a 2-10-2 March that knocked them out of the playoffs. Wednesday night, when the Flyers ended the 1991-92 season with a 4-3 overtime loss to Hartford at the Spectrum, 16 of 20 names on the home team's score sheet were different from the final game a year earlier. Wednesday night's Flyers were younger, faster, more talented.
jTC A major question, though, is how much improvement fans can expect in 1992-93. Next fall, it won't matter that the Flyers were 24-23-9 under Dineen, or that they went 18-13-2 after falling to a season-low 10 games under .500 on Jan. 25. What will matter is that the Flyers play in the NHL's toughest division, the Patrick, which set a record this season with a .594 cumulative winning percentage against the other three divisions. The last-place Flyers were 10-20-5 against their Patrick brethren this season, 22-17-6 against everyone else.
The reality is that after three successive seasons out of the playoffs -- a streak matched only by Quebec -- nobody will pick the new, improved Flyers to suddenly break into the division's four playoff spots, unless Farwell pulls off a couple of truly amazing heists in the off-season.
They lack depth and size at forward, a dynamic, consistent scorer at left wing, and perhaps most critically, a big, take-charge, kick-butt defenseman of the sort they keep waiting for Terry Carkner to become.
"I think depth is still a legitimate concern for us," Farwell said recently. "A lot of nights, our [first] two lines compete, and there's just too much drop-off between where they are and the other guys . . . we'd like to have a little more size on the wings, have a bit more physical presence."
Farwell said he didn't foresee the Flyers being able to "go out and buy a defenseman." In fact, he might do well to hang on to what he has -- Mark Howe, Kerry Huffman and Steve Duchesne are free agents this spring, and none is a lock to still be with the team come training camp.
To save money, the Flyers gave Howe a termination contract last summer. That meant that if they didn't re-sign him during the season, he became a free agent without compensation. The Flyers haven't re-signed Howe, at least in part because they don't want to have to protect him in the upcoming expansion draft for the Tampa Bay and Ottawa franchises.
Howe will be 37 on May 28. But he also is the Flyers' best defenseman. He led the team in plus-minus (plus-18), and once again, just as in the previous two seasons, the Flyers were a much worse team on nights when he didn't play. This season, the tally was 21-18-3 with Howe, 11-19-8 without him. That dependence bothers Farwell, given Howe's limited availability; he has tried to wean the team from Howe, with little success.
Howe played in 42 games this season, but most of his absences came after he suffered a broken thumb in November. His chronic bad back wasn't much of a problem. Howe estimates he might have played in 65 games if he hadn't suffered the thumb injury.
Teams will be after Howe this summer -- maybe even Patrick Division teams. The Flyers have enough problems without facing Howe in a Rangers jersey. Farwell should move quickly to sign him after the June expansion draft (the exact date isn't set) and before he becomes available to other teams, on July 1.
The Huffman decision also is a no-brainer. After being written out of the team's plans, he had a great year, best on the blue line after Howe. (Maybe you're wondering how Duchesne won the Barry Ashbee award as the team's best defenseman. Hey, so are a lot of the media people who voted.) Huffman got $150,000 this season for being a plus-one, with 14 goals and 18 assists in 60 games. Under the new free-agency rules, a team could pay him, say, $500,000, and give the Flyers just one first-round pick. But in his category, the Flyers would have the right to match. They should do it.
Duchesne is a trickier call. He made $325,000 this season and wants something like a million a year. No Flyer makes more than about $800,000 (Recchi and goalie Ron Hextall). Duchesne got off to an awful start, but over the second half he was the offensive presence the Flyers expected when they traded for him last June. He finished with 18 goals and 38 assists, the best totals for a Flyers defenseman since Howe last played a full season, in 1987-88.
Still, Duchesne was erratic in his own end and finished the season a minus-seven. Something about his carefully coiffed, Hollywood-cool manner set teeth on edge throughout the organization.
Duchesne would seem to be a prime trade candidate. The Flyers don't want to have to match any million-dollar offers, and they can't afford to lose him for two first-round picks, the new compensation for a million-dollar player.
Nobody in the locker room thinks the Flyers should just try to go into next season with the team that played so well the last few months of this season. Hextall, finally healthy for most of the season, but threatened by the emergence of rookie Dominic Roussel, might have said it best.
"There were a lot of positives over the second half, but Bill got everything he could out of everybody, and we still fell short," Hextall said. "We need a few more players."