March 6, 2009

The Price You Pay

Paul Holmgren hasn't made many mistakes as the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, but one in particular is going to haunt him for the next 6+ years: Danny Briere.

When healthy, Briere is one of the more talented players in hockey. His signing, much like the Phillies bringing in Jim Thome in late 2002, was a necessary tonic for a franchise that had fallen on (sudden) hard times. And his scoring touch last year helped the Flyers reach the Eastern Conference Finals, a turnaround that occured much quicker than anyone expected.

And the reason for that quick turnaround was, ultimately, the work of Paul Holmgren. He essentially turned Peter Forsberg into Ryan Parent, Scottie Upshall, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen, a move that combined the acquisition of stellar talent with the elimination of any distractions caused by the talented-but-oft-injured center. Add in Braydon Coburn, Joffrey Lupul, former captain Jason Smith and Marty Biron, and you're looking at an unparalleled professional sports house-cleaning, on a team that desperately needed an organizational colonic.

But now, it's becoming apparent that Holmgren may have shot his wad a bit too soon. A subplot throughout the entire season has been issues with the salary cap; they've flirted dangerously close to the $56.7 million ceiling since the beginning. Adding to the turmoil is Briere; Holmgren's first signing, he of the eight year, $52 million contract. Last year, his cap value seemed innocent enough, but injuries have complicated matters in 2009. Danny has missed the bulk of the year with a hurt groin, and every time the Flyers bring him back, Holmgren and his staff must work overtime to make the numbers match up.

His injury has hurt their on-ice production; one of the best players on the team has not developed chemistry with a specific line, or even gotten in hockey shape, going into the playoff hunt. It has also hurt them financially; not only did it limit their acquisitions at the trading deadline, but to fit Briere (and to assure that rookie stud Claude Giroux did not have to be shuttled back and forth to the AHL), Glen Metropolit, Ossi Vaananen and Scottie Upshall were all let go for basically nothing.

This hurt the Flyers' depth tremendously, something that will become even more important as Briere (apparently) has gone down with another aggravation of his groin. What it may hurt even more, and this is something harder to register, is team chemistry. All three were apparently popular, respected players, and they were tossed out like yesterday's garbage. Everyone in that locker room surely understands that this is a business, but, to me, the cap/Briere issues this season dangerously mirror the Forsberg issues of years past.

The Flyers have a very good hockey team; this is a fact. Despite all the talk (and all the moves), they've kept a solid hold on the number four spot in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. At the very least, a playoff berth seems likely. However, their power play has gone almost bone-dry (something Briere was supposed to help with), and their goaltending remains uncertain. Plus, this might be the most competitive Eastern Conference in the recent history of the league. The Penguins, Rangers and the Panthers (the 8, 7 and 6 seeds, respectively) might not be able to beat the Bruins, Devils and Capitals, but they'll certainly beat the crap out of each other.

With all that, the chances of a Stanley Cup run for this Flyers team fall further and further by the wayside. Is this Holmgren's fault? Not really; he did as good a tear-down-and-build-up job as you'll ever see, especially in this cautious era of sports general managing. But whether it's his exorbitant salary or his torn-up groin, Paul Holmgren might be seeing that the future of his hockey team hinges a bit too much on little Danny Briere.

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