UFA Spotlight: Tom Preissing

25 04 2007

While you won’t find him on many people’s list of big names in this year’s free agent market for defensemen, Tom Preissing is quietly showing he’s one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL.   The 28 year old Ottawa Senator put together a very solid season for his new team.  Tom was acquired by the Sens from San Jose in the offseason trade that sent Havlat & Smolinski to Chicago.  

The US born Preissing landed behind a deep defensive corps in Ottawa.  Despite playing significantly less minutes than Redden, Meszaros, Corvo, Volchenkov and Phillips, Preissing finished the regular season leading all Sens D-men in points and plus minus (7 goals,  31 assists for 38pts /+40).   Though he’s known primarily as a powerplay specialist,  more than 1/2 of his points were scored while playing as a 5/6 dman at even strength.  As of this writing he has 3 pts in 5 playoff games in limited minutes for the Sens.   Impressive stuff. 

But don’t take my word for it,  take a look at this exceprt from an “underground” Ottawa Senators blog I found.  This blogger was nervous the Sens might move Preissing before the trade deadline.  He sees the value and really wants the sens to keep Preissing.  Read the comments left after the blog too.  This scouting report of sorts, from people who probably watched every Sens game, speaks volumes. 

—————–

Why We Should Keep Tom Preissing

There has been a lot of rumblings that in order to make it to the Cup this year, the Senators are short one piece of the puzzle. One of the names being floated in the trade rumours (at least on the discussion forums) is Tom Preissing. But if there is any player you would want to keep, it would be Quiet Tom, Tom the Invisible, Anonymous Tom Preissing (I honestly feel sorry for the guy after that debacle with Ian Mendes where the people of Ottawa were shown not to know who he is).

What Tom Preissing does is bring a quiet yet assured game to the 5/6 D spot. Now, I know that many are saying his stats, especially that of plus/minus, are inflated due to his playing time. But consider this:

-He makes only $600 000. His cap impact is minimal.
-He only gets a little under 15 minutes per game yet has the highest plus/minus and highest point totals of any D-man on the Senators, not to mention the second-highest plus/minus in the NHL.
-He has proven to be up to the task in those games when he has gotten more ice time
-Paired with Joe Corvo, he has helped Corvo’s plus/minus increase from the deep doldrums in which they were lying.

Those factors make him well worth keeping. He isn’t going to cost a lot to re-sign, maybe 1.2-1.5 million, and he’s doing the job he has been given extremely well. How many teams, even top echelon teams, can boast that their 6th defenseman is +30 or has 29 points this season? And if his plus/minus is hugely inflated by playing against only the weakest of the other teams’ players, as the common retort goes, why doesn’t every 6th defenseman have such great numbers? Why is his plus/minus 17 points above any other Sens defenseman? He must be doing something right!

What I see in Tom Preissing is a hugely underrated defenseman who will handle pretty much any assignment you give him, save a head-hunting or hard-checking role. That isn’t his style. But for a speedy, skilled defenseman, you’re not going to find a better price-performance ratio.

As for me, I say the Preiss is Right for our Senators.
 

——————COMMENTS—————-

Vernon | 04.13.07 – 1:28 am | #
A comment about the Tom Preissing question. I agree wholeheartedly about resigning Preissing. I’m proud to say that at the beginning of the season, I was telling people that Preissing was an excellent addition to the Senators and (together with the prospects they received) as close to fair value that they could get for Havlat. However, it looks like the Sens have already given up on signing him, for a few reasons.

They have effectively priced themselves out of being able to resign Preissing with the Chris Phillips signing. To tell the truth, I’m not sure how much cap room the Sens have now, but it’s not much.

I think you’ve underestimated how much it will cost to resign to Tom Preissing. If I’m not mistaken, he’s an unrestricted free agent this coming year, and believe me he’ll fetch a lot more than 1.2-1.5 million on the open market. He’s no longer underrated or overlooked, I assure you there are many teams who will be looking to sign him and he’ll very likely go for 2.5+ million per year, even though I think his stats are slightly inflated.

In the end, I sincerely hope that the Senators make a decent pitch to Preissing, but to be honest I don’t see it happening.

——————————————————————————–

Shredder | 04.13.07 – 11:09 am | #
Vernon, I agree with you. I think Preissing was a good addition and a good move by Mucks. I questioned it at the beginning only because I didn’t know much about Preissing. I knew he was good and all… but to me, he wasn’t a big name.

I do think the Senators will re-sign him. I know he will demand more… especially if the Sens go deep in the playoffs. BUT… I have a feeling the Sens will make some cap space available by dumping other big salaries. As much as I like Redden, I have a feeling that he will go… with Phillips, A-Train, and Preissing, and even Corvo on the blue line, Redden can be traded to get a number of less expensive but good players the Sens might need to fill some holes.

Regardless, I think it’ll be an interesting summer… even if the Sens make it deep in the playoffs this year… or God forbid, win the cup!!

——————————————————————

Good stuff, eh Flyer fans?

Here’s why I think making a move for Preissing makes sense:

  • Preissing is a right handed shot — something the Flyers have lacked for some time
  • Preissing excels on the power play – he can play QB and/or get open for quality shots from the point or after rotating down to the circle area.  We need this!
  • Preissing has an underrated shot, including a lethal one timer…it’s being underutilized in Ottawa
  • Preissing has shown he is ready to step up to a top 4 role, something the Flyers can give him
  • Preissing plays smart, makes good outlet passes and has strong hockey sense
  • At 28, Preissing is old enough to bring an experienced game, but young enough to grow and gel with a young Flyers team 
  • Preissing is making $600k, and could possibly be signed for $2-3 million, which is a bargain

Will he be available? He might be and here’s why:

  • Ottawa recently committed to Phillips and Volchenkov with new multi year contracts adding 2.5 Million in raises to their already tight cap situation next season.   They may not have the money left to sign Preissing
  • He’s a UFA currently making 600k and this is his first chance at big money, he may not be willing to take a discount to stay a Senator
  • The Flyers can give him more money and a bigger role than he has in Ottawa (3/4 d man minutes + lots of powerplay time)

While Preissing may not be known as the type of big-time, top pairing defenseman the Flyers are reportedly looking for, he’s a mobile, two-way D man with a very good RH shot, capable of playing a top 4 role and specializing on the powerplay.  Things the Flyers can definitely use.  At a likely pricetag of around $2-3 million per year, he’s a bargain and gives the Flyers the flexibility to still try and bring in a top pairing guy like Timonen, Rafalski, Markov or Hamrlik (among others) if they want.

