Paul Holmgren was brought in to replace Clarke, and he looked to have a rebuilding project on his hands.
The young Flyers would finish last in the league, but unlike other franchises in Pittsburgh and Washington, Paul Holmgren did not consider a multi-year rebuilding process to be an option for his team.
Instead, Holmgren acquired Martin Biron, Ryan Parent, Scottie Upshall, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell, all before free agency began that summer. He would then sign one of the league’s top available forwards, Danny Briere, and the next season, the Flyers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Holmgren’s tenure in Philadelphia has never been easy, but he has found remarkable success and has inspired faith in his decisions.
However, the coming months of the 2011-12 season, and beyond, may prove to be the most difficult of Holmgren’s career as a general manager.
Here are five reasons why the Flyers’ GM faces major challenges in the near future.
In the past two years, the Flyers have finished as the runner-up for the Stanley Cup and the second seed in the Eastern Conference, respectively.
Coming off of back-to-back seasons where the team seemed to have a real opportunity to win, the bar for success is being set high in Philadelphia. As a result, a low seeding in the playoffs or a poor postseason showing could arouse speculation that the team is headed backwards.
With teams like the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins having major success in the East this season, the Flyers may be setting themselves up for a disappointing result to a promising season. Questions will immediately be raised about the moves Holmgren made in the offseason and the long-term contracts he has saddled himself with, which may prevent him from making a transaction that could help the team win.
In this case, Holmgren may be a victim of his own genius; the very teams he built that past two seasons are raising the bar for the team he has built today.
By acquiring players like Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier in the offseason, Holmgren made the Flyers a remarkably young, inexperienced team.
The Flyers have already given significant ice time to a number of rookie players, including Schenn, Couturier, Matt Read, Zac Rinaldo, Harry Zolnierczyk and Marc-Andre Bourdon. That’s an inordinately large proportion of the roster to leave in the hands of players with zero NHL experience.
One or two role-playing rookies is not uncommon, but five of them played in the team’s most recent game, some in very significant positions.
If some of these rookies, especially those with high expectations, fail to develop, Holmgren will have to answer as to why he was willing to give up the proven talents of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for a gamble on some unproven prospects.
One of the major offseason storylines in hockey was the dramatic differences in the free agent experiences of the two top goaltenders on the market, Tomas Vokoun and Ilya Bryzgalov.
Vokoun became an unrestricted free agent and signed a short, cheap contract with the Washington Capitals, who got a steal at one-year, $1.5 million. Ilya Bryzgalov, on the other hand, saw his rights acquired before free agency began and inked a nine-year, $51 million deal. Even before Bryzgalov donned his new team’s jersey, the Flyers appeared to have overpaid.
Now, Bryzgalov has a goals against average of 3.01 and a save percentage of .890 percent for the season, well below expectations in a city that has sought a steady netminder for well over a decade. Bryzgalov was even benched in the Winter Classic in favor of Sergei Bobrovsky’s consistency.
For Paul Holmgren, Bryzgalov is more than simply another failed goalie experiment in Philadelphia. He is a major gamble. A $5.67 million dollar cap hit does not come off the books easily, and it certainly can’t be buried in the backup role for very long.
A Bryzgalov bust could conceivably be a move that haunts Holmgren for nearly a decade.
When the Flyers made the Stanley Cup Final in 2010, the team’s ultimate downfall would be the pressure put on the top four defensemen over the course of the playoff run. Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn could not sustain the pattern of playing the vast majority of the team’s defensive ice time, while Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent were used sparingly.
Holmgren moved toward a more complete defensive scheme that offseason by adding Andrej Meszaros and Sean O’Donnell in order to avoid a repeat of his dismal, unused third pairing.
Now, Holmgren finds himself without Chris Pronger for the remainder of the season and the playoffs, and the Flyers defense has become a question yet again.
Timonen, Meszaros, Carle and Coburn make up the top four, but the team has struggled to find a reliable set of defensemen between Andreas Lilja, Marc-Andre Bourdon, Matt Walker, Erik Gustafsson and Kevin Marshall.
To be competitive, the Flyers will need another reliable defenseman. Holmgren does not necessarily need to land someone like Shea Weber or Ryan Suter to match Pronger’s caliber, but experience, toughness and quickness are a must for the team’s third defensive pairing.
If Holmgren cannot find a replacement whose acquisition will not dismantle the team’s offense, he’ll be facing a slew of familiar questions in the offseason.
Paul Holmgren brought Chris Pronger to the Flyers for his leadership, toughness and scoring ability. Prior to the 2010-11 season, Pronger signed a seven-year extension, despite being 34 years old at the time of the signing.
The deal would pay Pronger until well after his 42nd birthday.
Because his contract qualifies as a “35-and-older” deal, the NHL has rules in place to prevent teams from exploiting the salary cap system.
Based on the assumption that a player is likely to retire once they start pushing 40, the NHL requires that the salary cap number agreed upon in the contract will count against the team’s cap if the player does retire.
This is to defer GMs from paying big stars big money for a few years, but softening the blow of the cap hit by agreeing to pay only a few million in the last years of the contract (when the player may retire anyway).
Now that Pronger is out for the season with post-concussion syndrome, a condition that could threaten his career, the Flyers could potentially be saddled with a $4.9 million cap for the next five years, despite the fact that Pronger will have barely played two season of his seven-year deal.
Right now, Holmgren is dealing with a similar situation in the form of Ian Laperriere, who has been placed on Long-Term Injured Reserve each of the last two seasons instead of officially retiring.
Could Holmgren do this with Pronger, should the captain be unable to return?
As of now, Holmgren technically could keep Pronger on LTIR, provided that the defenseman did not choose to retire. But, this exploitation of the salary cap system is something that could be revamped in the upcoming CBA discussions, and Holmgren may find himself with a whole new set of problems on his hands.
When Holmgren hands out these shifty contracts, he finds himself just asking for trouble. If something goes wrong with Bryzgalov, the way it has with Pronger, the Flyers could find themselves paying $10 million of their cap to two players who aren’t on the roster.
Let’s hope Holmgren has something in his bag of tricks for this.