PHT Time Machine: Paul Holmgren’s crazy year of Flyers blockbusters

Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the Paul Holmgren’s busy year as Flyers general manager.

The Philadelphia Flyers, at least for now, are back in the hands of Paul Holmgren following Monday’s dismissal of general manager Ron Hextall. Until a more permanent solution is found — something Holmgren is hoping takes “weeks” and not “months” — that means he is the one in sitting in the general manager’s seat with his finger on the button when it comes to the roster.

This is exciting. This is very, very, very exciting. For purely selfish reasons I am hoping he just decides to keep the job for himself because it might mean the Flyers become interesting again.

Who doesn’t love a completely unpredictable team that could totally change directions at any moment?

When the Flyers made Monday’s announcement, Holmgren said in a statement the franchise and Hextall “no longer share the same philosophical approach concerning the direction of the team.”

During a press conference discussing the move on Tuesday, the team seemed to double down on that when Comcast-Spectacor chairman and CEO Dave Scott said the team was looking for someone that has a “bias for action” in its new general manager.

You do not really need to reach very far in all of this to come to the conclusion that upper management did not care for Hextall’s patient, methodical approach to handling the construction of the roster, especially when it was producing mediocre results year after year.

[Related: Hextall’s patience failed to move Flyers forward]

This brings us back to Paul Holmgren.

During his tenure as general manager there was not a more aggressive team in the league when it came to trades and blockbuster roster transactions. Everything was on the table, no player was untouchable, and you should have always been willing to expect the unexpected.

One of his first moves as Flyers general manager during the 2006-07 season was to trade Peter Forsberg to the Nashville Predators for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, and a first-round draft pick. That offseason, not even six months later, he sent that first-round draft pick back to Nashville for pending free agents Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell, and then promptly signed them both to long-term contracts.

A few years later he also traded Parent back to Nashville for the free agent rights to Dan Hamhuis, and upon realizing he would not be able to sign Hamhuis, traded him to Pittsburgh for a third-round draft pick.

In the summer of 2009 he pulled off the most impactful trade of his tenure when he acquired Hall of Fame defender Chris Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks, a move that would ultimately lead to a Stanley Cup Final appearance the next season.

But none of these transactions hold a candle to the madness that happened between June 23, 2011, and July 18, 2012.

That was when all hell broke loose in Philadelphia and this series of transactions took place.

Let’s try to break this down here because my goodness that is an entire career’s worth of blockbusters in one year.

Splitting Up The Core For Ilya Bryzgalov

In the summer of 2011 the Flyers were coming off of a second-round playoff loss to the Boston Bruins (a sweep) and still trying to answer the long-standing goaltending question that has hounded the organization for decades.

Despite the disappointment of that postseason defeat, and even with the unsettled goaltending questions, this was still a very successful franchise. They were just one year removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, they had won another playoff round that season, and were simply beaten by a better team (one that would go on to win the Stanley Cup that year).

That was still not good enough, and in the eyes of the Flyers the one thing that was still holding them back was a franchise goalie.

So they tried to address it.

It all started on June 23, 2011, when Holmgren completely blew up his core of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (both of whom were signed to mega-long-term contracts) and traded them within an hour of each other.

Richards was sent to the Los Angeles Kings for Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, while Carter went to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Jakub Voracek and two draft picks, one of which would be used to select Sean Couturier.

At the time speculation was raised in Philadelphia that the “partying” lifestyles of Richards and Carter off the ice prompted the trades, speculation that Holmgren immediately wrote off as “preposterous.”

Really, though, it was probably just about not settling for anything less than a championship and doing whatever it took to land the goalie they thought would get them one.

That is where Ilya Bryzgalov comes in.

The trades of Richards and Carter coincided with the acquisition of Bryzgalov from the Arizona Coyotes. Upon acquiring his free agent rights the Flyers made him the highest paid goalie in the league — and by extension the new face of the franchise — by giving him a nine-year, $51 million contract.

These moves turned out to be a mixed bag that for a short period of time completely altered the balance of power in the NHL.

First, for as bold as the Richards and Carter trades seemed to be at the time the Flyers did end up getting great value in return as Simmonds, Voracek, and Couturier are all still outstanding players for them today.

Bryzgalov was also a really good goalie at the time and was coming off two outstanding years with the Coyotes where he finished in the top-six in the Vezina voting each year, including one year where he was the runner up.