If I’m the Flyers GM, I still try to land Timonen, Rafalski or Markov, but I also pursue Tom Preissing with vigor and try to lock him up in a long term deal.  I put him in a #3/4 role and make him a fixture on the Flyers powerplay.  The D corps for next season can look something like this (roll the lines fairly evenly depending on situation):

Pitkanen/Kukkonen  Timonen

Kukkonen/Pitkanen  Preissing

Coburn Hatcher

(Parent>Picard)

(assume Gauthier is odd man out > traded for picks?)

That’s a pretty solid group in my opinion.  The addition of Timonen and Preissing would go far in addressing the team’s powerplay woes and it would add and more consistency to the transition game.  Each line is anchored by an experienced vet paired with a younger player who can grow and benefit from playing with him.  At a combined cost of about $7-8 million, it should still leave about $12+ million to spend on a top line center and a 2nd line winger if desired.  

Regardless of who else the Flyers sign this off season, if Tom Preissing is available at a good price, I think you lock him up long term.  He has a solid all around game, can play in just about any pairing and brings assets the Flyers really need in terms of his RH shot, strong two-way play, offensive instincts and skill on the powerplay.  San Jose fans want him back, Senator fans want to keep him.  I think there’s a good reason for that. 

 ———————————————-

More on Tom Preissing:

Born: 12/3/1978 in Arlington Heights, IL USA
Age: 28
Size: 6’0″ 205 Lbs.
Shoots: R
Current Team: Ottawa
Position: D
06-07 Salary: $600k
Estimated Salary Next Year: $1-3MM

———–

TSN PROFILE:
http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/teams/players/bio/?id=3382&hubname=nhl-senators

Assets: Makes smart decisions with the puck. Is capable of putting up good offensive numbers, especially if given regular ice time with the man advantage.

Flaws: Is undersized, and will always face an uphill battle against NHL power forwards. Must still prove he can log big minutes in the big league.

——–

More Background: 

Preissing played in the USHL for the Green Bay Gamblers for two years in the late 90s.  In 98-99 he had a remarkable season with 18 goals and 37 assists for 55 pts in 53 games.  He was named to the all-star team and also named USHL Defenseman of the Year.   Preissing then attended Colorado College where he played for all four years, getting a quality education both on and off the ice.    In his outstanding Senior year, Preissing was a Hobey Baker finalist and set the WCHA record for most goals in a season by a defenseman when he put up 23 goals and 29 assists for 52 pts in 42 games.  He earned Inside College Hockey’s Defenseman of the Year award and a spot on the INCH All-America first team.

Going undrafted, he signed his first NHL contract with San Jose in 2004.  He ended up being their rookie of the year and then followed with a strong sophomore campaign, scoring 11 goals and 32 assists for 43 pts and a +17 rating in 74 games.  He was then traded to Ottawa in July of 2006 in a three way deal that sent Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski to Chicago. 

Preissing continued his strong play in a new setting in Ottawa.   Even though used only as a 5/6 dman he posted 7 goals and 31 assists for 38 pts, the most of all Ottawa’s defensemen.  He also put up a +40 rating (tied with Niklas Lidstrom for third in the NHL), all while playing an average of about 15-17 minutes a game.  He’s shown he can handle more.  

He’s a right handed shot and uses it well…he is effective in both passing and getting into scoring position at even strength and on the powerplay and has a wicked one timer.  Has average size and is not a very physical D man.   

MORE ON TOM PREISSING:

Tom Pressing at Wikipedia

Tom is a Good Guy 

Tom is Smart - < PDF file of Tom’s College Paper on “Determinates of Competitive Balance in the NHL”

Snippet on Tom and another Published work

Article: Professor’s Marks Rising

Ottawa Fans implying he’s been better than Redden this year

TSN´s list of top 20 defencemen for 2006-2007


1. Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit
2. Chris Pronger Anaheim
3. Dion Phaneuf Calgary
4. Mathieu Schneider Detroit
5. Philippe Boucher Dallas
6. Jay Bouwmeester Florida
7. Anton Volchenkov Ottawa
8. Tom Preissing Ottawa
9. Kimmo Timonen Nashville
10. Scott Niedermayer Anaheim
11. Brian Campbell Buffalo
12. Sami Salo Vancouver
13. Lubomir Visnovsky Los Angeles
14. Chris Phillips Ottawa
15. Bryan McCabe Toronto
16. Roman Hamrlik Calgary
17. Ryan Whitney Pittsburgh
18. Shea Weber Nashville
19. Dan Boyle Tampa Bay
20. Sergei Gonchar Pittsburgh
——-

Random Observer:

“Having watched Preissing quite a bit in San Jose, I can say he’s very solid on D. Plays very smart (his age is because he actually has a college degree), skates well, and Wilson loved the guy. He doesn’t make mistakes and doesn’t take bad penalties. He was a + when most other San Jose d-men were minuses. Ottawa may regret losing Chara, but they won’t regret this guy. “

From “Inside College Hockey”:

Preissing saw ice time in every situation and, in addition to his other duties, was charged with breaking in freshman phenom Mark Stuart, his blue line partner for the bulk of the season.

“I was really lucky to play with Tom most of the year,” Stuart said. “He taught me a lot about leadership and how to keep your composure, not to give up during games, how to prepare for games and to come out strong.”

“His offensive prowess further enhanced the stature of a player who had always been a top-notch defensive defenseman. Preissing was lethal from the top of the face-off circle when the Tigers had the extra man; he’s also a good skater and plays smart.”





