At this time last year, the Philadelphia Flyers had a different look. They were swept out of the second round, which prompted GM Paul Holmgren to boldly reconfigure the look of his roster in the off-season. Holmgren received criticism for the makeover he orchestrated, but it has proved to be successful – so far.
Holmgren changed the identity of the Flyers in a matter of moments. On June 23rd, superstars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were traded hours apart, to Los Angeles and Columbus, respectively. Those deals were succeeded by the signing of Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year mega contract.
The Flyers as we knew them were history. Gone were the doubts between the pipes (at the time). Gone were fan favorites, star forwards and the team’s captain. But it was all for the better.
The composite package Holmgren received in return for Richards and Carter, each first-round picks of the Flyers back in 2003, not only is going to help the Flyers for long haul but it made an impact this season and in their first-round series victory against rival Pittsburgh.
For Richards, the Flyers absorbed Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn from Los Angeles. Simmonds, 23, doubled his 2010-11 goal total with 28 tallies in his first season as a Flyer. Schenn, 20, was viewed as the NHL’s top prospect at the time of the trade and had 18 points in 54 games.
For Carter, the Flyers obtained Jake Voracek and the eighth overall pick in the draft, which turned into Sean Couturier. Voracek, 22, was inconsistent but finished the year with 49 points in a second- and third-line role. Couturier, 19, is mature beyond his years and boasted a plus-18 rating on the season.
Those four players, all young, combined for 21 points in the just-completed first round and all contributed to an offense that finished the season with the third-most goals. Additionally, having Simmonds, Schenn, Voracek and Couturier has given head coach Peter Laviolette more options and more depth to work with up front.
The trading of Richards and Carter also allowed Claude Giroux to blossom into one of the league’s more dynamic, complete players.
Giroux posted a career-high 93 points, good for third in the league behind Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos. Giroux also was a leading MVP candidate before (a) his concussion and (b) Malkin started playing on another planet. But Giroux, with a playoff-best 14 points, vastly outplayed Malkin in the first round.
Would all of this have happened for Giroux if Richards and Carter were still around? Maybe, but I doubt it. Giroux became the clear-cut, top offensive threat for the Flyers, and was a matchup nightmare for opponents alongside Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr. Holmgren knew the potential Giroux had, which made Richards and Carter expendable.
Speaking of Jagr…
As much scrutiny Holmgren faced for signing Bryzgalov to his long-term contract, there were more doubters when it came to signing Jagr during the free agent frenzy. Jagr was 39 years old at the time and hadn’t played NHL hockey since 2008. Even more curious was the $3.3 million Holmgren paid Jagr to go to Philadelphia instead of Pittsburgh.
It was a risky signing for sure, but it was a risk worth taking. Jagr displayed instant chemistry with Giroux and Hartnell on the top line. Though Jagr tallied a career-low 54 points, his NHL comeback was more successful than many imagined – and that’s a testament to the Flyers organization for rolling the dice on a high-profile individual like Jagr.
As it turned out, though, Jagr wasn’t the highest profile signing by Holmgren. It was Bryzgalov.
Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher may have combined to lead the Flyers to a Stanley Cup final appearance in 2010, but by no means did it overshadow the fact that the franchise hadn’t yet solved its goaltending issues that have haunted them for years. So Holmgren decided to sign Bryzgalov to be the Flyers’ goalie for the next decade.
The marriage between Bryzgalov – as known as Mr. Universe – and the organization hasn’t gotten off to the most ideal start. His media antics have rubbed people the wrong way, and his unnecessary actions away from the ice may have impacted his play for the first three-fourths of the season.
Down the stretch, though, he escaped from the woods and left his thermos in the locker room. The man they call ‘Bryz’ earned First Star honors for the NHL in March by going 10-2-1 with a 1.43 goals-against average. It seemed as if his woes were solved, but his game hasn’t been the same since a late-season minor foot fracture. He maintained an .848 playoff save percentage going into Sunday’s contest.
However, that didn’t stop Bryzgalov from having a clutch 30-save performance in Game 6 to close out Pittsburgh. If the Flyers happen to get through the Eastern Conference, Bryzgalov will have to play more like he did on Sunday.
Back to the big picture with Mr. Universe.
It certainly wasn’t the season Holmgren imagined for his new goaltender. And who knows what kind of domino effect Chris Pronger’s injury had on the rest of the back end. But signing Bryzgalov was the only route Holmgren could take if he wanted to make a big improvement in goal without surrendering anything off his roster. Time will tell whether the signing was worth it or not.
It hasn’t taken much time to determine that Holmgren did the right thing by changing the look of the Flyers’ roster. Some felt that Holmgren put his job on the line this season by making the array of moves. It has worked so far.
The young quartet of players Holmgren acquired has made immediate impacts in their own right. Giroux obviously took advantage of the opportunity without having Richards and Carter – both of whom had down years and now reside in Los Angeles – in his way. Jagr and Bryzgalov, when on top of their game, were clutch at key times.
As you congratulate the Flyers on knocking off Pittsburgh and advancing to the second round, give Holmgren a pat on the back as well. Without his bold off-season maneuvering, we may be talking about a different story this season for the Orange and Black.
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