Hartford Whalers, 1993-1994
Philadelphia Flyers, 2006-present
Atlantic Division Title: 2010-2011
Playoff Appearances: 2008-2012
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 2010
“Paul Holmgren was a mature guy who was serious about the game….Holmer was a guy I should have learned from….What a dedicated, hardworking, strong man.”
Bruce Boudreau, Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer
Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren is an emerging star in the NHL managerial ranks. Since 2007 Holmgren has risen subtly but steadily among his peers in the NHL managerial fraternity.
According to my rating system, Holmgren is presently ranked 16th among all active NHL GMs (between Toronto’s Brian Burke and Phoenix’s Don Maloney) in terms of career value and 12th (between Tampa’s Steve Yzerman and Calgary’s Jay Feaster) in terms of Average Seasonal Rating.
My rating system ranks Holmgren as the fourth best GM of the 2010s (after Vancouver’s Doug Gillis; Boston’s Pete Chiarelli; and Chicago’s Stan Bowman); and 16th best GM of the 21st Century although when play finally resumes—and if the Flyers can maintain their winning ways—that Paul Holmgren’s rank and stature will continue to grow.
Paul Holmgren has devoted his entire life to hockey. A native Minnesotan, Holmgren played junior hockey in St. Paul; then one season of NCAA hockey at the University of Minnesota before being drafted in 1974 by the Edmonton Oilers in the WHA (who immediately sold his rights to the Minnesota Fighting Saints) and in 1975 by the Philadelphia Flyers.
Holmgren opted for the WHA. After a brief cup of coffee with the Fighting Saints’ NAHL affiliate Johnstown Jets (where he was roommate and mentor to future Washington Caps and Anaheim Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau) Paul spent the rest of the 1975/76 WHA season playing with the Fighting Saints as the team inexorably limped and brawled its way to financial collapse and team dissolution.
It was during his brief stint in the WHA that Holmgren developed his pugnacious, enforcer style. In junior and college Holmgren had been a shooter and scorer. As a pro he became a power forward who supplied the muscle on the ice.
Once the Fighting Saints folded, Holmgren brought his talents to the NHL and the team that owned his rights, the Philadelphia Flyers. For the next eight years Holmgren was a mainstay on the team; playing a vital role during the 1979/80 Season where the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup finals. After 1984 Holmgren’s playing career went into decline, injuries seriously reducing his playing time. He was traded to the Minnesota North Stars in 1984 and retired the following year.
Holmgren returned to Philadelphia to serve as assistant coach under Mike Keenan and remained there throughout Keenan’s reign. When Iron Mike was fired in 1988, Holmgren took over and led the Flyers to the Eastern Conference finals in 1989, only to fall to the Montreal Canadiens. It was the apex of his coaching career. Two years later he was fired as head coach of the Flyers. In 1992 Holmgren became head coach of the hapless Hartford Whalers—the Siberia of the NHL during that time period. Holmgren not only served as head coach in Hartford but also as its GM during the 1993/94 Season—with dismal results.
In truth it was Holmgren’s misfortune to coach and manage a corpse of a franchise; a team destined to move to the warmer climes of North Carolina. By 1995 Holmgren ended his NHL coaching career for good and had ceased to be the Whalers GM the year before.
Sadly, Holmgren’s coaching and managing stint was the sole dark phase in what has been a magnificent hockey life. If you applied my rating method to Paul Holmgren’s NHL coaching career his value would be an awful -28. Indeed, based on my calculations, Paul Holmgren ranks among the ten worst head coaches in NHL history. (I will not state precisely where among the ten worst coaches he ranks. You will only know that answer if and when my hockey coaches book ever gets published).
Again, in 1995, Paul Holmgren returned to the Philadelphia Flyers family (where he remains today) working in the front office: serving as director of pro scouting under Flyers GM Bobby Clarke. Clarke, seeing great potential in his former teammate, expanded his responsibilities; groomed him for greater things. Holmgren took over as Director of Player Personnel in 1997 and became Assistant GM in 1999.
The Flyers during the early 21st century were a strong, competitive team that reached the conference finals twice in 2000 and 2004 but never earned a ticket to the big dance; at times underachieving in playoff competition. In 2006 the bottom fell out as the team went into a nosedive. Flyers Chairman Ed Snider, furious at the downturn, blood purged the Flyers franchise: firing head coach Ken Hitchcock; kicking GM Bobby Clarke upstairs replacing him with Paul Holmgren.
Holmgren endured a last place finish in his first year as Flyers GM in 2007 but the following year the Flyers reached the conference finals—a brilliant turnaround. Holmgren’s choice of head coaches shows a keen eye for talent. John Stevens (who had played for Holmgren in Hartford) showed early promise before losing steam in 2009. Holmgren did even better when he chose Peter Laviolette to replace Stevens. Laviolette ranks among the top fifty hockey coaches of all time; and has made the Flyers a tougher, stronger, more explosive team during his reign as Flyers head coach; leading Philadelphia to their 2010 Stanley Cup finals appearance (their first since 1997).
His personnel moves have been subtly effective as well. Holmgren as GM has emphasized youth. Draft choices Marc-Andre Bourdon, Zac Rinaldo, Eric Wellwood, and Sean Couturier have brought youthful vigor and strength to the Flyers forward and blue line ranks.
The acquisition of Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and the Schenn brothers: Luke and Brayden further reflect this process. All four men show great potential and upside. Couple with the fact that one of Peter Laviolette’s great strengths is his ability to coach and teach young players has allowed these young lions to showcase their talents.
Still Holmgren is not averse to obtaining a veteran to steady the ranks. Chris Pronger is a case in point. Before injuries knocked him off the ice, Pronger was a catalytic presence; providing leadership, strength, character, and future Hall-of-Fame skills on the ice. The Flyers would not be where they are today without him and it was his absence (due to injuries) that cost the Flyers in the 2012 playoffs. The Ilya Bryzgalov trade is another example however in Bryzgalov’s case his inconsistency in the nets has slowed the team’s progress.
Holmgren’s emphasis on young players has given him (and the Flyers) cap-space to spice up the team with key free-agent signings. Holmgren resurrected Jaromir Jagr’s NHL career in 2011 and in 2012 (before the NHL lock-out took place) made a daring offer of a 14-year $110 million contract for Nashville Predators defensive wunderkind Shea Weber. It still remains the richest contract offer in NHL history. For five days Flyers fans (me included) held their breath; hoping that Nashville would decline to match the offer; finally exhaling when Nashville did so (that’s another story for a future column).
Had Nashville declined to match Holmgren’s bold coup then Weber’s presence would have given the Flyers an enormous shot in the arm in terms of their blue-line strength. Shea Weber would have brilliantly filled the void left by Chris Pronger.
Paul Holmgren entered the top-fifty ranks in 2011/12. Once play resumes what remains to be seen is how far and how high he will continue to ascend. The journey is not over for Holmer; the good part is just beginning.
(My next column will feature former Blackhawks, Blues, and Panthers GM Mike Keenan).