Regardless of how the coming season plays out for the Philadelphia Flyers, they will look back to this day in June 2011 as a moment of seminal change for the franchise.
After battling the perception that his team was party central for the past couple of seasons, Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren made a series of bold moves Thursday, trading top-scoring forwards captain Mike Richards and sniper Jeff Carter for an impressive collection of draft picks and prospects.
Holmgren also used the cap space he cleared in those deals to bring former Vezina Trophy nominee Ilya Bryzgalov under contract, signing the former Phoenix netminder to a nine-year deal worth $51 million. Holmgren had acquired the rights to Bryzgalov a couple of weeks ago in the hopes of filling what has been a perpetual void in goal for the franchise.
The moves cement Holmgren's reputation as one of the most daring of the NHL's 30 GMs.
If the Flyers can find enough offense despite the loss of Carter, a three-time 30-goal scorer (he scored 46 in 2008-09), and Richards, one of the top two-way centers in the game, the deals should continue to pay dividends for years to come.
If the Flyers struggle and Bryzgalov cannot provide the upgrade (he has had a spotty playoff record), Holmgren will then face some tough criticism for tinkering with the foundation of a team that two seasons ago went to the Stanley Cup finals. That's what happens when you make these kinds of home-run deals; there are no half measures on trades of this nature and no half-measures when it comes to credit or blame.
Of the two trades, the Richards deal is more curious and speaks to an ongoing issue of equilibrium in the Flyers' locker room.
Richards, who has nine years remaining on a 12-year contract that carries an annual cap hit of $5.75 million, was a member of Canada's gold-medal effort at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But the Flyers captain also warred frequently with the local media in Philadelphia, and there were issues with his leadership abilities, even when the Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010. This season, they were swept by Boston in the second round, although much of that can be attributed to substandard goaltending.
Still, it's obvious Holmgren believed his team would be further ahead without Carter and Richards, both first-round picks in 2003. And he won't be the only GM on the hot seat as a result of Thursday's mega wheeling and dealing.
Desperate to find a front-line center to help arrest the slow decay of his franchise, Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson likewise swung for the fences Thursday in acquiring Carter. The move did not come cheaply; the Blue Jackets sent promising forward Jakub Voracek, plus the eighth overall pick and a third-round pick in Friday's NHL draft to Philly. It is a steep price to pay for Carter, a natural goal-scorer who has struggled with injuries and has not shown the same kind of scoring touch in the playoffs.
Still, when you're a team like Columbus that has never won a playoff game and has qualified for the postseason just once in franchise history, it was imperative Howson make a move to try to get the Blue Jackets back in playoff mode.
The Columbus Dispatch, citing an NHL source, reported in May that the team was going to lose about $25 million in the 2010-11 season. The fan base has also grown restless with the many missteps under Howson and his predecessor, Doug MacLean.
It will be interesting to see what kind of mindset Carter has when he arrives in Columbus. He signed an 11-year contract extension last season, a contract that included a no-trade clause that didn't kick in until July 2012. Carter clearly expected to be part of the Flyers' long-term plans, but it didn't work out that way.
In theory, the Flyers could afford to part with two top centers because they have a wealth of talent up front, including Danny Briere, who has emerged as a top leader and gritty playoff performer, and Claude Giroux, who appears to be on the cusp of greatness. Scott Hartnell and James van Riemsdyk are also capable contributors. The trades may also allow Holmgren to re-sign potential free agent Ville Leino, who has been a valuable piece of the Flyers' offense since being acquired from Detroit during the 2009-10 season.
In Voracek, they get another former first-round pick (seventh overall in the 2007 draft). He didn't quite pan out in Columbus, but that may be a function of a talent-thin Blue Jackets lineup. He'll certainly get a chance to play with quality players in Philadelphia and showcase his skills.
Like Howson, Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi did not take on a top center without having to dig deep, giving up uber-prospect Brayden Schenn as part of the Richards deal. The blue-chip forward prospect was believed to be an untouchable, but Lombardi made the deal with the chance to add a player of Richards' skill, sending forward Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 second-round pick to Philadelphia, as well.
The Kings, who also received minor-league forward Rob Bordson, have made the playoffs for two straight seasons, but have failed to advance past the first round (this past spring, they were defeated by San Jose, but were without the services of top forward Anze Kopitar).
The addition of Richards to a forward group that already includes Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, along with a solid defensive lineup and decent goaltending, should enhance the Kings' chances of competing with the big boys of the Western Conference. The Richards acquisition has also paved the way for Lombardi to grant veteran Ryan Smyth his wish to be traded. The Kings GM said Thursday he is close on a deal and there are two front-running teams (it's safe to bet one of those teams is Edmonton).
In the end, the fortunes of the Blue Jackets, Kings and Flyers have been indelibly altered, with the epicenter of change being the City of Brotherly Love. Now all that needs to be determined is whether that change is for the better.