Seven games. One win. Throughout the universe, Flyers fans wait for the other shoe to drop.
The first shoe was the firing of Peter Laviolette, and no matter how you slice it, dismissing your coach three games into a season is sloppy and smacks of scapegoating. One win allowed the Flyers’ players to breathe a sigh of relief, but by the next game they were back to their old tricks. Interviews with the players would have you believe their game is just out of their reach, and how with a little work they’ll get back on track. The reality is you can hire the best construction manager, find the best materials, have the most able-bodied and able-minded workers, and throw all the money in the world at a work in progress, but if the architect has a flawed design, you have zero chance of getting past the groundwork.
The architect of this catastrophe is, of course, General Manager Paul Holmgren.
Like all GMs, Holmgren has been trying to win a Stanley Cup since he capped off a great year of rebuilding at the end of the 06-07 season. At the beginning of the 07-08 season, highly coveted free-agent Daniel Briere was signed to beef up the offense while Mike Richards was signed to a 12-year contract extension with a no-trade clause and named team captain. After developing some younger players, retaining some future assets, and taking a chance on unproven backup Martin Biron to replace the unreliable Antero Niittymaki, Holmgren ushered the team’s surprising run to the Conference Finals in 2008. An inability to remain consistent and probably the worst timed fight in Flyers history (Dan Carcillo taking on Max Talbot) damned them the following year in the postseason, and due to underwhelming performances in net, Biron was replaced by former starting goalies Ray Emery and Brian Boucher, while Chris Pronger was acquired to shore up the defense. Jeff Carter was signed to an 11-year contract extension with a no-trade clause. A minor AHL player trade followed in October, and the only other tinker was stealing Ville Leino from Detroit in February. This would be the last great acquisition of Holmgren’s tenure.
Believing they had the necessary tools to compete, Holmgren stood pat and watched his team advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1997 and win two games for the first time since 1987. And he watched one goalie after another go down to injury until Michael Leighton was the starter in the Finals.
The response was signing Jody Shelley and Sean O’Donnell while trading for Andrej Meszaros (who brought a $4 million per-season cap hit), Matt Walker, Kris Versteeg, and Tom Sestito. A successful training camp saw Sergei Bobrovsky supplant Leighton and Boucher. All three goalies would see action in a disappointing playoffs, each playing at least parts of two games and posting at least a 3.10 GAA, and the pent-up rage of the previous playoffs finally exploded.
Holmgren, and the organization, has yet to recover.
Richards, a fiercely competitive leader and one of the best two-way pivots in the game, was sent packing, as was Jeff Carter, a perennial top goal scorer, both before their no-trade clauses could kick in; $127 million in long-term salary was moved in one day. Bryzgalov, coveted as the top goaltender available, was acquired and signed to a fat deal. Jaromir Jagr was brought on board. Underwhelming in the prior two seasons, defenseman Braydon Coburn was nevertheless signed to a four-year contract extension worth $4.5 million per season. Despite overwhelming odds, Richards’ and Carter’s replacements, namely Simmonds, Schenn, Couturier, and Voracek, outscored them by committee. Despite his off-ice antics, Bryzgalov went 33-16-7. Despite a ludicrous culture change, it appeared that Holmgren had made the right moves. The final hurrah was perhaps the most entertaining first-round tilt in decades, where the Flyers’ offensive weapons blasted the highly touted Pittsburgh Penguins to the tune of 30 goals in six games. Overconfident, they moved onto the Devils where the fairytale ended.
Then Richards, the captain who had led the team in points and assists for two seasons, and Carter, who had led the team in goals three seasons and points in one, won a Stanley Cup.
Who knows what went through Holmgren’s mind. What followed was possibly the worst free-agency in Flyers history; first, Holmgren traded Sergei Bobrovsky, a shameful move that saw the Russian standout win a Vezina trophy on an undermanned Columbus Blue Jackets, then he traded struggling power forward James vanRiemsdyk for defenseman Luke Schenn, an admittedly even deal that could still pay dividends for the Flyers as Schenn continues to develop.
