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.
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.”