If you know me, my work or have even perused my Twitter timeline before, you’re probably aware that I’m not a huge Paul Holmgren fan, and I think his shoddy craftsmanship is why the Flyers are in the unenviable current position of being a marginal playoff team pressed very, very tightly against the cap ceiling. I’m sure there were some of you reading this who saw the title and assumed it was another Flyers fan bitter about the Carter and Richards trades because of LA’s success. But my main beef with Paul Holmgren has little to do with those trades.
Whatever the reason for it, he made the conscious decision to rebuild the team on the fly (lol get it) and use the returns for the two players (which were very good, mind you) to add as a supporting cast to the core of Giroux, Pronger and van Riemsdyk. Pronger was named captain, Giroux was promoted to 1st-line C, and van Riemsdyk was just starting his 6-year, $25.5M contract extension and was expected to play on the top-line LW. Rebuilding around Pronger, Giroux, van Riemsdyk, and the returns you got for Richards/Carter is fine. That’s a fine thought process, and I have no issue with that logic from Homer. But through a combination of Holmgren’s poor decision making and a spot of bad luck, only one of those three players is still a contributor in Philadelphia today. I decided to take a look at where and how things went so terribly wrong under Paul Holmgren’s watch after Chris Pronger’s untimely injury and examined just how much that one injury impacted this team.
October 24, 2011: Chris Pronger is hit in the eye by Mikhail Grabovski’s stick. The beginning of the end. The anguish you can hear from his screams in an eerily quiet Wells Fargo Center should have tipped us off that something wasn’t right.
This sucked a lot of dicks.
November 19, 2011: The last game of Chris Pronger’s NHL career, a 6-4 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Pronger had 2 assists on the power play in the loss. Highlights here. This really, really sucked.
After an 11-5-3 start, the Flyers proceeded to go 20-14-4 in the next 38 games after Pronger’s injury. Amid clamoring for a “crease-clearing defenseman” to fill Pronger’s shoes and help out Ilya Bryzgalov, the Flyers decided to make a trade.
February 17, 2012: The Flyers trade a 2012 2nd round pick and 2013 3rd round pick to the Dallas Stars for Nicklas Grossman (the extra “n” came later). Grossmann had 0 goals and 5 assists while posting a 45.2% Corsi For% in 52 games with Dallas before the trade, tying for worst on the team with Radek Dvorak and placing him solidly last among Stars defensemen. The Flyers gave up two legitimate assets for a marginal 3rd-pairing player who was a pending unrestricted free agent as a direct result of Pronger’s injury. This was a shitty idea.
February 18, 2012: Not satisfied with having Grossmann alone to “clear the crease,” the Flyers trade a 2012 2nd round pick and a 2013 4th round pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Pavel Kubina. Kubina had 3 goals and 11 points along with a 46.1% CF% in 52 games before the trade, ranking him 5th among Lightning defenders. Again: the Flyers traded two legitimate assets for a third-pairing crease clearer who was a pending UFA as a direct result of the Pronger injury. This was doubling down on a shitty idea.
April 6, 2012: After a 16-6-2 run directly following the Grossmann acquisition thanks largely to an incredible hot streak from Ilya Bryzgalov (and in very little part due to Grossmann, who posted a -6.1% CF Rel after joining the Flyers, worse than everyone on the team but Jody Shelley, who was not an actual hockey player), the Flyers signed Grossmann to a 4-year, $14.5M contract extension for an AAV of $3.5M. Holmgren limited his flexibilty with regards to both salary and roster slots on defense by committing money and term to a marginal 3rd-pairing defenseman. This was a shitty decision.
April 7, 2012: The regular season ends, and despite Pronger’s injury and the Grossmann/Kubina trades, the Flyers finish the season as a top-10 team by nearly every measure: 6th in points (103), 6th in goals for% (53.7%), 8th in shots for% (52.1%), 10th in Fenwick For% (51.1%), and 11th in Corsi For% (51.0%). To fare this well despite subpar goaltending and a lineup that dressed a whopping 31 different skaters (many of whom were very young) due to injuries was very impressive. This was not shitty.