Flyers Lack Leadership on Power Play

11 03 2007

In the last ten games, the Flyers power play has been, well, powerless.  They are an abysmal 2 for their last 43 chances in that span.  That’s a pitiful 5% clip.  In the ten games prior to this latest span the team was 11 for 45 on the power play,  a very respectable 24%.  So what happened?  Well, it should be obvious what has happened.  The team no longer has two key veterans who were able to run the powerplay. One of these guys is Alexei Zhitnik (traded to Atlanta for Braydon Coburn).  Zhitnik was a regular at the point on the Flyers powerplay, able to deliver shots on net with regularity, which helped the team score goals.  The other player is none other than Peter Forsberg.  While he didn’t play the point, Foppa was able to QB the powerplay from virtually anywhere in the attack zone.  He would usually set up along the left side boards and look to deliver pinpoint passes to Pitkanen and Zhitnik at the points or Gagne in the slot.  Both Zhitnik and Forsberg could aslo bring the puck up the ice with relative ease and set up the attack in the zone.   

Mike KnubleFactoring into the equation also is the lack of veteran Mike Knuble, who was a very effective presence in front of the net on the powerplay, screening the goalie and cleaning up rebounds for “garbage” goals.   Knuble scored or assisted on over half of the powerplay goals scored by the Flyers in the 10 games prior to his injury. 

Since the departure of Forsberg and Zhitnik (and Knuble) the powerplay has lacked any real leadership.  There is little cohesiveness, organization or flow and very few shots being generated, from the point or otherwise.   Guys like Pitkanen and Picard can contribute from the point at times but may not be developed enough to be take on the QB role.  There is also no highly skilled playmaking type on the Flyers.  No guy to set the table for the goal scorers like Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter, Geoff Sanderson, Mike Knuble and Scottie Upshall.  

I think this all further reinforces the need the Flyers have to bring in a veteran defenseman who can QB the powerplay and a playmaking center (through trade or free agency).    There are a few players who will be unrestricted free agents after this season that could fit the bill…

On Defense:

Kimmo Timonen - Excellent in transition, can QB the powerplay, is savvy and a good leader…will be tough to lure away from Nashville, but his brother Jussi is in with the Phantoms and he’s good friends with Sami Kapanen so anything is possible.  Timonen is left handed shot.

Brian Rafalski – Also very good in transition, does a good job of playmaking from the back end and puts a good amount of shots on net once in the attack zone…can QB the powerplay.  Rafalski is a right handed shot, something the Flyers need.

Andrei Markov – At 28, he’s younger than Timonen (31)  or Rafalski (33).  Markov is emerging as a solid all around defenseman who makes good plays in all zones….he has a decent shot and can help run the powerplay.  Markov is a left handed shot.

Tom Preissing – An intruiging player.    Going undrafted, he set the WCHA record for most goals by a defenseman while playing at Colorado, scoring 23 goals and 29 assists for 52 pts in 42 games as a senior blueliner.  He signed his first NHL contract with San Jose in 2004.  He was their top rookie that year and went on to put up 43 pts and a +17 in 74 games during his second year with the Sharks.  He was traded to Ottawa in July of 2006 and has continued to impress.  So far this year he has 6 goals and 27 assists and is a +31, second only to Nicklas Lidstrom, all while playing an average of about 15-17 minutes a game.  He can handle more.  He’s a right handed shot that and uses it well…he is effective in both passing and scoring on the powerplay and has a wicked one timer from the weak side.   Can develop into an excellent powerplay QB as he reaches his potential at the NHL level.  While not seen as a top pairing guy just yet, at 28 years old, there’s room for him to move into that role with the Flyers now and still be around as a young Flyers team comes into its own over the next several years.   It may be somehat riskier to sign Preissing as your main guy at this stage, but his sticker price should be less than Timonen, Rafalski and Markov, so it is worth considering.

Secondary options:  Sami Salo, Sheldon Souray, Roman Hamrlik etc.

On Offense:

Daniel Briere – Playmaking center who can score.  Has excellent vision and creativity and is dangerous on the powerplay. 

Scott Gomez - Excellent playmaker, can gain the zone and create….can dish to scorers with top-end skill and has a decent shot.  

Chris Drury – Not as strong a playmaker as Briere or Gomez, but has the speed, determination and goal scoring knack to make up for it.  Strong leadership qualities.

Pavel Datsyuk – An excellent playmaker.  Has great vision and superior passing skills.  Potent on the powerplay.

Until the Flyers fill this void, the powerplay is likely to struggle.  Knuble will be back in the lineup soon, and that will help (a huge upgrade from planting stone hands Hatcher in front), but it isn’t likely to be a cure all.  The best chance the team has for the rest of this season is to get the right guys from the current roster out there.  Alexandre Picard has been effective when given the chance to play pointman with the man advantage.  He and Pitkanen should probably be in that role for the rest of the season, trying to generate lots of shots with Knuble in front. The forwards should work on cycling around a bit to exploit the numbers advantage and create more scoring opportunities down low; regardless of how things go from now til the end of the season, after losing Forsberg and Zhitnik, it is obvious the Flyers will need to pick up a key free agent or two if they hope to ignite a powerplay that has all but flamed out.      

  





Holmgren Fleeces NHL Buyers to Boost Future of Flyers

5 03 2007

Paul holmgrenWho would have thought that being out of playoff contention for the first time in 12 seasons would end up bringing so much excitement to a hockey team and their fans.  Through the deft selling of expendable assets into a searing-hot seller’s market, GM Paul Holmgren and co. have managed to give hope to legions of Flyer fans in what had otherwise been a season to forget. 

Holmgren and the Flyers have parlayed one of the worst seasons in the team’s history into an opportunity to infuse the team with the type of high quality prospects and young players usually reserved for teams that had had to pay serious dues for a number of years to earn the high draft picks necessary to get them.  

