The desk of the hardest-working general manager in hockey was a model of order last week: a phone, a stack of faxes, the morning papers, a box of tissues. Of course, having stickhandled around the NHL's new collective bargaining agreement as if it were a pylon--making bold moves to create salary-cap space, reconfiguring a defense around blueliners who look like refrigerators on skates and signing the best player in the world in one furious 72-hour period-- Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke didn't have much left to do. He was waiting for one last contract to be finalized, a deal that would keep goalie Robert Esche in Philly and leave the team almost $2 million under the $39 million cap. You can't win a Stanley Cup in August, but you can't conjure one at the trading deadline anymore, either, because of the cap's inflexibility.
The window of opportunity for reinvention was small this summer, but Clarke slammed that window on the fingers of 29 other teams with the audacious signing of nonpareil center Peter Forsberg and solar-eclipse defensemen Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje. The new landscape was supposed to be the domain of decimal-pointers and capologists, not the most old-school of the NHL's old-school general managers.
"The stars of the new NHL are G.M.'s," says forward Paul Kariya, who signed a two-year, $9 million free-agent contract with Nashville. "The ones who really get it, their teams will be the most successful."
The torrent of signings that began on Aug. 1 slowed to a trickle after general managers had moved quickly to indulge their inner Paris Hilton. From the moment on Day One that Florida G.M. Mike Keenan basically doubled the Maple Leafs' offer and lured forwards Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts out of Toronto, the bingeing was impressive. "The cap was supposed to restrain everybody," says Clarke, who committed a combined $31.5 million over nine years to Hatcher and Rathje. "Well, what did [new Chicago goalie Nikolai] Khabibulin get--$6.75 million [a year]?" Yes.
After buying out veterans John LeClair and Tony Amonte to create initial cap space, Clarke started with his defense. That had been the Flyers' priority since they were eliminated in the 2004 Eastern Conference final, and it was reinforced in winter meetings with Philadelphia Eagles president Joe Banner and his NFL cap advisers. Banner believes you identify certain key positions, maybe even overpay there slightly, then fill in smartly around them. Remembering his puck-moving defensemen being rag-dolled on the penalty kill and considering a schedule tilted toward matchups against hard-to-contain Eastern Conference forwards such as Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier and Boston's Joe Thornton, Clarke chose blue line bulk. Hatcher, 33, a dominating presence on his best days, a headhunter on his worst, is 6'5" and 225 pounds, while the 31-year-old, octopuslike Rathje is 6'5", 230.
Neither of those lumbering defensemen--nor the irrepressible 6'5", 235-pound Chris Therien, a former Flyer repatriated from Dallas--seems well-suited to the flowing game the NHL has promised. But that's the point. Says Clarke, "In our opinion it's going to be an end-zone game. Eliminating the red line won't change a lot of things. You won't see a lot of passes from the top of the [defensive] circle to the far blue line. There's more room in the offensive zone [with the net moved back two feet], which should open up things a little bit. But not much."
Clarke had announced on Aug. 2 that the Flyers were done, but the next morning he saw Forsberg hadn't re-signed with Colorado, which had salary-cap issues. He called Forsberg's agent, Don Baizley, and asked if his client might consider Philadelphia. Forsberg leaped at the two-year, $11.5 million offer, although it was less than a Western Conference team was willing to pay. "I wanted to go to the East Coast because it would be more respectful to Colorado," Forsberg said last Thursday. "I didn't want to have to play against them. Plus Clarkie wants to win. And the team is tough. It's good having big guys on your side."
Clarke chose to sign Forsberg--putting the Flyers $2.73 million over the cap--and sweat the math later. The clearest path to getting under the cap was trading the NHL's loudest voice, center Jeremy Roenick, who was to earn $4.94 million and had a no-trade clause. When Clarke phoned Roenick, the Gums of August, the center said he wouldn't block a deal because " Forsberg's a better player than me." Los Angeles--and who is more Hollywood than J.R.?--loved him and took him, and a third-round pick, from the Flyers for "future considerations."
For Forsberg the move meant a return to Philadelphia. Sort of. He was the Flyers' top draft choice in 1991, when he was 17 and looked more choirboy than mountain man. He went home to play for MoDo after that draft and was dealt to Quebec a year later in the package for Eric Lindros. Most of the intervening years were spent in Colorado--helping the Avalanche to eight division titles and two Stanley Cups, but more recently he was back with MoDo, where he played during the lockout until injury struck. Forsberg needed surgery on his left wrist last January, then sustained a concussion--number 4, by his count--in March. Forsberg's body has been a surgical smorgasbord (ankles, spleen ... if you've got the body part, Forsberg's had it operated on), but he says he's healthy now. "I see [all the missed time] as a positive," said Forsberg, who always takes the direct route on a play. "I've only played [580 NHL games] instead of the 1,000 I might have by now if I hadn't been injured. That gives me extra miles."
Forsberg was house hunting in southern New Jersey last week, and Clarke had turned over the job of accompanying him to a Flyers factotum. The G.M. would spend the weekend at his place at the Jersey shore. This time, his work truly was done.