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Holmgren's rebuilding plan paying off for Flyers

by Chuck Gormley

Paul Holmgren replaced Bob Clarke as Philadelphia Flyers general manager 11 months ago not knowing how long he’d have the job. Team chairman Ed Snider slapped an “interim” tag on Holmgren and acknowledged a week later that he had offered NHL Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell the GM’s job -- meaning Holmgren was in the unenviable position of trying to rebuild a team he might not be running by season's end.

Campbell opted not to take the Flyers’ job, and Holmgren set about transforming the Flyers, replacing Peter Forsberg, Alexei Zhitnik, Kyle Calder, Robert Esche, Joni Pitkanen and Geoff Sanderson with Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, Braydon Coburn, Lasse Kukkonen, Martin Biron, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul and Jason Smith. On July 1, the first day of free agency, he added arguably the top free agent on the market, 95-point scorer Daniel Briere from Buffalo.

Flyers' GM Paul Holmgren is optimistic his club can rebound from the worst season in team history and return to contention this year in the much-improved Atlantic Division.

Now armed with a two-year contract extension and a rebuilt team, Holmgren is hoping the Flyers can rebound from the worst season in team history and return to contention in the much-improved Atlantic Division.

“It’s amazing when you look at the changes Paul has made,” said left wing Simon Gagne, the longest-tenured Flyer with seven seasons in orange and black. “Everything he said he would do, he’s done.”

Holmgren admits the transition from Clarke’s assistant to his replacement was an uncomfortable one and that an overhaul was probably in order.

“Clarkie's a good friend of mine,” he said. “He's almost like a big brother to me. He's still around (as a team executive), and I welcome that. He's a good guy for me to lean on — and I have leaned on him.”

The Flyers, who had finished no worse than second in the division since 1993-94, stumbled out of the gate last season and never found their way back into the playoff race.

“We got off to such a bad start last season, we knew we had a lot of problems and a lot of holes on the team,” Holmgren said. “As the season wore on and we fell out of the race, your mindset changes. Around January it looked like we were out of (the playoff race) and that was new to all of us. That's when we began looking to this year.”

Holmgren’s original plan was to re-sign the oft-injured Forsberg and make him the centerpiece of the Flyers’ future. But when Forsberg opted not to sign a contract extension, Holmgren moved him to the Nashville Predators near the trade deadline in exchange for Upshall, Parent and a pair of draft picks. One of those picks, a first-rounder, was sent back to the Predators in June in exchange for the right to negotiate with Timonen and Hartnell, both of whom were set to become free agents but chose to sign long-term deals with Philadelphia prior to July 1.

“Maybe it turned out to be a blessing, but we wanted to keep Peter,” Holmgren said of dealing away Forsberg. “The night we traded Peter, we talked at length about him being a part of our future. Part of the process was to re-sign him. Peter and I talked every day for close to a month. But when he couldn't commit to us, we had to do what was right for the organization.”

The deal that brought Timonen and Hartnell turned out to be a stroke of genius, but it was a gamble at the time. All Holmgren was getting for his draft pick was a two-week exclusive window to negotiate with the two players.

“I had the weekend to decide,” said Timonen, whose younger brother Jussi played 14 games for the Flyers late last season. “I made a lot of phone calls to see if Philadelphia was the right place to play. I didn’t want to go to a rebuilding team, I wanted to win right now.”

Holmgren assured Timonen and Hartnell he would be active in the free-agent market and hoped to land a top-line center. Briere, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury were all on the Flyers’ list, but Briere was clearly at the top. The challenge was finding a way to fit Briere’s $6.5 million average salary under the NHL’s $50.3 million cap.

“To give him $10 million next season, we had to add a couple extra years to his contract and Mr. Snider had to go along with it,” Holmgren said. “I know it sounds long when you look at giving Briere eight years and Timonen six years, but by structuring the contracts the way we did our cap numbers are lower than they would have been with shorter deals.”

Holmgren said he was willing to take the risk of having a pair of overpriced, over-the-hill veterans at the end of those contract, when Briere will be 37 and Timonen 38.

“I think both players take good care of themselves and will still be productive when they're that age,” Holmgren said. “We'll cross that bridge when we get there.”

There is another bridge Holmgren hopes to cross sometime this fall. Forsberg underwent a pair of surgeries during the off-season — one on his right foot and another on his abdominal area — and hopes to return to the NHL sometime in November. The Flyers are among the teams that interest him, in part because of the way he was treated by Holmgren last season, when he was in and out of the Flyers’ lineup while trying to find skates to fit his ailing foot.

"When he did play for the Flyers, he made our team better,” Holmgren said. “With the additions we brought in we wouldn't ask as much of him as we did before. If we could add a player like Forsberg, we'd have to look at it.”

Holmgren said he would need to "tinker" with the Flyers' payroll to make room for Forsberg's salary, which would likely be in the $3 million range.

"If Peter decided to come back and play, how can you not look at it?" Holmgren said.

With or without Forsberg, the Flyers are better on paper now than they were throughout last season. The challenge, Holmgren said, will be changing the culture of losing that took root last season.

“For me it starts with work ethic,” Holmgren said. “I think near the end of last year the Flyers turned it around a little bit in terms of how we were playing. We were more competitive. Players who were here last year — the bad taste left in their mouths will translate into a work ethic. We need to be a team hard to play against.”


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