Those messages ranged from, “Good luck with that,” to “What a terrible choice” to the simple but poignant, “Bwahahahahaha.”
These were people jaded by the abysmal record that the Whalers posted during his tenure as Hartford’s coach and his brief stint as GM in the years that eventually led up to Hartford’s relocation to Carolina. (His DUI and stint at Betty Ford likely did not help matters either.)
Those days that began his time as Philadelphia’s GM were dark. After posting 101 points and finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference standings the previous season, the Flyers were en route to a 45 point drop-off that year and featured a questionable lineup filled with AHL-caliber talent and many washed-up NHLers.
I, for one, was worried. Could Homer clean up the mess or was he part of the problem? When he stepped down, Bobby Clarke admitted he was a lame duck and that Holmgren was already pulling some of the strings behind the curtain. I couldn’t say for sure if Holmgren was capable of handling the responsibilities of a GM and wondered just how many of the bad signings he made himself.
As it turned out, he was able to right the ship. In February, Homer quickly made his mark on the team with sweeping changes. He shipped out Peter Forsberg for the highly-touted defensive prospect Ryan Parent, former first-round pick Scottie Upshall, as well as first and third round draft picks. Next up, he robbed the Atlanta Thrashers by sending the playoff hopefuls Alexei Zhitnik, who had little left in the tank, for Braydon Coburn, who had fallen out of grace with the Thrashers. He rounded out the month by acquiring Lasse Kukkonen and goaltender Martin Biron, who was stuck behind Ryan Miller in Buffalo.
More changes came in the offseason, highlighted by acquisitions of the underrated Kimmo Timonen, the rough and tumble Scott Hartnell, highly-touted free agent Daniel Briere, promising winger Joffrey Lupul, well respected leader Jason Smith, and the effective fourth liner, Jim Dowd.
The moves paid off, including deadline acquisition, Vaclav Prospal. The Flyers shot back up to sixth in the conference, finishing the 2008 season with 95 points and a respectable postseason run to the Eastern Conference Finals, where the banged-up Flyers simply couldn’t compete with the emerging powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins.
By this point the Flyers had a core of solid players, a stocked cupboard of talented prospects, and bright future ahead. What the organization also possessed in spades was a willingness to trade away those prospects, unnecessarily give away draft picks, and a reluctance to adapt to the NHL’s new cap era.
This created an interesting dilemma for Holmgren, who was heralded as one of the league’s best general managers by the end of the 2008 season. How could he continually improve the Flyers while staying under the cap?
Holmgren adapted a unique and unusual system that required him to think outside of the box and take risks that other general managers might not be so willing to take.
The first part of this system was to circumvent the rules of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement by signing players to long-term deals in order to reduce the player’s cap hit. Many of these deals included some form of a no-trade or no- movement clause.
While fans balked that such deals were risky and that the clauses would hurt the team, Holmgren proved time after time that this would not be a problem. He traded underperforming winger Joffrey Lupul before his new contract extension kicked in. He moved core players like Jeff Carter and captain Mike Richards before the NTC’s of their respective deals took effect.
For the most part, Holmgren bent the rules and played a risky game that usually worked to his advantage. The most notable exception to this would be the contract extension given to Chris Pronger. The organization failed to realize that the aging defender’s new deal would kick in after he turned 35, which meant that his cap hit would count even if he retired.
The next part of “The How of Homer” was to trade for players with high ceilings who had yet to reach their potential. He could usually acquire these damaged goods at discounted prices. This phase of his plan worked about as often as it failed. Lupul quickly found chemistry on a line with Carter and Hartnell but his production eventually dropped off after returning from an injury caused by running into teammate Derian Hatcher.
Steve Eminger failed but he was flipped for Matt Carle who proved to be a reasonable success. Andrej Meszaros went from a terrible stint in Tampa Bay to being given the Barry Ashbee trophy by the Flyers last season. Ville Leino proved to be a perfect complement to Briere and Hartnell.
The risk with this method is that these “damaged goods” often lacked consistency, even if they played at a higher level on the Flyers. Players like Carle and Meszaros are prone to terrible defensive lapses and long stretches of terrible play, which counterbalances their effectiveness when they are on their game.
The third and final part of this plan was to compensate for the lack of draft picks by looking to sign un-drafted players and to raid the KHL for NHL expats. This, perhaps, is where Holmgren has been most successful.
Matt Read, the unknown player signed out of Bemidji State, was picked out of the blue by TSN’s Bob McKenzie to win the Calder Trophy. So far, he’s proven McKenzie to be prescient by posting 14 points in 17 games (3rd among rookies), playing in all positions, and giving 100 percent on a nightly basis. Defenseman Erik Gustafsson, who was signed out of Northern Michigan University, is listed as the Flyers third-best prospect by Hockey’s Future and would likely be a regular NHLer, if the Flyers hadn’t committed so much money to other defenders. Another recent signing, the goaltender Niko Hovinen, is proving to be a diamond in the rough as well.
The Flyers have had decent luck with players from the KHL as well. Prior to being injured, Ray Emery showed signs of being the best goalie in Philadelphia in years. Nikolay Zherdev, though he was riddled with personal and professional issues, proved that he could put the puck in the net with great ease. This season’s KHL defector, Jaromir Jagr, has been a perfect fit on the top line with Claude Giroux and is already doing his part to help Giroux stay near the top of the league in scoring this season.
Sometimes, Holmgren’s plans backfire.
He passed over drafting Tomas Hyka in favor of a goon but then invited the player to camp. When he stood out, the Flyers hoped to sign him, only to find out that they couldn’t and that he would reenter the draft next year. They gave up way too much for Kris Versteeg, who turned out to be a mere rental and is now dominating as a member of the Florida Panthers.
He lost valuable depth players like Ossi Vaananen, Glen Metropolit, and Randy Jones by failing to read the tea leaves and placing all of them on waivers. He also controversially shipped out the beloved homegrown talent Simon Gagne for pennies on the dollar.
Holmgren has also made boneheaded moves that make fans and cap geeks bang their heads repeatedly against the wall — and nowhere has that been brought into sharper focus by this year’s stocking of contracts beyond the mandated limit of 50, leading to last-second shuffling of players due to injury and cap issues like that which preceded Monday’s game.
He’s made inexplicably bad decisions that hurt the team. At times, it appears that he has no plan and reacts impulsively. Yet, somehow, the picture becomes clearer down the road and many of his misgivings seem to fade away when his bigger gambles payoff. Such is the frustrating nature of anyone who sees the forest but is constantly surprised by running into trees.
Paul Holmgren has found ways to work within the system by not working within the system at all. He’s an innovator by creating a virtual anti-philosophy regarding the way that a GM can build a winning team while constantly flirting with disaster.
Sometimes it backfires but, all things considered, he’s done an impressive job at continually rebuilding a competitive team that appears to have its back against the wall without any chance of getting out alive and, for that, he deserves credit.