Sometimes you have to strain to hear Paul Holmgren talk because he speaks in such hushed tones. He certainly isn’t what you would consider blustery. He’s not the kind of guy who shows up at GM meetings and bangs his fist on the table demanding rule changes. Unlike when he played, he prefers the periphery. He is rarely quoted outside Philadelphia, not even in the ubiquitous “according-to-an-anonymous-source” way. Trust us on that one.
But goodness, the man has stones the size of goalie pads when it comes to
making blockbuster moves, doesn’t he?
Nobody, Holmgren included, knows exactly how the Philadelphia Flyers will do next season. Something about saying goodbye to 127 goals and 282 points and getting 36 goals and 99 points, along with two stud prospects and a Hall of Fame-bound Kontinental League refugee in return. All of it adds up to a complexion change that makes Joan Rivers look as though she’s only had a little work done. And if it all blows up and the Flyers fail, Holmgren will hear about it. Boy, will he hear about it.
“We made some big decisions this summer in terms of the direction of our hockey club,” Holmgren said. “And, yeah, I know where my neck is right now. You could sit around and hope things are going to turn out OK. This year, maybe it looks a little drastic.
Ya think? The path of less resistance, a.k.a. the easy thing for Holmgren to do when he looked at a roster just over a year removed from making it to the Stanley Cup Final, would have been to tread lightly. He could have made some tweaks here and there and hoped his team would be healthier and there would be more kumbaya in his dressing room. He could have crossed his fingers that Sergei Bobrovsky
would grow into the No. 1 goaltending job.
But that has never, ever been the Philadelphia way, starting with owner Ed Snider’s type A personality. After watching his team lose Game 6 and its first round playoff series to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1999 on a controversial penalty call, Snider embarked on a tirade against referee Terry Gregson that was epic in its vitriol and landed him a then-record fine of $50,000. Then there’s the legacy of Bob Clarke, the guy who once fired Roger Neilson as coach then defended the move by saying: “We didn’t tell him to go get cancer. It’s too bad that he did. We feel sorry for
him, but then he went goofy on us.”
Holmgren is every bit as competitive and impatient. Those traits just manifest themselves in a much more toned-down, Marine-like, crew-cut manner. So, in his quiet understated way, he set about blowing it up.
Holmgren rarely sleeps well at the best of times, but for the weeks leading up to the draft and unrestricted free agency, rest was even more elusive. To be sure, when an unshaven and emotional Holmgren emerged from wherever he had been holed up to announce that he had traded both Jeff Carter and Mike Richards the day before the NHL draft, he had that sleep-deprived look of a new father.
And in many ways, he is one. There’s a good chance that with the exception of Claude Giroux
and Andreas Nodl, the 2011-12 Flyers will all be Holmgren’s exclusive acquisitions in terms of signings, trades and draft picks. But it’s the players who won’t be there that makes for a truly stunning list – Carter and Richards, along with Ville Leino, Darroll Powe, Kris (we hardly knew ye) Versteeg, Dan Carcillo, Sean O’Donnell, Brian Boucher, Nikolay Zherdev and likely Michael Leighton.
In its place will be a completely refurbished right wing corps consisting of Jaromir Jagr
, Wayne Simmonds
, Jakub Voracek
and Max Talbot. Brayden Schenn
is being counted on to make the jump to the NHL after being named the No. 1 prospect outside the NHL in THN’s annual Future Watch Edition (and “the Hockey News is never wrong,” according to Holmgren) and Sean Couturier
, who was picked with the eighth overall selection that was gleaned in the Carter deal, could turn out to be the steal of the draft.
The Flyers, who also picked up free agent defenseman Andreas Lilja
, will be more like the Flyers of old, with a more physical presence than the team swept by Boston in Round 2 of the playoffs. Noted veteran defenseman Chris Pronger
: “It was pretty evident in that series that we got knocked around.”
