Despite struggling against the Buffalo Sabres and needing seven games to emerge victorious, and despite being swept by the Boston Bruins in the next round, the Philadelphia Flyers should again be one of the Eastern Conference favorites in the 2011-2012 season.
First of all, I believe the Flyers’ first order of business should be the firing of head coach Peter Laviolette. Laviolette apologists will claim that he is a good coach because he won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes. With all due respect to the Edmonton Oilers, there were better teams in the West that season and the Oilers got hot at the right time. Furthermore, the Hurricanes had a pretty good team that season, regardless of the man behind the bench.
Laviolette apologists will also mention that the Flyers’ successful record during his time as coach shows that his coaching methods work for the Flyers; however, I do not buy that. The reality is that the Flyers have a very talented team and would win many games on talent alone. Great coaches are those who bring out the best in their players and utilize their talents properly.
Frankly, Laviolette was just lucky in Carolina. He jerked Cam Ward around for a while before finally coming to his senses and naming Ward as the playoff starter. Also during his time at Carolina, Laviolette entirely misused defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky by never putting him on the power play (Tverdovsky had 23 points in 72 games, despite not playing on the power play).
Laviolette’s misuse of players continued for years, and this season was an excellent example of his incompetence. Forward Nikolay Zherdev played very well for the Flyers early in the season and was usually one of the best players on the ice; his lack of assists were the result of his teammates simply not finishing their chances. How did Laviolette reward Zherdev for his strong play on the ice? He didn’t. Laviolette criticized Zherdev and often made him a healthy scratch. His misuse – or lack of use – of Zherdev continued for much of the season.
Laviolette also messed up the handling of the Flyers’ goalie situation in the playoffs. Sergei Bobrovsky was brilliant in game one of the series against the Buffalo Sabres (Sabres won in overtime). Bobrovsky struggled in game two of the series and gave up a soft goal; Laviolette wasted no time whatsoever in creating a goalie controversy. Laviolette pulled Bobrovsky and proceeded to play musical chairs with Brian Boucher, Michael Leighton and Bobrovsky throughout the playoffs.
Bobrovsky is an excellent young goaltender and is not to blame for the Flyers’ struggles in the playoffs. Bobrovsky was fine, but Laviolette apparently has no patience for Russians (see Tverdovsky and Zherdev in addition to Bobrovsky). Laviolette should have stayed with Bobrovsky throughout the playoffs. There was no goalie controversy until Laviolette created the controversy himself and disrupted the flow of the team.
Laviolette is a subpar coach who is incapable of evaluating talent and has a bad feel for what is clicking and what is not. There are times when he finds line combinations that click and his team looks great on the ice, only to be broken up by new combinations within the next few shifts. He also does not utilize the talents of his players properly. The only positive thing I have to say about Laviolette is he seems to be very good at knowing when to call a timeout!
If the Flyers wish to win the Stanley Cup, then they must move on and hire a coach to replace Laviolette. If the Flyers do hire a new coach, he should have enough sense to utilize the abilities of his players and keep Jeff Carter and Mike Richards together as linemates (they bring out the best in each other on the ice).
With all due respect to Boucher, I would not re-sign him if I were Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. Boucher played well for the Flyers this season; however, the Flyers need to move on and either name Bobrovsky as the starter, or acquire an elite goaltender and make Bobrovsky the backup for a year or two. Holmgren should seriously consider trading Leighton on draft day; if there are no takers for Leighton, I recommend buying out the final year of his contract.
If the Flyers decide to make Bobrovsky the backup, then they should make a serious move for unrestricted free agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun (Florida Panthers). Rather than waiting for Vokoun to hit free agency on July 1 and enter a bidding war, Holmgren should talk to Florida and ask for permission to negotiate a contract with Vokoun. If Florida gives permission and Vokoun agrees to a deal, then the Flyers should trade forward Scott Hartnell to the Panthers for the rights to Vokoun and sign him.
Vokoun’s 22-28-5 record this season is very misleading, as he was one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. Vokoun’s 2.55 GAA was accompanied by his six shutouts and .922 save percentage. Over the past three seasons, Vokoun is 71-79-22 with a 2.53 GAA, 19 shutouts and .924 save percentage. With the Flyers, Vokoun would still have an elite save percentage while having many more wins and an improved GAA.
Trading Hartnell would give the Flyers the cap relief they need to take on Vokoun and the salary they give him. Furthermore, the Flyers have no need for the overpaid Hartnell, especially with James van Riemsdyk on the rise.
Zherdev is an unrestricted free agent, and I strongly believe the Flyers should re-sign him. Not only should they re-sign Zherdev, but they should fire Laviolette and replace him with a coach who will properly utilize Zherdev’s abilities.
More importantly, the Flyers need to re-sign unrestricted free agent forward Ville Leino. I believe Leino can conceivably command $3 million per year. If Leino indeed does command such value, then Holmgren may have to trade somebody to make room for the signing.
I would recommend trading forward Kris Versteeg (a hair over $3 million on the cap). Acquiring Versteeg seemed like a senseless move to me. I was puzzled by it; however, I have doubts that Holmgren will trade Versteeg, as he traded a first-round pick and a third-round pick to acquire him.
Nevertheless, I believe Holmgren should admit the Versteeg deal was a mistake and just bite the bullet on it via trading him (heck, package him with Hartnell in a deal for Vokoun if need be).
If Holmgren decides not to trade Versteeg, then he likely may have to trade one of two defensemen: Braydon Coburn or Matt Carle. I doubt there would be any takers for the contracts of defenseman Kimmo Timonen or forward Daniel Briere (both have cap hits over $6 million).
Forward Daniel Carcillo is a restricted free agent. I believe Holmgren should tender a qualifying offer to Carcillo. Carcillo is a better hockey player than he is given credit for. Forwards Andreas Nodl and Darrol Powe are also restricted free agents. I recommend tendering qualifying offers to them as well; however, I believe Nodl should be in the AHL.
If I were the GM
- Get permission from the Panthers to negotiate a contract with Tomas Vokoun
- If Vokoun agrees to a deal, then trade Kris Versteeg and Scott Hartnell for Vokoun
- Tender qualifying offers to Andreas Nodl, Daniel Carcillo and Darroll Powe
- Re-sign UFA Ville Leino (top priority)
- Re-sign UFA Nikolay Zherdev
- Trade Jody Shelley or buy out his contract
- Trade Michael Leighton or buy out his contract
- Re-sign UFA Sean O’Donnell to one-year contract
If Holmgren were to follow my line of thinking, the Flyers’ roster could look something like this next season:
Leino – Richards – Carter
van Riemsdyk – Giroux – Zherdev
Left Winger – Center – Briere
Carcillo – Betts – Powe
Carle – Pronger
Coburn – Timonen
Meszaros – O’Donnell
If Holmgren makes the moves I think he should make, then the top two lines are loaded with scoring talent while the fourth line is already established. There would be plenty of flexibility for the third line, as they could use Nodl to fill in on the wing of the third line, or they could find a free agent winger to sign. You can always find good wingers and centers for your third line on free agency. If the Pittsburgh Penguins do not re-sign UFA center Maxime Talbot, he would be a good acquisition for the Flyers’ third line.
I am curious to see how many of my ideas Holmgren implements into his offseason strategy. I believe my ideas provide the Flyers with line combinations that would utilize the abilities of their players properly and establish offensive firepower without lacking in grit (provided that they make the right signings for their third line).