There may be an impulse to think that – because Paul Holmgren has stepped down as the Flyers’ president, because he will no longer have a hands-on role with the franchise after 40 years tethered to it as a player, coach, and executive – the Flyers are headed in a new direction. This is exactly wrong.
Yes, Holmgren was an institution here, and for a while, it will feel strange that a man so loyal to the franchise for so long won’t be a direct part of it.
“It’s a family to me,” Holmgren said Thursday. “It always has been, and I still see it today as a family. … That’s why I stayed. I love the Flyers.”
The fact that the two men at the top of the hierarchy, CEO and governor Dave Scott and president/general manager Chuck Fletcher, don’t have lengthy professional and personal ties to the Flyers would seem, at first, a sign that the organization is bound to blaze a new trail, but that’s the opposite of what’s happening.
Fletcher will assume Holmgren’s duties, reporting directly to Scott. As a conference call Thursday with Holmgren and Scott made clear, Fletcher had earned this ascension by putting into action a plan familiar to anyone who has observed the Flyers over the last four decades.
The Flyers had missed the playoffs three times during Ron Hextall’s five seasons as their GM, their Stanley Cup drought had stretched on and on, and it didn’t matter that Hextall was carrying out the hard process of replenishing a hollowed-out farm system and reshaping a roster stuffed with too many bad contracts and marginal NHL players. The Flyers weren’t improving fast enough, and Hextall was alienating too many friends and colleagues. Everything needed to change. They needed to get better, and they needed to get better now.
That’s what they had done in the past, and in the minds of Scott and Holmgren, it was what they needed to do again.
Holmgren said he had first talked to Scott in June 2018 about his possible departure. It wasn’t, however, until Hextall was gone, Fletcher was here and the Flyers started falling back on strategies they’d used before – trading for the exclusive right to negotiate with a free agent, trading draft picks for veterans – that Holmgren felt comfortable enough with the franchise’s direction to step away, and that Scott felt comfortable enough to let him.
“It certainly became apparent to me that Chuck’s got a really good grasp of things,” Holmgren said. “He loves the Flyers. He knows the iconic brand of the Flyers. He knows how important the Flyers are to the city of Philadelphia, and he wants to get us back where we should be. Once I recognized that – and I believe Dave did, too – I thought, ‘This is a good time for me to let Chuck do his thing.’ He’s a good guy. He’s good at what he does.”
“When we were recruiting Chuck, the one specific question I had was, what can we really do to make the team better now?” Scott said. “We had a really good core of vets and a huge pipeline. I was really challenging Chuck – you were, too, Paul – what can we do to make the team better? I think he’s proved that he’s able to do that.”
Actually, Fletcher hasn’t proved that. Carter Hart’s presence alone was enough to stop the Flyers’ free fall last season, but Fletcher’s decision to call up Hart was hardly a stroke of genius. At first, he didn’t want to do it – an injury to Anthony Stolarz forced his hand – and Hextall, despite all the complaints about his being too patient, wasn’t going to keep Hart in the AHL forever.
It’s certainly possible, even likely, that Fletcher’s acquisitions of Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, and Justin Braun will help the Flyers become a playoff team again. But there’s no guarantee of it yet, and it remains to be seen how deeply Fletcher and Scott will dip into that pipeline of picks, prospects, and young players to satisfy a franchise and a fan base that are hungry to be relevant immediately.
Hextall was often a man on an island in his belief in protecting the Flyers’ future, and Scott left no doubt Thursday that he and Holmgren prefer Fletcher’s willingness to put their vision into practice.
“He’s a collaborative guy,” Scott said. “He’s smart. He’s got a very open style. So I came over, spent a day with Paul, and I was so impressed with the group of people we have there. We have Chuck’s staff there. We have the new coaching staff there. We had the analytics people together. It was something I hadn’t seen in the six years I’d been here: full collaboration and everybody agreeing on what moves we were going to make.”
That collaboration – that lockstep thinking that long characterized the franchise – will extend beyond the offices in Voorhees. It already has. Bob Clarke advises Fletcher. Bill Barber advises Scott. Holmgren isn’t leaving the area.
“I’ll be available for Dave whenever he needs me or wants to talk about anything,” he said. “Same with Chuck.”