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In Homer We Trust… How ’bout You?

Jun 25, 2010, 2:30 PM EDT

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NHL general managers, scouts, and media are gathering in LA ahead of tonight's entry draft, and so far, there's little in the way of actual news to report. Don't expect that to be the case for long though, and the Flyers will likely be one of the teams most mentioned in discussions. When aren't they?

Without a pick until #89, which falls late in the third round, the Flyers could still look to move up and add a prospect to their system, which has seen its two biggest stars (JVR and Giroux) join the big club already. Or they could land a goalie, as many stories have cited as their primary goal this weekend. Last year, the big news of the draft was the blockbuster deal that brought Chris Pronger to Philly in exchange for a sizable package of draft picks and players. That move obviously paid dividends, but the cost will now be more clear. 

How will Paul Holmgren fare in a draft weekend during which he possesses no high picks as trade chips while being hamstrung by the salary cap and the agreements he already has in place? 

There's a lot of work to be done before next season, and several key questions need to be answered somewhat soon to continue the domino effect that NHL moves require in the current era. Each deal impacts the next in a salary-capped league, and signing or trading one player often means others will have to go, sometimes for what seems like not-enough-in-return. 

Cap-strapped and bereft of picks, some will criticize Holmgren. It happens to most GMs in any sport, because as fans, we pretty much want it all. Holmgren is berated for having his team up against the cap, while the Eagles catch hell if they're anything but right up against it. I've been lovingly picked apart here as being a homer for Homer, and I understand why. There are a few contracts on the dockets that are overinflated and/or compounded by no-movement clauses for players, and raise your hand if you were alive for the last Flyers parade. We want a winner, and until one is delivered, everyone is open to criticism.

But I still think Homer deserves a lot of credit for the Flyers making it to the Finals and little blame for their falling short and also their dud of a regular season. The fact that they made it that far in the playoffs showed me that the team as he'd created it was good enough to be one of the top seeds in the East. They had the talent and leadership to get within two games of hoisting the Cup. The players just didn't execute in the regular season, and Homer can't very well get out there on the ice and show them how. 

Stevens and Lavvy
Homer made the tough decision to fire the team's head coach, a guy who'd been part of the organization for the some of their greatest achievements in the AHL, then led a historic turnaround when handed a dead-last place team. Peter Laviolette may not have improved upon the Flyers' record under John Stevens, but no one will evaluate Lavvy's impact in terms of regular season wins and losses alone. I don't recall ever seeing a head coach do more to get his players a W, and they thrived in the playoffs under his direction. 

Their conditioning was garbage when he got here. Lavvy made that clear after the season. Imagine what they could be if they enter the season in great shape and have a full campaign of his rigorous practices heading into next season's playoffs. John Stevens was the right man for the job when he was hired, but Homer knew that changes within the team meant that a change was needed behind the bench as well, even though very few people were blaming Stevens for the losses on the ice. Then Homer picked exactly the type of coach the Flyers needed during their "headless chicken" stage last season, and I don't think anyone can question that decision. 

Goalies
But what about the team that was on the ice? You can't be GM in this town without drawing fire for your inability to put a true #1 goalie into an orange and black mask. Homer rolled the low-stakes dice by banking on Ray Emery in net. Emery was in exile due to behavior issues, so Homer got him on the cheap and for a short-term deal. Brian Boucher was brought back amidst clamorous criticism to be the backup. 

But neither was inked to be the future. The elusive true #1 wasn't available last season, and let's be real here for a second—when are these guys available? Once a team identifies a stud in net, that's it. More often that not, he's locked up and never allowed to leave until he's old and too expensive. Teams chase the dream of a goalie that can carry them no matter what, and most of their gambles fall flat. The goalies that fans have wanted Homer to acquire in past seasons have mostly shat the bed wherever they did end up, supplanted by a guy like Michael Leighton anyway. Goalies are inconsistent and impossible to predict. Across the state, you see a guy like Marc-Andre Fleury be a vital part of a Cup winner one season, then allow more than two goals in 9 of 13 playoff games the next. 

Knowing how hard it is to even identify a true #1, much less acquire one, Homer built last season's Flyers to win without that luxury. Obviously, they weren't built strongly enough to win it all without a better goalie than they had. We saw that as Patrick Kane's pad-tester dribbled through Leighton and the Cup was brought onto our ice. But they were damn close to being good enough to win almost regardless of who was in net. Ray Emery the misfit… Brian Boucher the has-been/never-was… and Michael Leighton the guy who has been waived five friggin' times, including once by the Flyers. 

It was a testament to the guys in pads last year, the guys on the ice, and to their GM that they could make it to the Cup Finals despite an unprecedented run of back luck in goalie injuries—even in the playoffs. Still, Homer knows that with better goaltending, the team could be amazing, and he's hunting for his #1 despite what the team achieved without one last season.

The Bad Contracts
Two names come up more than any others when Holmgren is being flogged for his bad contracts—Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere. Hartnell had a terrible season plagued by some off-ice issue no one is really talking about, and every bad penalty the took reminded fans that he had a no-movement clause in his contract. Briere has one too, and he makes a ton of money to boot. But here's why I don't get too down on Homer for those two contracts, the flaws of which were evident the day they were signed. The Homer Haters will have a field day on me, but honestly I just think it takes time for an exec and a franchise to get used to the implications of something so paradigm-altering as a salary cap being added to their league. 

