As the Flyers embark on the unofficial second half of the season, now that the All-Star Game is behind us, and with everyone giving State addresses all over the place – Gary Bettman on the NHL at the All-Star break, Roger Goodell at the Super Bowl this week, and President Trump on every channel known to man last night – I felt it was a good time to get a State of the Flyers from one of the higher-ups.
So, while the team was practicing at Voorhees on Tuesday in preparation for their first post-All-Star game in Washington tonight, I got together for a one-on-one with Flyers President Paul Holmgren to talk about a variety of things in an exclusive interview for Crossing Broad.
We started off talking about the Olympics and USA Hockey, including the tragic loss of Team USA General Manager Jim Johannson, a close friend of Holmgren’s, who passed away in his sleep 10 days ago at the age of 53.
We talked about the fact that there are four Philly-area natives on that USA team this year, the first time it won’t be filled with current NHL players since 1994, and Team USA’s chances of taking home gold for the first time since the Miracle year of 1980.
We also talked about his transition to the business side of the Flyers and what it’s been like to be president for the past four years.
Then we got down to the nitty-gritty and talked about the current team, where they are situated, where they are headed, what Holmgren thinks of the jobs being performed by Ron Hextall and Dave Hakstol, how the young players are being handled, and what two teams in the NHL the Flyers are aspiring to be right now (There might be a gag warning for some hardcore Flyers fans, so be prepared… it’s in Holmgren’s final answer).
Anyway, what follows is an exact transcription of our 30-minute interview minus a few words here and there that were edited out because they weren’t relevant to the conversation at hand.
Enjoy the read. And I’ll break down my thoughts on his answers as part of a Flyers post tomorrow.
Talk to me first about the passing of Jim Johannson. I got the opportunity to know him a little bit a few years back having drinks in a hotel bar in Buffalo and he was a really good guy. But you knew him on a whole different level. Can you talk about him and what he meant to USA Hockey?
PH: It was a devastating loss for USA Hockey. It’s just sad. He has a young wife and a young daughter. The timing of it with the Olympics coming up here in a couple of weeks it’s… it’s just sad. I’ve known Jim for a number of years. He is USA hockey. He knows every player at every level, whether you are coming up, or you’ve been through the system or you’re in the NHL – he knows them all. Not just knows who they are or what position they play, he knows them personally. It’s just terrible. I feel so badly for his family and I also feel badly for everyone at USA Hockey that has to move on without him. He’s one man but he wore about 10 different hats. He may have been the most organized person that I had ever come across but he also so many things just in his mind. That’s where so many issues are going to come up for USA Hockey. ‘We know what he did here and we know what he did here, but we’re not sure what he did here.’ It’s going to be interesting, but they’ll figure it out somehow.
When you look at this Team USA, do you think they have a chance since there aren’t any NHL players there?
PH: Who knows? Who knows? I think the coaching staff and the management team put in a great amount of time scouting and finding the right guys, so I’m excited about it and we’re all looking forward to see how it’s going to look on TV, but we’ll see. It’s the old story – you never know, right? It’s why they play the games.
They’ll be a gritty team though, right?
PH: Yes, they’ll be gritty but they’ll be a fast team too I would imagine. I think they have a good power play when I look at the roster. Overall, there isn’t a lot of size, but they have speed, so it should be interesting.
Is it tough for you as someone who has been involved with USA Hockey who also is in executive management for an NHL team to remain balanced on the notion that NHL players aren’t in the Olympics this year?
PH: Not at all. It’s sort of sad in my eyes that we aren’t there. I understand the business side of it and stuff, but for hockey, it’s my opinion that we’d be better off being there.
Having the best players in the world play in the Olympics is good for the sport in your mind, then?
Do you believe the NHL will return to the Olympics at some point?
PH: I hope. I hope.
Four players on Team USA are from the Philadelphia area – Ryan Gunderson, Chad Kolarik, Brian O’Neill and Bobby Sanguinetti – does that speak to the growth of hockey as a participation sport and not just as a spectator sport in the Philly market?
PH: Absolutely. Like a lot of markets where the NHL expanded to over the years. It’s been 51 years since hockey came here, but to see not only these guys but the guys in the NHL or AHL who are from the area (Bobby Ryan, Johnny Gaudreau, Anthony DeAngelo, Kyle Criscuolo, T.J. Brennan, Anthony Stolarz, Erik Burgoeffer, and Eric Tangradi) it shows we continue to produce good players. And we will continue to produce good players because of our presence in the marketplace.
