Flyers succeeding without a bully

Travis Konecny takes a shot during a recent Flyers practice. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

There’s been one thing noticeably missing from the Flyers’ bag of tricks during this fantastic 2019-20 season. And maybe that’s a good thing.

For the last 50 or so years, Flyers hockey and fisticuffs seemed to be linked hand-in-hand. We all know the legends of the Broad Street Bullies who won two Stanley Cups while beating the opposition to a pulp. And for far too long, the Flyers chased that stigma despite having the skilled players to constantly contend for the Cup each year.

I remember taking my dad to a game maybe seven or eight years ago and watching two players about to fight, circle each other before both removed their helmets in a gentlemanly fashion. Both were concerned about hurting the other guy’s fist as they blocked punches with their skulls.

Guys like Riley Cote, Daniel Carcillo and Zac Rinaldo were the last of a dying breed to solely seek out fights while wearing orange and black.

In the seasons that followed, power forwards like Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds were hybrids, both able to scrap and score goals. They, too, eventually had a hard time keeping up with the pace of the game. Today, players like Washington’s Tom Wilson and Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk can still do both, but they’re becoming more and more rare.

Fighting is way down across the league, partly because of player safety, but more accurately because the league has trended to smaller, skilled players on the third and fourth lines. Slower, heavier players are being left in the dust.

Gone are the days when goons are racking up more than 300 penalty minutes on a season, but rough hockey still does exist in today’s game and the Flyers have kept their noses clean for the most part as the wins continue to pile up.

They’ve played physical with a strong forecheck but they haven’t overextended themselves. They stick up for each other after questionable hits, but they don’t often win the fight. In a physical game against the Capitals last week, Wilson arguably won both scraps against Nate Thompson and Robert Hagg. The Flyers won the game, 5-2.

And if you had to guess who was leading the Flyers in penalty minutes at this point of this season, you’d probably be flustered to find out it’s actually 164-pound rookie Joel Farabee, who is tops on the team with 39 penalty minutes despite playing in just 51 games through the weekend. Kevin Hayes is second with 34 PIMs.

Farabee has three major penalties this year to lead the club. One was an interference penalty on Winnipeg’s Mathieu Perreault, which earned a three-game suspension from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. The other two were fights that occurred in a week’s span in December. Farabee doesn’t have much of a pedigree of fighting, having played college hockey at Boston University, where fighting earns an automatic disqualification and in most instances a suspension.

Regardless, Farabee still leads the Flyers in penalty minutes with just 14 games left in the regular season, heading into Tuesday’s tilt with the Boston Bruins.

For reference, on Monday, Farabee ranked tied for 103rd in the league in penalty minutes. Only one team’s penalty leader ranks lower than the Flyers as Arizona’s Jakob Chychrun and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are both one minute behind Farabee.

The Flyers did address it. And they signed noted bruiser Chris Stewart to a contract in the preseason after Stewart spent last year playing in the Elite Ice Hockey League in England. Stewart, however has done little in his 16 games, notching one assist and racking up 21 penalty minutes. He hasn’t been called back up in nearly two months, and the Flyers appear wiser taking that approach, having gone 18-4-1 in their last 23 games.

The Flyers seem willing to let this be the first season that they don’t have a player eclipse 50 penalty minutes in their long history. They have come close in a few lockout-shortened seasons but the low was set two years ago when Radko Gudas led the team with 83 penalty minutes.

This season will certainly set a new mark. And that’s definitely a good thing.