Nashville, sucked for a long time and were able to collect many highly sought after prospects in the process.  Fast forward to this season, they are flush with talent and positioned to be a Stanley Cup contender.  So GM David Poile was looking for that last piece or two to push them over the top.   The Atlanta Thrashers, in a despearate push to make the playoffs, needed some help.  Playoff bound Buffalo, replete with injuries, were desperate for some veteran help up front and also were compelled to make some moves before the deadline. 

The Flyers, on the other hand, were in no such position.  With playoff possibilities all but vanished long ago, the Flyers and their fans were left facing the grim and unfamiliar reality of a hockey season that ends after 82 games.   This also meant, that for the first time in recent memory, the Flyers, who are usually the ones buying, would instead be sellers heading into the Feb. 27th trade deadline.  Would the team be aggressive in unloading veterans or stand pat and look to change things in the offseason?

With rookie GM Paul Holgrem at the helm, Flyers fans were unsure as to what to expect.  What they got was an unprecendented flurry of activity, the end result of which, was a pretty profound reshaping of the Flyers future.    

The Flyers kicked things off with a bang as they dealt their most highly sought after free-agent to be, Peter Forsberg with almost two weeks left before the trading deadline.  No matter what Forsberg could have done this season it wasn’t going to help the Flyers make the playoffs.  He would be an unrestricted free agent next year and didn’t want to sign a new contract yet.  Next season he will either sign back with the Flyers, sign with another team or retire from the NHL.  That would be the case whether he was traded or not;  thus, he became an expendable asset, especially in light of the considerable return he would garner.  Holmgren shopped him around and was getting good offers.  Ultimately, Forsberg was traded to the Nashville Predators for winger Scottie Upshall, defenseman Ryan Parent, Nashville’s 1st rd pk in 2007  and a 3rd rd pk in 2007 (conditional on Forsberg’s status next year).  A sizeable return on an expendable asset.   

Let’s break it down:

The Preds got:

Peter Forsberg(UFA, may or may not return to re sign for the Flyers) 33 yrs. old, 6’0″ 210 lbs. - Proven world class talent could help them in the playoffs if healthy.

The Flyers got:

Scottie Upshall(6th overall pick in 2003) – 23 yrs. old,  6’0″ 187 lbs -  Hard working player with good hands and overall hockey sense… has a good shot that he quickly puts on net.   Plays with quickness, skill, grit and intensity.  Didn’t get a solid chance to make his way in the NHL due to some injuries and a log-jam in the already stacked Predator lineup.  Most of his limited time with the big club was spent on fourth lines with an occasional sniff of top line duty.  With the Flyers he’ll get a chance to play regular shifts on the top two lines.  This could help to accelerate his development and show why he was drafted ahead of such players as Joffrey Lupul, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Alexander Semin. 

Ryan Parent(16th overall pick in 2004) - 6′ 2″ 205lbs.  21 yrs old.  Parent is considered to be one of the best defensive prospects in junior hockey. Not known for his offensive game, the strong skating Parent uses his speed and mobilty to apply strong coverage in the defensive zone, on the penalty kill and against attackers trying to break into the zone.  He has strong leadership qualities and rarely makes mistakes or gets rattled.  He helped shut down players like Malkin and Ovechkin in international play and is seen as a a player with the potential to be  a top “shut down” defensive-defenseman in the NHL.   May be the type of player you want to pair with the free wheeling Joni Pitkanen so he can cover his back.  He should be ready to make the jump to the pros next year. 

Nash. 1st Round Pk. in 2007 – This will likely be a pick in the 22-25 range…still solid players to be had here.

Nash 3rd Rd Pick in 2007  (conditional on Forsberg’s status next season…higher pick if Nashville signs him lower if Philly signs him etc.) – still good prospects found here for a good scouting staff like the Flyers. 

Assesment:  For the Preds, this was a risk, but one GM Poile decided they had to take.  They have been a strong team this year and wanted to take advantage of any opportunity they could to win the Stanley Cup.  Adding Peter Forsberg was too tempting to pass up, even if it meant giving up on some valuable young players.  If they win it all, it will have been worth it.  If they don’t, then they gave up a chunk of their future for nothing…As of this writing, Forsberg hasn’t exactly been lighting it up with the Preds, but his real value comes in the playoffs, so the jury is still out…but in a Cup or bust situation, the risk of failure for Nashville is considerable. 

As for the Flyers, they had little to lose and everything to gain.  Forsberg at his best couldn’t have helped the team make the playoffs and he could walk away after the season either way.  Holmgren and co. made the best of the situation by bringing in two bright young players who should be a significant part of the Flyers future and some nice draft picks ta’boot.  By most accounts, quite a large bounty for a playoff rental.  Upshall has jumped right into the Flyer lineup, able to produce 3 goals (including two game winners) and 2 assists in his first 7 games in the Orange and Black…outproducing Forsberg in that time.  Not bad for a guy many considered a secondary component of the deal.    As for Parent (pronounced “Pear – ent”, like a mother or father), he is finishing up his fourth season in the OHL with the Guelph Storm and should join the Flyers next year.   

Time will tell if the risk Nashville GM David Poile took pays off in a Stanley Cup.   Regardless of the outcome, the Flyers have acquired valuable assets that can contribute to the success of the team right now (in Upshall) and into the future (with Parent and the picks).  Solid move by Holmgren.

————–

There would be a calm period before the Flyers made their next move.  As the deadline loomed another deal came down the pike.  This time, in an unexpected move, the team sent veteran defenseman Alexei Zhitnik to the Atlanta Thrashers for young D man Braydon Coburn.  Coburn, who just turned 23, was the 8th overall pick in the 2003 draft and Holmgren had coveted him for a long time…Homer was able to capitalize on the deadline desperation of Don Waddell, GM of the Thrashers, who was under enormous pressure to save the season (and his job).  With the Flyers building a team for the future, Coburn and his substantial upside was more attractive than the 34 year old Zhitnik, who is slated to make $3.5 Milllion a yr. until 2009.

