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Holmgren Keeps Emphasis on Youth

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
Earlier this season, the Flyers'' beat writers for the local newspapers were questioning Paul Holmgren about the shaky performance of a veteran player. As one writer told me, while defending the player Holmgren "gave me that Clint Eastwood glare." That glare can be intimidating because Holmgren, with his crewcut and muscular build, looks like a Marine.

As a Flyer, the 6''3", 210-pound Holmgren was a force. His crunching bodychecks were teeth rattlers. If a teammate was being abused on the ice, Holmgren was there to defend him.

Now, in his role as the Flyers'' general manager, Holmgren has been entrusted with restoring a team that unexpectedly has plummeted to the bottom of the NHL's standings.

Holmgren stresses that the organization's plan is to keep its best young players "unless we're exchanging a young forward for a young defenseman that we're really high on, or vice versa."

Adding forward Mike York and defenseman Alexei Zhitnik gives the Flyers experienced players who provide some much-needed stability, while Peter Forsberg recovers from concussion symptoms and Mike Richards and Geoff Sanderson recuperate from stomach injuries.

Holmgren knows that Forsberg's situation will have to be addressed soon. Will Forsberg stay healthy enough to lead the Flyers? When Forsberg is in the lineup, the team clearly plays better.

Another issue is, if the Flyers don't become more competitive this season, will Forsberg, 33, want to stay? At this stage of his career, a player of Forsberg's stature usually prefers playing for a contending team.

During a recent interview in Holmgren's office at the Virtua Health Flyers Skate Zone, the GM said that Forsberg has not indicated that he wants to be traded. But Holmgren wouldn't be surprised if Forsberg's agent calls in a month or so and suggests that Forsberg be moved to a team with Stanley Cup-winning potential this season.

Flyers fans are discovering that they'll have to be patient. Holmgren says that making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Flyers this season "will be difficult, but not impossible. There are some signs that we're playing better. Our competitive level is better. But because of our inexperience, we make mistakes."

The Flyers'' problem has been inconsistency. For example, against Ottawa on December 23, the team played well, taking a 2-1 lead after the first period. Then mistakes occurred and the Flyers lost, 6-3.

One of the most inconsistent players has been Joni Pitkanen. The Finnish defenseman is 23 years old and in his third season with the Flyers. A year ago, he won the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the team's top blueliner.

Referring to Pitkanen's play against the New York Rangers on December 12, Holmgren said, "If you watched that game, that's his career. He was pretty good in the first period, not so good in the second and then, in the third period, he looked like Bobby Orr. Unfortunately, with young players, you have to live with the `downs' and hope that there's more `ups' in the future than there are `downs.' I think in the end, we're going to be really happy that we stuck with him."

With such a young defense, some Flyers fans are wondering why Nolan Baumgartner hasn't been promoted from the Phantoms. Baumgartner, 30, has NHL experience with four teams. He was signed as a free agent after playing last season with Vancouver. After starting the season with the Flyers, he was assigned to the Phantoms.

Baumgartner is the victim of the NHL's "recall waivers" rule. Before recalling him, the Flyers would have to put him on waivers. Holmgren said he knows that "four or five teams" would claim the 6''2", 205-pound Baumgartner.

"He has another year on his contract," Holmgren explained. "We would be responsible for half of what's left of his salary this year and half of next year, and those numbers would be on our (salary) cap. We pretty much outsmarted ourselves and Nolan's the one who's suffering. He probably should be in the NHL."

Holmgren was the first former Flyer to coach the team. That he also coached the Hartford Whalers allows him to empathize with the situation that John Stevens is in. Stevens is trying to steer the young, injury-depleted Flyers in a winning direction.

"I said to John the other day `I have a difficult time coming into your (locker) room before games and saying `good luck'," Holmgren said. "I feel bad for him for what he's going through. We all want it to get better. Unfortunately, it's not going to get better overnight.

"John's done a really good job stabilizing things. Maybe it hasn't shown in the win-lost column. But the positive side of that is, the steps that he's taken are building blocks for the future."

Comparing Stevens to previous Flyers Head Coach Ken Hitchcock, Holmgren said, "From a standpoint of instituting a structure and plan they're similar. Ken's demands are made in a different way than John's. I think that they're both demanding, but where Hitch might grind on guys after a period of time, I don't think John is that way. If John has a problem and he's having a tough time solving it one way, he'll find a different way or a better way to solve it."

Some may forget that Holmgren also was Hartford's general manager. Unlike Bob Clarke, who resigned as the Flyers'' GM earlier this season, Holmgren doesn't despise such general manager tasks as handling contracts.

"I enjoy all aspects of the job," Holmgren. "I'll still get out and scout though. I'm going to the World Junior Championships in Sweden in January."

Clarke, back with the Flyers as a senior vice president, also will be on the road. He'll be checking on recent top draft choices such as Claude Giroux, Andreas Nodl, Michael Ratchuk and Steve Downie.

"I happen to believe," Holmgren said, "if you're a young player and Bob Clarke is there to watch you, that's pretty cool."

Clarke will continue as a consultant for the Flyers. "For me, the fact that I can call Clarkie any time and bounce something off him is a good thing," Holmgren said.

Holmgren has faith in the Flyers'' scouts and he believes the additions of Don Luce and Chris Pryor will strengthen the Flyers. Luce, a former NHL player, joins the Flyers from the Buffalo Sabres, where he was director of player development. He'll have the same role with the Flyers. Pryor, a Flyers scout for eight seasons, now heads hockey operations, which includes the team's amateur and pro scouting departments.

Following the Sabres'' lead is a good way to go these days in the NHL. The swift skating Sabres are one of the league's best teams.

"They've drafted well, they've added the right free agents and made some smart moves trade-wise," Holmgren acknowledged.

Holmgren has until the end of the season to convince Flyers Chairman Ed Snider that he's the man who should continue as the team's GM. Since the Flyers don't want to part with their best young players, Holmgren probably won't be able to make many significant player moves. He'll have to prove to Snider that the Holmgren way is the path to Flyers'' success. As they say, stay tuned.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers'' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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