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The Off-Seasons of Change

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers

The news about the Flyers trading Jeff Carter to Columbus had just appeared on my computer when the phone rang. It was my friend Chuck Ristano, a devoted Detroit Red Wings fan, asking, “What do you think about the Flyers trading Carter and Mike Richards?”
It’s a good thing I wasn’t driving. “They also traded Richards?” I asked incredulously.
Holy Holmgren!

After trading Carter and Richards, general manager Paul Holmgren wasn’t finished. He’s added free agents Jaromir Jagr and his 646 NHL career goals, plus Max Talbot and Andreas Lilja.

Suddenly, Carter and Richards, presumably the front-line core of a potential Flyers Stanley Cup champion, are gone. Carter will skate on in Columbus, in the shadow of Ohio State football. Richards is off to Los Angeles, where hockey ranks just above surfing in the public sporting interest.

In exchange, the Flyers welcome forwards Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and Jakub Voracek and perhaps Sean Couturier, a big center chosen eighth in the NHL Entry Draft with a selection obtained from Columbus in the Carter deal. Couturier may not be ready for the NHL this season, but it’s certain he’ll be in a Flyers uniform soon.

Talk about Extreme Makeover, orange-and-black style…

A team doesn’t move eight regular players from a contender and expect to hit the ice in October at full throttle.

With the talented and experienced Bryzgalov in the nets, there’s no question that the Flyers have upgraded their goaltending. Their defense is in tact (hopefully, Chris Pronger will have a healthier season than last). And the Flyers still have Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell on the forward lines.

Who knows how effective Jagr will be at age 39. The good news is, the former Pittsburgh star played at a high level in the Kontinental Hockey League and in the world championships. He sounds eager to join a team where he will be challenged to perform. Talbot, 27, gives the Flyers a versatile forward who can win faceoffs and kill penalties.

A team doesn’t immediately replace the experience and offensive contributions of Carter and Richards. Simmonds, Schenn and Voracek are talented players, but they are young and it is expected it will take a while for them to fit in with the Flyers.

“We’re younger, bigger and faster,” general manager Paul Holmgren said. “(With the new players) it will take time. The first few months of the season probably will be a feeling-out process.”

First impressions of Simmonds, Schenn and Voracek are favorable. During their introductory press conference in the Wells Fargo Center they said all the right things about helping the Flyers win a long overdue Stanley Cup. Simmonds insisted there is “no added pressure” joining a team that is Cup contender. “(We) have great young players, coupled with veteran leadership,” he said. “We feel we’ll have a big part (in pursuing the Cup).”

Known as a physical winger, the 6-2, 183-pound Simmonds is expected to be a popular player with Flyers fans. A young winger who hits, fights and scores? What’s not to like, eh? After playing for the Los Angeles Kings against Bryzgalov, Simmonds also provided an upbeat scouting report on the new Flyers shot stopper.

“I played against Ilya for the last three seasons,” Simmonds said. “He’s an unbelievable goaltender.”

Asked how Bryzgalov will respond to playing for a team with Cup aspirations, Simmonds replied he’ll be fine. “He kind of carried Phoenix on his back,” Simmonds said.
Holmgren describes the 6-1, 190-pound Schenn as “the best player not in the NHL last season.” Schenn was the Most Valuable Player of the World Junior Hockey tournament: 18 points (8 goals) in seven games.
Schenn says the major area he has to improve on is his defense. That’s not unusual for players just emerging from junior hockey, where often the focus is on offense and putting up numbers to impress NHL scouts.
Schenn and his other new teammates are enthusiastic about playing in Philly. “It’s a good hockey town,” Schenn said. “You want be a part of a hockey town that cares about the game. L.A. was great, but here, it’s more like where I grew up (Saskatoon, Sask.), with colder winters.”
While trading Carter and Richards was painful Holmgren, he did receive much-needed early-round draft choices and young players. Holmgren has high regard for Carter and Richards, but I’m wondering if he wavered on whether they could lead the Flyers to a Stanley Cup soon. Another thought: if Holmgren and coach Peter Laviolette decided Richards should no longer serve as the Flyers captain, they realized how awkward it would be for a “C”-less Mike to remain with the Flyers.

A year or so ago, while I was interviewing Holmgren, I tried as diplomatically as possible to say that neither Richards nor Carter were as talented as Washington’s Alex Ovechkin or Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Much to my surprise, Holmgren agreed, then added that a good team can beat superstars.
Absorbing a playoff series sweep from Boston a year after the Flyers rallied from an 0-3 series deficit to upset the Bruins was not a good sign for the Flyers. I’m aware the Flyers had goaltending issues and Tim Thomas played like the eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner he is for the Stanley Cup-champion Bruins. Still, the Flyers were thoroughly outplayed against Boston.
Schenn at the 2011 World Junior Championships.
Richards’s issues dealing with the Philly media have been well documented. He was popular and respected by his teammates, but around the media he never seemed happy. Whether an NHL team captain likes dealing with the media or not, it’s part of the job. In Los Angeles Richards won’t have the media glare he endured in Philly.

Richards was always cordial with me. But I’m not in the lockerroom every day, probing about the team and off-ice activities. I remember the first time I interviewed Richards: I wasn’t familiar with his home town of Kenora, Ont., so I checked a map. I brought a copy of the map to the Skate Zone with Kenora highlighted in bright yellow. When I handed the map to Mike, he was pleased and showed it to a couple teammates.
Carter and I never connected. Since I cover NASCAR racing for the Philadelphia Daily News and Carter is a fan -- he’s been a guest of Kevin Harvick at races at Dover International Speedway in Delaware -- several times I tried talking NASCAR with Carter. Generally, I received a smile as he continued on his way.
Carter, Richards, Ville Leino (to Buffalo as a free agent), Darroll Powe (traded to Minnesota), Dan Carcillo (signed by Chicago)…all outta here. Give Holmgren credit for shaking up the Flyers more than anyone expected. We should know a couple months into next season how well all these moves have worked out.
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