Let’s break it down:

The Thrashers got:

Alexei Zhitnik  34 yrs. old, 5’11″ 214 lbs. - Solid and savvy veteran with a good overall skill level.  Is still able to take on and neutralize attackers entering the zone and carry the puck out in transition.  Is good along the boards.  Is a decent passer and has a good shot from the point and can be effective from there on the power play. 

The Flyers got:

Braydon Coburn (8th Overall pk in 2003) 22 yrs. old, 6’4″ 223 lbs. - Moves exceptionally well for his size.  Very rangy player who can contribute at both ends.  Is just developing his game at the NHL level.  Plays a solid all around game and could have signficant offensive upside. 

Assessment: While Zhitnik was a stabilizing presence on the Flyers blueline, the opportunity to bring in a much younger, much cheaper player with the size and upside of Braydon Coburn was too much to resist.  With the way the team is shaping up, the 34 yr. old Zhitnik and his $3.5 Million dollar salary wasn’t going to be a big part of the Flyers future plans.  The Flyers may miss the veteran Zhitnik and his solid all-around play in the short term, but they are getting a good young player that can contribute some right away and grow into a larger role as his NHL game develops.   Seeing as the the Flyers aren’t likely to win a Cup in the next year or two, this move makes a lot of sense.  Send off an expensive guy who will be gone or declining in a couple years for a player that will be coming into his own as the rest of the young team is starting to hit their stride and contending for a Cup.   

When you further consider that Zhitnik was originally acquired by the Flyers for a marginal player in Freddy Meyer and were able to then flip him to Atlanta for a younger player with volumes more potential, this becomes a big winner.  It displays solid asset management by Holmgren and co, and there would be more to come.

 ——-

With the deadline fast approaching, Holmgren struck again.   This time he swung a deal sending oft-maligned winger and free agent to be, Kyle Calder to the Chicago Blackhawks for 25-yr. old Finnish defenseman, Lasse Kukkonen and a 3rd round pick (Chicago would then flip Calder to the Red Wings for Jason Williams).

Let’s break it down:

Chicago Got:

Kyle Calder  28, 5’11 180 lbs - Kyle followed up his  a career year in Chicago with a flop in Philly…though his play improved after mid-season, his unwillingness to sign a deal more in line with his production (he was making $2.9 million) made him expendable.  If he’s motivated and put in the right position, he can be effective, mainly as a board mucker on the forecheck where he can win battles that yield scoring chances,.  He has decent speed and  at time displays above average skill but it’s hard to see him producing enough on a consistent basis to justify his salary.

The Flyers got:

Lasse Kukkonen 25, 6’1″ 187 lbs – Finnish player who has long been considered one of the country’s top young defensemen.  He Captained his team Karpat to the top Finnish league (SM Liga) championship in 2005 and played on the Silver Medal winning Finnish Olympic team in 2006.   This season, in his first full time NHL campaign, he was one of the better young defensemen on a struggling Chicago Blackhawk team, leading team (for defensemen) in plus minus (+5) and scoring 5 goals and 9 assists for 14 pts.  His sound overall play should allow him to be successful in the NHL.

Asessment With Calder (an unrestricted free agent next season) having struggled for most of the season and not wanting to sign a contract that paid him something commensurate with his play, he was of little use to the Flyers beyond this season.  To give him up and bring in a solid young player/prospect like Kukkonen was a coup in itself…throw in the 3rd round pick and this was a no brainer great deal for the Flyers.   If Kukkonen, who played with the Flyers Joni Pitkanen on team Karpat back in Finland, can play up to his billing and/or help the younger Pitkanen mature and develop his game, this will end up being a very good deal.

——-

In just a couple short weeks, Holmgren managed to add a spark plug to the Flyers offense in Scottie Upshall and significantly upgrade the future prospects of the Flyers blueline in bringing in Parent, Coburn and Kukkonen (and the picks).   Now, could he possibly work some deadline magic to do something about the Flyers woes in goal? 

Indeed, Holmgren addressed the Flyers goaltending situation by snagging former starter Martin Biron from the rival Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a 2nd round pick.    

Assessment  Biron is a quality tender who has been playing backup duty to standout Ryan Miller.  Though a consummate team player, it was no secret that Biron, who is a free agent next season, wants to be a starter.  With the Flyers, he’ll get that chance.  Buffalo has had terrible injury problems as of late and were looking to unload some salary so they could get some help up front (they later traded for Danius Zubrus).  The Flyers took a risk in trading for Biron, not because of his golatending, but because he’s slated to be an unrestricted free agent next season.  He can just walk away after the season and sign with someone else after July. 1st.  The Flyers are hoping that, by trading for him now, they can get a close look at him and maybe get the jump on signing him to a new contract.  If they are able to sign him it will likely be well worth it.  Biron has experience as a starter and has always put up very respectable numbers.  With Esche’s injuries and inconsistent play and the still green Niittymaki struggling with starting duties behind a team going through adversity, the team needed to pursue someone solid who could take over the number one goalie position.  Biron has always been a bit underrated, playing in the shadows behind the great Dominik Hasek and more recently behind the emerging Ryan Miller.  When he gets the opportunity he’s shown he can play at a level where he’d probably be the number one goalie on many other teams.   With his skill, poise and experience, as well as his winning attitude, Biron seems like a perfect fit for the Flyers current need in net.  If the Flyers end up signing him (for a reasonable price say, $2.5-3.5 million/yr.) they will have made solid use of the 2nd round pick they gave up to get the inside track.  If they don’t, it’s a bust, but not a huge loss…the Flyers have a top pick in this year’s draft and still have other picks they’ve acquired in deeper rounds, so this makes this move a pretty solid gambit.

——- 

Summary:

While it is impossible at this time to judge the ultimate impact of all of these moves,  overall, you have to say that Holmgren did extremely well in getting value for the Flyers expendable assets.  He accelerated the rebuilding process and may have ensured that the team will not reside in the NHL’s basement for the forseeable future.  