But it’s not just the presence of an NHL team in the market, right? I mean that’s a big part of it, but there’s a lot that the Flyers do, that maybe doesn’t get enough publicity, to foster youth hockey in this area, right?
PH: Not just the Flyers, but look at the presence of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and look at what that’s done for our entire community. We go out of our way to help youth hockey in the area because we believe in growing our sport and making it better. It’s part of our mission.
You’ve been at this job now for four years. You liking it? You finally comfortable in the role?
PH: Yeah. I like to believe I learn something new every day. I love our staff. From Day One I found out that there’s another team of Flyers. There’s the team that everyone sees on the ice and then there are all the people who work in this building who are doing what’s right for the organization. And the enthusiasm and camaraderie that this group has is just like a team. It’s really cool. It’s hard to explain sometimes, but the way the people on the business side care about what’s going on, the product on the ice, the wins and losses – they’re incredibly tied up in that too. When you are on the hockey side, let’s face it, the nature of the business is you have to win. And the accountability is there if you don’t win. Well, we feel it over here too. These people live and die with the Flyers, whether they win or lose. You come in here, in the middle of a 10-game losing streak earlier in the year – and granted five of those were ties – the mood around here was not great either. The same conversations are happening here – ‘O.K. what are we going to do? How are we going to get this going? Let’s keep our heads up. Let’s carry on. We still have a game going on. We have to show up.’ It’s pretty neat to be part of that too.
It’s basically managing the fans and making sure there are ways for them to stay engaged even when times are tough, right? Was that the most challenging switch for you coming form the hockey operations side to this side?
PH: It wasn’t a challenge, but for me the important thing is making sure everyone knows we’re the Flyers. I know we have players who are the Flyers, but that we’re the Flyers too. We’re doing stuff for the Flyers too. Sometimes you just have to say ‘Eff it, we’re the Flyers.’
Not a lot of former players or even former general managers have the opportunity to switch over to this side of the operation – obviously Bob Clarke did it – but it’s got to be tempting to want to still be a part of the hockey side especially after as long as you were a part of it. How involved do you stay involved in the day-to-day on that side today?
PH: Well, I spend about 60 percent of my time here in this building (Wells Fargo Center) and 40 percent of the time in Voorhees, but I make sure I go over there on a regular basis to keep in touch with what is going on. That part of it doesn’t change. It’s easy for me to just go over there and go into Ron Hextall’s office and talk about what’s going on with the team. That’s hockey talk. It kind of flows. Coming over here, it was a little uncomfortable four years ago but now I’m very comfortable jumping into the flow of the conversation.
When you do that and go over to Voorhees and talk hockey with Hexy, is it difficult as a former general manager to weigh in but to ultimately step back and let Hexy and his staff make those final decisions that you used to make?
PH: It’s not difficult at all. When we first talked about doing this a few years back when I went to Mr. Snider with the idea, I had complete confidence in Ron and how he does things and I knew then I wasn’t going to get in his way at all. If he needs anything and wants to ask me a question about anything, I’ll listen and weigh in, but he’s making all the decisions on the hockey side. I have nothing to do with that other than support him and give him everything he needs from this side.
When you put that plan in place four years ago, was there a discussion then about a potential time frame that might be needed to turn the team back into the perennial Stanley Cup contender? Even if it’s one that had to be adjusted one way or the other by unforeseen circumstances – like not expecting to jump up to the No. 2 pick in the lottery to draft Nolan Patrick – but at the time, was it like a five-year plan or something?
PH: No. There was nothing specific. We felt there were a number of players in place who were going to be good players for a number of years. Ron spent seven years in Los Angeles where they went through a process of drafting and developing young players. I think he’s stuck to his guns on his plan and I don’t see him changing his plan. And I think we can all see the fruits of his plan starting to blossom. You mentioned jumping up in the lottery and getting the second overall pick, well nobody could have expected that, right? I remember kind of hoping against hope when Connor McDavid was in the draft, but to be able to move up and select Nolan Patrick with the second overall pick was a huge, huge thing. And we’re just now starting to see it with him. But other players we drafted over the years are starting to come into their own. Look at Travis Konecny over the last little while. Obviously Ivan Provorov – this is the second year now where he’s been a pretty good player for us. And there’s more coming. The fruits of Ron’s plan are coming to the forefront and that’s going to continue to happen.
