To answer this question, we must first ask another one: What benefits are there to trading for the rights of a pending unrestricted free agent?
Ideally, negotiating rights will allow you work out a reasonable deal before a player hits free agency. If this is the intent of a general manager, then he had better be sure that the player is willing to take a discount to sign now in lieu of testing the market. Also, he should be sure that the player wants to play in that city.
In the case of Ilya Bryzgalov, his actions suggest that he wants to hit free agency. He switched agents, said he wanted to be paid like one of the top players in the league, and threw out the idle threat of leaving the NHL for the KHL if he needed to do so.
After being traded to the Flyers, Bryzgalov said that Philadelphia was a great city but his interest in playing here amounted to little more than a few empty gestures.
“I am pleased the Flyers thought enough of me to make the trade with the Coyotes,” he said.
Aww, isn’t that flattering? Wait, no! He let us down easily and we were too busy trying to figure out how to dump Jeff Carter to realize it.
If salary is not the primary concern of a GM, he might trade for exclusive negotiating rights to beat out the competition for a highly sought-after player. It’s an understandable move, especially when a GM is desperate to rebuild a team and has assets to burn.
When Paul Holmgren acquired Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell, he may not have signed them to cap-friendly deals but he needed to make some big moves and this one made sense. At the time, the Flyers had plenty of draft picks and prospects and giving Nashville their own draft pick back did not seem like a big deal.
However, this is not the case with Bryzgalov and Philadelphia. The Flyers do not have a surplus of draft picks and each loss will only sting that much more in the near future.
Making this trade also put the ball in Ilya’s court. The pressure is now on Holmgren to sign the goalie before the ticking clock expires and it turns out that he failed to seal the deal again and gave up something for nothing.
Prior to acquiring the rights of Dan Hamhuis, it was rumored that he wanted to play in British Columbia, where he was born. Ultimately, that’s what he ended up doing. Accustomed to being well-paid, neither he nor Marty Turco nor Nabokov were interested in doing the Flyers any favors, just because Philadelphia traded for their rights or courted them when no other clubs showed much interest.
Bryzgalov may be near the top of his free-agent class but it is a buyer’s market for goalies. There are not many teams poised to shop for free-agent goaltenders, especially not expensive — dare I say elite? — starters. With little effort, the Flyers could have conceivably landed Tomas Vokoun or Bryzgalov by simply being patient and waiting.
When the Flyers traded for Nabokov’s rights last June, they were unable to sign him and he left for the KHL. It was stated that Nabokov overvalued himself. It could also be argued that Holmgren was too impatient. If he simply waited and let the situation play itself out, he could have swooped in at the last moment and played the role of savior, offering Nabby a last minute deal to save him from exile back to his homeland.
Will the Bryzgalov situation echo that of Nabokov?
Admittedly, reading the news that the Flyers acquired the rights to the former Phoenix cage guardian was a bit like watching the Berlin Wall come down.
It was a monumental event, whose details spread like wildfire because it is something Flyer fans have wanted for years but never thought they would actually see. At this point, though, there’s no way to tell if there really is a cause for celebrating. The only certainty is that Holmgren needs to do a better job of evaluating these types of situations before acting out of impulse in the future.
He may do a better job without the twin albatrosses of Ed Snider’s public forum for displeasure and whatever internal pressure Comcast bears in order to square away its bottom line — but short of that, some soul searching and willingness to alter his business plan can only do him some good going forward.
The next 17 days will certainly be an indicator of whether the business of trying to win now every off-season can morph into that elusive sure thing.