Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

While us penguins continue to wilt in the usual Northeastern Summer heat, pining for the days when a cool iceberg awaits our collectively scorched behinds, thoughts about the upcoming (and too far off) season still seep their way into our Sun-addled brains.

This is the fourth in a five-part series which intends to examine the ways the Flyers front office, though publicly professing to want to win the Cup by any means necessary, just ends up conducting business as usual year in and year out.

Once upon a time, Philly scribes new to this game of hockey spun wonderful tales of general manager Keith Allen adding pieces to his budding empire without giving up much in return, whether it be in body or in draft picks.

They called him “Keith the Thief” for his pillaging of lesser clubs to procure the services of Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, the Number One pick in the 1975 draft less than a month removed from their second Stanley Cup title, Bob Dailey, Terry Crisp, et al. Fans were left to marvel at the acumen of a real old-fashioned hockey mind in the front office, one which was short on education but long on Canadian common sense and business savvy as far as exploiting the weaknesses of fellow GMs.

But this is no longer the NHL of the 1970s. It’s 2011. The art of the deal still does include the art of the steal, but better minds that have taken a seat in the general manager’s chair league-wide have been able to provide more stability than what we’ve seen with the Flyers in recent times.

Out of 30 NHL GM’s at the end of this season, 16 of them have at least attained a bachelor’s degree from a college or university in North America. The remaining 14 — of which current Flyers GM Paul Holmgren is one — either did not attend college, or did attend but did not finish. All of those men followed the path from former player to front-office personnel the old-fashioned way.

Among the 16 who have attained some sort of degree, six have claimed Stanley Cup titles in the last 10 years (Peter Chiarelli w/Boston; Lou Lamoriello w/New Jersey; Ray Shero w/Pittsburgh; Brian Burke of Toronto w/Anaheim; Jay Feaster of Calgary w/Tampa Bay; Stan Bowman w/Chicago). A seventh, Mike Gillis of Vancouver, made a Cup Finals appearance this past June.

Of the 14 who took the more traditional route, only three (Carolina’s Jim Rutherford, New York’s Glen Sather and Detroit’s Ken Holland) have won at least one title…with Sather’s five all coming before 1990 with Edmonton.

In all of Philadelphia hockey history, there have been only six men to hold the position of general manager. Bud Poile, Allen, Bob McCammon, Bob Clarke, Russ Farwell and Holmgren. Only two (Clarke and Holmgren) have been in control since 1994. That is a run unequaled by all other franchises with the exception of Hartford/Carolina, of which Rutherford has held the reins since 1994, and Lamoriello’s reign with Jersey since 1987.

The major differences? The Devils have won three Cups in four tries, Carolina has won once of two journeys, and the Flyers are empty in two attempts. Also, both men also had the foresight to endure a couple down seasons in order to build stronger teams down the line.

I’ve lost track of how many times both Clarke and Holmgren put on their public stone face to the media and spoke about how they either accepted or denied a deal based on “what was the best move for our organ-eye-zation.”

Go back to the media guide and look at their major deals, the ones which impacted the franchise in the most positive ways: they all came at times when the club faced some kind of misfortune or was desperate to reverse their course during a season and they were essentially forced to give in and actually give up something to get something in return.

The Carter and Richards deals, where two players were sent away and we magically received five in return, is the most recent example. But those were  markedly different in that major cracks appeared in the poker face of the team spokesperson. Homer didn’t even try to fool the fans and media with the usual boring script. It was both refreshing and disturbing, the emotional deviance from the norm.

But a significant majority of transactions that were struck seemed to carry the air of the club having gotten away with something — even though they mostly amounted to nothing more than depth moves with little impact on the overall chemistry.

And those that were struck down were always reported with the air that nobody in the GM chair of this great franchise was going to be so stupid as to give in to outrageous demands — even as those “outrageous demands” were sometimes later revealed to be fair value.

Now that the salary cap is in play, and that deals made by Holmgren four years ago continue to have a negative repercussions on the yearly financial structure of the roster, that GM chair — which reclines on creaky hinges — is in danger of being left in the dust by new leather-bound jet-powered models.

So, why can’t the franchise wise up, literally, and put some more people in front office positions with a little more business sense and intelligence, and rely less on the old ways?

A big part of the equation is the club’s unwavering loyalty to players who decide to remain in the fold after their playing days are over, and work their way back up into important management roles with the team. John Paddock, Bill Barber, Bill Clement, Craig Berube, John Stevens, Riley Cote and Clarke/Holmgren are all prime examples — all of whom were schooled in the Rink of Hard Knocks.

The perception is that this loyalty and ability to work in concert with the franchise philosophy will be rewarded with prime spots of influence, but where exactly has it steered the on-ice product?

Dave Poulin is arguably the second greatest captain in Flyers history. He played here from 1983-90, eventually finishing his career in 1995. He then went on to coach at his alma mater of Notre Dame for 10 years and a couple years ago after a break from the sport, became the assistant GM of the Maple Leafs.

I’m sorry, but old No. 20′s talents are being wasted even as he’s professing to be fulfilling a lifelong dream to work with his favorite childhood team. Brian Burke won’t give up the ship that easily, and it’s most likely that Poulin is serving his apprenticeship in Toronto so that he can move on and be boss somewhere else.

That somewhere else could be — and should be — in Philadelphia.

With a bachelor’s degree, and hard-core experience in the stockbroking world both in college and before he took the Leafs post, Poulin is eminently qualified to sit in a position of responsibility. As team captain from 1984-90, he repeatedly put his body on the line, played through pain, and proved himself a capable leader both on and off the ice during a proud period in team lore.

But it raises suspicion to find out that he has never been seriously considered for a spot in the Flyers organization. Instead, it’s Ron Hextall who became a scout and moved up and got farmed out to Los Angeles to learn the trade with the expectation he could be groomed for the top job here at some point.

Hexy may possess the Flyer spirit — however you want to quanitfy that — but Poulin has the bona fides. He’s a confident, erudite presence with the media and could manage the salary cap better than most of the current front office, including Peter Luukko.

But the insistence on the favored sons leading the way continues to paralyze any real growth for the Philadelphia Flyers. So does the expectation that the only right way is to commit yourself solely to the club’s ancient business recipe  and respect for its entrenched hierarchy, ideals which have now become musty and outdated.

Given the success of the new generation of educated men at the controls, why  argue that street smarts are better than book smarts? After 36 years without a championship, which option would you choose — work hard or work smart?