Imagine doing your job in a certain environment for years, one in which you have more money at your disposal to solve problems in your production than your competitors do. Then all of a sudden a government ruling gives everyone the same spending ceiling, which takes away one of your company's biggest advantages—its willingness to fix mistakes by spending more money. That's kind of how I think it went for the Flyers when the cap was put in place for the '05-'06 season. These guys are hockey guys. They aren't mathematicians. The NHL hasn't yet hit the phase where the guys from Harvard and Stanford are running the teams, and fitting all your players under a finite sum that changes from season to season (or in some cases doesn't when you were hoping it would) isn't as easy as getting out the calculator. 

Homer fixed the Flyers' problems by tossing some money at them, and like many free agent signings and trades, they didn't all pan out perfectly well. Just look at some of the other signings around the league that year. We knew Briere's deal would hurt later in its term, but most fans were spoiling for a quick fix too. I imagine it's been frustrating for the club that Briere has played inconsistently during his time here, showing flashes of brilliance followed by droughts. He's also been slowed or off the ice entirely due to abdominal injuries. But he's also the guy who scored 30 points for the Flyers in the playoffs this season. Contract looked mighty fine for a few weeks this spring… One of the biggest knocks against Homer for two seasons became the most dangerous offensive weapon on the road to a Cup Finals appearance. Maybe a permanent move back to center is in the cards for Briere. Obviously, this would mean an even bigger logjam up the middle, possibly resulting in a trade.

Hartnell… Well, yeah, it's a bad contract. But a lot of that is on #19 himself, who played more than a few games looking like he had money on the other team this year. Whatever was going on with him off the ice flat out destroyed him, physically and mentally. He did rebound late in the playoffs though, so if he's not one of the players moved in the off-season (which would require him allowing the trade), maybe we'll see him in better shape next season. If he can put up 25 goals like we know he has the ability to, the contract becomes more palatable. 

Those two contracts overshadow some truly outstanding acquisitions by Homer though. Perhaps the Pronger deal still has fans divided, but I haven't heard from its critics much lately. Pronger was amazing last season, exactly what this team needed, and he's got a ton of hockey left in him. Kimmo Timonen is a Homer guy that doesn't get mentioned when GM piñata is hanging from the tree. What about that gunpoint robbery of the Red Wings for the Flyers' new rookie record holder for points in the playoff, Ville the Kid Leino? How about the fact that Homer didn't lock up Braydon Coburn when everyone everywhere thought he would be amazing for years to come? Coburn may still get a deal, but I doubt it will be what his side wanted during previous negotiations. Other trades may not have gone as obviously well, with the Carcillo-Upshall deal still a major dividing line for fans. Again, understandable. 

There are eggshells in the omelette until we have a Cup. 

What's Next?
As of this posting, we're still waiting to hear that Dan Hamhuis has signed. We originally guessed at a $4 million/year deal, but reports have his side wanting more and Homer not taking the bait just yet. Tim Panaccio now thinks the deal will not be done this weekend, and that leaves a big question mark while Homer fields and places calls for other potential players. If not signed by July 1, Hamhuis becomes a free agent. While we all want to see Hamhuis in a Flyers uni, it's great to see restraint on the part of Holmgren. A few seasons ago, Hamhuis might already have a deal signed, a no-trader, and a Flyers boat parked in his driveway. 

The goalie market is again a fickle lot this off-season. I'm not wild about the reports that the Flyers were talking to the Bruins about Tim Thomas, who lost his job last season after getting a big deal following a career season, but I'm not putting a whole lot of stock into anything there just yet either. He's old and owed a lot of money, and he lost his job last season (albeit to a very talented kid). Don't see that as a good fit here… 

The way the goalie market has played out recently has not been cap-friendly to many teams. The champion Blackhawks are even shedding salary in serviceable players while their previously ordained #1 swings the gate for Antti Niemi, who makes millions less per season than Huet. Evgeni Nabokov has been shown the door in San Jose. Thomas gave way to a rookie. 

Meanwhile, two guys who were relative nobodies backstopped their teams in the Stanley Cup Finals this year. Ryan Millers don't grow on trees, and it's not the worst thing in the world to build your team up to support whomever's in net, rather than vice-versa. One injury changes everything, and even Miller couldn't keep his club alive this postseason. 

Anthony San Filippo reported months ago that the Flyers would be looking for a young goalie to backstop their team for years to come. Despite the trip to the Finals, it seems that's still their goal. We could find out who that player is tonight, or over the weekend. If Hamhuis signs, the Flyers' starting goalie next season will be perched behind one of the league's truly elite defenses, a great situation to build within. However, it's still possible that we'll see Michael Leighton, Brian Boucher, and Johan Backlund on the depth chart come this fall.

There are other moves to be made as well. Claude Giroux needs to skate with scorers. The role players may need to be shuffled. For the latter, we've seen Homer bring in the likes of Ian Laperriere and Blair Betts a season after he was nailed to the cross for losing Glen Metropolit. He's got an eye for gritty players. 

In summary, I'm feeling confident that Paul Holmgren will put a contender on the ice next season just as he did last. The team will have more time under Laviolette's system, and the young core is more experienced. I've made my peace with the Cup loss, and I'm starting to get excited for what happens next. Hopefully the man pushing the buttons has learned enough from what didn't go so well in the past, because mistakes are costlier than ever in this league, and the Flyers' window is now. 

Housekeeping
Enrico and I will be off the grid for most of the day and night, so if a deal happens, we'll be counting on you to update this thread or whatever quickie we can toss up until getting into further detail tomorrow. 

I've been meaning to say this since the series ended, but thank you all for reading this season and for the comments you've left. It is a pleasure to experience the Flyers with you and learn more about our team and our fans through all of our many exchanges. You guys and gals are really awesome. Now go ahead and give it to me for being a homer.

Photo by Getty