Quick, what do Paul Holmgren and Chuck Fletcher have in common?
They both willingly acquired Ilya Bryzgalov. Under duress.
The difference is that while Holmgren’s big nine-year, $51 million signing in the summer of 2011 cash-strapped the Flyers, forced the trades of some notable assets, and was a contributor to the cap hell that Ron Hextall was brought in to alleviate, Fletcher swapped a fourth-round pick to the Oilers in 2014 for Bryzgalov, needing an emergency goalie at the time.
Bryz played only a dozen games for the Wild that season before moving on to the Anaheim Ducks, so the similarities end there.
At least the Bryz similarities. What you get from a review of the moves made by the next GM of the Flyers is the impression that, like Hextall, he has been better as an assistant GM — in places such as Florida, Pittsburgh, and Anaheim — than he has running the show.
Like Hextall, Fletcher’s first tenure as general manager was most notable for rejuvenating a barren farm system. Unlike Hextall, the fruits of that labor showed results by his fourth season, as the Wild made the first of their six straight playoff appearances.
It’s the biggest reason Fletcher’s term lasted nine full seasons as compared to four and change for Hextall’s. Fletcher’s ouster last spring came despite reaching the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, despite injuries to stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
"I want someone to help me with a plan that for the next three or four years [is] to win a Stanley Cup,” Wild owner Craig Leopold said on that April day he sacked Fletcher.
Paul Fenton, a well-respected assistant GM with Nashville, is now on the clock. The Wild are in place to be the second wild-card team in the Western Conference.
What the Flyers no doubt like is Fletcher’s willingness. The son of a Hall of Fame executive whose nickname was ``Trader Cliff," the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. And like his father’s, Chuck Fletcher’s deals and signings have been a mosh pit of wows and winces.
He has traded away budding stars and traded for them, has acquired picks and used them as currency. He went for it all in free agency back in 2012, outbidding a number of teams that included the Flyers for Suter and Parise.
Unlike Hextall, he has also been willing to part with prized picks for a rental. His 2017 trade-deadline deal for Martin Hanzal and Ryan White and a fourth-round pick not only failed to move the Wild into the second round, but it also cost them their 2017 first-round pick, their second-round pick in 2018, and a conditional pick in the coming draft.
Hanzal left after the season.
This is the kind of deal that Hextall steadfastly vowed he wouldn’t make over the last four seasons, and assumedly is part of what Holmgren was referring to when he deemed the man he once hired “unyielding” when he fired him last week.
Now, Hextall has left his successor in a place he could only dream about when he took over in Minnesota. Picks galore, prospects on the precipice of the NHL and a young group already there, a core group of players at or approaching hockey middle age that should be starved for success.
``For me, there’s the three stages,’’ Hextall said during a farewell press conference Friday. ``Clean the cap up, gather assets and develop and implement young players and third stage, OK we’re close ... now we’re going to sell the farm. Again, I didn’t feel we were quite at that stage."
Dave Scott, the Flyers chairman, might disagree. He used the word ``stockpile’’ to describe the number of prospects and picks Hextall had assembled amid that unyielding rebuild of the team’s infrastructure. The context was that this stockpile could be used by a less intransigent GM to accelerate the ``two to three more years timeline’’ Scott had been recently given by Hextall, amid the latest bout of bad play by the Flyers.
Ah, but be careful what you wish for. Fletcher might be an outsider — not since Russ Farwell back in the early ’90s has the team had a GM that wasn’t an ex-player — but the approach is not foreign. In pushing to push into the second round and past it — the Wild have lost 16 of their last 20 playoff games — Fletcher left the stockpile in Minnesota a little light. Over the last four amateur drafts, the Wild have had three picks in the first round, one in the second, and two in the third.
If that sounds familiar, it should. It’s a big part of why Holmgren brought Hextall back from L.A. in 2013, and bumped himself upstairs a year later in naming him GM.
It might be the best move Holmgren ever made.
But if he doesn’t make it two in a row with Fletcher, no one’s going to remember that.