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Is Philadelphia’s “aggressive retool” enough to make up the 39-point gap that separated them from a 2022 playoff spot? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

2022 NHL Off-Season Guide: The Philadelphia Flyers

Is Philadelphia’s “aggressive retool” enough to make up the 39-point gap that separated them from a 2022 playoff spot? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

2022 NHL Off-Season Guide: The Philadelphia Flyers

If there’s thing the Philadelphia Flyers can feel comfortable about heading into this offseason, it’s that at least they’ve been in this position before. Very recently, in fact. The Flyers entered last season coming off a disappointing campaign and a core they deemed in need of a shakeup. That’s exactly what Chuck Fletcher and company did last summer, and the result was an absolute nightmare. The franchise’s worst regular season in 15 years. Trading the team’s longest-tenured captain. Regression for nearly every single core player. Oh, and they even dropped in the draft lottery.

You can’t even say “it can’t get any worse” because that’s exactly what Flyers fans said a year ago. Things got worse; way worse, in fact, in 2021-22. Some of that was due to factors out of the team’s control. Injuries wreaked absolute havoc, as the Flyers never iced their ideal lineup for a single game last season. Of course, a team is tied for 26th in points percentage over the last two seasons and a gradually aging prospect pool isn’t going to have much benefit of the doubt, if any. It’s not that the Flyers don’t have quality players or attractive assets. It’s just that finding the right combination of players to keep and new ones to add will be extremely difficult. If nothing else, this should be a very interesting summer in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Roster

As was aforementioned, the Flyers’ biggest problem isn’t a lack of solid players. Joel Farabee, James van Riemsdyk, Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny, and Cam Atkinson would be welcome pieces for an elite team to have. But the problem is that they aren’t the high-end talents that can drive a Cup contender.

Konecny’s regression has been particularly alarming. After scoring 24 goals in 66 games in 2019-20 (.36 goals per game), Konecny has tallied just 27 goals across the last two seasons combined. That’s a clip of just .21 goals per game, a pace of roughly 12 fewer goals over 82 games. Hayes spent most of the season either out to surgery, of which he had three, or looking like a shell of himself. Atkinson was probably the Flyers’ best forward behind the now departed Claude Giroux. But he hasn’t scored at a 30-goal pace since 2018-19. Farabee scored at a less efficient rate this season than last. And his underlying numbers haven’t made the jump expected with his high hockey IQ. And while van Riemsdyk led the team with 24 goals, he largely looked invisible many nights. Most fans already see him as out the door due to his high cap hit.

The only true exception to this rule is Sean Couturier. The 2019-20 Selke Trophy winner is a first-line caliber player on any team. But Couturier isn’t a truly dynamic player, rather one whose stellar performance is driven by his defense. That’s not a knock on Couturier, but an indicator of what the Flyers need (more on that later). Of course, first and foremost, they need Couturier healthy. He played in just 29 games last season due to a back injury.

At least that’s 25 more than Ryan Ellis, Philadelphia’s presumed No. 1 defenseman, dressed for. The Flyers would’ve had a very difficult time making the playoffs last season even if Ellis’ injury was their only one all year. Not only did the Flyers miss him, but Ellis’ absence led to a second consecutive disappointing year from Ivan Provorov. It’s become glaringly clear that the 2015 No. 7 pick is a different player when paired with a strong puck-moving partner (2017-18 Shayne Gostisbehere, Matt Niskanen). When that’s not the case, Provorov often tries to do too much, leading to costly mistakes. Still, he’s at least a minute-eating No. 2 defenseman with a bomb of a shot.

Perhaps the only Flyer who took a step forward in 2021-22 was Travis Sanheim. While Provorov’s confidence seemed to dwindle, Sanheim’s steadily rose after a difficult first month of the season. Figuring out his future in Philadelphia is no small concern. The reigning Barry Ashbee Trophy winner, awarded annually to the Flyers’ best defensemen, is an unrestricted free agent in 2023. The Flyers already locked up his partner, the controversial Rasmus Ristolainen, to a pricey five-year extension. Ristolainen was better than ever in his first year out of Buffalo. But clearing that bar proved far easily than clearing the “actually good top-four defenseman” bar, of which there are still many skeptics.

Carter Hart at least did a good job of quieting many of his skeptics following a historically bad 2020-21 season. While Hart’s .905 save percentage may look like nothing special, anyone who watched the Flyers this season would tell you he was one of the team’s most consistent players, often forced to try to withstand barrages from opposing offenses. The Flyers still do have a decent amount of young talent to support Hart and Co. in the near future. Morgan Frost, Owen Tippett, Cam York, Noah Cates, and more are talented 23-or-younger players who showed promise in the NHL this season and could be pieces for the team moving forward. However the day of reckoning is closing in for Frost and Tippett, who are both RFAs this summer. And it will take a lot more than a handful of good to solid prospects to turn things around.

Team Needs

The most obvious one is behind the bench. The Flyers fired Alain Vigneault 23 games into the 2021-22 season, and the team was even worse under interim Mike Yeo. Who the Flyers hire next will say a lot about just how quickly they see a turnaround coming. Hiring Barry Trotz or John Tortorella would send a message the team is expected to return to the playoffs right away. A choice like Jim Montgomery or Rick Tocchet would be more of a balance between hoping to succeed in the short-term but acknowledging the daunting odds of returning to where the team was in 2019-20.

