Rich Hofmann | Holmgren, Flyers facing future

Posted: June 22, 2007

WHEN HE WAS president, the sign on Harry Truman's desk read, "The Buck Stops Here." When he was coach of the Eagles, the sign on Buddy Ryan's desk read, "If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes."

Signs. They might not always project reality, but instead announce an intention. And sitting here in Paul Holmgren's early days as the Flyers' general manager, on the eve of his first NHL draft as the man making the final decisions, you are torn by two possible signs for his desk.

First:

"The Future is Now."

Or:

"Safe, not Sorry."

It has been a whirlwind, in many ways. Since getting the job in October, following the convulsive firing of coach Ken Hitchcock and the resignation of general manager Bob Clarke, Holmgren has made a series of very big transactions in an attempt to turn around a team that shockingly fell to the bottom of the NHL.

One, the trade of rarely healthy/always enigmatic superstar Peter Forsberg. Two, the acquisition and signing of goaltender Martin Biron. Three, the acquisitions and signings of Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell.

These all were major moves, involving real players and real draft picks and real money. There are these two threads that run through all of them, this overpaying for certainty and this determination to turn things around immediately.

The other day, Holmgren was talking about the need to keep a pipeline of young talent coming through the draft, about how, "The game's changed. You can't just go out and buy all the free agents because of the salary cap."

This is true. Still, the Flyers have made what amounts to three big-money free-agent additions in Biron, Timonen and Hartnell. They have thrown around more money in the last few months than anyone in the NHL. Their creativity is to be applauded but their intentions are obvious. Forget later. Forget an incremental build back to respectability. Biron, Timonen, Hartnell, now.

But it is more than that. Holmgren has revealed a lot about his temperament in the way all of these deals have been done. He has revealed a real confidence. He has shown that he knows what he wants and is unwilling to allow the uncertainties of the NHL's open market to sabotage that vision - even if it means paying top dollar in cash and picks.

So, when Forsberg was unable to commit to the future, Holmgren took the certainty of a deal with Nashville that brought Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, the first-round pick that went back to Nashville for Timonen and Hartnell, and a third-round pick. And when it was decided that Biron was the goal-tender they wanted, they gave up a high second-round draft choice for the privilege of acquiring him and paying him more than they planned in order to keep him off of the free-agent market. In the same way with Timonen and Hartnell, the Flyers traded that late first-round pick for the same privilege. Assets for certainty, again and again - and big money to the players in a salary-capped world.

All of which brings us to tonight, when the Flyers are scheduled to have the second pick in the NHL draft. What will happen? Will they make the pick? Will they trade it, another move for now? Will maddening young defenseman Joni Pitkanen be part of the deal somehow, another sign that the franchise is in a hurry?

"This isn't a once-in-a-lifetime draft," Holmgren said, adding that the player picked at No. 2, "is going to be a good player. I just don't think he's going to be [Alexander] Ovechkin or [Sidney] Crosby."

Trade the pick for a veteran? "We're not going to rule it out," Holmgren said.

But? But? "I think we need to look at any and every way to improve our hockey team," he said.

Strong draft or weak draft, it isn't every day that a franchise has the No. 2 pick. Holmgren spent his managerial career in the drafting and development end of the business, and you have to believe he covets such a high pick. Hanging on to it makes sense here. You cannot afford to ignore your farm system, even if you still have current needs.

The same goes for Pitkanen. Defensemen are notoriously slow to develop in the NHL, and often leave you befuddled at their inability to figure it out. That is pretty much where Pitkanen is right now - inconsistent, needing to grow up, all of that.

But the Flyers can afford to wait here, especially now that they have acquired Timonen, an All-Star caliber guy who will carry the heat and the minutes. They can reduce Pitkanen's role a little, reduce his time on ice a little, and see what happens. The upside is real - we have all seen it in flashes - and worth waiting for.

But will they? And exactly how much of a hurry is Paul Holmgren in?

*

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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