There are still critical tests for Holmgren ahead.  There’s the entry draft in June, where the Flyers will have the highest pick they’ve had in ages.  Then, in July, comes free agency.  Will Holmgren and co. use the big trough of cash and cap room they have to land top free agents to complement the talented young core?  Will they play it conservative instead?  Time will tell, but if his moves heading into the deadline are any indication, Paul Holmgren will do the right thing, for now and for the future of the Philadelphia Flyers.  

My Opinion? 

Personally, I think the team needs to sign Biron asap, and use free agency to acquire a top-line playmaking center (to play with Gagne)  and a top two-way d man that can bring stability and QB the struggling powerplay.  As it stands now, I would target the following:

Defense (in order of preference):

Kimmo Timonen, Brian Rafalski, Andrei Markov, Sami Salo, Sheldon Souray, Tom Preissing, Roman Hamrlik, Brent Sopel…

Offense (in order of preference): 

Briere, Gomez, Drury, Forsberg, Datsyuk

As for the draft? 

Kyle Turris, Patrick Kane or the Russian Cherepanov….

More on the draft and free agency in future blogs…





Holmgren Selling into a Sellers Market

25 02 2007

On a day when people were questioning the logic of trying, unsuccessfully, to sneak Nolan Baumgartner back to the Flyers through waivers, Paul Holmgren has managed to quiet his newly found critics with the acquisiton of one of Atlanta’s top defensive prospects, Braydon Coburn, for Flyer defenseman Alexei Zhitnik.  Coburn, the 8th overall pick in the 2003 NHL entry draft, is a prospect Holmgren had liked for a while.   He seized the chance to pluck him out of Atlanta’s cupboard and shed 34 year old Zhitnik’s rather pricey $3.5 million dollar salary in the process.    The Flyers acquired Zhitnik from the Isles for undersized, but plucky defenseman Freddy Meyer earlier this season, so you can think of this trade with Atlanta as giving up the 26 yr. old Meyer in exchange for Coburn, the swift skating,  6′-5″ 220 lb, 21 year-old, with much more upside than Meyer is likely to ever have.  Buy low, sell high.   When you think about it like that, it makes losing Zhtinik, who has been the Flyers best defenseman pretty much since his arrival, not so hard to take. 

Zhitnik was a solid player for the Flyers, and at 34, he’s not that old…he would have been serviceable as a 3/4 d man for the next 2 or 3 seasons.  Zhitnik’s departure once again puts Hatcher and Pitkanen under more pressure and could set the current team back for the short term.   

In dealing the league’s most valuable deadline chip in Peter Forsberg to Nashville for Upshall, Ryan Parent and a 1st & 3rd rd pick and trading Zhitnik (and his $3.5 mm contract) to Atlanta for Braydon Coburn, Holmgren and Co. have managed to significantly bolster the growing cache of quality prospects and young players in the organization at a very reasonable cost.  Add in the 1st or 2nd overall pick in this year’s draft and the Flyers will have built up one of the most talented pool of young players in the league, without having to suck for a number of years to get it, like a lot of other teams.  

It remains to be seen if this move represents a full on move toward youth and rebuilding, a process that may take years to produce a contender, or if we’re going to see moves over the next six months that will position the team to return to the playoff picture in the next season or two.  That would have to mean finding the type of player(s) capable of replacing the skillset and experience Zhitnik brought to the team.  If the Flyers can manage to lure a Timonen from Nashville, a Rafalski from New Jersey or a Markov from Montreal this offseason, then getting rid of Zhitnik shouldn’t hinder the performance of the team over the next season or two.   The next six months should be very telling.





The Hatcher Conundrum

24 02 2007


Derian Hatcher has, at times, been the poster child for the big plodding, “old NHL” defenseman stuggling to keep up in a new era of professional hockey.  Indeed, he has had trouble handling speedy attackers entering the zone.   With his lack of lateral mobility and quickness, if he tries to close the gap and step up on them, they deek around him, if he backs off they use the space to set up plays or shoot.   This vulnerability was magnified when Hatcher was the lone veteran presence on the team earlier this season.  With Gauthier out and Rathje ailing/injured, Hatcher was asked to carry the load of being the team’s #1 defenseman.   Derian Hatcher, at 34, and coming off knee surgery isn’t exactly the guy you want in this critical role.   While he appeared effective at times, it seemed he would usually end up getting burnt by fast opposing forwards who make him look like a traffic cone.  Because these plays often resulted in goals, it got noticed.  Flyer fans, including myself, called for the team to move him somewhere, somehow.  

For all his flaws, Hatcher did show he could be effective down low against an organized attack, like on the penalty kill, when a team sets up in the zone.    He sort of stays in the slot/crease area and keeps himself turned to the play, clogging up primary shooting lanes and using his reach and strength to clear rebounds and break up plays, sort of like a second goalie.  Hatcher is a big reason why the Flyers penalty kill has been a consistent bright spot this year.  

So, there is some value that Darien brings to the team, even if it is limited primarly to the penalty kill and certain defensive zone situations.   Fortunately, the acquisition of Alexei Zhitnik and the return of a healthy Denis Gauthier afforded the Flyers the opportunity to shift Hatcher’s role to one more suited to his current abilities.  In this more limited role, he is actually doing quite well. He’s playing within himself and with a renewed confidence.  He has also stepped up the phyiscal play, which was something we didn’t see often enough before.   I think he’s learned that, under the new enforcement, you can still be physical along the boards and clear/defend a crease…you can get away with certain things and he’s learning where that line is and able to contribute more as a result.  

