How to succeed in NHL

Flyers’ Randy Jones, left, and Lasse Kukkonen, right, celebrate with teammate Martin Biron, after...

Flyers’ Randy Jones, left, and Lasse Kukkonen, right, celebrate with teammate Martin Biron, after the goaltender stoned the Montreal Canadiens in round 2 of the NHL playoff series.

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 4:02 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- When Bobby Clarke decided he'd had enough -- and wanted no more of last place -- the Philadelphia Flyers were so unconvinced about Paul Holmgren they gave him the title of interim general manager.

It wasn't exactly a vote of confidence.

For awhile he was the interim boss. Then, the interim tag was dropped but no contract assurance came his way. And only after last year's trade deadline, after he had traded Peter Forsberg away for something of a king's ransom, only then did Flyers' owner Ed Snider reward him with some kind of security.

Today, Holmgren is something of a visionary. His Flyers are playing in the Eastern Conference final, trailing after one game and are just about nobody's pick to win the Stanley Cup. But that's not really the point.

The point is, one of the worst teams in hockey a year ago is one of the best teams right now. And through good fortune, sound drafting, better trading, and the luxury of having some emerging young stars, Holmgren has established the blueprint for how to succeed in today's NHL without completely bottoming out.

Did he see this happening, this quickly for the Flyers?

"I liked our team last year," said Holmgren of the 30th place Flyers. "We did have some good young kids and for whatever reason, they didn't have very good years collectively. It was like everything went wrong at once.

"But I told Mr. Snider this from the beginning. We have two things going in our favour. One, the young players. Two, we had significant cap space. What we did with both situations would dictate how we would proceed."

Three different deals -- all of them wisely taking advantage of the weakness of Southern NHL franchises -- have put the Flyers in the kind of position where they are almost certain to be a perennial challenger for the Cup. This isn't one of those worst to first and back scenarios: This team has arms and legs upon which to build, and more of the very same on the way.

Smart deals

The first deal with Nashville sent Peter Forsberg to the Predators -- a team in desperate need of playoff success -- for all kinds of parts.

The second deal, this one with Atlanta, was made on a simple premise by the Thrashers: "Don Waddell (GM) needed to get his team into the playoffs." Holmgren offered up Alexei Zhitnik, an old and now unwanted defenceman. In exchange, he got young defenceman Braydon Coburn.

"We liked Coburn from that '03 draft, which I think is one of the best drafts in history," said Holmgren. "We did a lot of work preparing for that draft and we really liked Coburn."

Coburn had been taken eighth overall by Atlanta, three picks ahead of Philadelphia selecting Jeff Carter and 16 picks ahead of the Flyers selection of Mike Richards.

The three deals-- assuming Carter re-signs "and we're going to do everything possible to make sure he does" -- give the Flyers a corps to build around for the next decade.

The third deal of consequence was made after the season ended, when Holmgren went back to David Poile and Nashville and talked about Kimmo Timonen, the defenceman about to become a free agent.

Poile and Holmgren agreed that in the free agent market, the price to sign Timonen was beyond Nashville's means. So Holmgren made a deal to bring in Timonen and Scott Hartnell in mid-June, taking a shot at signing one or both of them before free agency hit.

"If we had waited until July 1st, I don't know if it would have been possible," said Holmgren.

The lineup Philadelphia dressed for Game 1 of the conference final was half full of players Holmgren had signed, traded for, or acquired in the past season. Remember, Philadelphia is playing without Simon Gagne, is most accomplished winger.

"You add him back in, along with some kids, and we have a lot of depth at forward."


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