MINNEAPOLIS – A lot of teams and a lot of GMs talk boldly about making their teams better. They talk about doing what it takes to build a winner. They walk the walk, but when it comes to actually making bold moves, they don’t have the cajones to swallow hard and make the difficult decisions.
Do not include Paul Holmgren in that group. He and the Flyers have never, ever been shy about making earth-shattering moves.
“I’ll tell you I was swallowing pretty hard about 3 o’clock this morning,” Holmgren said.
He should have been. Five years ago, 29 other teams were casting an envious eye to the Flyers and the fact they were set for the future with a couple of 2003 draft larcenies in the form of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. But Holmgren implemented the mother of all course corrections when he dealt both of them away Thursday, in essence to make room for the nine-year, $51 million deal he gave to Ilya Bryzgalov, whom the Flyers view as their long-awaited goaltending savior.
“When we acquired the negotiating rights to Ilya, it kind of set a lot of wheels in motion in terms of how teams looked at us and a lot of options,” Holmgren said. “I know when you’re moving players of the caliber of Mike and Jeff, they’re huge. So this is a huge day for the Flyers. I liked our team over the past few years and today after doing these deals, I like our team still. I just think we’re a little different.”
If you’re looking for a mid-year candidate for understatement of the year, keep that one on file. Even with the acquisition of young stud Brayden Schenn – the top player outside the NHL according to THN’s Future Watch – they’re weaker at center, but stronger and bigger on the wings. There’s little doubt the emergence of Claude Giroux and the play of James van Riemsdyk during the playoffs made the prospect of changing the complexion of their team much more palatable for the Flyers.
But, goodness, this is a risky one. The Flyers are banking on the possibility that Bryzgalov will be the answer to their playoff goaltending woes. So, they won’t be watching tapes of the Phoenix Coyotes first round series against Detroit. They’ve invested an enormous amount in Bryzgalov, who carries a $5.66 million cap hit for the next nine years. In reality, however, the contract is structured to basically ensure Bryzgalov will only play seven of those years. Bryzgalov basically wanted $7 million a year for seven years and with a contract that pays $10 million in salary in the first year and a paltry $1.25 million in 2019-20, he’ll average $6.8 million in the first seven years of the deal, then will almost certainly retire.
“We’ve tried over the last few years, a different approach, where we spent a lot of our money on other positions and we, as an organization, have made a decision to go in another direction,” Holmgren said. “And Ilya is the guy.”
Will it result in a Stanley Cup parade down Broad Street in the next couple of years? There’s no guarantee, but it’s clear the Flyers were convinced there wasn’t going to ever be one without a top-level goalie, even with Carter and Richards in the lineup. There was also the notion that the Flyers required a culture change and that despite their talent and success, Richards and Carter were not good enough leaders. Chris Pronger, the early candidate to take over the captaincy, essentially called out Richards earlier this season and tales of discord in the Flyers dressing room were very loud indeed.
“That’s been blown out of proportion,” Holmgren said. “Mike and Jeff are both solid citizens, along with being great players. I think we made two good hockey trades today.”
It’s interesting how Holmgren and the Flyers continue to sign these long-term, big-money deals that seem to handcuff them, then find willing dance partners when they need to get rid of them. If the Flyers had to get rid of Richards and Carter, they did very, very well. A team that was bereft of top prospects now has a young gem in Schenn and the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft.
The Kings, meanwhile, also made out very well. Richards is a terrific two-way player in his own right, but watch for Anze Kopitar to become a much better offensive player with Richards there to take care of the heavy lifting when it comes to defensive responsibilities.
“You go to Vancouver and you have (Henrik) Sedin and (Ryan) Kesler, you go into Detroit and you have (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg, you go to San Jose and you have (Joe) Thornton, (Joe) Pavelski and (Logan) Couture,” Lombardi said. “Those models of strength down the middle, that still holds. This allows your coach to get the matchups he wants.”
The Blue Jackets might be the forgotten team in all of this, but if Carter returns to good health and can return to his 40-goal form, Columbus will also have come out of this looking much better than it did yesterday.
For Richards, however, this has to represent something of a bitter end to his tenure in Philadelphia. There is little doubt he was under intense pressure in Philly and will almost certainly welcome the prospect of playing in a market where the spotlight isn’t near as hot or blinding. But Richards knew what he was getting into when he signed his current deal, which still has nine years remaining.
“I probably wouldn’t have signed that deal if I knew I was going to be traded,” Richards said of the 12-year, $69 million deal he signed in 2008. “When I signed that contract, I wanted to stay in Philadelphia for the rest of my career and that’s what I envisioned until this afternoon at 3 o’clock when I got the call.”
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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