Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Fun Counterfactual: What If Paul Holmgren Didn't Lose His Mind in June 2011?

Last June, Paul Holmgren, the GM of the Philadelphia Flyers, decided he needed to shake his team up. For one thing, he had to settle the situation in his team's crease because the starting goalie job in Philly had been occupied by almost as many men in the previous decade as Sasha Grey. Roman Cechmanek (46 games in '02 and 58 in '03), Robert Esche (40 games in '04 and '06), Antero Niittymaki (46 games in '06 and 52 in '07 before being relegated in back-up duty for two seasons), Martin Biron (62 games in '08 and 55 in '09), Michael Leighton, Ray Emery, and Brian Boucher (all with between 27 and 33 games in 2010) and Sergei Bobrovsky (54 games in '11).

So what did he do? He signed that head case Ilya Bryzgalov from the Coyotes to a 9-year deal worth over $50 million, ensuring that he would not have eight starters in the next decade because for that kind of cash he would be stuck with Bryz no matter what.

Signing Bryz to such an enormous contract meant someone would have to move. The Flyers were already near the Cap and had several players with significant salaries. Danny Briere: $6.5 million, Scott Hartnell: $4.2 million, Kimmo Timonen: $6.3 million, Chris Pronger: $4.9 million, Jeff Carter: $5 million, Mike Richards: $5.75 million, Andrej Meszaros: $4 million. Plus, Claude Giroux would be due a raise coming off his ELC.

Who would Paul Holmgren choose to trade? How about two players who had helped lead his team to the Stanley Cup Final one season earlier, fan favorites who finished the 2010-11 season 3rd and 4th on the team in scoring, captain Mike Richards and the NHL's #7 overall goal scorer Jeff Carter. In return he got Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds from the Kings and Jakub Voracek and two draft picks from the Blue Jackets, one of whom became Sean Couturier 8th overall.

Schenn and Couturier had decent rookie seasons, but neither looked like the kind of player who should be replacing superstars. Simmonds had a career year offensively, but it's yet to be seen whether that success can be repeated.

Richards and Carter were reunited in Los Angeles just prior to the trade deadline and were instrumental in leading the Kings to their first ever Stanley Cup championship this spring. Bryzgalov posted average, but unspectacular numbers that were worse than those he put up behind an inferior Coyotes team in past seasons and not significantly better than what Bobrovsky had done the year before. He also notably gave up several bad goals in the playoffs that may have cost his team a chance at advancing.

So what would have happened this season if Paul Holmgren had not lost his mind on June 23, 2011? Let's hop in the "What if" machine and take a look.

The Kings would have looked much different. Assuming Simon Gagne would still have signed with them they would likely have opened the season as such:

Yikes. That team would have had even more trouble scoring than the current incarnation did. I don't think they would have even made the playoffs. If they had been able to sneak in they would not have been able to take out Vancouver the way they did with Richards and Carter providing a major offensive threat.

The Flyers, on the other hand, would have had a top six featuring:

Yikes again. That's a pretty deep top six. Unfortunately I don't know the Flyers roster well enough to say who their bottom six would have been, but I don't think there's another team in the league that could match that fire power up front.

With a half decent playoff from Sergei Bobrovsky (whose numbers the last two seasons have been comparable to what Bryz gave them this year), I have no doubt those Flyers could have at least advanced past New Jersey and into the conference finals. I still don't think they could have beaten the Rangers though.

So it would likely have been another summer of "What ifs" for Philly fans, which, hey it was anyway. Only in reality they had to watch two of their favorites win the Cup in Los Angeles, and the Flyers are probably farther away from winning it all than they have been in years thanks to Holmgren's brief fit of insanity.

The biggest losers of all in this though? I'll go out on a limb and say the Vancouver Canucks. Take Richards and Carter out of the Kings' line-up and Vancouver would likely have blown through the Western Conference playoffs and there is a very good chance they would have taken the Rangers out with ease in the Finals. Instead, they were first round fodder for the Champs.

So, thanks, Paul Holmgren.

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