Replacing the three-headed monster of Bobrovsky, Leighton and Boucher in goal will be Ilya Bryzgalov
And how’s that for a goaltending tandem? Philly has declared its going all-in with Bryzgalov, the same guy who declared “I am goat,” after his Phoenix Coyotes lost in four straight games to the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs. And what are we to make of the same franchise that chased the Red Army off the ice in 1976 (“they’re goin’ home! Yeah, they’re goin’ home!”) and whose former captain broke the ankle of Valery Kharlamov having a Russian goaltending duo? Not only is it the first time in NHL history that has happened, but the Flyers are doing this coming season what 17 of the 23 teams in the frickin’ KHL didn’t do this past season.
“I don’t know if we got better or worse,” Holmgren said, “but we got different.”
And it all starts with Bryzgalov, the always quirky, sometimes brilliant, sometimes less-than-stellar goalie to whom Philadelphia gave nine years and $5.7-million-a-season worth of cap space. That was the first domino that ultimately knocked over Carter and Richards. The Flyers were desperate for a reliable goaltender and knew they would have to sacrifice a significant portion of their roster.
Many assumed Carter and his 36 goals would be the primary casualty, but the Richards deal crept up and shocked almost everyone. After all, it was nary five years ago the rest of the league was casting an envious eye to the Flyers and their future with the likes of Richards and Carter, two players they locked up with long-term deals that had a combined 20 years and $109.75 million remaining on them.
For Bryzgalov, it means a permanent home since his front loaded deal has a no-movement clause. The 31-year-old comes to Philly with outstanding regular season credentials, but hasn’t won a playoff series since helping the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup in 2007. Bryzgalov feels he has a chance to do it again in Philadelphia and if the defense corps can hold up and the Flyers can coax more offense out of their forwards, he’ll certainly have a crack.
Bryzgalov said he can “definitely play better,” and that he expects much more of himself than he has displayed against Detroit the past two post-seasons. He met with Snider and Holmgren before signing and likes the Flyers’ philosophy of wanting to contend for a Stanley Cup every year.
“Big, aggressive team that wants to dominate on the ice,” Bryzgalov said. “I like it.” so whether the Flyers have actually found their long-sought after goaltending savior remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, their days of trying to win a Stanley Cup while chintzing out in the crease are over.
In case you haven’t noticed, Bryzgalov is scheduled to make $10 million in signing bonus and salary in the first year of his contract which, on the surface, makes about as much sense as Christian Ehrhoff making $10 million this coming season. It’s little wonder that when Bryzgalov found out from his agent, Ritch Winter, that Philly was trying to acquire his rights to negotiate exclusively with him prior to July 1, his first words were, “that’s a great idea. Let’s try to do this.”
But you get the distinct feeling this wasn’t just about acquiring a goaltender. Reports of discord in the Flyers room often cited Carter and Richards, though one player said: “I’m not going to throw those guys under the bus,” and Holmgren himself said things had been blown out of proportion. But there was a cause celebre back in 2008 when pictures of Richards and Carter going all Animal House at a frat party surfaced on the Internet. (Guys in their young 20s who never had the college experience drinking and fraternizing with kids their own age? the nerve!) There
sometimes appeared to be some friction between Pronger and Richards over his leadership, but Pronger said the two never elevated their voices to one another.
There was a heated exchange between Pronger and Giroux after a game against the Oilers March 8, but Pronger said even that was blown out of proportion. It was the last game Pronger played of the regular season because of a broken wrist and the pain, along with his team’s play, had him in a very foul mood. “Some things happened on the ice that I wasn’t very happy with and it was building up,” Pronger said. “I yelled at (Giroux).
He wanted to talk to me and I was still mad because my wrist was killing me and I told him to leave me alone, I don’t want to talk right now. Apparently that became me dressing down Giroux.”
Clarke is Holmgren’s mentor and the pair always discusses the latter’s moves. The former GM and Philadelphia legend said he wasn’t close enough to the team to know exactly what went wrong this season, but he knows the reports of a fractured dressing room were not all the product of overactive imaginations.
