July 20, 2010

In defense of Paul Holmgren.

After yesterday's trade of Simon Gagne, it's safe to say that the Philadelphia Flyers' offseason is over. They could always move one of their eight NHL-caliber defensemen, or resign Arron Asham, but for the most part, this is the team we'll be rooting for in October of 2010.

This seems to bother a lot of people, and I'm not sure why.

The biggest complaint I've heard bandied about is that Michael Leighton is returning as the starting goalie. Numerous pundits spent the last few months clamoring for Marty Turco, Evgeni Nabokov, Dan Ellis, etc, and then crying like babies when Leighton came back for a reasonable price. My response to them is: What are you, fucking nuts? Marty Turco is a 34-year-old goalie whose best years are behind him; Evgeni Nabokov went back to Russia because no one would "pay him what he was worth." Both of them have never won anything, ever. Turco's 21-26 in the playoffs; Nabokov is 40-39. Sounds like John Vanbiesbrouck all over again.

As for Dan Ellis, frankly, I don't see what the difference is. He had a 2.69 GAA last year for Nashville, as compared to Leighton's 2.48 as a Flyer. He's 30, a year older than Leighton. He has barely any playoff experience -- six games in '07-08, losing four of them. He signed with Tampa for $1.5 million a year; Leighton signed for $1.5 million this year and $1.6 million next.

Forget about the weak goal that ended the Stanley Cup Finals. Forget even about the dominating performance Leighton put on in the Eastern Conference Finals. These are two goalies, essentially both "journeymen" to this point, one we know and one we don't. The one we know is coming off the most successful year of his career and was willing to resign for a small raise, a reasonable price for a goalie. He's had playoff experience, he knows the players around him, and he operates well behind a strong defense (which we have, which I'll discuss later).

The other guy? No one knows a thing about him. Like Jeff Hackett, like Robert Esche, like every other goalie the Flyers have brought in over the last few years, he's a Band-Aid at best, a new name that might work out...until he doesn't, and we all hate him, and we ship him out of town. Is that really a preferable option?

And like I said, in front of Michael Leighton in 2010 and 2011 will be an expanded, upgraded defense. I can't say I know much about Andrej Meszároš or Matt Walker, and my Sean O'Donnell knowledge is dated about ten years or so. But what I know for sure is that the Flyers will have a much more capable third defensive pairing in 2010, two players that aren't a guaranteed heart-attack every time they step on the ice. Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent were walking calamities in the playoffs, forcing our fantastic top-4 defensemen to play 30 minutes a night, whether they liked it or not. Did Pronger and Timonen break down in the Finals as a result? That can be argued, but I don't think anyone can argue that they could use a little help. Holmgren made that a priority, and in doing so he strengthened a definite area of need.

But a lot of people don't see it that way. There have even been calls for Paul Holmgren's firing, which boggles my mind. Did Holmgren lock the Flyers into salary-cap hell the last few years? Yes. Did he dump Gagne's contract for very little return? Yes. But if you think his most recent moves aren't smart general managing, if you think Holmgren is leading the Flyers down the wrong path, I don't think you understand hockey.

First, keep in mind that Gagne only had one year left in his contract, a contract that almost certainly wouldn't have been extended. If you're to believe Gagne's interview with CSNPhilly.com's John Boruk, one of the reasons he chose Tampa Bay is its salary cap space -- he wanted to make an impression on a team with money and try to secure one final, lengthy contract. That wasn't happening in Philadelphia, not with Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk stepping into presumably larger and larger roles.

He was the most movable player, especially if the goal was to fit everyone's salaries under the cap, and Holmgren took the best, easiest trade available. This isn't Ruben Amaro Jr. dumping Cliff Lee in his prime, this is shipping out the contract of an aging, injury-prone player. I love Simon Gagne and everything he's done for Philadelphia, and I'll cheer loudly when he's inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame in a half-dozen years. But this is not a move to cry over.

Instead, praise the emphasis Paul Holmgren put on his defense, a unit that received a consistent amount of neglect from Flyers management over the last two decades or so. There was no way, repeat, no way the '09-'10 team could return intact and make the Finals again. There were a glut of forwards out of position, many of them injury-prone, not enough talent on the wings and an extremely weak third defensive pairing. Holmgren brought in Nikolai Zherdev on the cheap to try and harness his talent at right wing, he brought in several quality defensemen to compete for the back-end pairing and he moved the soon-to-depart Gagne to open up some much-needed cap space.

Given the restrictions he was under, both cap-wise and personnel-wise, I think Holmgren's finagling should be viewed as nothing less than inspired. They may not have been the "turn garbage into gold" type deals that got us Braydon Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik, but I think everyone who's spoken out against Homer will be eating their words in a few short months.

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Rania said...
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