Saturday, May 03, 2014

Holmgren defends his team and his job to the (possible) end

Whether or not Paul Holmgren will return as the Philadelphia Flyers' General Manager in time for the 2014-15 season may not be the biggest concern for the club going forward. A shift in perception regarding the roster as constituted, and its actual talent level, looks like it needs the biggest adjustment.

"We were one goal away from getting to the next round and I think the improvement and maturation process of the players is part of the process as well," Holmgren stated during Friday afternoon's breakup session.

"To me we can win a Stanley Cup with the core that’s there right now. I certainly would like to keep that core together for a number of years. Some of them are locked up for a few years – Claude (Giroux), Wayne (Simmonds), Matt Read and (Sean) Couturier are for the next couple of years. They are our core group that we’re going to do everything in our power to hold on to."

One might say for too long. Peeling back from the mistakes of the decade-long extensions handed to the dear, departed Mike Richards and Jeff Carter not too long ago, it's important to note that Giroux is signed through 2020, Simmonds to 2019, Read to 2018, but Couturier through 2016. Conspicuously left off the roll is Scott Hartnell, who's also bound to Broad Street for the next five seasons.

One more name notably absent from that list, Brayden Schenn, a restricted free agent at $870,000 whose camp Holmgren also pointedly revealed did not do much in the way of contract negotiations throughout the season. Looks like he'll have right up until next month's draft before the sands in the hourglass begin flooding the lower compartment on his tenure here. And, there's the little lost lamb that is Vinny Lecavalier, essentially orphaned despite a five-year deal when Peter Laviolette was sacked three games into October.

It's difficult to swallow that this core is so capable when it has seen exactly one playoff series victory, a six-game triumph over Pittsburgh two years ago, followed by a truncated year locked out of the postseason, followed by a first-round loss whose Game 7 might have had a different location, if not a different result had the club's in-season play down the stretch had been more...and let me slip in a buzz word here...consistent.

The landscape of the NHL is rockier than in years past; as we've seen with Colorado, a Hall of Fame coach guiding a bumper crop of young talent, who recorded 52 wins and a division title didn't even guarantee victory at home in a Game 7. How Holmgren still envisions an upward slope, culminating in a Stanley Cup appearance with this core as selected in the near future, is difficult to fathom even if you grant him that one of his duties as GM is to defend the roster he assembled.

Maybe it'll happen in the fourth year, maybe not. But when Ed Snider is looming just above, signing off on Holmgren's desire to pursue the best players available for any given holes in the roster, that's not really showing much faith in -- especially when any such move not accomodated by a free-agent signing will require a trade for some member of that core.

Besides, wouldn't "the core" possibly be to blame if the same tired mantras of "competing for 60 minutes" and "consistent effort" are dredged up loss after loss, over the same time period? Perhaps Holmgren is willing to concede that the bedrock surrounding the core needs to be strengthened. Even so, that means trades and signings are coming. But still, they have to be the right ones. Lecavalier, one-third of the three-ring circus offered up last July, was a pretty big miscue.

Now to the thorny question of the defense, which at key times during the opening round, appeared at least half a step slow up against the Rangers forwards and defensemen. Take the following quotes with enough salt to alter whatever taste arises in your mouth upon reading.

"Is Braydon Coburn is not a good skater? To me, he’s one of the better skaters in the league. Andrew MacDonald is a good skater. Nicklas Grossmann skates okay. Erik Gustafson skates okay. Do we have enough? You can probably always use more. To me it’s all about puck movement and execution which makes a fast team. The puck moves faster than any players. At times in this series we looked relatively good coming out of our end with good, quick puck movement where we caught the forwards at the right time and we could escape their forecheck pressure. And then at times things slowed down."

Isn't it interesting that the one player widely acknowledged to be the best skater, and most skilled puck mover (Gustafsson), was a $1,000,000 healthy scratch this year and is heading into RFA status, while Coburn and MacDonald, are under contract for at least two and six years, respectively.  That attempt at subtlety appears to scream loudest. Poor, poor Kimmo Timonen, the proverbial Good Soldier hwho thinks it's Stanley Cup or bust if he returns next Fall. How much of a hometown discount will he accept for one more shot at being the best all-around blueliner on this team? -- 50 to 75 percent seems to be the going rumor.