Those odds are so high because the Flyers’ biggest need is the hardest thing to acquire: top-end talent. And losing Claude Giroux, who seems unlikely to return, leaves a massive hole at first-line left-wing. South Jersey native Johnny Gaudreau has long been linked to the Flyers, and it seems likely the Flyers will try to lure him home. Filip Forsberg would be more than a solid contingency plan. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Elliotte Friedman said Nazem Kadri, who had a career-high 87 points this season, “is a Flyer” back in January. Although Kadri is a natural center, so that might be a weird fit position wise.

Adding one of those players wouldn’t completely erase the Flyers’ need for game-breaking skill. In reality, the Flyers probably need one of those players and someone else at the top of the second tier of forward free agents (Ondrej Palat, André Burakovsky, Ryan Strome, Andrew Copp, etc.). Swinging a trade for someone like Kevin Fiala is also an option.

Cap Situation

Part of why fixing Philadelphia’s skill deficiency is so daunting is their lack of cap space. The Flyers have just over $5.1 million in cap space, per CapFriendly. That number accounts for a roster with 11 forwards, seven defensemen, and two goaltenders. A handful of young players and prospects are RFAs in need of new contracts. That includes three NHL regulars up front in Frost, Tippett, and Zack MacEwen. None of Philadelphia’s RFA should cost much more than $1 million a season on a one or two year contract.

Even if all the Flyers wanted to do was replace Giroux at 1LW this summer, they still wouldn’t have enough cap space to do so adequately. It’s all but a foregone conclusion that James van Riemsdyk won’t play the last season of his 5-year, $35 million contract in Philadelphia. The Flyers could retain up to $3.5 million in a trade; if they wanted to deal away his entire cap hit, it would likely cost a future 1st round pick.

For comparison, the Maple Leafs traded Patrick Marleau’s $6.25 million cap hit and a 7th to the Hurricanes for the 13th pick and a 6th at the 2018 draft floor. And that was in a non-mostly-flat-cap-environment (albeit with a slightly lower ceiling). The 2024 1st the Flyers acquired from Florida in the Giroux trade would be the most obvious pick to use if the Flyers want to go this route.

Buying out van Riemsdyk would result in a $4,333,334 million cap penalty in 2022-23 and a $1,333,334 penalty the next year. Interestingly, the Flyers would actually save $333,333 million by buying out Oskar Lindblom’s $3 million contract due to a unique wrinkle due to his young age when he signed the deal. It would result in a $666,667 penalty in 2023-24. And it would certainly be a tough goodbye for the beloved forward who is still working to return to the level he was at prior to his cancer diagnosis in Dec. 2019.

It also feels likely Konecny ($5.5 x 3 more years) or Provorov ($6.75 million x 3) could be moved. Sanheim could potentially join that group if the Flyers can’t reach terms on an extension. It’s almost impossible for the Flyers to both save significant space and fill the void that moving one of those players would cause, though.

The Draft

The reward for the Flyers’ second worst regular season in franchise history is just the No. 5 pick. It especially stings since the Flyers actually finished fourth west in the NHL. Even worse, Metro rival New Jersey leapfrogged them in ping pong balls for the third time in five years. Still, this is just the Flyers’ second top-five pick in 14 years. And it represents the team’s best chance at fixing its high-end talent void.

Unfortunately, the draft pick cupboard isn’t anything too special for the Flyers. While they do have that extra 1st round pick three drafts from now, the Flyers don’t have a second either of the next two years. They do have every other pick in the next three years except their 2024 5th. They also acquired three extra picks in the 2023 draft at the deadline. Philadelphia has extra thirds from Florida and the Rangers, plus a fourth from Edmonton. That being said, I’d be pretty stunned if the Flyers wind up making all of those picks. That 2024 Florida first especially screams trade ammunition to me.

Overall

At first glance, it’s not hard to see why the Flyers don’t think they can at least contend for a wild card spot in 2023. After all, they have a top-five pick plus another 1st round pick to move. Their prospect pool isn’t among the league’s most feared anymore, but it’s still a solid group. There’s a not insignificant amount of players entering or in their prime that have flashed skill at one point or another at the NHL level. And if veterans like Hayes, Couturier, and Ellis were healthy last year, the Flyers wouldn’t be digging from this deep of a whole, anyway.

But the deeper look is far more murkier. The Flyers may know they have a lack of high-end talent, and they have taken steps towards addressing it. Chief among them is a more aggressive, skill and shoot first approach at the draft table. But none of the players drafted with that mold will likely break the team out of camp. 2019 2nd rounder Bobby Brink and 2020 1st rounder Tyson Foerster could perhaps come up later, but that’s no guarantee.

But the bigger problem is that even if that were to be the case, Brink and Foerster’s upside is more very good second liner than true go-to, elite offensive weapon. Other than Couturier, who hasn’t scored at a 30-goal pace since 2018-19, the Flyers don’t really have anyone that is. Even the No. 5 pick might not change that. Most of this draft’s big name forwards are projected to be off the board when Philadelphia’s selection comes around.

Here’s Gavin Daly’s off-season guide on the only team in the East worse than Philadelphia in 2021-22: the Montréal Canadiens.

The only way for the Flyers to change that with the sort of urgency they seem to have is to make big moves; either via trades or free agency. That could work. After all, the Flyers’ followed up their only worse season in franchise history (2006-07) with an aggressive offseason. And sure enough, they reached Eastern Conference Final the very next year.

But teams acting from a place of desperation rarely come out on top. Big contracts to Couturier, Hayes, Ellis, and Atkinson aren’t coming off the books anytime soon. Yet it’s clear the Flyers feel pressure to act. Whether or not that takes them further or closer to their goal of consistent contention remains to be seen. But just because the level-headedness that define the ultimate failure that was the Ron Hextall era doesn’t mean Fletcher’s “bias for action” will produce better results.

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All Salary Cap Information via CapFriendly

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