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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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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.

Trade: Blackhawks send Anisimov to Senators for Zack Smith

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Artem Anisimov‘s name has been floating in trade speculation for more than a year now, and on Tuesday afternoon the Chicago Blackhawks finally moved him.

The Blackhawks announced they have traded Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for forward Zack Smith. It is a one-for-one deal that will probably make a bigger impact on both team’s financial situations than on the ice.

Both players are 31 years old, have two years remaining on their current contracts, and are coming off of somewhat similar seasons in terms of their performance. Anisimov scored 15 goals and 37 points in 78 games for the Blackhawks this past season, while Smith had nine goals and 28 points in 70 games for the Senators.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So what is important here for both teams? Money, obviously.

For the Blackhawks, the Anisimov-for-Smith swap saves them a little more than $1 million against the salary cap as they go from Anisimov’s $4.5 salary cap hit to Smith’s $3.25 number. For a team that is consistently pressed against the cap and still has a ton of big-money players, every little bit of extra space helps. Especially as they have to work out new deals for Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome over the next year.

The Senators, meanwhile, had a different set of problems.

They were still sitting under the league’s salary floor before the trade and are now finally above it.

Anisimov’s contract not only gets them over the floor, but because the Blackhawks have already paid Anisimov’s signing bonus for this season the Senators actually owe him less in terms of actual salary, which is also probably an important factor for a team that is seemingly always in a cost-cutting and money-saving mode.

The Blackhawks have been extremely busy this offseason making multiple changes to their roster after a second straight non-playoff season. Along with acquiring Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in trades to try and upgrade their defense, they also signed goalie Robin Lehner in free agency and brought back veteran forward Andrew Shaw.

This past week they traded former first-round pick defender Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander.

Related: Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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.

Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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When it comes to the NHL’s restricted free agent market this summer most of the attention has been directed at forwards Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho. They are the stars, the big point-producers, and in the case of Aho, the rare player that actually received — and signed — an offer sheet from another team, only to have the Carolina Hurricanes quickly move to match it. For now, though, let’s shift the focus to the blue line where there are a few more big contracts still to be settled this summer with Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov all waiting on new deals from their respective teams.

The two most intriguing players out of this group are Columbus’ Werenski and Boston’s McAvoy because they are already playing at an elite level among NHL defenders.

Just how good have they been?

Both are coming off of their age 21 seasons and have already demonstrated an ability to play at a top-pairing level on playoff caliber teams.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have only been four defenders that have hit all of the following marks through their age 21 season:

  • At least 100 games played
  • Averaged at least .50 points per game
  • And had a Corsi Percentage (shot-attempt differential) of greater than 52 percent at that point in their careers.

Those players have been Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Werenski, and McAvoy.

That is it.

Pretty elite company.

Based on that, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to look at the contracts Karlsson and Doughty received at the same point in their careers when they were coming off of their entry-level deals.

They were massive.

Karlsson signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators, while Doughty signed an eight-year, $56 million contract. At the time, those contracts were worth around 10 percent of the league’s salary cap. A similarly constructed contract under today’s cap would come out to an annual cap hit of around $8 million dollars, which would be among the five highest paid defenders in the league.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Are Werenski and McAvoy worth similar contracts right now? They just might be.

The argument against it would be that while the overall performances are in the same ballpark, there are still some significant differences at play. Karlsson, for example, was coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season when he signed his long-term deal in Ottawa and was already on track to being one of the best offensive defensemen ever (he was already up to .68 points per game!). Doughty, meanwhile, was a significantly better defensive player than the other three and had already been a finalist for the Norris Trophy.

Neither Werenski or McAvoy has reached that level yet, while Werenski also sees a pretty significant drop in his performance when he is not paired next to Seth Jones, which could be a concern depending on how much value you put into such a comparison. It’s also worth pointing out that Jones sees a similar drop when he is not paired next to Werenski, and that the two are absolutely dominant when they are together.

But do those points outweigh the production and impact that Werenski and McAvoy have made, and the potential that they still possess in future years?

What they have already accomplished from a performance standpoint is almost unheard of for defenders of their age in this era of the league. It is also rare for any player of any level of experience.

Over the past three years only 15 other defenders have topped the 0.50 points per game and a 52 percent Corsi mark. On average, those players make $7 million per season under the cap, while only three of them — Roman Josi, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Erik Gustafsson — make less than $5 million per year. Josi is also due for a huge raise over the next year that will almost certainly move him into the $7-plus million range as well.

Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets and Bruins have top-pairing defenders on their hands that still have their best days in the NHL ahead of them. There is every reason to believe they are on track to be consistent All-Star level players and signing them to big deals right now, this summer, will probably turn out to be worth every penny.

Related: Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

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.