“Something happened with the hockey team after Christmas where our team
went from being, to me, one of the premier teams to all of a sudden going south,” Clarke said. “And it was going south fast. And there were reasons for that and I think Paul recognized there were problems with it and that he had to change the team. And it wasn’t going to stop.”
|van Riemsdyk & Giroux were the two most dominant forces for the Flyers in the playoffs. |
It has been suggested the emergence of Giroux as a bona fide offensive force and the playoff performance of James van Riemsdyk
, while certainly not making Richards and Carter expendable, did made it more palatable to trade them. “Giroux and van Riemsdyk and are going to take over from Carter and Richards,” Clarke said. “that was already happening.” that’s a sentiment echoed by Pronger, who was gobsmacked by van Riemsdyk’s play in the playoffs last spring.
“If he plays like that this year, you’re going to see this guy could legitimately get 50 or 60 goals,” Pronger said. “Go back and look at the games. (against the Boston Bruins) he was matched up against (Zdeno) Chara and (Dennis) Seidenberg and he ate those two up. He had four scoring chances in one shift and in one game he had 12 or 15 scoring chances.”
It’s interesting to note as well, that the perception of Richards by the team that got him couldn’t possibly be more diametrically opposed. Kings GM Dean Lombardi said Richards and his favorable contract terms was one of the few players who would have been able to shake Schenn loose from the Kings. Referencing the potential American League MVP the Boston Red Sox acquired in the baseball off-season, Lombardi boldly declared that Richards, “is our Adrian Gonzalez,” and referred to him as a culture-changer.
“Everywhere this guy has gone, he’s won,” Lombardi said. “You want the guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. You’ve heard me talk about culture and this guy fits that mode.”
Perhaps if we are to learn anything from this, it’s how quickly times change in hockey. Since the lockout in 2004-05, Carter and Richards have been an integral part of a young group Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Zach Parise, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler – that have ushered in a new era of stars and helped elevate the overall quality of play in the league to levels it has never seen before.
That lockout season Richards was captain and Carter the goal-scoring leader of the greatest collection of talent Canada has ever seen at a World Junior Championship and just weeks after graduation from junior hockey, the two led the Philadelphia Phantoms to the Calder Cup with Carter topping the team in playoff scoring. Richards was a key part of Canada’s Olympic team in 2010 and if not for a foot injury, Carter likely would have been part of the gold medal squad, too.
“We envisioned playing our whole careers together and that’s why we signed the long extension, both of us,” Richards said. “I probably wouldn’t have signed the deal actually if I knew I was going to be traded.”
And goodness, we’ve barely even addressed how Holmgren allowed Leino to go sign with the Buffalo Sabres in order to get Jaromir Jagr
’s name on a one-year contract worth $3.3 million.
And what do we make of Philadelphia signing sworn enemy Max Talbot out of Pittsburgh?
Jagr said other teams offered more money and a longer term, but he liked what he was seeing with the Flyers. But those with visions of Jagr scoring 80 points might want to consider that for the past three years, he has been a very good, but not great, player in a league that is about on par with the American League, with a couple of ECHL-caliber teams thrown in at the bottom.
Best-case scenario: Jagr stays healthy and scores between 50 and 60 points. Worst-case scenario: He can’t keep up to the pace of the NHL, drops to the fourth line, becomes an unwanted distraction and is a $3.3 million, one-year disaster.
But that will pale in comparison to the reign of terror that will befall the Flyers if this redub doesn’t work. Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney, who had neither the interest nor the league-funded resources to re-sign Bryzgalov to the kind of contract he was able to strike with Philadelphia, pointed out the Coyotes play a system that can make a good goalie great.
“But I can’t sit here and diss him for the way he played for us,” Maloney said. “I’ve been in Philadelphia enough to know that it’s a very demanding audience. He’s being paid to be an elite goalie and he is an elite goalie. Whether he can be an elite goalie under that pressure…”
Well that’s the $64.3 million question, isn’t it? It will almost certainly define Holmgren’s tenure and legacy with the Flyers, since there’s a good chance he’ll either be remembered as the man who finally found the goalie to lead Philly to a Stanley Cup or the guy who cast aside two stars and threw the franchise into the sinkhole to accommodate another failed stopper.
“He had big decisions to make and he made them,” said Clarke, who never minces words. “I don’t think ‘courage’ is the right word to use when you do those things, but ‘intelligence’ is. That was 'his job and to me, he did it extremely well."