May 8, 2012: The Flyers are eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the Devils in 5 games, which sucked a lot. However, overall it was a positive season for the team, as they overcame adversity to make it further than projected. Beating the Penguins was fucking awesome. Making it even more impressive was that only 3 forwards appearing for the Flyers in the postseason (Jagr, Briere and Hartnell) were over the age of 25. The defense was decidedly older, but of the 9 defensemen used in the postseason only Kubina, Andreas Lilja and Kimmo Timonen were older than 27. Clearly, this was a team on the rise.
June 22, 2012: After an admittedly poor season (0.899 save%, though that was influenced by an abnormally low shorthanded save%), the Flyers trade Sergei Bobrovsky to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a 2012 2nd rounder and 2012 and 2013 4th rounders. Bob’s cap hit of $1.75M was one of the highest in the league for a backup goalie, and as a result the Flyers traded him in order to free up cap space. Hypothetically, they would then use this cap space to pursue a marquee free agent (like Ryan Suter) to replace Chris Pronger. A team with a better salary situation might have been able to keep Bob for another year, then used him in a 1A/1B situation after they eventually bought out Bryz. Bob, of course, has gone on to great success in Columbus. This didn’t suck all that much at the time but has grown worse and worse with each day of hindsight.
June 23, 2012: After a disappointing, injury-plagued season (11 goals and 24 points in 43 games), the Flyers trade James van Riemsdyk to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Luke Schenn. This was a terrible decision at the time despite many Flyers beat writers (SHOCKINGLY) praising the trade and has become utterly indefensible two years later. Sure, van Riemsdyk missed nearly half the season and never staked his claim to the LW1 spot alongside G and Jags. But his statline extrapolated out to a full season was a solid 21 goals and 46 points despite not getting top power play minutes. His CF% of 52.2% and CF% Rel of 1.3% ranked 6th on the team. Most importantly, he had just turned 23 in May! Twenty-three! He hadn’t even hit his prime yet! And in return for him, they received Luke fucking Schenn, he of the 2 goals, 22 points, 47.0% CF% (2nd-worst among Toronto D, 3rd-worst among all players) and -3.1% CF% Rel (worst among Toronto D, 2nd-worst among all players) for the Maple Leafs in 2011-2012. Jesus fucking Christ. And why was this trade done? Because the Flyers needed to replace Chris Pronger (along with gaining some salary cap flexibility). JvR has, of course, gone on to post 48 goals, 93 points, and a Corsi Rel of 1.9% in 148 games with Toronto, while Schenn has posted 7 goals, 23 points, and a 47.0% CF% away from Finnish Corsi God Kimmo Timonen in 146 games in Philadelphia. Making it even worse was the later revelation that the Flyers turned down an offer from Phoenix (now Arizona) of Keith Yandle for van Riemsdyk instead, presumably because Schenn was 3 years younger and $1.65M cheaper while PROTECTING THE CREASE and PLAYING WITH AN EDGE. Reminder: Paul Holmgren got promoted this offseason. The fucking Flyers, man.
July 1, 2012: The Flyers re-sign Michael Leighton to play backup goalie (because he was cheaper than Bob, remember) and allow Matt Carle and Jaromir Jagr to become unrestricted free agents. Carle, who posted 4 goals, 38 points, and a CF% Rel of 1.0%, 2nd-best among Flyers defensemen despite playing the season with a torn stomach muscle, was left twisting in the breeze despite his desire to come back to Philadelphia because the team was too busy chasing Ryan Suter. Jagr was in a similar situation, though the primary target keeping him from re-signing was Zach Parise. It’s worth noting that it may have been very possible for the Flyers to re-sign Carle while continuing their pursuit of Suter had they not committed $3.5M per season to a bad hockey player in Nicklas Grossmann. In fact, they likely would have gotten him for less than the 6 years and $5.5M per year he eventually got from Tampa Bay.
July 3, 2012: Jaromir Jagr signs a 1-year contract for $4.5M with the Dallas Stars. Meanwhile, the Flyers wait for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to respond to their ridiculous contract offers.
