Paul Holmgren’s top-10 worst moves as General Manager

Paul Holmgren became the interim General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers on October 22, 2006. That interim title was removed only weeks later on November 11. Holmgren was able to take a team that finished last in the National Hockey League, and rebuild it to make a deep run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals the very next season.

Yes, some of Holmgren’s moves have been amazing, but he’s also a guy who has gotten this organization into some hot water with the salary cap and was forced to make deals that were head scratchers to say the least.

- Our own Nick D from last year’s Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s Poll Tournament

I started to write my own opening commentary on the topic but then I just realized, Nick’s words covered it quite well. After seeing the700level’s top-10 list, it brought me back to the poll tournament we had weighing Homer’s good moves and bad. Personally, I felt their list had a few glaring omissions such as the Simon Gagne trade which actually “won” our poll tournament on the negative side.

So with that, I decided to put together my own personal top-10 worst moves under Paul Holmgren. While I’ve had my fair share of disagreements with some of the moves he has made, as Nick stated, he’s had plenty of fantastic moves as well. In fact, I’ve actually felt Homer has been much better in recent years (although the current state of the team may beg to differ).

One thing I should make clear first and foremost, is that I am a stickler for details. If you can’t nail the little things at your respective job–in this case, General Manager– you’re failing in my book. So when you see a particular move in my list and think “really? That minor move is one of his worst?”, it’s because it probably had some oversight that I deem unforgivable.

Additionally, I view a general manager as an asset manager. That is their job. Much like a financial adviser takes your assets (money) and turns it into more assets (money); a GM should take his assets, in this case players, picks, prospects, and yes, money, and turn it into more (or better) players, picks, prospects, and money.

So let’s get started:

10. Signing Jody Shelley to a 3 year $3.3 million contract.

To borrow the words of Marc Siciliano during our Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s:

In the 09-10 season, Jody Shelley spent much of his last year with the Rangers just being Jody Shelley. Suddenly, with two games left to play – both against the Flyers – he decided to try and carry his team to the playoffs. The Result? Shelley scored his only two goals of the season (2 of the 4 goals the Rangers would muster in back to back losses), while accumulating just over 20% of his points and 1/6 of his shots.

The other result? A three-year, $3.3 contract from the team he performed so sporadically admirable against. The considerable raise for obvious unsustainable statistics was laughable enough – but coming from the cap strapped Flyers, their opponents – the Rangers included – must have been dancing in the streets.

Shelley has since gone on to alternate between healthy scratch and 4th liner with the Flyers, while making twice as much as his bottom-six peers. His locker room presence is apparently worth the cost to the team, but one wonders if the situation couldn’t have been avoided altogether if Jody Shelley had just been Jody Shelley for that fateful home and home in April of 2010.

9. Signing Andreas Lilja to a two year $1.475 million contract.

From my Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s writeup:

A lot of people might overlook the Andreas Lilja signing as being a poor move because it seems low impact. A sixth or seventh defenseman signs a two year $1.475 million contract. It seems pretty harmless.

The issue is that it qualifies as a 35+ contract, effectively locking you into your seventh defenseman for two years. Why does any team need to have their seventh defenseman locked up?

Here we are one year later and the Flyers face some very tough decisions with their blue line. It’s crowded. Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann, Andrej Meszaros, Luke Schenn, Bruno Gervais, Andreas Lilja, and Marc-Andre Bourdon are all vying for spots. Bourdon is no longer waiver exempt so he can’t be freely sent to the AHL. That’s eight guys. There is no need for Lilja, but barring a trade, he isn’t going anywhere.

It just shows a total lack of foresight. Geoff Detweiler of Broad Street Hockey wrote a fantastic piece on the move.

The Flyers must just love being locked into seventh defenseman. In addition to Lilja, they later signed Bruno Gervais to a two-year deal, and as we’ll see later, acquired Matt Walker who was on a three-year deal.

