Phil Sheridan: Decision time for Flyers
GM Paul Holmgren is facing tough calls.
If it's true the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in sports - and it is - then it must also be the toughest trophy to lose.
The proof was in the red eyes and scarred faces of the Flyers after Patrick Kane's stealth overtime goal brought sudden death to their remarkable postseason. For the players and for the fans, there was immediate pain that will be followed by a deeper, longer-lasting gratification for two unforgettable and exhilarating months of hockey.
The one person who can't afford the sentimental view is Paul Holmgren, the general manager whose moves did so much to make this trip to the Finals possible. Holmgren can take pride that the team he assembled, playing for the coach he hired, played so well in April, May, and June. But he has to be merciless and clear-eyed if the Flyers still hope to end their 35-year (going on 36) championship drought.
Holmgren should take a quick look at Ruben Amaro Jr.'s handling of the Phillies after their consecutive trips to the World Series. After winning it all in 2008, especially, Amaro easily could have sat back and let 3 million fans roll through the turnstiles to watch the very same team in 2009. Heck, that team might have gone back to the playoffs as it was.
But Amaro didn't do that. He made the quick and difficult decision to part with Pat Burrell, the team's longest-tenured player and a hero of the title-clinching win. Amaro replaced Burrell with Raul Ibanez, a move that paid immediate dividends in the early part of the 2009 season.
And then, with the team in first place at the trade deadline last summer, Amaro went all-in to upgrade his starting pitching. After trying and failing to land Roy Halladay, Amaro made the trade that delivered Cliff Lee to his postseason destiny.
After the Phillies repeated as National League champions, Amaro flipped Lee to help acquire Halladay, rebuilt the bullpen, tweaked the bench, and brought in Placido Polanco to replace the steady Pedro Feliz at third base.
We don't know yet how it will turn out. We do know that the Phillies have remained the NL team to beat by staying aggressive, being bold, and continuing to make moves during the season as weaknesses reveal themselves.
Holmgren has an extra challenge. Does he evaluate these players based on their postseason odyssey or their regular-season oddities? Are they the Eastern Conference champions or the seventh seed that was one shoot-out goal from missing the entire Stanley Cup tournament?
Are they a young team with Claude Giroux, Mike Richards, Ville Leino, and James van Riemsdyk poised for a long run together? Or are they a one-and-done ensemble with an aging core of Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Danny Briere, Simon Gagne, and Ian Laperriere?
It is a great achievement to reach the Cup Finals from a conference that features superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, and Ryan Miller. But it must be acknowledged that chance and circumstance kept the Flyers from having to face any of them in the playoffs. Holmgren has to keep chasing the Penguins and Capitals, especially, if he hopes to establish the Flyers as annual threats to win the Cup.
So hard decisions will have to be made. It helps greatly that, in Peter Laviolette, Holmgren has the right coach in place. Laviolette should have input in deciding which players fit best as he takes the team into what will, after all, be his first full season here.
The first call has to be in goal. In a perfect world, Holmgren would be able to sign soon-to-be-free-agent Michael Leighton to a reasonable contract that allows the GM flexibility to acquire a frontline goaltender via trade. Leighton played better than anyone could have dared to hope over the last six weeks, but he ultimately was exposed by the Blackhawks. It would be good to hang on to him, but a huge risk to hitch the franchise's fortunes to him based on what just happened.
Who will be this team's Burrell? Based on their playoffs, Holmgren might be able to deal someone like Gagne or Briere for better value than they would have brought after the regular season. The risk, of course, is losing a talented player and great team guy.
How about Jeff Carter? Do you part with a young scorer to get a top goalie or add youth and depth to the defense? Was Carter's poor showing in the Finals a result of his injured feet or a sign he doesn't fit Laviolette's system or some combination?
There are risks in any bold move, of course. That's the nature of the business. One lesson you can take from the Phillies, though, is that the real risk is standing pat. Judging by Holmgren's history, it's a lesson he already knows.