Monday, April 15, 2013

Holmgren comments 4/15

The Providence Bruins, Springfield Falcons and Grand Rapids Griffins have all punched their tickets to the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs. By doing that, they have left Glens Falls as the only current American Hockey League city to have not iced a playoff team over the past four years.

The Adirondack Phantoms, who have not won more than half their games in any of their four seasons in Glens Falls, will miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season. They enter their final three games with a season record of 30-36-3-4 and an all-time mark of 130-151-12-16. They must win one of their remaining games to avoid setting a new total for the fewest wins in a season here.

If they win all three, however, they will become the second-most successful team in Adirondack Phantoms history. Last year they won 37 games, better than the 32 the Phantoms posted in their inaugural season and the 31 they had the following year, in which they opened the year 6-23-0-2.

In that time, however, the parent Philadelphia Flyers have reached the Stanley Cup Finals, and followed that up with back-to-back 47-win seasons. Before the first, 2010-11, they had not won 47 games in a year in a quarter-century, when the 1985-86 team tied a franchise record with 53 wins.

With all that said, how important is it for the Flyers to ice a winning team at the AHL level?

“It’s real important, and I know it hasn’t been done here since we’ve been in Glens Falls, which is discouraging and disheartening to me,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said as he watched the Phantoms beat Binghamton on Sunday. “Not in our defense, but I think one of the reasons is in order to supplement the Flyers, we’ve given away a lot of draft picks over the years.”

Not only draft picks, but high draft picks.

From 2008 to 2011, the years that would primarily benefit the Phantoms, the Flyers drafted a grand total of two players in the first or second rounds. One came in 2008, when they drafted Luca Sbisa 19th overall. The other came in 2011, when they selected Sean Couturier at No. 8.

Sbisa was gone before the Phantoms moved to Glens Falls, traded to Anaheim with Philadelphia’s first-round picks in 2009 and 2010 as but a part of the package that landed the Flyers Chris Pronger. Couturier was promptly promoted to Philadelphia, and likely would not have ever even needed to locate Glens Falls on a map if it was not for the effects of this lockout-shortened season.

In the 2009 and 2010 NHL Drafts the Flyers did not pick until the final ten picks of third round. The players they did select with their top choices never made it to the Phantoms. That has left the Flyers, by and large, to fill out Adirondack’s roster with undrafted free agents out of college or juniors, veteran free agents, or players that they have acquired in trades with other organizations.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with that approach – Jason Akeson was undrafted, and Danny Syvret was initially acquired in a trade and they are the top-two scorers on the team – but there is a trade-off that comes with trading away draft picks. They are the lifeblood with which deals in the National Hockey League are made. Giving yourself less of them to begin with gives you less prospects in your system, and you are now competing against as many as 29 other teams to sign another player to fill that roster spot. All it takes is one of them to make a better offer than you.

Having more draft picks – and using them well – also opens up a world of opportunity in trading. That’s how Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero was able to get Jarome Iginla, Douglas Murray, Jussi Jokinen and Brenden Morrow, in about one week, without having to give up a roster player.

This past summer, though, the Flyers departed from their recent tradition. They selected four players below the fourth round, a draft class that was headlined by two-way center Scott Laughton at 20th overall. The last time they did that was 2006, before Holmgren became general manager.

However, most 2012 draft picks won’t become AHL-eligible on a full-time basis until the 2014-15 season. By that point, the Phantoms will have already moved to their new arena in Allentown, Pa.

“Now we’re starting to turn the page a little bit where we’re restocking our cupboard with draft picks that are now playing here,” Holmgren said. “Like (Nick) Cousins and (Marcel) Noebels. (Tye) McGinn. We’ve added some college free agents like (Erik) Gustafsson. (Brandon) Manning was a free agent. We’ve done a good job, I think, at restocking our cupboard, so to speak.”

Philadelphia’s AHL prospect pool may be deeper than it has been in recent seasons, especially at this moment. Players like Cousins, Kyle Flanagan, Mark Alt, Brandon Alderson and Derek Mathers, who have all shown flashes of promise, are becoming AHL eligible full-time next season.

“It’s very important to have a winning team as your top development team,” Holmgren said. “Unfortunately, it just hasn’t happened. This year, I’m encouraged by how they’re playing right now."

Why is it so important? Well, as Phantoms coach Terry Murray said earlier this season, the playoffs are where a team's prospects "earn their stripes," in high-pressure situations with the season hanging in the balance. Murray also said, however, that organization's AHL team shouldn't be a dominant one and run away with the conference, because then a team's prospects might not realize the importance of coming hard to the rink every day and learning what it takes to be successful on a consistent basis.

Holmgren said he was pleased with Murray in the coach's return to the Flyers organization. There are 13 players who have played for both the Phantoms and Flyers this season, though that total is boosted by the NHL players like Couturier and Brayden Schenn, who spent the lockout with the Phantoms. The team's continued struggles might be explained by its roster upheaval in mid-January, when it lost roughly a half-dozen players to the NHL. Holmgren equated the situation to the Phantoms basically getting a whole other team in mid-year. The lessons Murray taught the old group had to be re-taught.

"I think the coaches have done a good job under the circumstances they were in this year, with the lockout and losing all those players and the transition to the other team, so to speak,” Holmgren said.

The coaching staff, headed by Murray, has taken the blunt of public criticism, especially as the Phantoms fell into the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. He is under contract for next season, and Holmgren’s comments indicate that his job in Glens Falls appears to be safe.

There is always a chance that a National Hockey League team comes calling, but this next season will be interesting for Murray if he stays. In his 17 years as a head coach, only five of his teams have not qualified for the playoffs. Four of them came in his first year at the helm of the team.

The Baltimore Skipjacks won 30 games in Murray’s first year as a professional head coach, then won 26 of their first 45 before he got called up to the NHL. The Florida Panthers won 30 games in 1998-99, then 43 the following year. He inherited a particularly young team in Los Angeles and won 34 games in his debut campaign, but he then guided them to back-to-back 46-win seasons.

Once the team gets the system and understands his coaching methods – and he understands them as players – they almost exclusively improve. But will these same players return next year? Roughly 10 of them will have their contracts – either NHL or AHL – expire at the end of the year.

Holmgren said restricted free agents – like Manning, Shane Harper and Blake Kessel – would likely receive qualifying offers, though a final decision would not be made until the offseason. The Flyers cannot sign more than 50 players to NHL contracts, and there are a number of those that are set to begin next season. Alt, Alderson, Cousins, Flanagan and Mathers, for example, are five.

On an AHL level, the Flyers are pleased with the efforts of Jon Sim and Zack FitzGerald as veteran presences in the locker room. Both of those players have also expressed an interest in returning.

“We’ll certainly have a conversation with Jon,” Holmgren said. “I think he’s been older guy for the young guys that we have here. And Zack, obviously, he provides a certain element. We like Zack.”

Others, Holmgren said, would be examined a case-by-case basis. It becomes a numbers game at some point, and there are only so many roster spots that are going to be available in Glens Falls.


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