Once he arrived in Philadelphia, though, his game almost immediately collapsed on itself resulting in a buyout just two years in to the massive contract.

Following that buyout he would only play 40 more games in the NHL.

The real gut-punch here for the Flyers isn’t just that Bryzgalov failed to fix the goalie situation, it’s that he failed to fix the goalie situation while Carter and Richards were ultimately reunited in Los Angeles later in the 2011-12 season (Columbus traded Carter for defenseman Jack Johnson) and won the first of their two Stanley Cups together.

The other gut-punch, in hindsight, is that one year after signing Bryzgalov they traded his backup, Sergei Bobrovsky, to the Blue Jackets for three draft picks.

All Bobrovsky has done since then is win two Vezina Trophies in Columbus and become one of the best goalies in the league.

It was a wild year.

The James van Riemsdyk saga

Just a little more than a month after trading Richards and Carter to make room for Bryzgalov, the Flyers made another huge move that summer by signing James van Riemsdyk to a long-term contract extension that, in theory, made him a significant part of their core going forward.

That contract was set to kick in at the start of the 2012-13 season.

He would never play a game in Philadelphia on that contract.

Following the 2011-12 season (which was another second-round exit) the Flyers traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a one-for-one swap for defenseman Luke Schenn.

If we’re being honest here, this trade seemed like a bad idea from the start and it would never get any better as van Riemsdyk would eventually go on to become a top-line goal-scorer for the Maple Leafs.

Schenn’s contract became one of the albatross deals in Philadelphia that Hextall would have to jettison early in his tenure as part of his initial organizational clean-up.

What’s amazing about this series of transactions is that van Riemsdyk’s exit from Philadelphia was nearly identical to Carter’s. Just like van Riemsdyk, Carter had signed a long-term contract to remain with the Flyers only to be traded just months before it was set to start.

Bringing van Riemsdyk back to Philadelphia in free agency this past summer was one of Hextall’s last moves in charge of the Flyers.

The Shea Weber Offer Sheet

Every summer we look at the list of restricted free agents and like to pretend one of them might actually sign an offer sheet. It almost never happens. In the salary cap era only eight players have actually signed an offer sheet, and all but one was matched (the Anaheim Ducks did not match Edmonton’s contract for Dustin Penner).

The most notable of the offer sheets that did get signed was Philadelphia’s decision to go after Shea Weber on July 18, 2012, signing him to a gargantuan 14-year, $110 million contract.

This was a delicate time for the Predators because they had just lost Ryan Suter in free agency to the Minnesota Wild, and losing Weber would have been a crippling blow to the franchise. So they matched it, setting off an incredible chain of events in the years that followed.

Had the Predators not matched it, they would not have P.K. Subban today (Weber was traded for Subban a few years later).

They also may have never traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen because they would not have had the depth on the blue line to pull it off.  As a result, they may not have been a Stanley Cup Final team or a Presidents’ Trophy team the past two years.

It also may have left the Flyers, and not the Canadiens, as the team that is left trying to deal with the remaining years of Weber’s contract today.

And none of this takes into account what Columbus would look like today if it didn’t get involved in all of this.

In the end that is a lot of “what ifs” and is nothing more than a fun discussion. But it just added to the unpredictable madness that was the Paul Holmgren era in Philadelphia.

Did any of it make the Flyers any better? Tough to say because some of the moves worked out great, while some of them failed spectacularly.

They were certainly a far more interesting team thanks in large part to a general manager that had an extreme “bias for action.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: NHLPA Executive Board backs RTP, CBA agreement

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The NHLPA’s Executive Board has approved the tentative Return to Play and Collective Bargaining Agreement. Now things move to the full union membership vote for ratification. Voting, which is by secret, electronic ballot, begins Wednesday and will end Friday. [NHLPA]

• Inside the NHL bubble: testing, what could cause postponement [PHT]

Justin Williams on coming back to the Hurricanes for one last run: “I didn’t come back to play 20 games. I came back for a chance to win a Stanley Cup.” [News and Observer]

• “Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr found sensible solutions to shared problems without resorting to any of the hostility or grandstanding these negotiations are typically known for. They and their respective leadership teams started meeting out of the spotlight last summer before recalibrating on the fly and piecing together the framework for this agreement amid a health crisis that poses a significant threat to their industry and many others.” [Sportsnet]

