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Paul Holmgren Steps Aside as Flyers President: An Analysis

July 12, 2019, 2:48 AM ET [346 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
A seismic change took place in the Flyers' organization on Thursday, as team president Paul Holmgren stepped down to go into semi-retirement and take on a title as senior advisor to club chairman and Comcast-Spectacor CEO David Scott.

Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher will move into a similar but not identical role to the one Holmgren is leaving, taking on a title of President of Hockey Operations and reporting directly to Scott. As the role was designed for Holmgren by the late Ed Snider, it entailed not only matters pertaining to hockey operations but also the role of stressing the bigger picture of how of all departments within the organization, despite their seemingly different functions, were all parts of the same brand identity.

According to Holmgren's statements during his media conference call, the decision to step down was one of his own volition. Holmgren cited a desire to work less and to spend more time with his grandchildren after spending virtually his entire adult life playing, coaching, managing and serving as a top executive.

"I first approached Dave about this back in June of 2018. We talked about where I was in life and how I wanted to start spending more time with my grandchildren and my family. It kind of started there and we went through the year and nailed down the details as we went along. Obviously, we had some changes during the latter part of November [with the firings of Ron Hextall as general manager and Chris Pryor as assistant GM] and had to work through it. The process was ongoing starting with a conversation last June," Holmgren said.

"I have eight grandchildren that I like and want to get to know and I want to be around. I’ve spent a long time in the hockey world, it’s been a long time with the Flyers and I felt as I went through the year particularly, I thought it’s time to step aside and move on to a different phase in my life."

Holmgren said that, while he will no longer be around the team on a daily basis or be in a direct decision-making role, he would still be around whenever called upon. The only person in franchise history who has served the organization as a player, assistant coach, head coach, scout, assistant GM, general manager and president, was on the verge several times of getting choked up as he spoke.

"I feel like I was raised as a Flyer. I came here as a 20-year-old kid. Right when the Flyers had won two Stanley Cups. I was around when they lost in the finals in my first year with the team. I was raised a Flyer. I’d like to believe I’ll always have some kind of ties to the Flyers organization because of how I feel about them, how I feel about the city, how I feel about the people I’ve worked with in the organization, over the number of years I’ve been here," Holmgren said.

"It’s a family to me. It always has been. And I still see it today as a family. Ed Snider, Bob Clarke, Billy Barber and Bernie Parent and all those guys back in the early 70s, that’s really when it blossomed into that thing. To me, it is still that. And I feel a big part of that. That’s why I stayed. I love the Flyers. I don’t know how to get into it any deeper without getting emotional."

Holmgren said that he has confidence in Chuck Fletcher to put his own stamp in the organization in a positive and successful way; a process that Holmgren believes is off to a good start.

"Once Chuck was in place and we started to get a handle on it.... my perception at the time was we are going in the right direction. Everything Chuck was trying to do and talking about doing and culminate with the things he did prior to the draft, again I’m excited about it and I just thought it was the right time," Holmgren said.

Fletcher will speak to the media on Friday morning.

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At the time when Ed Snider approached Holmgren, then still the Flyers' GM, about becoming the team president, Snider placed both enormous trust and responsibility on him: he told Holmgren that he wouldn't be around forever, and that he believed "Homer" as president would not only protect the brand and "family organization" identity that Snider forged, but also nurture it moving forward. Although Holmgren was first and foremost a hockey person and not a businessman or marketer, he endeavored to learn more about the other facets of the brand, to communicate their goals to the hockey side and to explain the hockey ops side to those used to the corporate world.

If that sounds daunting, it's only because it was. In the three-plus years since Snider passed away, when he faced tough decisions, Homer asked himself, "What would Mr. Snider do in this situation?" His love for Ed Snider was almost like that of a son to a father, and the Flyers were and remain his family. Those who know Paul at all will tell you that he's nothing if not a family man.

When discussing Paul Holmgren's legacy in the organization, I admit that I have a hard time being totally objective. He has always treated me very well, advocated for the work I now do on behalf of the team and made himself available whenever I needed to interview him or ask him a question. Plain and simple, I would not be providing content for the Flyers and serving as the Flyers Alumni Association's content manager if not for Paul believing in me at the beginning. He's never been the one I've worked closest with -- with the Flyers, that'd be Joe Siville and Brian Smith and with the Alumni, it's president Brad Marsh -- but he's always been in my corner.

