Give the Flyers an assist for helping the Washington Capitals win the first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s 43-season history.
The Capitals’ first defensive pairing of John Carlson and Michal Kempny did a masterful job throughout the playoffs, and they shut down Vegas’ top line in the Finals.
Carlson, who has blossomed into one of the NHL’s premier defensemen, could have been a Flyer. In 2008, then-Flyers’ general manager Paul Holmgren desperately wanted a righthanded defensemen, so he sent Washington their first-round pick (27th overall) for Steve Eminger and a third-round selection that turned out to be goaltender Jacob DeSerres. (DeSerres, who never reached the NHL, was chosen nine picks before the Caps took Braden Holtby.)
The Capitals drafted Carlson with the pick they received from the Flyers. Eminger, who was Mike Richards’ Kitchner teammate in juniors, played 12 games with the Flyers and was quickly dealt to Tampa Bay with Steve Downie for Matt Carle.
Carle was steady as Chris Pronger’s partner, so at least the Flyers parlayed Eminger into something positive.
That said, they would have been much better off if Holmgren had kept the first-round pick. Carlson, Roman Josi, Justin Schultz, Adam Henrique, and Holtby were some of the players still available at No. 27 that year.
Carlson, 28, is coming off a career season – perfect timing because he can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. He led NHL defensemen with 68 points (15 goals, 53 assists) this season, and he also topped D-men with 20 postseason points (five goals, 15 assists).
Holmgren made some good trades – he got great value in his returns for Richards and Jeff Carter, and started a 2007 rebuilding by acquiring Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, and Braydon Coburn – and some bad ones (see Sergei Bobrovsky and James van Riemsdyk).
Many of his deals have received lots of scrutiny over the years, but the trade that enabled the Caps to grab the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Carlson has fallen under the radar. If Holmgren had been more patient, the Flyers’ promising defense would look golden today.
In a sense, there’s an art to being a general manager and knowing when to be patient and when to strike quickly.
General manager Ron Hextall has been very patient. In his four mostly productive years on the job, he has cleared cap space and built up the farm system by making trades to dump salaries and acquire extra draft picks.
But after watching the Caps win the Cup on Thursday, it’s fair to wonder if Hextall was too patient at the trade deadline.
Hextall could have improved his team by adding a productive defenseman at the trade deadline.
Like the smooth-skating Kempny.
Instead, he added Johnny Oduya, 36, as an emergency defensemen in case someone was injured.
Oduya, who was a waiver-wire pickup, played one game with the Flyers.
The Caps got the speedy Kempny, 27, for a conditional third-rounder, and he played top minutes against big guns like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Vegas’ William Karlsson.
Kempny played a key role down the stretch and in the playoffs.
The Flyers defense, meanwhile, struggled mightily in the postseason, allowing 32 goals (5.3 per game) in the six-game loss to Pittsburgh.
Would the 6-foot, 194-pound Kempny, who is about to become an unrestricted free agent, have made a difference? Maybe, maybe not. But upgrading the team at the deadline, whether it was with a winger or a defenseman, would have sent a message to his players that he was all in for a playoff run.
Hextall, now starting his fifth season, has done a great job at the draft and in improving the farm system. That’s the key to building a Stanley Cup champion. Washington, for instance, had 16 players on its roster who were homegrown.
But Hextall has struggled adding the right mix in the trade and free-agent markets. That needs to change if the Flyers, who made the playoffs this season, finished third in the Metropolitan Division, and had a 10-point improvement from last year, are going to take the next step.
The Caps roster included key players acquired in trades (T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller, Kempny) and free agency (Brooks Orpik, Jay Beagle, Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly).
Hextall, whose team won three of four regular-season games from the Capitals, needs to take a similar path and add important pieces to complement a nice foundation.