The pins in the doll that Ed Snider jokes have denied the Flyers another Stanley Cup since 1975 struck down Bernie Parent and Rick MacLeish in 1976, Jimmy Watson on 1980, Tim Kerr in 1985 and 1987, and prematurely took out Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau and Chris Pronger.
You reach six finals and another six semifinals in 39 years and don’t win once, it’s hard not to smell a rat. The Flyers have had indispensible players go down at the worst possible times. And the history of their best runs makes a case that the single most devastating absence to their most realistic Cup hopes was that of Eric Desjardins’ in 2004.
In 1976, 1980, 1985 and 1987 the Flyers were going up existing or budding Montreal, Islander and Oiler dynasties. In 2004, Philadelphia lost by one goal in Game 7 against Tampa Bay, which then won the championship by one goal in Game 7 over Calgary.
To say the Flyers beat the Devils and Leafs that year without their best defenseman, who was out with a broken forearm, is not to say they should have been good enough to win a third round, too, The Flyers special teams, badly outplayed by the Lightning, were crippled without their pointman and top pair penalty killer.
Did the Flyers have to miss Eric Desjardins to appreciate him? Not entirely. They won nine playoff series and had winning seasons in all of the 11 he played for them, why one of the most quietly effective players the franchise ever has had will be inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame on February 19.
But there also is little question that in the eight years since his retirement, the admiration for Desjardins appropriately has grown. The expectations were high almost every one of Desjardins’ seasons with the team and when disappointments are acute, any team’s best players become convenient targets. This is why Ron Hextall feels compelled to call one of the most effective defensemen the Flyers ever had, also one of the most underrated.
“I don’t think you could know how good he was until you played with him,” said Hextall, the Flyers goalie then, their GM today. “And the more you did, the more you liked him.
“He had some similar traits with Mark Howe; a probably underrated defensive game, an underrated compete level, and an unselfishness. Eric played in all situations, always thought of the team ahead of himself, and rarely made mistakes.
“How many defensemen can you say rarely make a mistake? He was one of those guys.”
Desjardins, who never scored more than 15 goals and 55 points, didn’t have the shot and playmaking vision of Ray Bourque or the reach or punishing ability of a Chris Pronger as a shutdown defenseman. But Desjardins had the endurance of those Norris Trophy winners and every bit the on-ice instincts and leadership ability.
“He was one of the most complete team players that have come through this organization,” said Bob Clarke, who pulled the Flyers out of their only sustained losing period in the history since the expansion years when he brought Desjardins and LeClair in one trade from Montreal in February 1995.
“After Mark Howe, it was either Eric or Jimmy Watson as the second best defenseman the organization ever had. And, like those guys, he was really good in the locker room.
|Eric Desjardins accepts one of his record-setting seven Barry Ashbee Trophies as the Flyers Best Defenseman |
“I think Desjardins should have gone into coaching. He had a terrific feel for the team, knew when it was in trouble or going well. He is the kind of guy we all should be. Everything was about helping the team to win. You could count on one hand the amount of poor outings he’d have in one year and he hardly ever had a bad practice, either.
Desjardins won the Barry Ashbee Award a franchise-high seven times, was a two-time NHL end-of-season All Star, and twice finished in the top five in the Norris Trophy balloting. He and usual partner Chris Therien drew almost all the big defensive assignments.
“We had matchups against other teams top line every single night,” recalls Therien, “I was that big defensive defenseman who complimented an extremely well-rounded defenseman
“We knew what the other was going to do. If there was a puck dumped into the corner, we knew whether the reverse (pass) was open. We never forced anything.
Rico was more of a defensive defensemen who could score but didn’t try to rush the offense until we needed it. Even with all the stars we had on our team, I think most of us felt he was the guy we could least afford to be without.”
There was a growing chance that Desjardins was going to make it back for the 2004 finals until they lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, 2-1 in Tampa. So smart and steady was No. 37, even a rusty one could have made the difference.
His value, both on the ice and in the locker room, was in his peripheral vision.
Hindsight being 20-20, eight years after Desjardins played his last game, one of the better and most taken-for-granted players in their history can be celebrated more than ever.