8. Signing Michael Leighton to a two year $3.1 million extension on the eve of free agency.

From my Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s writeup:

I was never a believer in Michael Leighton. I’ll get that out in the open right off the bat. However, after his exceptional run in 2010, I was perfectly okay with re-signing Leighton as long as we brought in some competition and said “let the best man win”. Unfortunately, my worst nightmare occurred and the Flyers intended to enter 2010-2011 with the same goaltending duo of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher (only a Leighton injury and a surprising camp from Sergei Bobrovsky changed that).

My issue with the Leighton extension however, is strictly related to timing. Paul Holmgren, like fellow Philadelphia General Manager, Ruben Amaro, suffers from “first to market” syndrome. He must always make the first move. It is as if he fears the market is ALWAYS rising, and there are never bargains. To be honest, it basically is always rising, but that does not mean there aren’t bargains. Anywho, he feels compelled to sign his targets early before a bad contract drives up the price. In theory, that makes sense, but that’s not always the case.

In this case, Homer didn’t even play the market. Not at all. He re-signed Michael Leighton to his two year $3.1 million contract on the eve of free agency. For the life of me, I cannot understand why he wouldn’t wait a handful of hours and see what else the market might dictate; be it with Leighton or another goaltender.

There were other options: Antti Niemi – 1 year 2 million, Marty Turco – 1 year 1.3 million, Evgeni Nabokov – ultimately went to the KHL, Chris Mason – 2 years 3.7 million, Dan Ellis – 2 years 3 million, Martin Biron – 2 years $1.75 million, Antero Niittymaki – 2 years 4 million.

My point is not that these players are necessarily any better, but simply that Homer’s impatience shined once again. We signed a career backup goaltender (at best), who caught lightning in a bottle, to an extension on the eve of free agency, without even trying to see what the market might dictate. He then went on to play one, yes, just one, regular season game over the life of that contract; and he spent most of his time in the AHL.

7. Trading for, and signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine year $51 million contract.

From Estebomb’s Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s writeup:

The Flyers have had goaltending problems for almost as long as I’ve been alive. It seems like the club’s eternal fate to suffer through subpar goaltending. After shuffling around 3 (!) goalies in the 2011 playoffs, Ed Snider had seen his fill. He had Paul Holmgren acquire the most highly touted goalie on the market, Ilya Bryzgalov.

Naturally, in the grand Flyers tradition, Bryzgalov has been a mixed bag at best. He benefited from a terrific defense in Phoenix with the added benefit of little to no media scrutiny. The system and pressure have been completely different in Philadelphia.

This isn’t even considering his monster contract, a 9 year, $51 million (a lovely $5.667 million per season cap hit) albatross. Bryz’s contact is a common suggestion for a possible amnesty and one that certainly cripples the team’s ability to sign future free agents. This isn’t even considering that Bryz is nicely described as “unstable”. Why you heff to be mad? Because Ilya Bryzgalov’s contract is awful.

We all know how this one ended, with the Flyers buying out Bryzgalov this past summer. Truthfully, I was excited when they traded for his rights. I feared the contract he would get, and it was worse than I thought. Pretty much beginning to end, this thing was a trainwreck.

6. Signing Chris Pronger to a seven year $34.55 million extension.

write-up courtesy of Geoff Detweiler of Broad Street Hockey during our Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s:

It’s probably true that the Flyers do not acquire Chris Pronger without first agreeing to extend him. After all, reports out of Anaheim prior to the trade said Pronger wanted an extension but the Ducks wouldn’t give it to him.

Maybe the Ducks knew it would have been a 35+ extension when the Flyers didn’t. In any event, the Flyers gave a 34-year old Pronger a 7-year extension that started when he was 35 years old worth just under $34.5 million. The last two years – when Pronger would be 41 and 42 years old – would only pay Pronger a combined $1.05 million, or NHL minimum wage. Maybe neither party expected Chris Pronger to be a Philadelphia Flyer at that point.

Maybe the Flyers knew only 2% of NHL players are 38 year olds who dress for 41 games, but they wanted to bet that Pronger could do it anyway. Maybe the Flyers knew only a handful of players in the 600-player NHL play 41 games at the age of 40 (In 2011-12, that list included Selanne, Lidstrom and O`Donnell), but they thought Pronger could do it.

