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Flyers GM Paul Holmgren: What Are You Doing?

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Entering free agency, the Flyers had a few holes to fill with enough money to do it. Now they're over the cap and putting Simon Gagne in an extremely difficult situation.

Entering free agency, it looked as if Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren had a plan to fill the few holes his team had.  They needed upgrades at forward, defense, and goal while having a favorable market and enough cap space to do all three.

So the question is: What was the plan?  Acquiring the rights to Dan Hamhuis and Evgeni Nabokov, while also being allowed to talk with Marty Turco, was a great start.  None of those three signed with the Flyers, but it showed that Holmgren was getting ahead of the market and hearing what players would be asking for.  That's normally a good thing, but it turns out that this time, it was a really bad thing.

See, Hamhuis was reportedly asking for between $4 and $5 million, but did not want to be a 5th defenseman.  That's fine, since he ended up signing with Vancouver for $4.5 million a year.  But when Nabokov and Turco (reportedly) declined multi-year deals worth $2 million a season, it appears as though Holmgren got scared and abandoned his plan.  It seems as though Holmgren believed that the goalie market would be favorable and amenable for two aging, above-average goalies, resulting in someone offering them what they wanted.

Well, Turco is still unemployed and Nabokov bolted to Russia for a $6 million yearly check.  It seems safe to say both goalies over-priced themselves and successfully scared Paul Holmgren.  There has not been a single unrestricted free agent goalie to sign for more than $2 million per year.  Maybe Marty Turco or Jose Theodore eventually sign for more, but Holmgren didn't wait to see if they would have accepted the same amount of money as Antero Niittymaki, the highest paid unrestricted free agent goalie this summer.

Instead, he signed Michael Leighton to a two-year, $3.1 million contract.  No matter what you think about Leighton, Holmgren's decision to sign him on July 31st is the first bad move Holmgren made.  Rather than wait to see that Turco and Nabokov were asking for far too much (which should have been obvious, especially since even Holmgren reportedly refused to go more than $2 million per year), Holmgren locked up Leighton.  About 18 hours later, players with better track records - and therefore, likely more coveted on the open market - went for marginally more or even drastically less.

Chris Mason was signed to a bargain-basement deal worth $1.85 million a year.  Dan Ellis signed for $1.5 million a year.  Martin Biron signed for $875,000 per year.  Meanwhile, Turco and Theodore are still without a job and Ondrej Pavelec, Antti Niemi, Josh Harding, and Carey Price are still restricted free agents.  Again, even if you think Leighton is a better goalie or will be a better goalie than those names, the market is diluted with guys looking for an NHL job.  Maybe Leighton isn't overpaid, but you can't say Martin Biron wouldn't have signed here for a similar price if offered the chance to start.  Well, you can if you think he's lazy and only wants to play between 10 and 13 games a year (the most games a goalie not named Henrik Lundqvist has started for the Rangers in the past four years).

Next, with less than two hours until free agency opened, Holmgren traded a second-round pick to Tampa Bay for Andrej Meszaros.  Again, no matter your opinion on Meszaros, this trade does not make much sense.  Once the clock struck noon, it became apparent that Holmgren once again overpaid.  In the nine days since free agency began, only four defensemen - including Dan Hamhuis - have signed deals worth more money per year than Meszaros is getting.

Even if Holmgren thought he couldn't get Hamhuis, Anton Volchenkov, or Zybnek Michalek for less money than Meszaros (which he couldn't), he surrendered a second-round pick to acquire a defensemen who is as good if not worse than Michalek.  Then, when you consider the list of free-agent defensemen who have signed since July 1st, it becomes even more apparent that Paul Holmgren overpaid. 

Henrik Tallinder signed for 4 years at $3.375 million per year.  Dennis Seidenberg signed for 4 years at $3.25 million per year.  Jordan Leopold and Toni Lydman both signed for 3 years at $3 million per year.  Derek Morris signed for 4 years at $2.75 million per.  Kurtis Foster signed for 2 years at $1.8 million per year.  The list goes on, and on, and on.

The Flyers could have signed any of those guys, kept their second round pick (the only one they would have had in 5 years), and saved money against the cap.  Instead, the Flyers are over the cap due to this and two other signings.

First, the Flyers signed Jody Shelley.  Again, no matter your opinion of Shelley, he signed a 3-year, $3.3 million deal.  His cap hit is slightly lower than Ian Laperriere's, which either means Laperriere is underpaid or Shelley is overpaid.  While it's likely a little bit of both, the market suggests that Shelley is grossly overpaid.  He's a character guy who doesn't do much other than fight.  He has 16 goals in his nine-year NHL career, but nearly 1350 penalty minutes.  He's a fourth-line player who doesn't kill penalties.  Basically, he's your 12th forward.  And that's perfectly fine, except for the contract.

