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It’s a bit a mixed blessing when your team is a surprise finals candidate after having a bad regular season. This is no more evident than what happened to the Philadelphia Flyers. They made the finals in 2010, after only making the playoffs because they were able to win a shootout on the last day of action. Had they lost that shootout, the run to the finals would have never happened, and by extension, maybe Flyers fans would have been spared a lot of the grief that has followed. Because that run to the finals raised expectations too high and secured General Manager Paul Holmgren’s job. And Holmgren has been in the drivers seat for some of the more bizarre and hard to justify decisions of any recent GM not named Mike Milbury.
Here’s a run down of some of Holmgren’s curious decisions:
- Signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a super longterm deal, then trying to force his “franchise” goalie to stay away from the media and eventually benching him for the winter classic (the latter probably more of a coaching choice, but still)
- Buying out the aforementioned Bryzgalov, despite having no goalies in the system worth giving the job to
- Not having a decent backup because the choice was made to trade away future Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovski
- Trading away team Captain Mike Richards
- Trading away offensive threat Jeff Carter (must have hurt watching Richards and Carter lift the cup that very same season)
- Way overpaying recent buyout Vincent Lecavalier to a four year 4.5 million dollar deal. Let that sink in. The Capitals got a better, younger bought out player in Grabovski for 1 year and 3.0 million. The joke immediately became whether Lecavalier would become the first player to be bought out twice. The deal was and is that bad.
- Signing 35 year old, injury prone defenseman Mark Streit to an expensive 5.25 million dollar deal, that the Flyers will be on the books for even if Streit retires or regresses considerably
- And finally, Holmgren is actually going into this season with Ray Emery and Steve Mason as his duo in net. Let that sink in, because if you thought Bryzgolov was bad, well, get ready.
- If this all wasn’t bad enough… it could get worse.. Andrej Maszaros could be a casualty of a poorly handled cap situation (there should be a lot of grumbling if overpaying for Lecavelier and Streit leads to Maszaros being traded)
Okay, maybe I’m being hard on Holmgren. It’s not all his fault, and he wasn’t alone in these decisions either. It always was rumored that owner Ed Snider was the one championing the Bryzgolov pickup. Also, Holmgren couldn’t help Chris Pronger’s concussion (an injury which stopped the Flyers from being true contenders), and he can’t help it that his city’s media is just brutally awful at their job. Peter Laviolette also shares a lot of the blame for a lackluster season, but ultimately the personnel decisions fall to Holmgren, and he has to answer for them.
Some of Holmgren’s recent gambles could pay off though. Lecavalier and Streit can still put up points and should help give the Flyers a very deep cast of offensive threats. And if Emery’s success last year isn’t exclusively a result of playing behind a stellar Blackhawks defense, he could be serviceable in net. The biggest victory for the Flyers could be if Emery and Mason push one another to become a formidable goaltending duo, for a lot less money than Bryzgalov was making.
However, it’s really unlikely that all of Holmgren’s gambles will all pan out in one season, and it kind of has to for the Flyers to succeed. They need good goaltending, because their defense hasn’t improved at all and was letting in close to three goals a game last year. Their goaltending is the biggest risk being taken by any team heading into this season. If Mason and Emery falter (the likely result), the plan seems to be to win games by outscoring the opposition, but when your division foes are the likes of the Penguins, Capitals, and Islanders… well, you’re going to be losing more of the high scoring games than you’re winning. Just imagine, Mason couldn’t put together a .900 save percentage in the defensive Central Division, and now he’s going to be facing the likes of Tavares, Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin, Nash, Semin, and Staal on a regular basis. And Emery is going from the best defense in the league to one of the worst, so it’s hard to know what to expect from him. Honestly, who actually thinks this is going to work? Unless you happen to believe that a 7 game sample size is enough to declare Mason a starter. Or, if you’re like Broadstreet Hockey, maybe you think that Mason turning 25 is a sign that his career should be on the upswing, but what kind of an improvement can you really expect out of a guy with four straight years of being below or barely at a .900 save percentage? If he gives you savings of .901-905, which is an improvement, can you really label that a success? Is having a cheaper Bryzgalov the goal here? As an ardent follower of the Central Division, all I have to say is good luck with that.
Philly.com was a little more realistic in their take on Mason:
The good news is that the Flyers have a very impressive collection of forwards and the future looks bright. They also have their next GM already waiting in the wings. With Ron Hextall signed on as assistant GM, the Flyers are prepared to transition away from Holmgren if his latest batch of high risk moves don’t pay off. Hextall was with the LA Kings for seven seasons as assistant GM, and helped build their recent cup winning team. It’s unlikely that he would come to Philadelphia if he didn’t think that he had a legitimate chance of having the top job soon, because he could have gotten the top job somewhere else. For Holmgren to keep his position, it’s likely that Emery, Lecavalier, and Streit would all have to play to expectations. Oh, and I suppose it would help if Claude Giroux started playing like one of the top 5 forwards in the league again. But Hextall’s hiring should be a sure sign that the Flyers better start winning soon if Holmgren’s going to be around come this time next year.
It looks like it will be another soap opera season in Philadelphia, and really this roster isn’t much better than the team that missed the playoffs several months ago. Meanwhile, Flyers fans are left to hope that the distractions are gone (ahem, Bryzgolov), the team is healthier, and that their 1-5-1 preseason is not a sign things to come. But unfortunately, we won’t have any humorous commentary to break the tension this season.
Optimism rating (out of 5): 1.5