July 4, 2012: Matt Carle signs a 6-year, $33M contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Through a combination of the Pronger injury, the Grossmann trade and extension, and the offers to Suter and Parise, the Flyers lost their 2nd-best defenseman and left a gaping hole on the backend. Meanwhile, Suter and Parise sign matching 13-year, $98M contracts with Minnesota. The Flyers have lost two top-6 forwards and a top-3 defenseman (all of whom were among the Flyers’ 8 best possession players) from their playoff team and replaced them with…Luke Schenn. To review: the Flyers lost Bobrovsky, van Riemsdyk, Carle, and Jagr from their team and replaced them with Luke Schenn, Bruno Gervais, Michael Leighton, Ruslan Fedotenko, and future draft picks.
July 24, 2012: The Predators matched Holmgren’s ballsy, awesome offer sheet for Shea Weber. This was a creative attempt to fill the Pronger-sized hole on the blueline with one of the few players in the world of Pronger’s caliber. It failed, and with that the Flyers’ roster downgrades at forward, defense, and goaltender were set in stone for the upcoming season.
August 20, 2012: Flyers sign Scott Hartnell to a 6-year, $28.5M contract extension. With the departure of JVR, Hartnell knew he had the Flyers over a barrel as he was the only true LW with any sort of talent or promise on the roster. Nevermind that his career year in 2012 was largely due to Jagr and Giroux, an unsustainable shooting percentage, and top-PP time, Paul Holmgren was more than happy to fork over top-line money and term to an aging power forward who was best suited for the 2nd line. This wouldn’t come back to bite them until later, when Ron Hextall elected to move Hartnell for an inferior player in RJ Umberger because said inferior player had a slightly better contract.
April 19, 2013: The Philadelphia Flyers are eliminated from playoff contention.
The Flyers’ top 12 forwards in terms of average TOI in 2013 were Giroux, Read, Voracek, Briere, Couturier, Hartnell, Simmonds, Schenn, Talbot, Gagne, Knuble, and McGinn. The top 6 defensemen by this same measure were Coburn, Schenn, Timonen, Gustafsson, Meszaros, and Grossmann.
With proper roster management (and this is a little bit of guesswork because I assume they wouldn’t have traded for Gagne or signed Knuble/Fedotenko/Foster/Gervais if they had made proper moves), the Flyers could have rolled out the following lineup:
That assumes that the Flyers kept JVR and Bob and re-signed Carle and Jagr instead of chasing after Suter/Parise and locking up Grossmann. I see no way that team doesn’t make the playoffs. The forward group is an embarrassment of riches. Couturier’s 4th line could get the shutdown minutes, and the Briere line could get the sheltered scoring minutes while the other two lines (Schenn would not need to be sheltered with two strong possession players like JVR and Huge Dong) could thrive in the rest of the minutes. The defense is thin, especially with the injury issues that would hit them, but I think Brandon Manning or Andreas Lilja would be capable of handling the Bourdon minutes. You can sign Bruno Gervais again if you really want depth. And they would have been able to trade for a defenseman down the stretch to solidify their depth if they deemed it necessary. The package St. Louis gave up for Jay Bouwmeester (1st and 4th round picks, 2 mediocre prospects), for example could have been paid by the Flyers instead had they been in playoff contention. It likely would not have taken Couturier or Schenn to land Bouwmeester based on what the Blues paid, and he would have been a perfect fit in the Flyers’ top-4. But that’s just semantics. The point is that Paul Holmgren’s mismanagement didn’t put the Flyers in any sort of position to make moves at the deadline because they weren’t even contenders, a year after being a top-10 team in the conference despite their serious youth.
June 12, 2013: Flyers trade a 2014 4th round pick to the Islanders for the rights to Mark Streit. They recognized the need for a puck-moving, offensive defenseman on their blueline. That’s all well and good, except they had a better, younger, and probably cheaper one in Matt Carle a year earlier.
June 19, 2013: Flyers buy out the remaining two years of Daniel Briere’s contract. After a disappointing sophomore season from Brayden Schenn (which probably wouldn’t have happened had the Flyers kept Jagr and van Riemsdyk, who probably would have stayed had the Flyers not spent their summer trying to replace Chris Pronger), the team felt it now had a hole at 2C. They’ll fill it later.
June 21, 2013: Flyers sign Streit to a 4 year, $21M contract. Streit ended up getting only $0.25M less per season than Carle got from Tampa Bay (and he likely would have taken less to stay in Philadelphia, remember) despite being 8 years older and not as good of a player. Classic Paul Holmgren.