Is there a delicate balance that needs to be managed with prospects? For example, you mentioned Provorov and he’s a guy who you can throw right into the NHL at 19 and have him playing 25 minutes a night at age 20 and he will play and grow at this level, but there are other guys who take longer to develop. How do you determine, as a team, which guys to throw to the wolves and which ones to take a long via baby steps?
PH: At the end of the day, it’s the player who decides for you. Yes, it’s up to the coach, the coaching staff and to a certain extent the management team to put players in positions where they are going to excel, but it’s a hard league. So, to expect an 18-year-old, or a 19-year-old or even a 20-year old to jump in, play 18 minutes a night and be a productive player, it’s just not going to happen. The league’s hard. These players just need to develop on their own time. I think Dave Hakstol and the coaching staff have done a great job with our young players. Scott Laughton is a good example. He was a draft pick for us in 2012 and here we are, almost six years later, and now he’s a good player for us. Is he as productive as you would like or he would like? Probably not. But, he’s still filling a role on our team. He’s become a good penalty killer. He’s got good speed. He chips in with goals here and there. And he’s probably going to get even better because he’s still a young player. You look at the other young guys – like Konecny for example. Hak was criticized by certain people for the way he was handling him, but I think that’s the way you handle young players. You give them a little bit and see what they can do. They’re going to make mistakes, because it’s a hard league and sometimes, as a player, you need to sit back and reflect on what you’ve done. So for Travis, sitting in the press box last year, or even earlier this year where he wasn’t playing as much as he’s playing now, those are times where he has to sit back and reflect on himself. Or sit with the coaches… nobody knows – the public and the media don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes – the coaching that’s going on inside the locker room or in the video room. And our coaches, I know the time they spend. They’re there most days from 7am to 7pm on non-game days making our players better.
Then I think it’s fair to say, listening to you speak about this as passionately as you are, that you are very happy with the work being done by both Ron Hextall and Dave Hakstol as both General Manager and Coach of this team, right?
Looking at some of the players that were here when you were GM, are you impressed by the bounce back Claude Giroux has had so far this season after last season?
PH: Let’s face it, nobody likes to have an off-year. And when you’re as good a player as he’s been over the last five or six years and then to have the kind of year he had last year, we all kind of just believed he would bounce back. He put in good work in the offseason in terms of preparing himself physically. It’s nice to see. Same thing with Jake Voracek. Jake was another guy who probably had a bit of a down year last year and has had a bit of a bounce back. Those guys are pros and know what’s expected of our organization.
Looking at Sean Couturier, when you drafted him, was this the kind of production you ultimately expected, or is he even exceeding what you expected with his performance so far this year?
PH: I think we all believed there was offensive upside in Sean. Even going back to his first year – I was talking to Peter Laviolette and (Nashville Predators assistant coach) Kevin McCarthy about Sean at the All-Star game over the weekend and they were talking about Coots and how he’s played this year – but we all saw it back then. Again, it’s a hard league. It doesn’t just happen for you here. Just because you scored 1,000 points in junior hockey and you move to the NHL at a young age it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen overnight. Quite frankly, Sean was put in a position this year to play with Claude and Jake early on and all of a sudden was handed two pretty good players to play between. Now, they helped him, but I also think he helped them with what he does inside our own zone. One hand washes the other. But, I think Sean has even more upside offensively.
PH: I do. He’s only getting stronger by the year. He’s grown more into his body and has become a man now. Sometimes that takes a little longer. When he first came here he was a skinny 19-year-old kid trying to compete in the NHL. He did what he did best defensively, and his offensive game was allowed to slow-cook, so to speak.
The team has been a bit streaky this year. You had a decent start, then you had the 10-game losing streak but since then, with only three real exceptions – the home games against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay and the road game in New York against the Rangers, the team has played some really good hockey. In all the years you’ve been around the sport, is this something that you think is sustainable for the entire second half of the season, or do you think it’s a lot asking a pretty young team to play at this level for such an extended period of time just to make the needed playoff push?
