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Stuck in last place, Giroux, freefalling Flyers search for answers in what may be lost season

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, OCT. 19-20 - FILE - In this Oct. 7, 2013, file photo, Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, right, pauses during an NHL hockey news conference in Philadelphia, with newly-hired head coach Craig Berube. After a fall coaching change, and a summer of questionable acquisitions, the focus is now on Holmgren, who may also be on his way out should the team continue to struggle. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

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ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, OCT. 19-20 - FILE - In this Oct. 7, 2013, file photo, Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, right, pauses during an NHL hockey news conference in Philadelphia, with newly-hired head coach Craig Berube. After a fall coaching change, and a summer of questionable acquisitions, the focus is now on Holmgren, who may also be on his way out should the team continue to struggle. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

PHILADELPHIA - Claude Giroux shuffled into the Philadelphia Flyers' locker room, his baseball cap as backward as the team he captains.

He was once dubbed by his former coach as "the best player in the world."

Not these days.

Without a goal or much confidence, Giroux is grasping for the right words to explain how his Flyers are the worst in the NHL.

"It was a little sloppy out there," he says. "We have a lot of time to look at tape and look at what we did wrong."

Giroux was talking specifically about a 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday, but he could have been talking about the whole season. He is clearly at a loss to explain how the Flyers have tumbled so badly from the top of the East to the bottom in four seasons. And the Penguins game was just another 'L' in a season quickly stacked with them.

From playing for first place to playing for the first pick of a draft they will host in June, the Flyers' season seems all but over before the second month of the schedule.

The old coach was fired three games into the season. The new one hasn't fared much better. And in a tough division—as early as it may be in this NHL marathon of a season—time might be running out on last-place Philadelphia and a management team that has made questionable move after questionable move for years.

These Flyers are no Bullies. They're not even close to the team Giroux helped lead to the 2010 Stanley Cup finals.

Philadelphia headed into the weekend 1-7 for an NHL-worst two points, the worst eight-game start in franchise history. They have yet to score more than two goals in a game and have come up empty on 18 straight power-play attempts. The switch on the bench from Peter Laviolette to Craig Berube has failed to produce any real change, only more losses for a restless fan base and an aging chairman, Ed Snider, aching to win one more Stanley Cup.

Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn are the only players left from the 2010 team, a gritty bunch that clinched a playoff berth on the season's last day and rode that bid all the way to Game 6 of the final round before bowing out.

But after general manager Paul Holmgren hit the reset button on the franchise two years ago, Giroux was the last franchise player standing. The Flyers named him captain and signed him to an eight-year extension worth over $64 million. Of course, he's far from the only problem, but with only three assists this season, getting Giroux on track would help the Flyers get going overall. Perhaps he's not fully recovered from the hand injury suffered during a freak off-season golf accident. Or maybe he's just not fit to handle "the best in the world" moniker slapped on him by Laviolette after a sensational 2012 playoff series vs. Pittsburgh.

"I know he can play better," Berube said. "There are a lot of guys who can play better."

Berube also said this week the Flyers are, "sitting back and waiting for something bad to happen."

They often don't have to wait very long.

"When I came here two years ago, we had that attitude that, no matter if we were down 5-2 in the third period, there was no hesitation that we couldn't come back," Flyers forward Jakub Voracek said. "The last few years, it feels like we're up 2-1, or down one goal, and we're scared to make something happen on the ice."

And how did the Flyers lose their way?

"It's hard to say," he said. "If I knew that, I probably wouldn't be here talking about it."

The dreary atmosphere is starting to resemble the 2006-07 season, when the Flyers (22-48-12) were the worst team in the league, missed the playoffs for the first time since 1994, and set team records for most losses and fewest points (56).

Holmgren went to work, shrewdly revamping the roster and plugging nearly every weakness. He spent the summer plucking some top talent away from other teams, trading for Timonen, Hartnell, Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul. He signed Danny Briere to an eight-year contract and built them all around franchise centerpieces Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. James van Riemsdyk, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft, would follow.

Holmgren then hired Laviolette in 2009 and all the pieces fit for a magical 2010. The Flyers defeated New Jersey, Boston and Montreal before losing to Chicago in the finals.

That team was Flyers Hockey, though, in a nutshell. An eclectic mix of talent and toughness, capped off with a work ethic that matched the city it plays in. For so many years, in that mould, Eastern Conference contention was a given, not a guess.

But nearly every transaction has backfired since. And for comparison sake, take a look at the Blackhawks, the team who ended Philadelphia's 2010 run, and then went out and won another Cup last season. Had the Blackhawks lost the 2010 series, for instance, it's hard to imagine they would have traded Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

But Holmgren plucked apart all he built. He signed Richards and Carter to massive extensions only to trade them in 2011. He gave up on van Riemsdyk in 2012, trading him to Toronto. And he made a grave miscalculation in signing flighty Russian goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to a $51 million, nine-year deal—a contract that, in the end, only gave the Flyers two puzzling seasons before it was bought out.

After the Flyers missed the playoffs in lockout-shortened 2013, Holmgren tried again to wheel and deal his way into contention. He signed forward Vinny Lecavalier, defenceman Mark Streit and goalie Ray Emery. Earning an amnesty reprieve in the new labour deal, he dumped Briere along with Bryzgalov.

None of it has worked so far. And it shows in the stands.

Once one of the most hostile arenas in the NHL, crowds have thinned at the Wells Fargo Center, and the fans that show up have spent more time booing the Flyers off the ice than rooting for the orange and black.

The trade deadline isn't until March 6, leaving Holmgren time to pull off some sort of transaction that can lift the Flyers into the playoff race. But it's unlikely.

"Nobody's going to help us," Voracek said.

And Holmgren could be the next to go. Much like when the neighbouring Philadelphia Phillies groomed Ryne Sandberg to replace Charlie Manuel, the Flyers hired Ron Hextall as the assistant GM in the summer, making him the likely heir apparent in calling the front office shots.

So far, Snider's confidence in Holmgren, the former Flyer player and coach, hasn't wavered.

"If I told the general manager that he can't do what he wants to do, then obviously I have no confidence in the general manager," Snider said. "We're happy, to an extent, that we're in the playoffs most every year. And we're happy, to an extent, that we've been in the Stanley Cup finals many, many years when we didn't win.

"But we're not thrilled, because we want to win a Stanley Cup."

That's a long way off now.

On Thursday at the Wells Fargo, before the game, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said he wanted his team to forget about Philadelphia's record.

The Flyers can only wish they could have that kind of short-term memory loss.

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