Maybe, despite knowing that a physical player like Pronger, with 15 NHL seasons under his belt, has a limited amount of time left in the NHL, the Flyers felt he was an exception. Maybe the Flyers calculated that it was worth the risk to get 3 or 4 good years out of Pronger, hope he can play another 1 or 2 at a high level, and the remaining 2 or 3 years would just be a bonus.

Maybe the Flyers will be able to escape the Pronger contract with little damage, as they have so far. Maybe Pronger won’t still be on the Flyers salary cap in the spring of 2017. Maybe Pronger will fully recover from his concussions. Maybe the 2010 Eastern Conference title makes it all worth it.

Or maybe the Pronger contract was the worst move of Paul Holmgren’s tenure.

The interesting point Geoff makes there is in his second paragraph. The Flyers signed Pronger when he was 34 years old, but it didn’t take effect until he was 35. Did they think, then, that it wasn’t a 35-plus contract?

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they were well aware. Regardless, the Flyers are now stuck relying on LTIR because of it and if you weren’t aware LTIR is far from ideal.

5. Trading a 2008 1st round pick (Jon Carlson) to the Washington Capitals for Steve Eminger and a 2008 3rd round pick

From Nick D in Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s:

Not one of the best moves Holmgren has ever made. This didn’t benefit the Philadelphia Flyers whatsoever. Even if you factor in that they used Steve Eminger as a piece to bring in Matt Carle, Jon Carlson has shown that he’s going to be a top four defender for a long time in this league. Granted, the Flyers did have two first round picks in 2008 and selected Luca Sbisa at 19th overall, they had no reason to give up a first round pick for a mediocre defender. Considering how well the Flyers draft in the first round, and how poorly they draft in every other round, this was a tough one especially given that Eminger would play just 12 games before being packaged with Steve Downie to the Lightning for Matt Carle.

There’s not much more to add here. Trading a first round pick for a player that just wasn’t very good is a bad move. We can’t even give them the benefit of the doubt and say he was a good player who’s play declined. He just never was a very good player.

4. Waiving Andreas Nodl.

From my writeup in Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s:

My distaste for the waiving and subsequent claiming by Carolina of Andreas Nodl has little to do with hockey. Nodl was not an exceptional player. There were legitimate reasons for wanting to be rid of him. Frankly, Nodl was probably surpassed on the depth chart by better, younger, cheaper players. He could no longer be freely sent to the AHL. By being rid of him the Flyers could free up a contract spot, a little bit of cap space, and give Nodl an opportunity in another organization. That all makes perfect sense to me.

My problem is…”gauging interest”. Yes, “gauging interest”. Paul Holmgren stated that Nodl was waived so that they could “gauge interest” in him. Somebody please tell me how that makes any sense whatsoever?

What are the two potential outcomes here?

1)      If there is no interest, he is not claimed. You have learned there is no interest, and you still have the player.

2)      If there is interest, he will be claimed (who wouldn’t want a player they were interested in, for free?). You have learned there is interest, and you no longer have the player.

My number one requirement of a General Manager is to effectively manage their assets. Based on the information that Paul Holmgren gave us, the waiving of Nodl was the opposite of that.

What he should have said/done:

Let’s gauge interest: we made some calls, not much happened,we couldn’t work something out; so we decided to waive him. It opens up a contract spot, a little space, and it gives Nodl a chance somewhere.

What he DID say/do:

Let’s gauge interest: I’ll waive him.

3. Recalling Randy Jones on re-entry waivers.

From my writeup in Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s:

When the Flyers signed Randy Jones to a two year $5.5 million contract it was pretty apparent that it was a mistake. However, I’m not writing this with that contract extension in mind.

One year after the extension, just prior to the 2009-2010 season, the Flyers came to their senses and waived Jones, effectively burying him in the AHL so the Flyers could be rid of his $2.75 million cap hit. Rejoice! (To be honest, I didn’t think Jones was THAT terrible of a player. I did however, think it was a joke that he was consuming as much cap space as he was.)

