A Lukewarm Reaction to the Flyers Extending GM Paul Holmgren

As a vocal critic of Paul Holmgren, I'm lukewarm to this extension. So long as he continues improving, I'll grow quieter.

According to Anthony SanFilippo, the Flyers plan to announce a three-year contract extension with GM Paul Holmgren. As a vocal critic of Mr. Holmgren, I offer a lukewarm rebuttal to Mr. SanFilippo's story.

First, I'm not opposed to the extension, nor will I be the vocal dissent screaming at the tower of public opinion. But I will make a mild protest; not to the extension but to the puff pieces which are sure to come out.

There is no denying that the Flyers have gotten to two Eastern Conference Finals in Holmgren's tenure. It's also true that many of the key players in this year's NHL-leading team were acquired during Holmgren's regime. But it's also true that the Flyers nearly missed the playoffs during two of Holmgren's four years - requiring a shootout in the 82nd game - which would surely have changed the public perception of Holmgren.

Was last year's team better than their 7th place finish in the East? Certainly. Were they the best team in the East? Certainly not. But let's start at the beginning.

Mr. Holmgren took over in October of 2006. Many people don't remember, but when he took over, the team had only played eight games. True, they only had three points in those games, but that's so early in the season that it must be added to Mr. Holmgren's career. After all, the Flyers were led by Holmgren for over 90% of that season.

You may say that he deserves a pass because that team was horrible. Maybe so, but how many people remember who was in the Flyers system at the time Mr. Holmgren took over? You'd be surprised to learn that there were a ton of core players and NHL talent on the team already.  In fact, the 2006-07 team that gave the organization the No. 2 overall pick was not nearly as terrible as you think.

The team that dressed for the first game of Holmgren's tenure included Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Peter Forsberg, Sami Kapanen, Mike Knuble, R.J. Umberger, Joni Pitkanen, Ben Eager and Derian Hatcher,. Randy Jones was a healthy scratch and Antero Niittymaki manned the crease.

Were there holes on that team? Certainly. The bottom four defensemen were Denis Gauthier, Mike Rathje, Alexandre Picard, and Lars Johnsson. Guys like Kyle Calder, Randy Robitaille, and Stefan Ruzicka all received 12-plus minutes of action that night.

But who did the Flyers have in the system? Darroll Powe, Ryan Potulny, Oskars Bartulis, Jon Matsumoto, Andreas Nodl, Steve Downie, and Claude Giroux. Not bad for a team that would finish last in the NHL that year. A solid - though under-performing - NHL team with a decent farm system presented themselves to Holmgren.

None of those players were acquired by Holmgren the GM.

Just to reiterate: Holmgren took over a club that had Carter, Richards, Forsberg, Umberger, and Matsumoto up the middle. They had Gagne, Knuble, Kapanen, Downie, Giroux, Nodl, Powe, and Eager on the wings. They had Pitkanen, Hatcher, Jones, and Bartulis on the back-end. And they had Niittymaki in goal.

Is that a Stanley Cup contender? Certainly not. And it would take a couple of years before Carter, Richards, Matsumoto, Downie, Giroux, Nodl, Powe, and Bartulis would even become NHL talent, let alone stars. But the point here is that Holmgren took over with a future NHL team already here.

None of this is to take away from the job he did acquiring an actual NHL defense. Those names mentioned above would make a decent second and third pair on an NHL team, but nobody is confusing Joni Pitkanen with a #1 defensemen in the NHL.

So while Mr. Holmgren is going to get far more praise than he deserves, that isn't to say he doesn't deserve any praise at all. He came in and saw the weaknesses of his team: defense and goaltending. He has since drafted Kevin Marshall, Marc-Andre Bourdon, and Luca Sbisa on defense. He has added goalies Brad Phillips, Jacob De Serres, Joacim Eriksson, Adam Morrison, and Nic Riopel through the draft.

And while there are trades that have worked out - Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell for a first round pick; Braydon Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik; and Ville Leino for Ole-Kristian Tollefson - there are plenty of trades that have not worked out, including Steve Eminger for a first round pick; Jim Vandermeer for Ben Eager; and Denis Gauthier with a 2nd round pick for Ned Lukacevic and Patrick Hersley.

The bottom line here is: Holmgren was given a ton of NHL talent when he took over. He eventually transformed that team into a Cinderella Eastern Conference Championship team, and now an NHL-leading team. He did some great things, including upgrading the defense to one of the best in the NHL, but he also did some terrible things, including anything involving Randy Jones.

If you want the reason why I am not a Holmgren fan, trace the acquisition of Steve Eminger all the way through the placement of Randy Jones on re-entry waivers, and you'll have your answer. If you want to know why I'm lukewarm to this extension, look to the focus he has placed on areas of weakness in the organization - defense and goaltending.

So while Mr. Holmgren has plenty of areas to improve - including the salary cap, handling of draft picks, and realizing the importance of value - he has numerous accomplishments worthy of an extension already - including emphasizing goaltending, acquiring defensemen who can skate, drafting fewer goons, and no longer acquiring old washed-up players. But right now, he's an above-average GM in the NHL. Nothing more, nothing less.

Continue improving, Mr. Holmgren, and you'll continue to quell your dissenters. Win the Stanley Cup this year, and you won't have many at all. Though I'll still remind them of your errors, it will be more of a remembrance of times past than a predictor of future behavior.

So while Mr. Holmgren earned an extension, it's because of his effective tinkering with the roster. It's not because he's transformed a terrible organization into a great one. The Phantoms are still devoid of NHL talent and the Flyers will still have salary cap problems next year.

The extension is deserved, mainly for identifying the weaknesses in the organization. Now, he must continue identifying the weaknesses and fixing them. That means restocking the farm, unloading high cost and low value contracts, and setting up a pipeline to replace aging players through the draft. You now have three years to do this.

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