Being a general manager in any professional sport is no easy task, especially when considering the NHL. Unlike other sports, you can't simply cast aside your contractual mistakes when things don't work out due to player protections built into the existing collective bargaining agreement.
If a player isn't performing up to management's expectations in the NHL, there needs to be more creativity in tucking a player's enormous contract away so that it doesn't count against the club's salary structure. For examples of this practice, see the New York Rangers' and Edmonton Oilers' methods in dealing with Wade Redden and Sheldon Souray, respectively, in assigning the underachieving defensemen to their respective AHL affiliates. Winning the prize for being most creative has to be the Chicago Blackhawks, for loaning goaltender Cristobal Huet to a Swiss league team in the summer of 2010, thereby purging his exorbitant $5.625 million cap hit from the club's payroll.
Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren has had to be creative in his own right, wheeling and dealing over the past several seasons to keep his team not only cap-compliant, but competitive as well. He has done a fine job in revamping the makeup of his Flyers squad over the last nine months by not only strengthening the team's forward ranks, but also bringing in a youthful influx of large wingers to a unit that was previously undersized. While Ilya Bryzgalov has struggled with inconsistencies in net, he still seems to be just short of reaching that confidence threshold that could propel himself and his teammates to the next level.
One area that has needed help is Philadelphia's defensive unit, especially since the loss of anchor and team captain Chris Pronger for the season. With a solid top-four of Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, and Andrej Meszaros, the club plugged the hole in the dam nicely for a short period of time with the recall of rookies Marc-Andre Bourdon and Erik Gustafsson from the Adirondack Phantoms.
But as the season has progressed and the frequency with which miscues the youngsters were committing increased dramatically, it became apparent Holmgren would have to bring in some veteran help. That process began Thursday and continued through the weekend, when the GM acquired pending free agent blueliners Nicklas Grossman from the Dallas Stars and Pavel Kubina from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The cost was high for what could turn out to basically be rental players. Four draft choices in all were shipped out as return for the services of the pair of big defenders -- two second-rounders (one in 2012 and the other in either 2012 or 2013), a third (2013), and a fourth (2013). Kubina's pro-rated salary is $3.85 million, while Grossman's is $1.625 million. Gustafsson was sent back to Adirondack last week and after the demotion of Bourdon on Saturday, Holmgren has his club within cap specifications.
While the Flyers had a mobile group of rear guards with some size prior to the trades, a pair of the big four had decent amount of hits and the other a good total of blocked shots. Meszaros leads Philly blueliners with 132 hits and has 83 blocked shots, and Coburn has 121 blocks and 81 hits. Conversely, Carle blocked 115 shots but has only 38 hits, and Timonen has 104 blocks and only 48 hits.
Kubina and Grossman bring both.
The duo of Kubina and Grossman bring some much-needed elements to the Philly back line -- size (Kubina is 6' 4", 258 pounds, Grossman 6' 4", 230), the willingness to hit and clear the front of the net (Kubina has 95 hits, Grossman 104), and the ability to block shots (Grossman has blocked 103, Kubina 100). Kubina also possesses a cannon of a right-handed shot from the point that should aid the power play unit.
One aspect that many were upset about is the two may be rental players, but a second look at the situation does show the moves provide the Flyers with somewhat of a luxury. By picking up the pair of pending UFAs, it gives the club the opportunity to see how each fits with the rest of the club moving forward. Kind of a sneak peek or even an audition, so to speak.
Often times an addition will look good on paper, but the chemistry just isn't there when that player is mixed in with the parameters of the existing skaters. While Holmgren believed Andreas Lilja was a solid veteran signing this past summer in the mold of a Sean O'Donnell, he has been a frequent healthy scratch this year in favor of Bourdon and/or Gustafsson. With another year remaining on his $737,500 over-35 pact, it's hard to envision just how he will fit in the rest of the way.
Having just turned 27 years old last month, Grossman could be inked to an extension depending on how he works out. The classic defensive-defenseman is just the type of shutdown defender the club has lacked since Pronger's loss. In his first game in Philadelphia, Grossman did exactly what was expected of him, blocking three shots and recording a game-high eight hits. It was appropriate he donned number eight, which was worn by Brad Marsh back in the 80's, one of the best shot blockers ever to play in Philly.
Kubina is an interesting case, indeed. Though he will turn 35 in April, he still plays a physical game with a nasty edge, something that has also been absent from the unit sans Pronger. The hulking Czech-born defenseman adds the right-handed shot the blueline has been sorely lacking since the retirement of Eric Desjardins in 2006, and also brings the past experience of having won a Stanley Cup in 2004 with Tampa.
It's obvious he still has much left in the tank and has shown a desire to possibly remain with the Flyers after this season.
That's extremely important, given two enormous facts that could impact the Philly defensive corps very soon. As things stand right now, they may lose Carle to pending unrestricted free agency this summer, and Timonen has only one year left on his contract. That's the potential loss of two of the top remaining four rear guards by the end of next season.
And that's not to mention the ongoing concern regarding the future of Pronger.
While Holmgren did give up four potential pieces of the future in the draft picks he sent out to obtain Grossman and Kubina, he also gave himself some extra time to assess just how well two capable defensemen that will be available in July fit within the Flyers' organization. Just as he did in acquiring Bryzgalov's rights last June in an attempt to rectify shortcomings in goal, the GM took the proactive route in shoring up his defense in this case. That aggressive approach provides Holmgren with a rare insight moving ahead as to whether or not these two will be a part of his club's future or not.
And that luxury may just end up paying dividends for the Flyers beyond the rental-player stage.