Last year’s Flyers Season Ticket Holder Town Hall was a revelation. Who knew that a major, big city sports team would, or could, find a way to interact meaningfully at the management level with the fans. But the Flyers have refined their format to fine art. So for the second year in a row, I was able to speak with, question, hear from Flyers brass.
This year again we started with a quick meal in the Lexus Club. Then we moved on to sessions with Peter Luukko and Shawn Tilger, Premium Seating and Parking, Chris Pryor and Don Luce, Paul Holmgren, and John Stevens (who was on the road for the session I attended last year).
Peter Luukko and Shawn Tilger
Peter Luukko, President and Chief Operating Officer of Comcast Spectacor, and Shawn Tilger, SeniorVice President Business Operations, were set to talk about the business side of things. First, the Phantoms sale. There was concern expressed from the STHs about the situation with the Flyers not having an AHL affiliate if the Phantoms new owners did not have a place for them to play in 2009-10. Luukko said that every NHL team is guaranteed an AHL affiliate. So there should be no concern there. But because the Phantoms have an abundance of young talent, which is finally apparent in their play now that the Flyers are healthy and the Phantoms have been able to play with a full roster, there are a number of AHL teams that are currently unaffiliated that would like to be the Flyers farm team. The worst case scenario would be a shared affiliation. But there will definitely be a place for the Flyers to put their developing players.
Philly Live, the development that is planned for the lots directly north of the Wachovia Center and the location of the Spectrum, is on track for government approvals and it is expected that ground will be broken soon, with completion in 14-18 months. Because the location pretty much guarantees significant traffic, there is not the same concern about finding tenants that the developer has at some other sites. And although financing is tight, it has been loosening up and they believe that there will not be a delay for that.
I asked the question I’ve been trying to get clarified for some time. If the cap comes down, will existing contracts stay at their level or be adjusted in some way. The contracts will stay at the same level, so it is possible that in 2010-11 there will be significant problems for teams bumping up against the cap.
As for free agency in the future, because teams are moving younger players into the lineups faster in order to get cap flexibility, free agents may find themselves unable to command the same kind of contracts they have. Luukko expects many free agents will find themselves settling for less in order to be signed quickly or hanging around unsigned until November or later. There is no real remedy in the collective bargaining agreement to prevent the hanging players. For some teams, the prorated contracts are a benefit, they aren’t really a benefit to the players.
At this point, someone asked about Mike Knuble. Luukko said Knuble will have to think about what he wants. There s nothing wrong with making $1 million for three years if the alternative is making nothing for not playing. We get a much more positive spin on the situation later from General Manager Paul Holmgren.
Chris Pryor and Don Luce
Chris Pryor, Director of Hockey Operations, and Don Luce, Director of Player Development, concentrated on young players and the draft.
Asked about James van Riemsdyk and when the Flyers could reealistically expect him to crack the lineup, Pryor said that it is “up to James.” The Flyers are “hoping he’ll be pushing.” “We’re going to be patient…we think the world of him.” His readiness will depend on his own timetable and his work ethic. He noted that Bobby Ryan spent two years in the AHL before being ready but Claude Giroux spent two months. It just depends on the player. But the Flyers tend to “overcook” players, preferring they be in the AHL a bit longer rather than rushing a player.
Someone was under the impression Europe would dry up as a source of talent with the emergence of the KHL, but Luce said the KHL is “disintegrating” and that some teams “weren’t paid for the second half” of the season. But the Flyers aren’t unhappy with the North American talent they’ve found.
Luca Sbisa is expected to be back soon, because his junior club is down 2-0 in a series with the best team. I asked if they expect him to fill out and they said he has to stop growing first. He’s up to 6’2″ and they expect him to top out at 6’3″. They do think he may need to temper his style of play to stay healthy but they love the way he plays. They expect him to play with the Phantoms if the AHL club makes the playoffs (which is contrary to what I thought–I thought he had one more year of junior eligibility, so wouldn’t be able to play with the Phantoms), the be available as defensive depth for the Flyers in the Playoffs.
Asked (by me, at the behest of my friends at HockeyBuzz.com) about the dearth of goalie talent in the pipeline they were a bit put off. Pryor discussed the recent signing of Backlund and talked about there being a gap between Marty Biron, who is in his prime, and the younger developing goaltenders in the system, who are in their early 20s and not ready for prime time. But they said there really are very few teams well set up in the pipeline or really happy with an elite goaltender and they feel the Flyers are in good shape. Luce fined me $25 for asking that question.
