Not since the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky do I remember a team blowing up a successful model so quickly. No, I'm not comparing the Flyers of the last few years with the quality of the Gretzky-era Oilers. But I am comparing today's roster moves by Flyers GM Paul Holmgren to Peter Pocklington's dismantling of his own team.
In terms of style, the Flyers were actually built more like the Detroit Red Wings. Lots of money sunk into a top defense pairing, very good forward depth centered around a few prime-aged performers and a rotation of goalies on the cheap that may or may not come up big in the playoffs.
Playoff success can be contingent on a hot streak, a few lucky bounces or a single serious injuryit's the curse of small sample sizes. Given this fact, the teams who make the playoffs consistently have a much better chance of riding that luck to a championship. The Flyers appeared to be built for just this type of sustained success and playoff qualification. Yes, they'd fallen on hard times in the playoffs, but that can happen to anyone, just ask Ilya Bryzgalov or Roberto Luongowho are sixth and second in active goalie career save percentageafter their rough finishes to this postseason.
For the past four seasons, the Flyers have a 174-114-40 record, capturing 59.1% of all points available. That's a home seed to start the playoffs every year. In those four seasons, the team made the playoffs each year and only once lost in the first round. So if Holmgren was prepared to blow up a team with that kind of success, it must have been to either start over or to make significant upgrades. This is where I don't see the logic.
At Hockey Prospectus, we compare players across positions and eras using Goals Versus Threshold (GVT), measuring a player's worth in goals versus a replacement player. And essentially, the Flyers went from having Sergei Bobrovsky in net to Ilya Bryzgalov while dropping Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn. As compensation for the downgrade, they grabbed future assets in the form of a first, second and third round pick. But don't forget, they traded a third-rounder for Bryzgalov's rights in the first place.
Here is each player's average GVT over the last three seasons, except Bobrovsky, who only has had one season to work with. Each player's salary cap hit is also shown.
Player GVT Cap
Bryzgalov 15.8 $5.7 million
Voracek 5.2 RFA
Schenn TBD $3.1 million
Simmonds 5.4 RFA
Totals 26.4 $8.8 million
Player GVT Cap
Bobrovsky 6.1* $1.8 million
Carter 16.4 $5.3 million
Richards 14.7 $5.8 million
Totals 37.2 $12.9 million
Essentially, for the Flyers to improve this year over last, they need an additional 10.8 GVT from Schenn and presumably progression from Voracek. As I wrote this past week, I don't see Simmonds progressing much at this point in his career.
The other interesting aspect is that Philadelphia's cap situation isn't any better despite all the wheeling and dealing. With both Simmonds and Voracek as RFA's, they need to be signed to a combined cap hit of less than $4.1 million per year or the Flyers just lost even more scarce cap space, albeit with one more player on the roster.
What makes the shake up so odd is the premise that this team was a goaltender away from winning the Stanley Cup. I can understand the push to sign an elite goaltender, but by trading two of the team's best three forwards, they have depleted an area of strength to the point that it is unrecognizable. Claude Giroux, James Van Riemsdyk and Daniel Briere are all talented forwards, but they will have a tough time replacing the roles Jeff Carter and Mike Richards filled.
Carter was not only the Flyers leading goal scorer but has scored the fifth-most goals in the NHL since the 2008-09 season, behind Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jarome Iginla and Dany Heatley. Richards is a tough-minutes demon, ranking fourth in the entire NHL on the Heavy Lifter Index over a three year span. His absence means that others will have to pick up the slack. The newly-departed actually ranked second and fourth among Flyers for the quality of competition they faced last season. In contrast, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino thrived last season because they effectively faced third-line competition. Not anymore, unless Voracek and Simmonds are going to take on the tough duties. And don't count on that.
More than anything, the Flyers gave up on proven performers in their prime. Carter and Richards have proven their worth in the NHL over several seasons. They are legitimate first line players in the league and at the age of 26 have many years at peak performance left. All this and they're locked up to contracts with very reasonable cap hits.
In return, the team will get two very promising players in Voracek and Schenn, who by all accounts will aspire to be as good as Carter and Richards. The eighth overall pick could be a home run, but could also turn out to be a bust. The only known quantity that Philly gets is Ilya Bryzgalov. So is he that big of an upgrade over Bobrovsky?
The goalie market can be as difficult to predict as Charlie Sheen. Over the past three seasons, Bryzgalov's even strength save percentage is.928 (quite good), but in his rookie season Bobrovsky owned a .923 mark. Is the Bobber really that good? We don't know yet. But we also can't say he'll be a lot worse than Bryzgalov either.
Just 10 days ago, I evaluated the chances of fitting Bryzgalov under the cap. Moving Hartnell seemed like a much better option if maintaining some continuity in a successful squad was important. Apparently, the Flyers front office didn't value the last four year's achievements as highly as I do. One day soon, they'll likely regret moving two elite players for one very good player and a bunch of "potentially good" players and picks.
Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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