But the question remains…if it is best for the team to have him play as a PK specialist and limit his 5 on 5 exposure to that of say, a 5/6 D man,  is he worth  $3.5 Million?  Earlier in the season,  I would have probably said no way.  But seeing how relatively well he is doing with his more limited role, I am inclined to think he has a place on this team.  With Zhitnik here, Gauthier back and Picard really coming on, the Flyers defense is no longer on life support;  hence, the needs the team has to address in free agency have shifted somewhat.  If Rathje remains out of the picture, the need to free up Hatcher’s 3.5 Million is less critical.  They may be just one top two-way defenseman/powerplay QB type (Kimmo Timonen/Brian Rafalski/A. Markov/Salo) away from being a really solid unit.  Of course, there will be other needs.  There is the possibility of re signing Peter Forsberg or, if not, another playmaking center to take his place (Briere/Gomez/Datsyuk).  Add in a decent starting goaltender type that Niittymaki can back up (Legace/Biron/Garon) and you’ve improved the team dramatically.  These three additions should cost around $14-$17 million, which is within budget, even with Hatcher still on board.

With all of this said, if you knew you could get rid of Hatcher’s and use his $3.5 million to allow you to acquire a younger, more mobile defensive D man, like say, a Scott Hannan, wouldn’t you do it? 

This is the Hatcher Conundrum.      





Flyers Goaltending Exposed

23 02 2007

The Flyers have been playing good hockey, well, let’s say, better hockey these days.    A big reason for the ressurection has been the improved defense.  Earlier in the season, with Rathje out of the picture and Gauthier injured,  Derian Hatcher, Joni Pitkanen and the Phantom call ups were asked to do too much and their weaknesses were easily exploited.  Nowadays, with the solid veteran Alexei Zhitnik in the lineup, the return of a healthy Denis Gauthier and the emergence of Alexandre Picard, pressure has been taken off of Hatcher and Pitkanen, allowing them to play within their respective capabilities and be deployed by Stevens more appropriately.   The result is better coverage against attackers coming into the zone,  a much improved transition game,  more shots from the point and increased physical play etc.  This improved play has also spilled over into the offense.   There is more spark amongst the forwards…Zhitnik, Picard and Pitkanen can each move the puck, gain the zone and make plays to grease the offensive wheels.  The increased physical play, also prompted by the likes of Eager and Fedoruk up front, has given life to a forecheck game that had all but disappeared… puck pursuit and overall playmaking has improved as the forwards feel more free to create.

Confidence is growing and it just may be that the worst is behind the Philadelphia Flyers.    It is perhaps most impressive that this much improved brand of Flyer hockey has continued, despite the absence of Peter Forsberg, you know, the guy who the team supposedly couldn’t win without.

With all of these good things happening for the team lately, one troubling aspect of the team has stuck out like a sore thumb…the goaltending.  It seems that this renewed spirit of Flyers hockey is not being felt by the team’s corps of keepers, Robert Esche, Antero Niittymaki (and Michael Leighton).  These guys have had several lapses in key situations.  They are letting in soft goals that are losing games.  To be fair they have played well enough to steal a game or two once in a blue moon, but more often than not, they aren’t playing up to the level you would expect a #1 guy to play, the level necessary to win the close games. 

I myself have been a supporter of Niittymaki for some time.  He was the Olympic MVP while playing for the Silver Medal winning Finnish team,  he had a very impressive campaign with Phantoms, culminating in a Calder Cup Championship ( which was yet another MVP perfomance)…he was so impressive in his first NHL action a couple years ago, winning all three games in convincing fashion…he had a good year last season until the wheels started to come off the team he was playing behind.   In fact, for most of this season, I thought that it was more the inferior nature of the team the goalies were playing behind that was impacting their performance than anything else.  But as the team has improved, the goaltending has come into an ugly focus.   For whatever reason, Niittymaki and Esche are looking like  shadows of their former selves…unfortunately shadows don’t stop pucks.  It’s damn perplexing!…I KNOW these guys are capable of much playing better.  They’ve shown in the past that they can play at high levels in various situations.  I’ve seen it…all of the sudden Nitty has no glove hand or top-side coverage, Esche can’t see the puck….so what happened?   Is it injury?  Is it their confidence?  Poor goalie coaching?  Too much pressure/not ready to be a #1?  Is he a lost cause or is it worth hanging on to these guys?

My feeling is that Esche needs to be a designated #1 starter for him to play at his best.  It just seems ike his psyche is built that way.  With the goalie merry go round system the team has been using, there is no continuity or stability in goal and it hurts a guy like Esche who has been around a while and feels he deserves to be the starter.  Whether he has the ability to play at the level necessary to maintain a starting position is debatable given his inconsistent performance and increasing injury issues.  If he can’t be an effective backup or a good #1, his days may be numbered in Philly.  

Meanwhile, Niittymaki may be a victim of his own success.  He showed so much promise before this season.  So much that he was given the majority of starts this season (partly due to Esche’s groin injury problems).   Is it too much too fast?  Goalies rarely reach their NHL potential in their first 100 games…maybe its too soon to be putting so much pressure on him.  At this point, I think it’s obvious he is struggling with his game…but that doesn’t mean he’s washed up.  I truly believe that he has the ability to play at a much higher level than we’re seeing.   Given his siutation, I think it is prudent to keep him with the organization.  It’s simply too early to give up on him.

If I were GM,  I would part ways with Esche.  I’d trade him for a pick or package him for something more (or just don’t resign him),  then try and sign a free agent who can play the designated #1 goalie role more effectively, even if asked to share time.  Out of the available UFAs  I would pursue a Manny Legace, Martin Biron or even a Mathieu Garon and make them the #1 who could hopefully play 50-60 games.  This takes the pressure off of Nittymaki and lets him build his health and confidence back…if after doing this, he still displays these inability to play at an acceptable level, then maybe it’s time to give up on him..but I think he at least deserves that chance.  

Oh and Leighton?  He’s not the answer, but a prospect worth keeping an eye on…





Grading Stevens and Holmgren

22 02 2007

These are critical times for the Flyers organization.  Members of the new regime have been trying to prove to themselves and to ownership that they can perform at the levels necessary to build a winner.  So far, I give significant credit to Coach Stevens for staying focused and firm in what must be difficult circumstances to navigate.  For an NHL coaching newbie, he’s doing pretty well.  I like how he split the games into 5 game segments to take the focus off of their lowly position in the standings…I like how he showed a struggling Kyle Calder video clips of his numerous goals from last season, reminding him of what he can (and should) be doing…I like how he is more patient with line pairings than Hitchcock…I like how he has given the players the green light to play that physical brand of Flyers hockey that spurs passions and often, performance…the team is going to war and battling now under Stevens…they are sticking up for each other and gelling.  These are positive steps for the future and I give credit to John Stevens for doing a good job in a difficult situation. 

