The Philadelphia Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup final in 2010. And in the years since, general manager Paul Holmgren has pulled the trigger on a long list of player moves in hopes of hitting the winning combination.
However, all Holmgren succeeded in doing was shooting himself in the foot, as the Flyers slid further down the NHL standings every year. They finished second in the Eastern Conference in 2010-11, but were out in the second round of the playoffs, as they were in 2011-12, after finishing fifth. In 2013, they missed the postseason entirely.
Along the way, Holmgren shed players such as Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (who won the 2012 Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings), James van Riemsdyk, Kris Versteeg and Daniel Brière.
The most famous fiasco was the signing of free-agent Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51-million (U.S.) contract that was supposed to end the Flyers’ decades-long struggle for decent goaltending. By the time that sorry experiment ended with a contract buyout in the summer, Holmgren had traded away Sergei Bobrovsky – a goalie the Flyers had developed themselves, who turned into the 2013 Vézina Trophy winner for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But as the Flyers prepare for this season with another spate of player moves, topped by the free-agent signing of veteran centre Vincent Lecavalier, don’t look for any players in the team’s dressing room to be rolling their eyes.
“The feeling is: at least we tried,” said centre Max Talbot, who moved across Pennsylvania to Philadelphia from the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011. “So yes, they make these moves. Mistakes happen, but at least they are trying.”
This time, the implication is, Holmgren got it right. Well, there are still a few too many questions about the Flyers, chiefly on defence and in goal, for such a definitive statement, but the GM does appear to be on the right track.
Lecavalier, 33, did not make the trip for Monday’s preseason game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but his new teammates say he fit in immediately. His best years may be behind him, but Lecavalier can still serve as a solid No. 2 centre.
The other important additions are veteran defenceman Mark Streit, 35, who will stabilize a young unit bedevilled by injuries last season, and goaltender Ray Emery. The latter will battle it out for the No. 1 job with Steve Mason, who lost his job with the Blue Jackets when the form that brought him the NHL rookie of the year award in 2009 disappeared.
“You know every season this team will do what it can to win,” Talbot said. “[Lecavalier] has been a great addition. He’s a leader, the captain of the [Tampa Bay] Lightning when they won the Stanley Cup [in 2004]. This will be a great situation for him.”
Outside of Mason, the biggest question mark for the Flyers is the defence. Since Chris Pronger was lost to post-concussion syndrome in November of 2011, the Flyers defence has been wobbly. Only Kimmo Timonen and Luke Schenn played close to a full season in the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule of 2013.
This season, the Flyers will need Schenn to prove sending van Riemsdyk to the Leafs for him was not a mistake. They will also need a step forward from youngster Erik Gustafsson and veteran Andrej Meszaros has to show he can still play despite serious back, Achilles tendon and shoulder injuries the last two years.
Up front, another group of youngsters is trying to fill the holes. Nothing has been written in stone by head coach Peter Laviolette, but Luke Schenn’s brother, Brayden, 22, is expected to get a long look as one of Lecavalier’s wingers. Sean Couturier, 20, taken eighth overall in the 2011 draft, earned more ice time as last season went along and should get the No. 3 centre’s job this season.
No matter what happens, though, neither Holmgren nor Laviolette will pay for it with their jobs – at least that’s what Flyers chairman Ed Snider told CSNPhilly.com recently.
“They’re not on the hot seat,” Snider said. “Not at all. I don’t think anybody can look at the job Paul Holmgren did in the off-season this year and not say it was outstanding. Every move a GM makes isn’t going to be perfect. They all make mistakes.
“As far as [Laviolette] is concerned, last year was an anomaly. He’s been a very good coach for us. A good coach in this league. We’re thrilled to have him.”