TICK, TOCK. Tick, tock.
The clock is ticking. The puck drops on the Stanley Cup playoffs in 78 days.
For Paul Holmgren, one foot is in a frying pan and the other one is in a pressure cooker. The next 6 weeks leading up to the March 5 trade deadline could make or break his tenure as Flyers' general manager.
It just so happens that Holmgren will have to navigate the toughest trade-deadline situation any general manager has seen in the NHL's nine salary-capped seasons.
The looming 16-day Olympic break next month has essentially created an additional, artificial deadline for the league's 30 top executives to tinker with their rosters. The Olympic break also happens to occur in a season in which the salary cap has decreased for the first time ever, thanks to last season's 113-day lockout.
"It's obviously different than in years past," Holmgren said yesterday. "You don't get a real deadline to work with. We play six games before the Olympics, and then we come back and only have another [three] games to make a move.
"Right now, it's getting to the point where we need to see what we have, see what's out there and make a move if we're going to do it."
So far, the trade deadline this March is fixing to be among the most quiet in recent memory. As of yesterday, there had been 13 trades leaguewide so far this season, when the 10-year average for the league hovers closer to 20 by this time.
The NHL's cap dropped from $70.2 million last season to $64.3 million this season. According to CapGeek.com, 10 teams had less than $1.5 million in salary-cap space to acquire a player, as of yesterday. It will rise to $71.1 million this summer - creating a temporary squeeze at this year's deadline.
Package a decreasing supply of available talent with an increased demand before the deadline with the fact that 11 teams - including the Flyers-are situated within eight points of a playoff berth, and, well, you can understand the dilemma.
What does all of that mean for the Flyers? Holmgren said he met with Craig Berube and the rest of the coaching staff yesterday - a day off for the players.
"I think the coaches and I were all on the same page," Holmgren said. "I think every team has some things they'd like to work on, but I firmly believe in the nucleus that we have here."
That's when Holmgren stopped himself.
"That doesn't mean if something comes up now and for the future, that we wouldn't think about it," Holmgren said. "We'll continue to look around. But it would have to be something that makes sense for both."
The Flyers were involved in one of the 13 prior trades this season, sending Max Talbot to Colorado for Steve Downie on Halloween.
It is amazing how fast everything changes in the day-to-day world of the NHL. Three weeks ago, the Flyers were fifth in the East. Now they're on the outside, looking in at the playoffs. Two weeks ago, defenseman Andrej Meszaros racked up nine points in six games, building himself up as a trade commodity. On Saturday, he was a healthy scratch.
"I think we've hit a bit of a rough patch here," Holmgren said. "To me, execution is the biggest thing. We're not executing as well as we were a month or 2 ago. Our breakouts and defense haven't done a good enough job, and that affects play in the neutral zone. Offensively, we're not converting at the pace we were, and that's part of the problem, too."
The one piece the Flyers so desperately need - a legitimate, No. 1 defenseman - is unlikely to be readily available at the deadline. Any team coveting one is already either firmly in the playoffs or within striking distance of a spot.
According to league sources, the defensemen available right now are such names as Florida's Mike Weaver or Colorado's Ryan Wilson. They are more like rental stopgaps, not contender gap closers.
Foundation-altering defensemen don't grow on trees. Any push to acquire one would need to come in a major offseason operation. For instance, if you're Predators GM David Poile, and you're finally willing to move financial disaster Shea Weber after stocking up with Seth Jones, Michael Del Zotto and Roman Josi, would you trade him in the next month or this summer, when you can get more for him at the draft?
And all of that begs another fascinating question: How does Holmgren walk the tightrope between managing the future and making a move for the present? He is unlikely to be the surgeon at the Flyers' operating table this summer without a playoff appearance this spring.
If anything, the next thing on the Flyers' wish list should be speed - on both offense and defense. Skating clearly separates them from the Penguins, Lightning, Bruins and even Rangers.
Despite the obstacles, something tells me Holmgren will be in the mix - possibly even before the Olympic break. To make no moves, and completely trust the build of this wildly inconsistent team to make a run, would be playing with fire.
"There are ways we can deal with the salary cap and get around things, if we need to," Holmgren said. "There will be deals to be made."
23: Points for Wayne Simmonds in his last 20 games, the only Flyer undeserving of criticism during this 2-5-2 run.
.889: Steve Mason’s save percentage since Dec. 8. He has been yanked from two of his last three starts since signing that $12.3 million extension.
.694: Combined points percentage (102-40-17) this season of the Flyers’ three opponents in California. They are 41-14-8 against the Eastern Conference.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Tonight, 7 o’clock
There has been a serious amount of roster turmoil for the Red Wings this season. Both Pavel Datsyuk (lower-body) and Henrik Zetterberg (back) missed Sunday’s shootout loss to Florida. Zetterberg was on a tear, with eight points in his last four games. The Wings are coming off a 3-1-1 homestand, and Daniel Alfredsson, Johan Franzen and Jonathan Ericsson are all back in the lineup.
Thursday, 10 p.m.
The Flyers’ first trip to Orange County in more than 2 calendar years was set to be a hell of a story — before the Winnipeg Jets, of all teams, ruined it. Anaheim (20-0-2) was set to challenge the Flyers’ NHL record 25-game unbeaten streak at home to start a season and could have tied it against the Flyers. But the Jets beat them, 3-2, on Jan. 21. Anaheim (83 points) is the NHL’s unquestioned best team.
at Los Angeles
Saturday, 4 o'clock
Amazingly, the Flyers will face Mike Richards (35 points) and Jeff Carter (20 goals) together in Los Angeles for the first time since their June 23, 2011, trades. The offensively challenged Kings entered last night’s actions winless (0-4-1) in their last five games. Jonathan Quick (2.09 goals-against average, .915 save percentage) has been as good as ever.
at San Jose
Monday, 10:30 p.m.
San Jose is nearly as impressive (19-2-3 before last night) at the Shark Tank. The Sharks rode into last night with a six-game overall winning streak. Three Sharks have more than 48 points: Joe Thornton (55), Joe Pavelski (53) and Patrick Marleau (48), compared with no Flyers. Only the Kings, Blues and Bruins have given up fewer goals (125) than the Sharks. The Flyers have not beaten San Jose (0-8-5) since Dec. 21, 2000.
On Twitter: @DNFlyers