There were plenty of third-line players who were signed for less money than Shelley (including Daniel Paille, Taylor Pyatt, Patrick Eaves, Vladimir Sobotka, and Erik Christensen) and while that's troubling, it's not really a fair comparison.  Shelley's role will be entirely different, so let's look at similar players.  Scott Nichol signed for one year at $760,000.  Bran Winchester signed for one year at $700,000 (pending bonuses).  Tanner Glass signed for one year at $625,000.  Eric Boulton signed for one year at $650,000.  Derek Boogard signed for four years at $1.65 million per.  Jody Shelley signed for 3 years at $1.1 million per.

Which two contracts stand out?  Again, maybe Shelley is a better hockey player than those guys, maybe he's a better locker room presence, maybe he's just a better option for this team than those guys.  But the market for fourth-line grinders and fighters does not include multi-year deals, or a salary over $800,000.  Glen Sather - always known for great free agent signings - and Paul Holmgren are the only two GMs to go over the market price.  Why?

Second, the Flyers signed Nikolai Zherdev to a one-year, $2 million contract.  Do you notice a theme?  No matter what you think of Zherdev - and personally, it's a great deal for the Flyers on its own - this was the deal that put the Flyers over the cap.  As of right now, the Flyers are more than $1.4 million over the salary cap with 22 players signed.  While the team is allowed to exceed the cap by 10% (roughly $5.9 million) until the end of training camp, they are in a position now where they have to lose salary while maintaining 22 players. (The NHL minimum is 20, but they will likely carry an extra forward and an extra defenseman.)

When you add in the fact that nobody in Philadelphia will be happy with Riley Cote being the 13th forward, the team is in even more trouble.  Say the Flyers waive Cote and either lose him on waivers or send him to the minors, they will still be roughly $872,000 over the salary cap while needing to add a 13th forward.  In other words, someone who has a fairly large cap hit must go.

And that's where the Simon Gagne trade rumors come into play.  But at this point, all of the moves Holmgren has made up to this point are starting to look extremely short-sighted.  When you bring $11.55 million in salary (Zherdev, Shelley, and Meszaros plus the increase in Coburn and Leighton's cap hits) despite only being able to afford around $10 million, you either didn't have a plan or you didn't follow it.

Now the Flyers are left with few choices.  Either they trade a high-priced player - when every team in the league knows that the team has to move somebody - or risk losing them for nothing.  Paul Holmgren just created a cap problem out of thin air because he failed to see the consequences of his actions.

Holmgren overpaid for Jody Shelley and Andrej Meszaros, then he signed Michael Leighton despite not thinking he's the upgrade in net they were looking for.  In effect, he just gave his backup goalie a $600,000 raise and reportedly plans on going out and spending even more money on a starter.  Money they don't have.

So when Paul Holmgren calls Simon Gagne to see if he'll accept a trade, why should Gagne accept?  The club can create space by trading any number of players who don't have no-trade clauses - Jeff Carter, Nikolai Zherdev, Andrej Meszaros, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, etc. - but apparently refuse to do so. Maybe that's the right move, but if Gagne refuses to waive his clause, good for him.  It's not his fault that the organization decided to put themselves over the cap and it's not his responsibility to bail them out.

That said, if Gagne refuses to waive his clause and the club instead chooses to place him on waivers, he'll be looked at as a bad guy for not allowing the organization to get a return for him.  If he refuses to waive his clause and the club instead trades, say, Jeff Carter, he'll be blamed for the club losing Carter.  None of this ends well for Gagne - he's either vilified or he does something he doesn't want to do.  

Holmgren put himself in a position where he has to move salary and then when word leaked that Gagne was asked to waive his no-trade clause, the organization put Gagne in the situation where he either allows the team to get compensation for him or he plays here for another year with the fans and the front office being upset with him.  This is Paul Holmgren's fault, but everything is being set up to blame Gagne should he not be the backdoor through which Holmgren can escape.

However Holmgren gets out of this mess, the most important question won't be "is this team better than last year's?"  It will be "What was Paul Holmgren doing?"  And that question needs to be asked even if you think he improved the team because he has made numerous mistakes and misinterpretations in just the past two weeks, on top of putting a beloved member of the team in an impossible situation. 

This is not how a General Manager should act.