Among many people in and around the Flyers organization that I count among my own friends, Paul was a good boss and a caring person. Each can tell his or her own story but what I've learned is that Homer -- just like Ed Snider -- has been of great help or influence to scores of people, and never for public attention. He feels he has had many who helped him on his way in the game and in life -- and gave him a second chance at rebuilding his when he was at is nadir. He gave back his unquestionable loyalty to those people, but he also payed it forward to others.

There are players and Alumni in the NHL who needed his help for a variety of reasons. Paul would always -- and still will --- do whatever it is within his power to offer a hand up. Sometimes that meant a new opportunity elsewhere, if a fresh start was needed for hockey or non-hockey reasons.

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That's the human side of Paul Holmgren. On the hockey side, I won't discuss his playing or coaching careers in this blog and will skip ahead to his assistant GM and GM tenure. The long and short of it is that I feel that he doesn't get enough credit, and he receives too much blame.

That doesn't mean there were no missteps along the way. Some trades backfired. There were some regrettable contracts. There were a few situations (such as the handling of Simon Gagne's departures both in the summer of 2010 and 2013) where I think Homer uncharacteristically came up a bit short on the interpersonal level. I think, in sum total, a few too many draft pick assets were traded away for win-now veteran pieces (some of whom worked out better than others).

Guess what: If you dissect any GM's career over, you'll find flaws. No one always makes the right moves. On the whole, though, I think Homer's body of work as GM was a good one.

Let's not forget that, at the point he took over from Bob Clarke as GM, the team was mired in what proved to be the worst season in franchise history -- the only time the Flyers have finished at the bottom leaguewide. Holmgren was only given an interim GM title at first and there were rumors -- which turned out to be true -- that the team was trying to convince Colin Campbell to leave his post with the NHL and come be the general manager. Campbell opted to keep his secure job with the league.

That turned out be one of the best things that ever happened for the Flyers, because it set in motion what became the team's high-water era since the 2004-05 lockout. With a series of astute moves made by Holmgren, including the acquisitions of Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Danny Briere and a young Braydon Coburn, the Flyers were an Eastern Conference Finalist the very next year.

Two years later, after a hard-fought first-round loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh, Holmgren made a very bold move to acquire veteran superstar defenseman Chris Pronger. While Pronger played fine during the 2009-10 regular season -- which proved to be his only healthy year in Philly for reasons that no one could predict at the time -- his true value shined the brightest in the Flyers' run to the Stanley Cup Final.

After an injury-plagued (foot and hand fractures, a wonky back) that kept Pronger out for prolonged periods in 2010-11 his devastating career-ending injury less than halfway through the 2011-12 season (when he was back to playing at an elite level) had long-lasting consequences. First of all, the severe eye injury and related post-concussion issues he suffered from taking a stick to his eye had nothing to do with the player's age. It would have ended anyone's career. Secondly, the sudden loss of Pronger ripped a gaping hole in the Flyers' blueline that brought about a series of moves designed to patch certain elements that Pronger brought.

Even so, the Flyers still managed a first-round upset of the massively favored Penguins, who entered the postseason with an almost fully healthy roster and were pretty much every pundit's pick to go all the way. The Flyers expended all of their emotion and energy in Round 1 and then were methodically picked apart by the Devils in round 2.

Holmgren's ultimate attempt to make up for the sudden and permanent loss of Pronger was the Shea Weber offer sheet; something that ultimately was unsuccessful and which also engendered some resentment around the league. Shortly before that, he had presented the highest monetary offer of any team courting unrestricted free agent Ryan Suter, but Suter's heart was set on going to Minnesota.

We will never know the answer to these questions: How far would the Flyers have gone in 2012 if Pronger hadn't been lost? How much longer would their Cup window have remained opened beyond the span of 2010 to 2012? How many stopgap trades -- such as a second-round pick to Tampa for Pavel Kubina (a former NHL All-Star but, by that point, breaking down physically and a shell of his former self) -- would not have been attempted?

Something else that gets pinned on Holmgren all the time, even though the real story has been published in multiple places: the Sergei Bobrovsky trade to Columbus.

