Sam Donnellon: As free agency looms, who knows what unpredictable Flyers GM Holmgren will do

Posted: June 29, 2012

THE OTHER day, Donald Fehr said something about starting the hockey season without a new collective bargaining agreement in place. And so I checked to make sure there wasn't another Donald Fehr out there besides the one who currently heads up the National Hockey League Players Association.

Once capable of rhetoric worthy of a Jihad leader, Fehr has mellowed since his combative days as the union chief of major league baseball's players and now sounds downright conciliatory when discussing the battle over what amounts to 7 percent of the sport's revenue. Right now, players get 57 percent. The league wants them to take 50.

But Fehr is also aware, as we all are, of the public-relations nightmare the NHL owners would face if they again locked out their own players and canceled games, even an entire season, as they did in 2004-2005.

Things have never looked better for the league. The American public loves its gimmicks like the Winter Classic and the Toronto-based, goal-reviewing "War Room." It's got a brand-new powerful sports network that is as interested in growing the sport as owners are. It just presented a Stanley Cup to a team in one of its harder-to-crack large markets.

And thanks to the new network and its Olympic exposure, there are more identifiable stars in its league than at any time in its history.

Which leads us to the Flyers and Paul Holmgren, who has clearly eclipsed Ruben Amaro Jr. as the town's most unpredictable general manager, and most surprising. Imagine if you will that the Phillies or Eagles used their first pick to draft a guy that scout services predicted would go much later, and imagine the outrage that would immediately follow.

Instead the reaction here is best described like this: They must know what they're doing.

Last year at this time, Holmgren traded two core players with big contracts — including the team captain — and drafted Sean Couturier, another guy down on that scout-service list. The concern then was that the team would miss the offense Jeff Carter and Mike Richards provided and would miss Richards' leadership. The emergence of Claude Giroux from star to superstar and team leader covered a good chunk of that, and then Homer and his staff poured out all these rookies from their system and from the aforementioned trades, and that took care of the rest.

The Flyers quickly morphed from what seemed to be a rebuilding phase to this — a sense that they are a few small pickups away from being a team that can win on nights when they don't play at 100 or even 80 percent. The offense is deep and maturing. The defense needed a few bodies. The one uncertainty is whether Ilya Bryzgalov's up-and-down season was really a 1-year adjustment glitch or the start of a 9-year itch.

Holmgren can do nothing but wait to find out about Bryz, although his second-round selection of condor-in-the-crease, 6-5 goaltender Anthony Stolarz, of Jackson, N.J., is worthy to note. The Flyers also picked four defensemen among their seven picks, but d-men generally take longer to become NHL-ready than offensive players. So don't expect immediate help there.

In the meantime, though, Holmgren acquired a bigger, hit-happy defenseman in Luke Schenn and gave up just 11 goals in offense from last season's team. Swapping James van Riemsdyk for Schenn was a salary swap, too. And so according to our hockey writer, Frank Seravalli, the Flyers enter the free-agency period that starts this weekend with about $14 million available under the new $70.2 million cap.

That's assuming $4.9 million in relief by placing Chris Pronger on the long-term injured list, and it's not taking into account the $4.5 million or so Matt Carle will get if their intention to re-sign him goes as planned. Even if Carle is signed, it leaves Homer with about $9 million to play with, which will allow him to at least sit at the unrestricted free-agent table in the ensuing days.

That's a far cry from Homer's early days as a GM, when he had to play a beer-league defenseman for a few games just to remain under the cap. Oddly, though, the Flyers receive little mention as suitors for the sexy free-agent names out there. Reports are that coveted defenseman Ryan Suter wants to play in the west. New Jersey's Zach Parise would like to go back to the Devils, but if not, the Penguins and Minnesota Wild are said to be very interested. Even 21-year-old college player Justin Schultz has let it be known that he would rather not be in Philadelphia.

Then again, no one expected what happened at this time last summer, so stay close to your mobile devices down at the shore this weekend. Just in case.

It wasn't that long ago that Amaro ruled this time of year, grabbed Cliff Lee one summer then Roy Oswalt the next and last year Hunter Pence. Now it's Holmgren and the Flyers who have our undivided attention as June turns to July.

And that alone is stranger than what's coming out of Donald Fehr's mouth these days.

Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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