PH: During the 10-game losing streak, we had some winnable games. There were a couple clunkers and you mentioned a few more. The other night against Tampa we played with them for the first period and had some opportunities and some chances but couldn’t score. And, for whatever reason, when they cranked it up in the second period, we didn’t follow suit. But, is it sustainable? Yes. I think so. Why not? It comes from the players in the room. Obviously, injuries will play a big part in things coming down the stretch. We’re somewhat healthy and we have to maintain that and we have to show up and be competitive. The teams we are playing down the stretch are all teams that are right there in the same position we’re in. I’m excited about it and I think our players are excited about the opportunity that’s right in front of us.
Considering how close things are in the Metropolitan Division and how many of these games are going to be so important over the final 10 weeks of the season, does that make it more difficult for the Flyers younger players who you mentioned ‘are coming’ to really get a shot to show they can play at the NHL level the rest of the way, unless of course injuries happen?
PH: That’s probably a better question for Ron, but theoretically, injuries happen and you adjust accordingly. I know from what I can gather, the young guys who are playing in Lehigh Valley are playing well and that team is playing well. Travis Sanheim for example –
He was one of the guys I was going to ask about specifically –
PH: He wasn’t playing here and his play kind of dropped and his minutes continued to shrink and he was out of the lineup for awhile and I think at some point Ron had to make a decision, and he did. I read a comment the other day from Phantoms coach Scott Gordon that Travis is going to play 25 minutes a game. If he makes a mistake, he’s going to get right back out there. That’s what minor leagues are good for, right? Hopefully Travis’ confidence can get back to where it was at the beginning of the year and he will be back up here at some point. Our good players that we are counting on for at some point in the future keep getting better and if the situation dictates it, we’ll bring them up, I’m sure.
If I can ask, if you look at the analytics, Sanheim’s numbers were pretty good when he was on the ice, yet he came out of the lineup. So, something wasn’t right in his game. I can’t imagine you would take a guy out if he was truly playing well. So what is it? What was wrong with his game that can’t be measured statistically that caused him to come out and ultimately be sent down?
PH: A lot of it is little things about learning how to play the game at the NHL level. But, specifically it’s about positioning. Stick positioning and body positioning. Boxing a guy out coming out of the corner. Boxing a guy out in front of the net. Little things that maybe another guy that’s here is a little better at. Our coaches are great with this. They spend a great deal of time going through what we need as a team and what we need from each player. The decisions they make are well-thought out and give the team the chance to win on any given night. I think they do a tremendous job of doing that. Just because I’ve been in that seat, I know the time that they spend and the thought process that goes into the decisions that need to be made. It ain’t easy. Sometimes, the media or the fans aren’t going to like it, but there is a lot of time being spent on decisions being made and at all times, all decisions, whether it’s Ron or the coaches, is being done in the best interest of the hockey team.
Last question, Paul. You’ve been around this team for so many years. Did you ever think you would be in a position where you are now where you would have to rely on patience with the development of the team rather than what it was like when Ed was alive where it was always ‘Do whatever it takes to win every year?’ And was taking that step back, and believing in a more long-range focus that will allow the team to be better off for an extended period of time down the road even if it meant sacrificing a couple of seasons beforehand, a hard thing to endure?
PH: It’s uncharted waters for me. I worked for so long under Clarkie and then after he resigned… But Ron’s been in this position before in L.A. I like the direction he’s taking our franchise. It’s not say we can’t win. It’s not saying that at all. But Ron’s plan is putting us in position to win a number of times of the next several years. I like our team. I like where we are at. I continue to think we are going to get better and better every year. That doesn’t mean you can’t go through injuries and have a little bit of a set back. I mean, look at Tampa Bay. Would any hockey guy going into last season think they wouldn’t make the playoffs? They didn’t because they had some bad injuries. On the other side, how many hockey people would have said before the season that Ottawa would have gone to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals? That’s no disrespect to Ottawa, it’s just a statement to the closeness of the league. You ask 100 hockey experts last year, ‘Is Ottawa going to make the playoffs?’ Probably 96 of them say no. It’s too tough. Not that they were a bad team, just that they didn’t seem to fit in to the playoff equation. But the league is so close. This year you have Tampa Bay at the top and Nashville just below them and then you have Washington and Pittsburgh because of their rosters and experience and after that it’s pretty close with a lot of teams. With what we’re doing here and trying to accomplish, we aspire to be a Tampa Bay or a Pittsburgh – a team that’s done it multiple times – not that Tampa’s won multiple Cups, but Pittsburgh certainly has. That’s what we aspire to be and with the plan Ron has in place and the coaches we have, that’s where we are headed.