Then they played a video of highlights of Sbisa and van Riemsdyk.
I couldn’t expect the Paul Holmgren session to be as rich a vein as it was last year. How often is a general manager that forthcoming? But he doesn’t duck any question.
On the goaltenders–it is not out of the question that both goalies re-sign. They haven’t been great this year. But the “modest success” the team achieved last year was due to Martin Biron.
The cap is not yet set for 2009-10, they should hear by June 30 (doesn’t leave a lot of time before the draft) and expect it to be close to what it was this season.
Mike Knuble wants to be back and the Flyers want him back. He will be the first veteran player they’ve signed where the bonuses may come into play. He doesn’t see any reason the Flyers can’t get a deal done with him.
Someone asked about the Jeff Carter for Thomas Kaberle deal rumored from last year and he said, “Don’t believe everything you read.”
At the recent GM meetings he was on the fighting panel. There were a number of groups, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman never left the fighting discussion. But he doesn’t see fighting being out of the game.
To manage the cap, a team needs to add one or two young players a year or they will fall by the wayside.
Claude Giroux is one of the smartest players the Flyers have had in a long time.
On James van Riemsdyk–the biggest step a player takes is from juniors or college to the AHL. The step from the AHL to the NHL isn’t as big. JVR needs to learn to work to compete.
Other topics covered at the GM meetings were “a lot of crap [he doesn’t] listen to,” hits to the head, and goalies taking a beating. Homer agrees that is an area of concern.
Flyers Coach John Stevens was the last stop on our rotation. Not having had the chance to meet with Stevens last year, I was wondering how this would go. He was as straight shooting and open as everyone else in the organization.
He started with the Identity Video. It’s really a statement of the Flyers brand. He uses it to remind the players who they are. What it means to be a Flyer. What is expected of a Flyer each time he steps on the ice. They should be the same team every night.
Of course, this was followed by someone asking why, if they know they should be the same team every night, aren’t they? The Flyers are the sixth or seventh youngest team in the NHL. That has some impact. The starting centers are 24, 24, and 21. He also feels that 15 games in 30 days in March wore them down mentally and physically and the significant changes in the team caused by trades and guys getting healthy disrupted things.
He is concerned a little bit, but is confident the Flyers can get back to being aggressive and disciplines. Now it’s time to go. This week is important–“that we win games and how we play them.”
There was some discussion of lines. He said they like Giroux in the middle. He has “elite vision.” In addition, when he was on the wing he’d stand still and was easy to take to the boards, but in the center he’s “dynamic.”
Asked about turnovers, he thinks the main issues are the youth of the team and that they are so aggressive offensively. But puck support is getting better.
As for consistency, they have scored more goals and allowed fewer than they did last season. So they are an improving team.
The question of penalties came up. He said they did think they’re beginning to avoid the avoidable penalties–like throwing a glove on a breakaway. But things like Carcillo getting a misconduct for mouthing off to an official need to go. Any time you find yourself venting emotion to an official that’s wasted energy and can’t happen. They want to avoid penalties from lack of effort–keep the feet moving and you won’t find yourself out of position and hooking or tripping–but they will always accept agressive penalties.
Stevens’s demeanor came up and he said he can get animated in the room but “this group responds well to objective matter-of-fact reasoning” so that’s usually the way to go with them.
I asked about Lupul possibly being a candidate for the mental exercises R.J. Umberger benefitted from two years ago. Stevens said the company that did that training is out of business–they had a good product but a bad business model. But he said Lupul is perhaps sometimes unfairly criticized because Carter shoots so much, there isn’t as much opportunity for him to score as he might if he were with a more assist-minded center. That’s why the try of Lupul on Mike Richards’s line. But the Scott Hartnell/Carter/Lupul line had been very successful and it is likely the line combinations they have now, with Simon Gagne/Richards/Knuble and Briere/Giroux/Aron Asham are likely to stay that way, with occasional rotations based on penalty kill and power play play.
It’s interesting to see the personalities running this team. None of them are exactly high-energy guys. They’re solid, perhaps stolid, men. Luukko is the most animated. But both Holmgren and Luce have active, perhaps slightly acid, senses of humor. They’re sharp, remarkably open. The only time I felt I might not be getting their full honest opinion was on the goalkeepers, when it was obvious I’d touched a nerve.
But I was surprised at the overall lack of defensiveness. They’re savvy communicators. and Flyers fans are very very lucky to have the opportunity to interact with them in such an open forum.