June 25, 2013: The Flyers buy out the remaining 7 years on Ilya Bryzgalov’s contract. Rather than handing the starting goaltending job to a Vezina-caliber goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky (who would have been making somewhere around $2.5-$3.5M per season after his contract expired and made him an RFA), they went to a 1A/1B situation in Steve Mason and Ray Emery that was about league-average last year.
July 2, 2013: The Flyers make their big splash of the offseason, surprisingly winning the Vincent Lecavalier sweepstakes and signing him to a 5 year, $22.5M contract. This move has had innumerable negative consequences. Lecavalier was a possession anchor for just about every one of his teammates, and playing him with Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds stunted Schenn’s growth even more than Daniel Briere did in 2013 while also limiting Simmer’s effectiveness away from the power play. This albatross of a contract would go on to limit the Flyers’ lineup flexibility both in the 2013-2014 season (playing Lecavalier at his off-wing didn’t help him or the team, and playing him on the 4th line is an incredible waste of resources) and in the 2014 offseason, as his contract was untradeable and prevented the Flyers from making any improvements this offseason. With a competent GM, the Flyers never sign Lecavalier and realize that Schenn is their 2C of the future.
March 4, 2014: The Flyers trade a 2015 2nd round pick and 2014 3rd round pick to the Islanders for Andrew MacDonald, who was terrible at hockey for the Islanders and continued to be terrible at hockey for the Flyers after the trade. He makes his teammates worse, and doesn’t do any particular thing well. Yes, he’s a shot-blocking enthusiast but that’s only because he never has the puck. He cedes the offensive blueline to any opposing player who shows even remote interest in it, and he seemingly skates backwards in his own zone until there’s no more room to do so. His CF% Rel was an abysmal -8.1%, 12th-worst in the league and worst among all defensemen. Andrew MacDonald is fucking awful at hockey, and the Flyers gave up two legitimate assets to acquire him. This was an extremely poor idea by Paul Holmgren.
I couldn’t find a specific date to put the Flyers’ handling of Erik Gustafsson under and in fact debated about whether it was more Holmgren’s fault or Craig Berube’s, but the fact remains that without the ill-informed acquisitions of Grossmann in 2012 and MacDonald in 2014, the Flyers would have absolutely made one of their only promising young puck-movers an NHL regular and wouldn’t have lost him for nothing to the KHL instead.
April 15, 2014: And then, sandwiched between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason, Paul Holmgren made his last meaningful move as the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers. And oh, what a move it was. He locked up MacDonald to an incomprehensible six-year, $30M contract extension after 26 games (including the postseason) in Philadelphia with 1 goal and 6 points to his name. This contract extension was the culmination of so many mistakes made by Holmgren after Chris Pronger’s career ended, particularly with regards to talent evaluation and resource allocation on defense. The Flyers gave up three 2nd round picks, two 3rd round picks, and a fourth round pick for the trio of Grossmann, Kubina, and MacDonald, while doubling down on the Grossmann/MacDonald mistakes by committing a combined $44.5M over 10 years to the two third-pairing (at best) defensemen. Holmgren (as was routine for him) completely and totally misjudged the market one last time, in this case giving MacDonald a fiscally irresponsible contract before seeing far better players such as Christian Ehrhoff, Ron Hainsey, and Matt Niskanen sign for less or comparable contracts. No, Bill Meltzer (he wasn’t the only one), this wasn’t Andrew MacDonald’s market value. No one would have given him this contract on the open market, and if MacDonald and his agent found any team idiotic enough to do so the Flyers should have shaken his hand, thanked him for his time in Philadelphia, and let him leave. But Paul Holmgren didn’t handle the situation correctly and the team is much worse off for it. Then again, you can say that about pretty much every move the Flyers made under Paul Holmgren after Chris Pronger was injured.
Mercifully, Homer’s reign of terror is over and Ron Hextall will hopefully provided a much-needed change in philosophies at the team’s helm. However, with the rotting, rancid ingredients Holmgren has left Hextall, it’s going to be tough for Hextall to make anything of this mess for a couple more years at the earliest. Until then, we’re left to wonder about what could have been.
TL;DR: Fuck Paul Holmgren, forever and always.