That's where the flood of new talent will feel pressure to performing with the Phantoms in order to receive an audition in Philadelphia. In the final one-third of the season, they received Robert Hagg from Sweden and Shayne Gostisbehere from national-champion Union, to back up youngsters Oliver Lauridsen, Brandon Manning and Mark Alt. It looks like at least half a season before something begins to shake out and one of these players distinguishes himself, according to Holmgren:

"I'm certainly not going to sit here and say there's no way they should be playing in the NHL. We'll talk about it and we'll see. That's what training camp is for. I like some of our young guys, is it a stretch to say they're ready for the NHL, yeah, I'd say that. I've seen other guys do it on other teams. I’m not sure I would say our guys are not in the same boat as those guys."

The end result? You can bet the farm that a defensive BPA will be on the Flyers' radar as a buffer against the great unknown of player development, because it's easier to negotiate salary and the number of years than what pieces in a trade constitute the best value for the organization.

Would all of this back-and-forth, year-after-year, constant tinkering and tweaking of the roster and missing out on big-name younger free agents without any meaningful results signal that Holmgren might be losing touch, a la Bob Clarke in the middle of last decade?

"Do you think I look 70? I still feel pretty good. Hockey has been my life and my passion for a long time. Do I enjoy it as much? Absolutely," he quipped to Sam Carchidi of the Inquirer.

At least Holmgren will be riding off into the (unconfirmed) sunset fully invested in his responsibilities, which is admirable. It's one thing if your GM is coasting on fumes and forgets the name of your first-round draft pick at the podium, but another if it's demonstrated he is working every day to try and turn things around when facing the possibility of his tenure ending.

While it's a relief to see the light at the end of the tunnel, if doesn't cause a man to reorganize his priorities and possibly alter his philosophy on team building in hopes of achieving the desired result, why not just give the reins to your right-hand man without delay?

"Yes. I’m the one who brought Hexy back. He’s an excellent resource in our organization. He’s a tremendous hockey man and I have no question that he’s ready to be a general manager at any point. We’ll see where that goes, but I’m certainly not in any position today where I want to change chairs."

A major issue with those who have been in power too long: it becomes increasingly difficult to tell that person when it's time to give up the post. Remember this if nothing else: Ed Snider will give Holmgren every opportunity to call his shot, fall on his sword, or whatever ready cliche exists for engineering his own exit. That's the acute and somewhat blind sense of loyalty which has gotten Snider and the organization in trouble since the acrimonious split Clarke endured in 1990, fired when the elder Snider had to choose between his son the team president and the adopted son as GM. 

Other than that, there is nobody else, save Clarke, whom Holmgren stands a chance of listening to. And Hextall is now caught in the middle of the question of authority -- on one side put on the spot as GM if Holmgren decides to step aside or be kicked upstairs, and on the other feeling the pull of outside offers from teams willing to have a Stanley Cup winning architect guide their franchise.

"Well, I don’t have to if I don’t want to. If that were the case, to me is that the right thing to do? Yeah. You can always say no, I refuse to give you permission to talk to my employee. There’s no law that says you have to give it to them. To me, if and when that happens, somebody wants to talk to Ron Hextall about a general manager’s opening, yeah. No problem."

Holmgren has logged almost 19 consecutive years with the organization since the Whalers fired him as head coach in November of 1995. He waited eight years to gain his current position of power. There's clearly no public sense of urgency for him to give up his life's work.

But if the issue isn't resolved soon, and cleanly, then Hextall is very likely to seek his fortunes elsewhere and may not be so eager to return if the Flyers want him to fill that GM role at an undetermined time. Let's not even invite the possibility that Holmgren could be so jealous and petty as to restrict outside contact with his assistant. There is likely not another former Flyer waiting in the wings as an executive to play along until the part is awarded.

This club needs a Hextall, or a Dave Poulin, at the controls, and it is needed now.

Until the final conversation to make the change is had, we go back, Jack, and do it again. The same faces in the same places with the same thought processes that everyone outside the Wells Fargo Center can see will win the battles but can't win the war.

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