Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Flyers Free-Agent Futility

The more things change, the more they stay the same. So it is with the Philadelphia Flyers, and they begin to go through another off-season chasing a big-money free-agent that will likely pay little dividends in the end. That free-agent in question is former Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov; the exclusive negotiating rights of whom the Flyers acquired from the Coyotes in exchange for a minor-leaguer and what little they had left in terms of draft picks. Whether they end up signing Bryzgalov or not before he officially hits free-agent status July 1st is kind of irrelevant when you think about it, especially considering the Flyers’ track record of free-agent futility.

Last season, when the Flyers made a storybook run to the Stanley Cup Finals, goaltending in general was practically irrelevant. On the shoulders of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, the Flyers managed to do the impossible and reach the Finals before getting knocked out by the Blackhawks. It was during their run however that many fans and analysts started to realize that you didn’t really need a big-money goaltender to win the Cup, as the Hawks didn’t have one either. While the Flyers’ lack of defense was exposed, they addressed it in the summer that followed by acquiring Andrej Meszaros and Sean O’Donnell, and for a good chunk of this past season, it appeared that those were the right moves to make.

Back to the issue of goaltending however, this is what really proved to be the team’s absolute biggest flaw. They rode rookie Sergei Bobrovsky harder they should have (he started nearly 60 games) and were the only team in the NHL not to record a shutout all season long. Playoff hero Leighton was demoted to the AHL, and veteran Boucher got many of the starts come playoff time, to little avail. So now, a year after declaring that the team didn’t need a big-money goaltender to win it all, GM Paul Holmgren is chasing Bryzgalov, who is going to be commanding a huge salary.

If the Flyers had the salary cap space, signing Bryzgalov wouldn’t be so much of a deal, but they don’t. Even with the salary cap expected to rise up league-wide, they still won’t have enough cash to lock him in. Forwards Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux, and Kris Versteeg; combined with defensemen Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Brayden Coburn, and Meszaros all amount to almost 90% of the team’s salary cap spending. They won’t be able to re-sign key free-agent forward Ville Leino, nor solid stay-at-home defenseman O’Donnell. Who are the Flyers going to be dumping salary to? The Florida Panthers need plenty of salary to reach the salary floor alone, so that looks like a good trading partner right there. Not to mention the fact that the Flyers have zilch in terms of prospects in the system or draft picks either. Former GM Bobby Clarke used to mortgage the future for veteran players all time until it finally caught up with him, and now it appears that Holmgren is going down the exact same path after the past few years of making some shrewd and great moves and signings.

Then, we look at Bryzgalov himself, the key figure to this whole damn thing. He’s had some really great years in Phoenix, last year in particular when he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, but the truth of the matter is that he’s a veteran goaltender who isn’t getting any younger. He won the Cup as a member of the Anaheim Ducks (with Pronger and O’Donnell no less) and knows what it takes to win, but who knows just how many good seasons he has left in him. The team playing in front of him is no doubt talented, but on the losing nights when Philly fans really let their feelings out about how much the team sucks, will he be able to handle it? Personally, I say fuck no.

If it’s one thing that the post-lockout NHL has proven, to win it all, you have to build through the draft. The Flyers definitely have a somewhat decent amount of homegrown talent (Richards, Carter, JVR, Giroux, Bobrovsky) but not nearly enough compared to Cup winners past of the Blackhawks, Penguins, and Red Wings. Depending on what happens this off-season, and the upcoming one as well, it may be time for another complete overhaul in Flyer-land. Personally I hope not, but if it’s one thing Flyers management has always been good at doing, it’s blowing everything the fuck up with little to no logic attached to it, and something tells me that that time isn’t all that far away.

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