First the context: After Michael Leighton's meltdown in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final and a three-goalie-carousel in 2011 (Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton), Ed Snider quite literally pounded his fist on his desk and demanded a proven solution in goal. Both Holmgren and goalie coach Jeff Reese felt Bobrovsky would be fine as an NHL starter as he continued to mature, but neither could guarantee that would be in his second season.

That was not what the team chairman wanted to hear. After what happened in the 2010 Final and throughout the 2011 playoffs, Snider vehemently insisted on the organization bringing in someone who could be both an immediate No. 1 goalie and, presumably, remain in that role for many years to come. It wasn't a request, it was a demand.

The top available goalie that summer was impending unrestricted free agent Ilya Bryzgalov, who was one season removed from having been a Vezina finalist and who had been selected as Coyotes MVP in back-to-back seasons. After the Flyers acquired Bryzgalov's negotiating rights, Snider personally got the negotiating ball rolling with the player's agent, Ritch Winter. The result was a regrettable union that lasted only two seasons -- not without a few highlights such as Bryzgalov setting team a consecutive minute shutout record -- before it came it an end via the amnesty buyout window agreed upon by the NHL and NHLPA after the 2012-13 partial-season lockout.

In the meantime, Bobrovsky spent one unhappy season as Bryzgalov's backup. He then instructed his agent to request a trade from the Flyers, with the leverage being that the player would otherwise go back to Russia and play in the KHL. Either which way, Bobrovsky wanted out after the 2011-12 season. Holmgren's hands were tied. However, the Bobrovsky camp agreed not to go public with their trade request. That enabled the Flyers to at least get a 2012 second-round pick (Anthony Stolarz) in the deal. Ultimately, after the Vezina-bound Bobrovsky replaced former Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason as Columbus' starter, the Flyers were able to get Mason in a low-cost trade, and he did fairly well for the Flyers for several years thereafter. If nothing else, the Mason years were a definite upgrade on what Bryzgalov had given the team.

In hindsight, it's easy to say "Why didn't Holmgren insist the team stick with Bobrovsky?" But that wasn't the reality of the times. The sting of goaltending being the number one thing that cost the Flyers the Cup in the 2010 Final and then being even worse the next postseason was still fresh. Snider's frustration with the goaltending issue boiled over. Pretty much any GM would do what his boss wanted in that situation.

Unfortunately, it turned out be one of those times where Snider's yearning for a Cup and constant drive to win, worked to his detriment. There were many times over the years where it resulted in a good outcome -- such as bringing back Bernie Parent in 1973, a blockbuster Keith Allen trade that brought in Mark Howe, or endorsing a risky Clarke trade in Feb. 1995 that sent first-line star winger Mark Recchi to Montreal for three players (two of whom happened to be an All-Star caliber defenseman in Eric Desjardins and an about to blow-up into stardom John LeClair).

In 2011, at the same time the Flyers were courting and then about announce the signing of Brygalov, they were also discussing trades involving Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. On the same day that Bryz was signed -- also the eve of the 2011 NHL Draft -- the Flyers traded Richards to LA for young power winger Wayne Simmonds, top LA forward prospect Brayden Schenn and a 2012 second-round pick (later traded to Dallas for Nicklas Grossmann). The team also traded Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Jakub Voracek, the Blue Jackets' 2011 first-round pick (Sean Couturier) and a 2011 third-round selection (Nick Cousins).

If you want more about the specifics on how these trades actually went down and how Couturier was selected, you can read an in-depth recount. Side note: The article would not have been possible without Paul Holmgren's participation and candor.

Some Flyers fans seem to conveniently forget that the real loser of the Carter trade was Columbus. All they got out of the trade was a few months with an unhappy and then injured Carter before he was traded to LA for Jack Johnson. The Blue Jackets came out on the short side of both trades.

Yes, Carter and Richards won two Cup with LA. But it's not like LA wasn't already a contender. They had Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick -- among others -- and added further quality to the mix that was there. Actually, Richards was only a major part of the first Cup. For a variety of on-ice and off-ice reasons, he soon started to decline precipitously, and was a fourth-line center in the second Cup run.