Then, in October of that season the Flyers did the one thing that they shouldn’t have. They placed Jones on re-entry waivers for the purpose of trying to get him back to the NHL. He was promptly claimed by Flyers West—I mean the LA Kings—and the Flyers were stuck with $1.375 million in dead cap space. Rejoice!

Just to add a little more confusion into the mix, if memory serves me—and this seems to make me think I’m correct—this transpired after an injury to Simon Gagne. I’m not a master of logic but I don’t see how you get from “winger gets hurt” to “let’s risk dead cap space by recalling a defenseman”.

2. Trading Simon Gagne to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Matt Walker and a 2011 fourth-round pick.

From my writeup in Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s:

In July of 2010, the Flyers traded Simon Gagne for Matt Walker and a 4th round pick in the following year’s draft (2011). For kicks, I decided to look back at something I wrote when the trade happened.

From July 2010:

“We seriously couldn’t even execute a salary dump properly? So rather than having 5.25 in extremely valuable cap space expiring after this year OR available immediately (if it was dumped appropriately), we have 1.7 million tied up in a 7th D-man for the next 3 years….when we already had a 7th D-man.

We literally got worse than nothing because we took back a bad contract.”

I can’t say I feel any differently now than I did at the time.

In the salary cap world, especially when you mismanage the cap a fair amount, sometimes you will have to make decisions strictly because of the need for cap space. I had completely accepted the need for the Flyers to shed cap space so they could fix the defense. It’s a simple concept really; re-allocate assets from your strength (offense) to your weakness (defense). I had even accepted that Gagne was probably going to be the one to go. He had one year remaining on his contract, was older than the other options, and had some legitimate injury concerns.

However, as my quote from that summer indicated, Paul Holmgren couldn’t even execute that salary dump properly. It would have been better if he literally gave him away for nothing, because in that case, the Flyers would have seen the full cap relief of Gagne’s $5.25 million.  Homer ended up getting worse than nothing. He took back an albatross of a contract; a 7th defenseman who was making $1.7 million for the next three years. He managed to turn a sizable expiring contract, into useless waste for an extra two seasons.

The purpose of a salary dump, after all, is to…dump…salary. Not take back a worse contract, even if it is less. This wasn’t the bad contract for bad contract trade that you occasionally see in the NHL. This was a one-way bad contract trade. A bad contract that still haunts the Flyers, as Walker still has another year remaining on his contract, and will spend that year in the AHL yet again.

I leave you with these gems from Paul Holmgren about Matt Walker, and the simple statement that I miss the Simon Gagne we all loved in Orange and Black.

“He’s another defenseman that can really help us over the long hall.”

“He’s a good compliment to the guys we have, and can move the puck, and carry the puck, and provide offense.”

Matt Walker, he of the career high 14 points, and a 5 pt season in the year before the trade.

1. Trading Scottie Upshall and a 2011 2nd round pick to Phoenix for Daniel Carcillo.

From my writeup in Homer’s Do’s and Doh’s:

On March 4, 2009 the Flyers traded Scottie Upshall and a 2nd round pick to the Phoenix Coyotes for Dan Carcillo. The trade was, quite frankly, a move for cap space. It was the culmination of a complete lack of foresight with regards to the salary cap, and it should have never gotten to the point where it was necessary.

Early in 2008-2009, the Flyers had a rash of injuries to their defenseman. With several players on LTIR (I touch on this in my CBA 101 on LTIR) they went ahead and acquired Andrew Alberts and Matt Carle in separate deals. When the players on LTIR returned, it led to a string of maneuvers to stay cap compliant.

They waived Ossi Vaananen and Glen Metropolit who were both claimed.

They had to repeatedly send Claude Giroux back to the AHL, even though he clearly belonged in the NHL at this point. He was, I believe, the only waiver exempt player that made enough money to allow them to recall defenseman on the several occasions they needed another D.

Ultimately, they made the Upshall trade because they needed the ~$300k in cap space so desperately that they not only gave up the superior player, but had to throw in the 2nd round pick as well.