Then, Holmgren chased long-shots Zach Parise and Ryan Suter when the smart money was on their signing with the Minnesota Wild with the possibility of joining the Pittsburgh Penguins. Holmgren’s desire to wait saw the Flyers lose successful pivots Matt Carle and Jaromir Jagr while Suter and Parise joined the Wild. He then tried to negotiate a trade for all-star defenseman Shea Weber’s rights, reportedly in exchange for Couturier and Schenn. Holmgren rebuffed and signed Weber to an offer sheet, which Nashville matched at the zero hour. If that trade could be made today, it would be made in a heartbeat. Holmgren’s solution, despite the availability of free agent defenseman Carlo Coliacovo, was to sign Kurtis Foster, Bruno Gervais, and Ruslan Fedotenko.
The result was the Flyers’ second losing campaign in eighteen seasons. The defense never looked worse, and the entire team suffered as a result.
Blame was sidled everywhere, but aimed at the mercurial Bryzgalov, who nevertheless emerged as the team’s all-star through the first half of the season. Problems with scoring and losing games in the third period were prevalent, and though the team eclipsed the .500 mark in the last game of the season, few were surprised that they missed the playoffs altogether. Steve Mason was acquired mid-season to give Bryzgalov a reliable backup and responded well in a limited seven-game set. Following this, Holmgren decided that the best play was buying out Bryzgalov and Briere, burning the two compliance buyouts given at the start of the season. He then signed Vincent Lecavalier to replace Briere and Mark Streit, a career -55, to supposedly boost the defense. Aging defenseman Kimmo Timonen was signed to a one-year deal worth $6 million, despite his inability to stem the team’s epidemic turnovers leading to odd-man rushes and ultimately goals.
At this point, the result speaks for itself.
Signing two franchise pivots to massive contracts with no-trade clauses before turning around to deal them was an embarrassing error. If they had not departed, sniper Jeff Carter might be playing on Giroux’s wing while Richards would remain a valuable point-scorer, penalty killer, and team captain. Now, it’s hard to believe either of them even played for the organization.
Signing Bryzgalov to a no-trade clause contract, then telling his agent he wasn’t going to be bought out and buying him out anyway set a precedent; if you don’t immediately produce results in the form of a Stanley Cup victory, you don’t get to play in Philadelphia. In a place where turnover in the crease and the captaincy has become the norm, Holmgren has decided to continue the trend, erroneously believing that it will somehow lead to results. He is also meticulously destroying a carefully cultivated perception that Philadelphia is a great place to call home for players.
The fans continue to wait for that other shoe.
In short, Holmgren’s nostalgia for that missed opportunity in 2010 hangs on his neck like an albatross, and in his desire for immediate gratification, he has destroyed the possibility of a consistently effective team that could continue to make the playoffs. Hell, the team as it stands barely looks like it could compete with an AHL roster. But he continues to sit in his position of power, looking for yet another quick fix that will only further fracture team chemistry in the search for short term success.
Ron Hextall watched Dean Lombardi, whom Bob Clarke selfishly traded to the Los Angeles Kings when his own job was in jeopardy, build a championship team with Richards, Carter, Justin Williams, Simon Gagne, Colin Fraser, and former head coach John Stevens. Not only did they win, but they’ve proved their worth as a perennial contender.
Mr. Holmgren, it’s time to step down. If you do it now, you can gracefully exit and take responsibility for the mess you’ve created. Generations of fans can favorably view you as the man who recognized that his own business style was ill-suited to produce the championship the Philadelphia Flyers and their devoted, long-suffering fans have so craved.
Or, you can keep your seat as the general manager and continue to ruin this once proud franchise with ill-conceived choices that instantly prove how out of touch you are with the sport as it’s played today.
Mr. Holmgren, it’s your call.