As the NHL'S general managers reconvene today in Boca Raton, Fla., for their annual meetings, it is a fitting time to finally handicap the GM of the Year race.
The way we see it, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren should be right at the top of the list with Nashville's David Poile and St. Louis' Doug Armstrong.
The Predators, with their recent additions, are one of the odds-on Stanley Cup favorites. Poile has never won the award, despite spending less and appearing in the playoffs more than most. Armstrong had the cojones to fire a solid, young coach just 13 games into the season. The Blues are the NHL's best team with 97 points.
Even Phoenix' Don Maloney, the inaugural winner of the award in 2010, is worth a look since the Coyotes are looking like a playoff team despite losing their top goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov.
Maloney is a perfect segue to Holmgren, who can thank Bryzgalov's hot play over the last 12 games for pushing him into the finalist's category. (It would have been hard to include him just a few weeks ago, considering Bryzgalov's mediocre play and his behemoth contract.)
But Holmgren has done so much more. Put aside last summer's trades of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, bold moves - trading known commodities for projected promise - few of the NHL's general managers would have made in June.
Forget about the fact that just one part of that trade with Los Angeles, Wayne Simmonds, has more goals (22) and points (41) than Richards. Or that Sean Couturier, who fell into the Flyers' lap with the No. 8 overall pick from Columbus, is already one of the most defensively responsible forwards in the NHL.
Look at the contributions from undrafted rookie Matt Read (19 goals), who garnered a gaudy $2.7 million commitment out of college, and signee Max Talbot (18 goals). That's not to mention the $3.3 million gamble that has paid off in Jaromir Jagr's 46 points and his numerous off-ice contributions.
Could you imagine where the Flyers would be at this point in the season, down Kimmo Timonen, Chris Pronger, and Andrej Meszaros, if Holmgren did not add Nicklas Grossmann and Pavel Kubina (though injured) before the trade deadline?
They would be fighting for their playoff lives. And if Holmgren didn't act when he did, they would have been stuck with a Mike Commodore-type player on Deadline Day.
Instead, Holmgren will leave Boca Raton to search for new diamonds in the rough like Read on the college free-agent market. His team is salary-cap compliant and in a strong financial position for next season. And the Flyers farm system jumped from a No. 30 ranking from The Hockey News last March to No. 17 this week, thanks to those trades.
The Flyers' system would be teeming if Couturier and Brayden Schenn hadn't already graduated. In fact, averaging their annual first-round draft position since 2008 (30th), the Flyers have the league's third-best draft performance, according to The Hockey News.
Yet, Holmgren's marks have depended largely on one player.
"I think Philadelphia is always hard on a goaltender," Scott Hartnell said yesterday. "It's been a while since they've had a legit, No. 1 guy. Bringing 'Bryz' in this summer, I think [fans] expected him to stop every single shot that came at him. That's just not reality. There were some weak ones, and I'm sure he'd be the first to admit it."
Bryzgalov - and Holmgren - are not out of the woods just yet, but the reality is that "Bryz" is now playing much closer to the level of a $10 million goaltender. He was named the NHL's First Star of the week yesterday. He has more shutouts (five) this season than any Flyers goaltender over the last decade, since Roman Cechmanek in 2001-02.
The beauty of Bryzgalov's deal is twofold: His contract is severely front-loaded and his average annual salary (cap hit) of $5.667 million per year is just the sixth-highest among goalies.
In the past, Holmgren has said that some of his best trades as a general manager are the ones he didn't make. That is the case with not mortgaging the future for Columbus' Rick Nash before last month's trade deadline - or acquiring an insurance goalie in case Bryz continued to falter.
Watching it all, you realize it's not an accident. It's time Holmgren is recognized.
GM meetings update
After being discussed for the last 6 years at the annual meetings, it appears that hybrid icing is finally gaining traction at the annual meetings this week in Boca Raton, Fla.
Hybrid icing, already adopted by the NCAA and USHL junior league, is a way to still keep competitive battles for icing in play by taking out the dangerous hits along the end boards. Under the new rule, a linesman would call the race - between an opposing forward and defenseman - for an iced puck at the faceoff dot instead of forcing the defenseman to touch it first to send the faceoff down the other end of the ice. And there doesn't appear to be a downside.
At least 20 out of the NHL's 30 general managers would need to vote on a proposed change today, before sending it for NHLPA and Board of Governors approval. The meetings run through tomorrow.
Paul Holmgren also told reporters that Chris Pronger is "still not doing very well" in his battle with postconcussion symptoms.
"I think the key thing is we continue to talk about player safety," Holmgren said. "We're learning more and more, it seems, not only on the diagnosis of concussions but also the treatment. The diagnosis part, I think we're getting down pretty good. I think the treatment part is the great unknown right now.
"Our players have always been our most important asset. So it behooves us to look at anything that could possibly improve their safety."
Fyers forwards Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn picked their March Madness bracket yesterday on Comcast SportsNet for all to see.
Schenn picked the East and Midwest Regionals, while Simmonds focused on the West and South side of the bracket. The two met in the middle and played "Rock, Paper, Scissors" for their Final Four winners.
Surprisingly, the "Simmer / Schenner" bracket – as they called it – produced a hometown national champion in Temple. Schenn picked the Owls to upset North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
While Simmonds is a big basketball fan, don't put much stock in Schenn's Temple selection. He wasn't even sure of the Owls' chances. "Are they any good?" Schenn asked.
Injured forward James van Riemsdyk, the resident NCAA expert who had foot surgery a week ago, chimed in on Twitter. "Two Canadians filling out a college bball bracket? #bracketbusted," van Riemsdyk (@JVReemer21) tweeted.
THE WEEK AHEAD:
Tonight vs. New Jersey. 7 o'clock, TCN
The Flyers will try to avenge Sunday's 4-1 loss in Newark, N.J., with fifth place in the East on the line. The two teams are tied, though the Flyers have one game in hand.
Thursday at N.Y. Islanders, 7 o'clock, CSN
After righting their ship against the Islanders on March 1 with a 6-3 win to prevent a sweep at the Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers now have a chance to clinch a season-series sweep at Nassau Coliseum. New York is 10 points back of a playoff spot.
Saturday at Boston, 1 o'clock, CSN
How fitting: The Flyers have a St. Patrick's Day matinee scheduled in Boston. While the green beer will be flowing, the Flyers will look to beat up on Tim Thomas and the Bruins, who are just 9-12-1 since Thomas snubbed the White House on Jan. 23.
Sunday vs. Pittsburgh, 12:30 p.m., NBC
By the time Sunday rolls around, Sidney Crosby may well be back in Pittsburgh's lineup. Crosby, who has missed the last 40 games with a concussion/neck injury, said he would wait until at least tonight's game in New York to return. Pittsburgh has won nine straight.