Angry Flyers fans searching for reasons why their once-powerful club is off to a pathetic (1-7) start this season need only look at the moves made by GM Paul Holmgren since 2010.
The Flyers lineup which battled its way to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final contained Chris Pronger, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and James van Riemsdyk, who were considered important components in the Flyers future.
They had a promising goalie in 2010-11 in Sergei Bobrovsky, but then-head coach Peter Laviolette supposedly lost confidence in “Bob” following his shaky debut in the 2011 playoffs.
That lack of faith in Bobrovsky reportedly forced Holmgren (believed spurred on by demanding owner Ed Snider) to acquire the rights to Ilya Bryzgalov and sign him to a nine year, $51 million deal.
Bobrovsky was relegated to backup duty, then shipped off to Columbus in 2012 for three draft picks. With the Blue Jackets, “Bob” went on to win the Vezina Trophy last season, and despite sporting a losing record so far this month with the Jackets, posted decent early numbers (2.49 GAA. .921 SP).
It’s easy to pin Bobrovsky’s departure upon Laviolette, but the GM is also supposed to be a good judge of talent. He could’ve over-ruled Laviolette and preached patience with Bobrovsky for another season, perhaps instead bringing in a seasoned backup to act as his mentor.
Bryzgalov, of course, flopped in Philadelphia, in part because, for the first time in his NHL career, he was playing in one of the league’s most demanding markets. At the time of his signing, skeptics questioned if the Flyers were the right fit for the easy-going Bryzgalov, who’d never encountered anything like the Philadelphia sports market before. Those concerns proved justified.
The Bryzgalov fiasco was bad enough, but it was Holmgren’s trading away Richards, Carter and van Riemsdyk which arguably hastened the Flyers decline.
Though there were reports of Richards and Carter enjoying the Philly nightlife too much and clashing with Laviolette, it was still shocking when Holmgren traded them, especially with both under long-term contracts and touted for years as the franchise’s foundation players.
Richards and Carter would reunite with the LA Kings, helping them win a Stanley Cup in 2012 and ensuring the Kings will be Cup contenders for some time to come.
The Flyers did get good returns for those two, but the success Richards and Carter are enjoying in California hasn’t been lost on Flyers fans.
It was also rumored Richards and Carter were dealt because they clashed with Chris Pronger, considered by many observers the de facto Flyers captain even though Richards wore that honor. Surely, though, any issues between Pronger and Richards could’ve been overcome with management or coaching intervention?
No one could have foreseen Pronger suffering a career-ending concussion early in the 2011-12 season, which was a devastating blow to their blueline and their leadership. Still, the Flyers without Pronger easily clinched a playoff berth that season, finishing fifth overall in the Eastern Conference with 102 points, then went on to upset the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round.
Trading van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn in June 2012 was considered a worthwhile move, since the Flyers had promising young forwards in Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds (who were part of the returns for Carter and Richards), plus Claude Giroux had emerged as the club’s new offensive leader. Having lost Matt Carle to free agency, it made sense at the time to part with a scorer for a puck-moving defenseman who played with a physical edge.
Holmgren did try to land a replacement for Pronger during the summer of 2012 with unsuccessful attempts to sign Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. Other efforts via trade (he reportedly inquired about P.K. Subban during his contract standoff with the Canadiens) came to naught.
Giroux was by this point among the best players in the league, and the younger players gave the impression of bigger and better things to come. Despite the absence of Pronger and Bryzgalov’s shaky goaltending, the Flyers were still considered a playoff contender entering last season.
Last season’s lockout-shortened schedule was considered the main reason behind the Flyers inability to make the playoffs, but other troubling signs emerged. Bryzgalov’s play improved, but that was off-set by the Flyers lousy defensive play. Couturier and the Schenns struggled, especially when popular forward Scott Hartnell missed 16 games to injury.
Holmgren moved this past summer to address his need for an experienced puck-moving defenseman by signing ageing Mark Streit, overpaying the 35-year-old with a four-year, $21 million deal. He also shed Bryzgalov and entered this season with the tandem of Steve Mason and Ray Emery.
Mason has played well so far this season, but as with Bryzgalov last season, the Flyers lousy defense and their struggling offense are off-setting his performance.
The Flyers defensive struggles are one thing, but it’s their stunning inability to score in their opening eight games that’s surprised the hockey world. Giroux, their franchise player, was held goalless. Simmonds and Voracek are struggling, as are Couturier and Matt Read. Only Brayden Schenn is having a good start. With the Flyers offense struggling, trading away van Riemsdyk to Toronto in 2012 is being viewed in a different light.
Holmgren’s many moves since 2010 appear to have upset team chemistry, pushed youngsters into roles they’re unprepared for, damaged the team’s leadership while failing to address the roster’s weaknesses.
Hindsight is 20-20 and it’s easy to question bad decisions well after the fact. One can certainly quibble over the value of each move.
A number of fans, bloggers and pundits, however, openly questioned the Bryzgalov signing, the Carter and Richards trades, the Bobrovsky trade (or at least, the return) and the Streit signing when they took place.
The bottom line is the Flyers are a vastly different team than they were only two-three seasons ago.
It’s a long season, of course, and the Flyers have plenty of time to overcome this lousy start, but there are reports Holmgren is under pressure now to make a move to improve their fortunes before they fall so far back in the standings they’ll never overcome it. Some in the Philly media suggest his job could depend upon it.
If so, Holmgren must regain the savvy he showed prior to 2010, when his shrewd moves rebuilt the Flyers from a non-playoff club into a surprise Cup contender.
The Flyers are a mess of Holmgren’s making. It remains to be seen if he can clean it up, or if someone else gets that job.