If that wasn’t bad enough, later still, the Flyers were signing guys off the street (David Sloane and Jamie Fritsch) to ATO’s because they still did not have the cap space to recall players.

The Scottie Upshall trade epitomizes Paul Holmgren’s “make one move, then two others to fix it” mentality that, in my opinion, he only corrected in the past two or so years.

This one takes the cake for me because it is basically the culmination of a number of smaller mishaps: the mismanaging of LTIR, the waiving (and subsequent loss) of two players, and the sending down of Claude Giroux because they couldn’t afford to keep him up…all resulting in the Flyers having to pay Phoenix to give them cap space. They gave up the better player and a substantial draft pick for a few hundred thousand dollars in cap space. Then they still had to sign guys off the street to Amateur Tryouts that dressed during a playoff race.

Honorable mentions: the Max Talbot contract mixup (you need to know the rules), the JVR trade (never was his biggest fan but wanted a bit more in return), the Streit signing (too much term for an old player), the Timonen one year extension (did not agree with the timing of the signing), trading for Andrej Meszaros (much like my complaint about Leighton, he traded for Mesz 30 minutes before free agency began. Play the market a little.), drafting Garrett Klotz in the third round (self explanatory), and the Thomas Hyka debacle.

Honestly, I had a very hard time even ranking these moves. The top seven are all quite close for me and all have a case for the top spot on the list. With the Flyers struggling right now there is a lot of heat on Paul Holmgren. While I’ve never been his biggest fan, he’s far from the worst GM. He’s a good GM but I would not say he’s anywhere near the best in the league. Let’s not let this current valley dictate our entire perception of him just like we shouldn’t let the past years’ peaks dictate it either.

Let’s end this on a positive note with some of my favorite Homer moves: Claude Giroux’s second contract (perfect contract), the Jeff Carter trade (it was a great return), the Ville Leino trade, the Wayne Simmonds contract, the Matt Read extension, signing Matt Read in the first place, the Ray Emery contract, and signing Sergei Bobrovsky.

  • blue89

    Not sure how you can argue that he has been a good GM. I’d say you provided all the evidence necessary to go with mediocre or even terrible. I’d say the Bryz deal deserves to be much higher on the list, and if we’re going to give him credit for signing Bob, we also have to remember that he traded him away and watched him win the Vezina the following year. Bryz was bought out thereafter. There is no way you can say he’s been a good GM. The negative far outweighs the positive. The team has regressed year after year since 2010.

    We have very little prospects to be excited about, the defense is old, getting older, and overpaid. Wayne Simmonds has 2 points in 10 games and leads the league at skating really hard and doing nothing else. Matt Read has 3 points in 10 games and hasn’t looked like anything special. This lousy team is set up perfectly to miss the playoffs year after yeah, finish in the middle of the standings for the foreseeable future, and drown in mediocrity until they end up in the same place as the 76ers. Wow I am feeling negative today.

    • Kevin Christmann

      By no means am I a fan of Homer’s but I don’t think he’s nearly as terrible as people make him out to be. I think he’s pretty clearly in the 10-20 range as a GM.

      I don’t think the Bob trade was a mistake at all. Anyone who says it was is just using hindsight. The Bob trade is further indictment of the Bryz fiasco but in and of itself was fine.

      Bob was never going to play, they just signed Bryz. They traded him and got good value. In fact, many people felt they overpaid, and most Flyers fans liked the deal at the time.

      If you want to hate the Bryz situation more because of Bob, go ahead, but the trade was fine in the context in which it occurred.

      • blue89

        I will say that I liked the Mason trade when it happened, despite popular opinion being “Meh he sucks.” He was great at the end of last season and has been solid this year in the midst of them scoring one goal per game.

  • kmart93

    The Simmonds extension bugs me because it happened in concert with the Hartnell extension. I love them both, but they’re the same player. Keep one or the other, not both. Now I think Hartnell is probably untradeable (without an Upshall for Carcillo-esque deal) due to his production relative to his contract and we still don’t need both guys.