• Will any NHL players opt out of the Return to Play? [The Hockey News]

• These X-factors will shape the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. [ESPN]

• “Lawyers for the NHL Players’ Association are scheduled to appear by video conference before an Ontario judge Tuesday in an effort to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former union employee who alleges the NHLPA covered up a theft of more than $100,000 in union funds by one of its executives.” [TSN]

• It doesn’t sound like Jake DeBrusk, a pending RFA, will be looking for a hometown discount this off-season. [NBC Sports Boston]

• Who is the No. 1 goalie and will rust be a factor are just a couple of questions facing the Penguins ahead of their series vs. Montreal. [Pensburgh]

• Are the Predators better served hoping to win the No. 1 pick or advancing by the Coyotes? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Oilers are deeper than their solid special teams units. [Oilers Nation]

• A long-term knee injury could keep Juuso Valimaki out of the Flames’ lineup next month. [Flames Nation]

• On the challenges facing Flyers veterans after a long break. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

IIHF encouraged by NHL’s potential return to Olympics in ’22

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International Ice Hockey Federation chief Rene Fasel is encouraged after learning the NHL’s pending labor deal opens the possibility of the world’s best players returning to the Olympics.

Aside from the uncertainty raised by the coronavirus pandemic, Fasel told The Associated Press he doesn’t foresee any major stumbling blocks that could derail negotiations leading up to the 2022 Beijing Games.

“No, I don’t think there’s a deal-breaker,” he said Tuesday. “There are a lot of challenges. But I think in principle, I would say the news that that’s in the CBA, for me and especially international hockey, is very good news.”

Fasel spoke a day after the NHL and NHL Players’ Association tentatively agreed to extend the collective bargaining agreement for four years, which would run through the 2025-26 season.

A person with direct knowledge of the agreement told the AP it includes a provision that would allow NHL players to compete at the next two Winter Games, including the 2026 Olympics in Italy. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the contents of the CBA were not released.

The league participated in five consecutive Olympics before skipping the 2018 Games in South Korea.

In order to return, the NHL and its players would first have to resolve various outstanding issues — including health insurance, travel costs and marketing rights — with the IIHF and the International Olympic Committee.

Travel costs alone to Pyeongchang two years ago were projected to be $15 million, which the IOC refused to pay. The NHL was also denied control of using Olympic game footage to promote the league and players. Another concern was weighing the benefits of shutting down the regular season for two weeks only to have Olympic games being played in the early morning hours in North America due to the 14-hour time difference; a similar time difference would be present for 2022.

Fasel acknowledged the NHL’s concerns and said he was encouraged after the parties had what he called “a very positive meeting” in New York in early February. Follow-up discussions were placed on hold due to the pandemic.

“We didn’t give up after Pyeongchang. We understood the situation, how it was at that time. No bad feelings,” he said. “We really hope it will come in ’22, and we are ready to work and find a solution.”

The NHL and union have declined to discuss the proposed CBA until it is approved, which could happen as early as Friday.

Carolina Hurricanes veteran forward Justin Williams called the Olympic proposal “really attractive.”

“I just think it’s great for the game of hockey to be able to showcase the best players,” Williams said. “The Olympics are a special event in itself, but having NHL players there, even as actual players, we love to see the best on best. That’s pretty special.”

USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said he was thrilled by the possibility of being to put together a team with NHL players, which could include rising young stars such as Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau and Seth Jones.

“It’s exciting to consider the team of Americans that could represent our country in Beijing, and we applaud the efforts of the NHL and the NHLPA in making this a possibility,” Kelleher said.

The NHL previously tamped down the chances of returning to Olympic play.

“At this point in time, we believe that the negatives outweigh the positives,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said following the February meeting in New York. Daly did raise the prospect of folding Olympic participation into CBA talks.

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr had a different take on talks with the IOC and IIHF, saying: “The impression I had coming out of the meeting was there ought to be a way to get this done to everybody’s satisfaction.”

Fehr previously described the decision to skip the 2018 Games as a lost opportunity to showcase the sport.

Fasel, whose term as IIHF president was extended a year to September 2021, praised the NHL and players for addressing the Olympics in the CBA.

“We do not have leverage, and we just have to get the PA and the NHL to understand this is good for the promotion of the sport, especially in Asia,” Fasel said. “I’m happy that in the end they understand this is important for the development of ice hockey in the future.”