Holmgren still waiting for a breakthrough

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Paul Holmgren took his seat in the upper reaches of the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night and once again, just like you, he waited for the madness to end.

The Flyers came into the game against the New Jersey Devils having scored the fewest goals in the league, and exited it the same way. It is a team-wide slump that cost coach Peter Laviolette his job after just three games. It is a continuing problem that has nailed them to the bottom of an eight-team division that might advance only three teams to the playoffs. The season is still young, of course, but aging quickly.

"It doesn't make sense to me. We're all scratching our heads. I don't know what to call it, but we need to get out of it," the Flyers general manager said before the 3-0 loss. "It doesn't make sense with the people we have who have scored in the past, and not just one-hit wonders, but guys who have done it consistently. Right now, as a group, we're struggling."

With each passing shift, each period, each game, there are longer stretches during which the Flyers seem to be squeezing the sticks too tightly, not wanting to commit the turnover or the bad pass or let fly the next shot that misses. Hockey doesn't usually reward that timidity. In fact, quite the opposite.

"I said to them that we're afraid to play sometimes," Holmgren said. "I don't mean physically afraid or anything like that, but you've got to play the game."

So, he watches and waits and hears the growls and howls from the seats below. There are valid criticisms about the way this team was constructed, but there isn't a team in the NHL that was put together perfectly. When the construction doesn't work, however, the GM hears about it and eventually he has to do something drastic. The Flyers don't mind drastic as an organization, but they don't seek it out.

"I continue to like our group of players. I think we've got good young players in place and I'm patient in that regard. I like our young players and I hope they turn it around, for their sake," Holmgren said.

In trying to get from here to there, the Flyers have taken their swings before. They moved past Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, past James van Riemsdyk, past Sergei Bobrovsky, and each move made sense at the time, but hasn't led them closer to their ultimate goal.

Meanwhile, Richards and Carter win a Cup somewhere else and the salary room they gained in order to sign goalie Ilya Bryzgalov ended up costing them. Bobrovsky leaves and wins the Vezina Trophy for another team. Van Riemsdyk is exchanged for defenseman Luke Schenn, a very reasonable trade, and here we sit with Schenn doing the same thing, a healthy scratch for the third straight game against the Devils.

"I can certainly see why people would say we're [impatient]. We have made our share of changes in my time, but I like to believe we think we made those changes for the better of the organization," Holmgren said. "We felt that, in the return on those trades, we got good players back. At the end of the day, we'll benefit from the guys we got back. It might not be this year, but we'll benefit down the road."

This is the season being played at the moment, however, and the Flyers continue to squeeze the sticks. They seem to skate tentatively at times, each stride a measured one, trying to avoid a mistake.

"The first period against Anaheim here last week, we looked like the Harlem Globetrotters. We were moving the puck, skating, everything was working. We jump out to a 2-0 lead," Holmgren said. "Then [Anaheim] gets a goal and then we make a mistake and they get another goal. And then it becomes any kind of adversity setting you back."

The Flyers lost that game 3-2 - on their heels from the moment Anaheim scored. What is the answer? The defense has been good enough, the goaltending usually very good, but the offense waits for the perfect opening and is either skated off the puck or easily turned aside.

"There's not a lot of pretty goals scored in the league anymore. There are a lot of funky goals that go off multiple players," Holmgren said. "You just have to keep throwing the puck at the net. Get to the front of the net with traffic and rebounds and get those greasy goals. We have to try to kick down the door at the front of the net."

The door stayed up in Thursday's shutout against the Devils, and the Flyers have scored just 22 goals in their 15 games, and just four goals in the last five games. The general manager keeps waiting, but can't wait forever.

"I think you're always in the process where you're looking at your team," Holmgren said. "Is there something bigger coming if things continue to go this way? Who knows?"

Oh, he knows. No one knows, however, what that might be this time.