Grade: B       Good job, with room for improvement.

And now for Paul Holmgren….Formerly “interim” GM lol.  Well, he takes a lot of heat, but I give him credit for doing pretty good job.  He and his staff have managed to address some of the team’s more difficult problems with solid judgement and with good results for the team.  Working with the delicate Rathje siutation wasn’t easy…he said the right things and was able to get Rathje on LTIR where his money comes off the cap.    This cleared the way for critical mid season move, the trading of Freddy Meyer to the Isles for Alexei Zhitnik.  The skill level, mobility and experience Zhitnik brought to the Flyers made him instantly the Flyers best defenseman.  Freddy is a good little player, but he’s undersized and wasn’t able to play hard with consistency for the Flyers.  Zhitnik is a huge upgrade.  The deal following that one was puzzling.  Holmgren traded one of the Flyers more effective forwards, Randy Robitaille for the Isles longtime doghouse resident, Mike York.  York came into Philly out of shape and has brought little to the table, certainly less so than Robitaille did; but he is an unrestricted free agent next season and has little chance to be signed by the Flyers.  The Flyers have a lot of forwards in the system so it wasn’t a big risk to take a chance on York for a 1/2  a season in exchange for a player with modest upside like Robitaille.  I can’t help but think that these these two moves with the Islanders (who have former Flyers goalie Garth Snow as GM)  were somehow tied together….like an I scratch your back, you scratch mine type of deal…the details notwithstanding, the end result was a big upgrade to the Flyers defense and a fairly insignificant subtraction from the cupboard of Flyer forwards. 

The next significant challenge was the Forsberg situation.  Without going into all the gory details, suffice it to say that, with this season unable to be salvaged and Forsberg not ready to sign an extension (with the Flyers or anyone else) until after July 1st, there was little to lose by trading Forsberg away in a deal before the trading deadline.  Holmgren and co. managed to get him to waive his no trade clause  and trade Forsberg away to a first place Nashville team (out of the division)  in exchange for two of their top young prospects, a 1st round pick and and 3rd round pick.  Quite a return for a rental player whose durability is always a big concern.  Whether Forsberg returns to Philly or not, by trading him as a rental to the Predators,  Snider, Holmgren and the Flyers have made the most of the situation.  Maybe in some small way, it will help right the wrong done when we traded his rights to the Nordiques as part of the Lindros deal heheh.  One of the Nashville prospects we acquired, sixth overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft, Scottie Upshall, has come right into the Flyer lineup and had an immediate impact, scoring a game winning goal in his first Flyer appearance and another goal and an assist in his second game.  Upshall looks really good so far playing on the second line with Jeff Carter and Kyle Calder.   The other player, whom many consider to be the gem of the deal, is Ryan Parent, a young defenseman who is widely regarded as one of the best prospects in junior hockey.  With a game many scouts believe will develop nicely at the NHL level, Parent gives the Flyers something they needed… a blue chip defensive-defenseman in their system.  Time will tell, but if Parent can shut down the likes of Evgeni Malkin in the NHL, as he did as a leader and part of the top defensive pairing  for (the Gold Medal winning) team Canada in the World Junior Championships, the future looks bright on the Flyers blueline. 

I also like the waiver acquisitions the Flyers made in winger Dmitri Afanasenkov and goalie Michael Leighton…these are low risk opportunities that could have significant upside.   I also like resigning veterans Knuble and Kapanen to a reasonable extensions, they are good character guys who work hard and can add production.

Grade: B          Good job with room for improvement.

Rome wasnt’ built in a day and all of the Flyers problems won’t be fixed in one season, but Snider, Holmgren, Stevens et. al., for the all the heat they take, have done a pretty good job of dealing with some sizeable challenges in what has been the worst season in Flyers history.  They’ve used the aversity to learn and to grow…on the ice the Flyers are showing signs of coming together as a team…playing Flyers hockey and competing for 60+ minutes.   Also, the Flyers cupboards are filling up with talented young prospects.  Also, the team will have a large amount of money and cap room to acquire top free agents to address their critical needs( be it a top defenseman, playmaking Center and/or goaltending help).

To be sitting here at this point in the season, without Peter Forsberg and knowing the playoffs are not a possibility, and still be excited about the team’s future, is a credit to the organization and a testament to the good job done by the new regime thus far.  There are significant challenges ahead.  With the trade deadline looming there are tough decisions to make.  The offseason will bring even more critical choices for the future of the Flyers.  With the number 1 or 2 overalll pick in the draft and a ton of cash to work with, there is the opportunity to build a winner.  Will Holmgren continue to successfully navigate the choppy waters or will the ship take on water and sink, taking him along with it?  We’ll just have to see what unfolds. 

EDIT: 2/26/07  9:40pm  Since this original blog entry, Holmgren has traded Alexei Zhitnik to the Atlanta Thrashers for the 8th overall pick in the 2003 entry draft, 21  yr. old Braydon Coburn.  The 6-5 220 lb blueliner has tremendous size and solid skating skills.   His defensive ability is his strength but his ability to move the puck and his good shot point to potential upside on the offensive end.  If the Flyers were in the playoff hunt, this would be a questionable move, but, they’re not, so giving up the 34 yr. old Zhitnik (and his 3.5 Million contract with another 2 yrs on it)  for a top defensive prospect after getting him for Freddy Meyer could end up being a master stroke.  It remains to be seen if the Flyers will replace the two way skills and experience of  the veteran Zhitnik via free agency or ride into next season with what they have.  If they go with the latter strategy, it could be another season of deep rebuilding and another ealry trip to the golf course for the Flyers.

   








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