By Stu Hackel
The Flyers moved to drastically change the face of their team on Thursday by trading two of their core players, captain Mike Richards and winger/center Jeff Carter in separate deals. By doing so, they cleared cap space to sign goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to a fat, long-term contract. In the process, they dealt the Blue Jackets a center in Carter who will finally give Columbus a strong linemate for Rick Nash. And the Kings get a leader and experienced center in Richards who can anchor a second line behind Anze Kopitar and give LA the depth in the middle to challenge some of their more successful Western Conference rivals, like the Canucks who have Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler as their top two centers.
Here are the deals: First, Philly sent Carter -- who has scored 36, 33 and 46 goals in his last three seasons -- to Columbus in exchange for 21-year-old Jakub Voracek, a highly-skilled (although not especially physical) right wing, plus their first round (8th overall) and third round draft picks.
Carter has 11-years remaining on a contract that freed up over $5.272 million for the Flyers, who acquired the rights to the 31-year-old Bryzgalov two weeks ago from the Coyotes in hopes of solving their decades-long problem in goal.
For the Blue Jackets, who had the cap room for Carter, it's a chance to get someone to partner with Nash, their captain and top scorer who has lacked an impact center for his entire eight-year career in Columbus. Carter was a center prior to joining the Flyers, but often played right wing on a line with Richards. He prefers center, however, and this could be exactly what Nash and the Blue Jackets need to energize their team and fan base.
The eighth overall pick in this year's draft could give the Flyers a very good NHL prospect depending on who is picked prior to them drafting in that spot.
Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson said in a statement his team was "very pleased and excited to acquire Jeff Carter. Jeff is a proven number one center in the National Hockey League and we look forward to him having many productive seasons as a Blue Jacket."
In their other trade, the Flyers dispatched Richards, their captain and best all-around forward who, like Carter, was a former 2003 first-round pick and the face of the franchise in recent years, although he had to share the spotlight with Chris Pronger the last two seasons.
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren made these deals to improve the team, but he wasn't entirely happy doing it. "They’re both good kids who made long-term commitments to stay in Philadelphia—probably at a lower number. We think the world of both those young men," he said after pulling the trigger, and, according to SI.com's Sarah Kwak, he became emotional, discussing Richards and Carter with the media. "Those are two hard phone calls to make. Um… I think the world of both of them. And uh… That’s difficult. That’s the hard part of the job." He paused for a while, before adding, "That was tough, obviously."
He added later, " My conversation with Mike became very emotional."
While fans thought of Richards as the second coming of Bobby Clarke, he had not enjoyed a particularly good relationship with the local media, dating back two seasons to when after news reports implied some of the Flyers were heavy party boys. Those accusations seemed to be credible when Holmgren cited a lack of discipline off the ice among some of his younger players following the 2009 playoffs.
This spring, veteran local writer Tim Panaccio was openly critical of Richards, saying his relationship with coach Peter Laviolette has not been a good one and the two weren't speaking at the end of the season -- which the coach denied at the time and reiterated today -- and called Richards "moody and withdrawn." That prompted Richards to tweet, "Tim Panaccio thinks I'm moody and withdrawn with him. Maybe because he writes articles that are nowhere close to being true."
Clearly, this was not a situation that was going to end well, and it has now ended with Richards heading for a new start in Los Angeles.
But for Holmgren it was -- from a purely hockey standpoint -- more about having larger, more physical players up front. He was able to pry two very interesting players from Dean Lombardi, his Kings counterpart, in rugged winger Wayne Simmonds and highly-sought-after rookie center Brayden Schenn. Simmonds has not been a 20-goal scorer, but he is a hard-working, physical winger who chips in offensively and plays a very good two-way game. He is not reluctant to mix it up. He could become a Philly favorite.
Schenn, picked fifth overall by the Kings two years ago, has the sort of leadership skills that could replace Richards', although Pronger will likely become the unchallenged leader of this club now. (Pronger and Richards were also rumored not to be especially close at times, something both denied.) But just as important is Schenn's fiery, competitive demeanor and playmaking skills as a center. Holmgren called Schenn "a diamond in the rough." His brief early-season appearance in the Kings' lineup last season before he was returned to junior occasioned lots of talk that teams were contacting L.A. to trade for him, but Lombardi always refused. The chance to get Richards, a very similar type of player who is more of a finished product, changed Lombardi's mind.
“We felt at this stage of the franchise it was time to make a significant move for an impact player," Lombardi said in a statement. "Mike Richards is not only one of the top players in the league, he’s also universally recognized as one of the finer leaders in the game and one of its elite competitors. Additionally, given that he’s only 26-years-old and he’s on a long-term contract, he fits our plan now and for the long-term future.”
The Flyers top three centers are now Claude Giroux, Danny Briere and Schenn, so they won't have damaged themselves up front as long as Schenn, who is a responsible defensive player, develops as most talent evaluators believe he will.
"We’re a little bit overloaded in the middle of the ice with Jeff and Mike and Claude and Danny Briere," Holmgren said. "So, you take a step back and try to add some size on the wing and still maintain our good presence down the middle....We’re a different team today—much different—when you move those two guys, but I like our team."
Richards carries a $5.75 million cap hit on a contract that goes through 2019-2020.
After all this, Philly then signed Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million deal, and both the team and its fans have to hope that he is -- finally -- the answer to their chronic need for a top goaltender. He was the cornerstone of the Coyotes revival in the Western Conference after six seasons of missing the playoffs. He was not able to backstop Phoenix past the first round in either year, however, and was not strong this spring in the Coyotes' four-game defeat at the hands of the Red Wings, with a save percentage of only .879
Realizing that his value had leaped, Bryzgalov reportedly changed agents in recent days, hiring Ritch Winter -- one of hockey's most aggressive -- to negotiate his deal with Philadelphia after his rights had been moved by Phoenix. He made $4.25 million last season and, according to CapGeek.com, will pull down a whopping $10 million this year, although his contract is supposedly heavily front-loaded and dwindles down to $1.25 million in the final year. It means an annual cap hit of $5,666,667 for the Flyers.
When it seemed as if the Coyotes might be moving to Winnipeg in the spring, pending unrestricted free agent Bryzgalov made headlines by saying he had no desire to move with them and would not re-sign. The move didn't take place, of course, but it likely didn't endear him to Phoenix GM Don Maloney. Today, he is a Flyer.