When Ed Snider took control of a 2-year-old franchise that had yet to distinguish itself from five born at the same time, he vowed to ask one question of every proposed move his general manager ever would bring him: Will it get us closer to winning the Stanley Cup?
At a time that moves designed to win a single playoff round would have tickled the fan base, Snider had one goal for the organization that has remained its one plan today, never mind how the numbers have made it so much less obtainable.
Thus, on the day Snider called the job Paul Holmgren did for eight years in the general manager’s chair "outstanding," he still left the job disappointed with his performance.
“We didn’t win,” Holmgren said Wednesday. “At the end of the day, we had one kick at it and we didn’t win.
“How do I feel about the job I did? Unfulfilled. Fulfilled personally but, in terms of doing what you are supposed to do, we didn’t win.”
When Snider set the agenda, the league had 12 teams. Fourteen seasons since the NHL went to 30 clubs, second place still disappoints in South Philadelphia and good for the fans of the Flyers that it does. Otherwise, the organization never would have produced six finalists, five more semifinalists, and suffered only six losing seasons since the Flyers were last champions in 1975.
You don’t get that close by trying to do only that.
In a salary-capped league that has produced just two back-to-back titlists -- Pittsburgh and Detroit -- since the last great (Edmonton) dynasty died, plus has had 10 different champions in its last 14 seasons, it has become virtually impossible to build a team that on paper should win.
The best you can do is build one that can, which Holmgren did, start with a club that would compile a franchise-low 56 points.
“By moves that he made, we were back in contention the very next (2007-08) season,” Snider recalled Wednesday.
Bequeathed cap room – plus Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne– by Bob Clarke, Holmgren turned a rental, Alexei Zhitnik, into Braydon Coburn, and dealt for useful pieces like Scottie Upshall, Joffrey Lupul, and a first rounder that were wheeled back to Nashville in the deal that brought about-to-be free agents Timonen and Scott Hartnell.
To a last-place overall team, Holmgren wooed Timonen, Hartnell and Danny Briere, who proved the best of the three coveted free agent centers available that extraordinarily successful Flyers summer. The Flyers were in the semifinals that very season and, after a gutsy trade for Chris Pronger, in the finals two years after that.
Not only did the Flyers come within one goal of Game 7, but were an inch away from the stick missing Pronger’s eye, and a ping pong ball away from being able to draft Patrick Kane.
How would a one-two center ice of Kane and Claude Giroux now look?
But how far away would the Flyers now be if, once the not-entirely hockey decision was made to move two core players (Richards and Carter) in their prime, the GM not thought young in those deals.
Holmgren essentially got back the three draft picks (that includes Luca Sbisa, whom the Flyers had chosen first in 2008) in dealing Richards and Carter for top-10 selections Jake Voracek, Brayden Schenn and (by the Flyers’) Sean Couturier.
The bottom line – still the bottom line for the Flyers, too -- was the Stanley Cup the Kings won in 2012. They may win another next month. But since the 2011 trades, Voracek has outscored Carter, Richards has become a third-line player, and if Schenn needs to play more consistently, he still is a considerable asset Ron Hextall inherits, along with a roster that is two more good players away from being capable of winning a Stanley Cup.
“We need some pieces but I think we’re going in the right direction,” said Snider.
Those pieces will not be easy to obtain, in part because Holmgren leaves contracts of length with a couple players not getting any younger. But we haven’t yet seen the best, probably, of the nucleus assembled, including a goaltender, Steve Mason, at last.
Prospects Scott Laughton, Sam Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Robert Hagg will play, probably well. So Holmgren becomes the president of an organization in far better shape than when it was first entrusted to him and won seven playoff series in the interim.
How many GMs move on, or up, being able to consider all that a failure?