Can anyone honestly say that the Flyers, in the bigger picture, would not have been better off long-term with Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek rather than only Carter? Did they not trade Richards at the peak of his value and, in light of what happened to his career after year one in LA, were better off with Simmonds and Schenn?

Another point: As late as Holmgren's final season as Flyers' GM (2013-14), the team still had enough in place to earn a guaranteed playoff spot in the the tough Metro Division and to push the Rangers to seven games (a 2-1 loss in the finale). New York eventually reached the Stanley Cup Final.

Lastly, it should be remembered that Holmgren, as assistant GM under Clarke, was deeply involved in the Flyers' drafts of the early 2000s to the point when Homer himself became GM. Amateur scouting was not Clarke's first-love or passion as a GM (but is something that Homer enjoys to a higher degree) so much of the Draft oversight was delegated.

By no means was every pick a home run -- which can be said for every club -- but the drafts in these years included the likes of Justin Williams, Richards and Giroux as late first-round picks, and Carter as the 11th overall pick in 2003 (before Richards was selected). The Flyers scouts deserve credit, because it's a collaborative process, but Holmgren was right in the thick of it as well.

The truth of the matter is that the Flyers have drafted pretty well in the first round -- when they've had picks -- for the last 20+ years. They weren't infallible, but the first-round hauls overall were good. The rounds after that were often fallow for various reasons for a number of years-- overtrading of picks being a leading cause -- but most of the first-rounders turned out to be solid NHL players and a couple went on to stardom.

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During the Ron Hextall era, the GM focus shifted to rebuilding the farm system and sorting out the salary cap for the long haul. He did both things quite well, and it was needed on both fronts.

That was done, however, at the expense of trying to continue to compete to be a contender for an indefinite number of years. However, the team also tried to keep just enough in place to at least be a playoff bubble team without adding a significant piece to the mix before the signing of James van Riemdsyk last summer. Twice, the Flyers got into the playoffs. Three times (including the 2019-20 season in which Hextall was fired a quarter of the way into the season) they missed.

But why were the Flyers even still good enough to be a bubble team under Hextall? It was largely the nucleus that Holmgren had assembled -- Claude Giroux, Voracek, Couturier, Simmonds -- without any significant veteran or young vet impact players being added. Hexy was waiting on his Draft picks to develop into NHL contributors and eventually into impact players, but it was still a work in progress.

I don't want to delve too much again here into Hextall's dismissal. What I will say is that it was painful to see the relationships deteriorate. I know that Ron believes in his heart of hearts that he neither micromanaged nor was unreasonable. Others feel just as strongly otherwise.

I took no joy -- just the opposite -- in writing the blog I did after Hexy was let go, about the reasons for it as I understood it. Subsequently, I've heard some of the counterweight views, and it all makes a little more more sense to me.

At its root, there was a breakdown of communication, and with that came a breakdown of trust. Remember: There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth somewhere in between. When there isn't good two-way communication, there's a whisper-down-the-lane effect that snowballs and seemingly small issues multiply in a chasm.

Long-term, I think the Flyers are in pretty safe hands under Chuck Fletcher. He's not some fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants gunslinger eager to tear up the farm system to try only to win now nor is he afraid of a little bit of risk in the effort to move forward at the NHL level. He's kind in the middle ground.

Stylistically, Fletcher isn't Hexy. He isn't Homer. He isn't Clarkie. He's his own man and has his own style. He's gentlemanly and business-like. He's more open than Hexy about certain things (like contract term and cap hit), less accessible about other things -- Chuck will go silent for lengthier stretches. He manages people more along the lines of his dad than along the Ed Snider/ Paul Holmgren way, but that's not necessarily a bad thing and he isn't a carbon copy of Cliff, either.

I cannot predict how things will come together next season but I know what his No. 1 goal is -- cut the team GAA substantially, be deeper through the middle and on D, and surround the youth with some vets who've been mainstays on winning teams -- and it's not a bad approach. I like what he did with the Vigneault hiring and in assembling an equally experienced staff under him. Whether those moves are sufficient to get back into the playoffs and advance is something that will play out over the next year.

What I do know is this: The departure of Paul Holmgren from day-to-day involvement with the organization is the end of an era, even though he will still sometimes be around and will most certainly be pulling for the team as much as ever.
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