First in a series
OTTAWA - All season, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren has steadfastly insisted he likes the team he has put together.
His attempted offseason moves last year, however, suggest otherwise.
By trying to bring free agents Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Zach Parise to Philadelphia, Holmgren, in effect, was saying the Flyers needed major upgrades.
Holmgren can be applauded for trying to add the marquee players, but when he struck out on those three stars, his Plan B - adding recycled free agents such as Ruslan Fedotenko, Kurtis Foster, and Bruno Gervais - was a step backward.
The additions didn't come close to making up for the losses of free agents Jaromir Jagr and Matt Carle. As a result, the Flyers regressed from last season's 47-26-9 mark. They took a 22-22-3 record into Saturday night, and they will miss the playoffs for just the second time in the last 18 seasons.
In short, Holmgren, who masterfully rebuilt the Flyers in his first full season in 2007-08 - a staggering 39-point improvement from the previous year - had a sad-sack season.
Holmgren also failed to give coach Peter Laviolette a dependable backup goalie for most of the season. That's one of the reasons Laviolette used Ilya Bryzgalov for 22 straight games during a six-week stretch.
Bryzgalov later admitted the workload wore on him, and he had an "empty tank."
Injuries didn't help, "but good teams fight through stuff like that," Holmgren said.
Until a meaningless late-season surge, the Flyers had little assistance from their struggling minor-league affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms. Put it all together and you have a team that always seemed out of sync in the lockout-shortened, 48-game season.
Holmgren's biggest mistake may have been underestimating Jagr's value, on and off the ice. He made Jagr's agent an offer - believed to be a lowball bid - during last season. Predictably, it was rejected. After last season, Holmgren tried to replace Jagr at wing with Parise, and he put a more competitive offer to Jagr on hold.
Jagr, a physical-fitness addict and a great locker-room presence, didn't wait. He signed with Dallas.
It is no coincidence that Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell had career years with Jagr as one of their linemates. Hartnell, whose season was hindered by a broken foot, and Giroux weren't the same players without Jagr.
Without Jagr, the offense drooped. Jake Voracek (career-high 22 goals) was the only forward who exceeded expectations.
The offense missed blossoming James van Riemsdyk, who was dealt to Toronto for Luke Schenn. The trade worked for both teams as Schenn emerged as the Flyers' best defenseman in the season's final month.
Holmgren had been counting on second-year forwards Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, and Matt Read to continue to progress.
All took a step back.
Entering Saturday's season finale, the Flyers were averaging 2.77 goals per game, a drop of nearly a half-goal per game from the previous season, when they finished tied for No. 2 in the NHL (3.17 goals per game).
Because of so many injuries to their defensemen, Hartnell said, the Flyers weren't in their usual attack mode, a Laviolette trademark. The forwards spent more time on defense than usual.
"Obviously it's one of the reasons we weren't capable of doing some offensive things like we did last year," Voracek said of the injuries. "It's been a hard year for us. Some games were good, some games were bad."
The Flyers started the season 2-6 and never fully recovered. Almost every time they started to climb the standings, they stumbled.
It was like watching Groundhog Day, but instead of the situation improving, it went the other way.
"You dig yourself a hole, you have to stop digging," Hartnell said. "The way we were playing, and the mistakes we were making, we weren't stopping. It seemed like we'd just keep on going down. There were flashes [of good play] and then there'd be a bounce or whatever and we'd go back to our old ways. It was inconsistency and frustration, I think, the whole year."
With teams allowed to make as many as two buyouts under the new collective bargaining agreement, changes are coming.
"We'll sit down and talk with the players and coaches in the group, and then the coaches individually," Holmgren said of his immediate plans.
The general manager's offseason wish list figures to include a high-scoring winger and a No. 1 defenseman.
Actually, Holmgren already started to remake the Flyers by acquiring goalie Steve Mason from Columbus on April 3. For the GM, that was Step One toward redeeming himself. Many more steps are needed.