Holmgren skates free despite Bryz debacle

Paul Holmgren traded two of the Flyers' top stars in 2012.
Paul Holmgren traded two of the Flyers' top stars in 2012.
Posted: June 27, 2013

It's tough to decide which is more galling - that the Flyers will still be paying Ilya Bryzgalov in 2027 or that, the way things look now, Paul Holmgren will still be the general manager in 2027.

Really. If you can call a news conference to admit a mistake that cost your company $24 million and wasted two NHL seasons, then return to your office without anyone calling security, nothing else is far-fetched.

Holmgren is inarguably a good man and a knowledgeable hockey guy. But he is on a losing streak that would cost most sports executives their jobs. Tuesday's buyout of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is only the latest botch job.

Two years ago, Holmgren decided to blow up the team built around Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. He traded both cornerstone players away, using the cap space to sign Bryzgalov to that mega-contract. The thinking wasn't necessarily that badly flawed, but it's hard to believe Holmgren or anyone else did any serious research on Bryzgalov. He is a talented player with precisely the wrong personality for a high-pressure hockey market like Philadelphia. That took mere minutes for everyone outside the Skate Zone offices to figure out.

Richards and Carter, along with Simon Gagne, added to Holmgren's burden by going out and winning the Stanley Cup last year with the Los Angeles Kings. Sergei Bobrovsky, the goalie Holmgren jettisoned last summer to reinforce Bryzgalov's status, went one better. He won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender in his first season with Columbus.

Meanwhile, Jaromir Jagr, the veteran's veteran Holmgren decided wasn't worthy of a contract, took his leadership and presence and still-considerable game to Boston. He came within 90 seconds of reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

So yes, to be generous, Holmgren looks like Wile E. Coyote at the end of a Road Runner cartoon: covered in dust from a long fall, his hair singed from the dynamite that exploded in his face.

To understand how he remains GM of the Flyers, we turn to David Montgomery.

Last week, in explaining the job security of Ruben Amaro Jr., another GM with a reverse Midas touch, the Phillies president provided a glimpse into the culture of these sports franchises.

"The reality is that when things don't go well, people look to find, well, whose fault is it?" Montgomery said. "I believe in situations like this that when times are good there's enough credit to go around. It's all of us. Ruben is not making independent decisions. He's going with a pretty good group of eyes who are looking out there at players and making determinations."

This applies across the board. It explains why Jeff Lurie granted Eagles GM Howie Roseman a free pass for the first two years of his tenure. It is why Ed Snider and Peter Luukko don't toss Holmgren overboard. Just as Amaro ran his offseason moves past Montgomery, Holmgren and Roseman included their bosses in the decision-making process.

Add in the bonding agent of criticism from fans and the media, which creates an us-against-the-world mentality, and it's easy to see how these front offices turn stagnant. Change is slow, but not impossible.

Andy Reid finally forced Lurie to make the tough decision and relieve him of his command. And while Sixers owner Josh Harris keeps saying the team has an open mind about Andrew Bynum, it is more telling that everyone associated with that trade is gone.

Bryzgalov wasn't quite a disaster on the scale of Bynum. The Flyers didn't trade away a bunch of players to get him. He cost them only a couple of uneasy seasons and a lot of cash. But it was the kind of move that gets people fired.

If there is a lesson here, Holmgren can avoid a similar misstep. The teams that just played for the Cup have won it within the last three years. Both teams won it with different goaltenders. Chicago had Antti Niemi in net in 2010 and Corey Crawford this year. Boston had Tim Thomas in 2011 and Tuukka Rask this year.

Goalies are important, but they aren't more important than the team in front of them. Holmgren, Luukko, and Snider put all their chips on Bryzgalov. They will be paying for that bet until 2028.

That's just the accounting. Accountability is a whole different thing.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter.

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