Post-Philadelphia Flyers Blockbuster, Penguins' Road to Division Title Clear

James ConleyContributor IIIJune 23, 2011

The Penguins have the best center depth in the Atlantic by a mile following the trades of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards Thursday.
The Penguins have the best center depth in the Atlantic by a mile following the trades of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards Thursday.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It's not every day that a second-seeded division-winner takes measures to destroy its core and rebuild in one fell swoop.

Philadelphia set the hockey world ablaze Thursday by doing just that. Three major moves took place, as GM Paul Holmgren moved his top-two forwards in exchange for picks, prospects and pros.

In doing so, he also opened up the space to make the long-awaited Ilya Bryzgalov signing.

All told, the Pittsburgh Penguins watched their best intradivision competition reinvent itself, and perhaps not for the better.

The Atlantic Division is now Pittsburgh's to lose.

The damage:

C Jeff Carter to Columbus Blue Jackets for F Jakub Voracek, 2011 first-round pick (8th overall), 2011 third-round pick.

C Mike Richards to Los Angeles Kings for F Wayne Simmonds, F Brayden Schenn, undisclosed draft pick.

G Ilya Bryzgalov signs nine-year, $51 million contract with Flyers at $5.667 annual cap hit (through 2020 season).

If Philadelphia intended to drop long-term, big-money contracts from their roster in the forms of Richards and Carter, they quickly worked in spite of themselves by signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a deal that takes him to the age of 40.

Carter is signed through the 2021-22 season, Richards until 2020. The Flyers clearly didn't get what they bargained for when the ink dried on those deals, as they were willing to part with both their captain and their best scoring forward for reasons which haven't yet been fully disclosed.

No team signs a player to a 10-plus year deal and expects to move such a contract so easily. That the Flyers moved two in one day (and signed off on another) has to be unprecedented.

If nothing else, Thursday's maneuvering illustrated why Ray Shero has been hesitant to award any player—even Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—the kind of long-term, big-money deals popularized by the Flyers, Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks.

In the NHL, there are no such things as sure things.

As for Carter and Richards, the Penguins are probably happy to see them go.

Since 2005-06, Carter has 30 points (15 goals, 15 assists) in 38 regular season games against the Penguins. Richards has 31 points (6 goals, 25 assists) in 40 games over that same span.

Claude Giroux and Danny Briere led the Flyers in scoring a year ago, playing on the second and third lines for much of the season. With the big two gone, Holmgren and Co. are going all in on the idea that these two are the 1-2 centers for the future.

They may not be.

The Penguins lost this season not just because they missed out on the production of Crosby and Malkin—they also lost the favorable matchups those two created.

Carter and Richards drew the best defensive pairs of every opponent, allowing Briere, Giroux and others to rack up points against second and third defensive pairings and on the power play.

Those matchups are gone. Giroux and Briere are the franchise centers now and they'll no longer be facing the opposition's lesser blueliners. Even if Giroux still has yet to reach his ceiling as a point-producer, things are going to be tougher for he and Briere from now on.

Comparing Pittsburgh's center depth to Philadelphia's, the Penguins have clearly become the stronger team. Crosby, Malkin and Staal present the best center depth in the NHL, and they'll be facing Briere, Giroux and...who, exactly? Blair Betts?

Ilya Bryzgalov is a monumental upgrade over Brian Boucher, but at the cost of the team's best centers, he'd better play like the best goalie in the game.

There's no way to tell how things will shake out on Broad Street. The team has a bona fide starting goaltender, the eighth-overall pick in this draft, a pair of new wingers in Simmonds and Voracek and a blue-chip prospect in Brayden Schenn.

Still, the dust isn't close to settled on this one. The Flyers have a boatload of uncertainty coming their way.

Bryzgalov has been torched in his last two postseason series' and may be the fourth-best goaltender in his own division (following Martin Brodeur, Marc-Andre Fleury and Henrik Lundqvist). Philadelphia, too, is a lion's den compared to the retirement home atmosphere of a Phoenix home crowd.

How Bryzgalov responds to his first merciless home booing—and it will happen, because this is Philadelphia, after all—will tell us a lot about the value of Holmgren's latest monster contract.

Further, Simmonds and Voracek are restricted free agents looking to cash in on their first one-way pro deals. Ville Leino is an unrestricted free agent in line for his first big raise (likely around $4 million per year) and the Flyers have just $7.57 million left following the Bryzgalov deal.

The team still has a lot of work ahead of them.

For the Penguins, the only remaining uncertainty is the recovery of their top two players. If Crosby is symptom-free and returns to his 2010-11 form, the Penguins will be the best team in the Atlantic. If Malkin is as healthy and motivated as reports out of Russia suggest he is, the Penguins will be the best team in hockey.

Throw in a goaltender and team defense that last year ranked as high as second in the NHL in goals allowed when the team had all hands healthy, and Pittsburgh clearly becomes the team to beat in the Atlantic.

All things considered, battling the Penguins was a much more attractive prospect for Philadelphia when Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were still in the stable.

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