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The terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad 2021-22 Philadelphia Flyers season is now over. For the second straight year, one question remains: what happens now? (Steven M. Falk/Philadelphia Inquirer)

Flyers Fan Reaction (FFR4) Gm 82: OTT 4, PHI 2 – Crossroads

The terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad 2021-22 Philadelphia Flyers season is now over. For the second straight year, one question remains: what happens now? (Steven M. Falk/Philadelphia Inquirer)

Flyers Fan Reaction (FFR4) Gm 82: OTT 4, PHI 2 – Crossroads

To say their haven’t been a lot of positives to take from the 2021-22 Philadelphia Flyers season would be a massive understatement. But the team’s 4-2 loss to Ottawa on April 29 undeniably offered one. Not in some shining moments for the young talent hoping to turn things around in the future. Not in the feel good moments for Keith Yandle, who likely played in his final NHL game in the contest. And not even in trading in one last chance at the good feeling of winning for slightly better odds at getting ping pong balls to bounce their way, which didn’t ultimately happen.

All of those things are positives. But the biggest one by far? That this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season has finally, mercifully, concluded.

The cost that this season took on every single member of the organization and the fanbase is staggering. The Flyers entered this season on the heels of two very different seasons. As recently as 2019-20, the Flyers looked like a 5-on-5 menace and a team on the up-and-up. The 2020-21 season poured plenty of cold water on that optimism, as the team sputtered through the last few months of the season while receiving goaltending that was impossible to win with and a defense that provided next to no help. The Flyers had their most aggressive offseason since 2011, jettisoning two franchise faces and didn’t pick in the first round of the draft for the first time since 2010. Fans filled the Wells Fargo Center for the first time since March 10, 2020. The Flyers were ready to begin a new era.

Just not the one the 2021-22 season hinted at. The Flyers actually started the year 8-4-2, but there were warning signs things would not hold up. The team’s play-driving numbers at 5-on-5 were in the gutter, just like last season, when they started 8-3-2. Ryan Ellis and Kevin Hayes had both already been injured, returned, and been injured again, a trend that would last throughout the season. A recurring problem from last season — the inability to string together consecutive wins, something the Flyers did just twice in those first 14 games, never winning more than two straight — reared its ugly head again.

The floodgates opened immediately after the emotional highpoint of a 2-1 OT win against the Flames in mid-November. The Flyers lost a couple of hard-fought, competitive games, then lost a few more in far more damning fashion. A 7-1 beatdown at the hands of a Lightning team that had played the night before against the well-rested Flyers in Philadelphia slammed the door shut on Alain Vigneault’s tenure. The team rebounded from a record standpoint under Mike Yeo; after losing their first two games following the coaching change, the Flyers rattled off a seven-game point streak to end 2021.

As a result, the Flyers were either due for a significant improvement in their process or significant downturn in their record heading in 2022. But even the most pessimistic fans didn’t see a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak coming. The Flyers were embarrassed for nearly an entire month, not picking up their first win of 2022 until Jan. 29. But the damage was done by then. The Flyers actually did improve their underlying play at 5-on-5 for about a month or so. Yet the results never stabilized, at least not positively. The team became a shell of itself as trades and injuries ravaged the roster, including ending the time of the franchise’s longest tenured captain. The Flyers were sellers, cellar dwellers, and rarely able to play spoiler down the stretch while giving a myriad of their prospects NHL test drives.

All of that is useful to recap where the Flyers have been, not that anyone will forget, no matter how badly they may want to. But it’s also useful to set the stage for where the Flyers are now. They have a mix of decent to good players, with even a couple of great ones. We now know they have a vacancy behind the bench, and there are some pretty good coaches available to fill that void. Management is staying, but they know their approach needs to be different. And there is a tangible reward for these 82 games of misery; the No. 5 overall pick in the NHL Draft.

There are three very distinct paths the Flyers could follow after everything that happened in 2021-22. The easiest one to see is the path of least resistance. It’s also the most miserable one, of course; the Flyers simply stay bad for at least the next couple of seasons, never emerging from the NHL’s cellar until at least 2025.

Just because Chuck Fletcher and Dave Scott have committed to an “aggressive retool” doesn’t mean things can’t blow up in their faces. Exhibit A: the 2021-22 season. It was definitely possible to see a season where the Flyers didn’t make the playoffs back in October. However, a season this bad was never even supposed to be remotely possible after the moves Fletcher made and the base they were adding on to. Maybe the pride of Flyers culture prevents the Flyers from ever intentionally committing to a rebuild. But maybe a rebuild commits itself to them all the same.

Of course, if Fletcher, Scott, and literally everyone else had their way, the Flyers would travel down the path of instant contention. This year is easily one of the worst in Flyers history, and there’s only one season that can rival its futility: 2006-07, when, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, the Flyers suddenly dropped to rock bottom in a season where they expected to contend for a playoff spot. GM Paul Holmgren didn’t sit on his hands or decide a blow up was necessary, however. An aggressive series of moves by Holmgren brought the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Final the very next season. Two years later, they found themselves in the Stanley Cup Final.

Making the 40-point or so leap necessary to get the Flyers back in the playoffs certainly won’t be easy. But there’s a reason — several, actually — why the Flyers believe they can turn things around. Sean Couturier won the Selke Trophy just two seasons ago. Ryan Ellis is a No. 1 defenseman with a very reasonable cap hit when healthy. And he’s at least trending in the right direction healthwise. Carter Hart proved his dismal 2020-21 season was a one-off. Travis Sanheim took a step forward. Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, and Joel Farabee have all looked like dangerous, top of the lineup caliber players in recent memory. There is some solid talent in the pipeline behind them, as well as an extra 1st round pick in 2024. The Flyers, even after such a miserable season, do have some quality assets.

Whether the Flyers can put it all together, however, remains another question. The Flyers may have some talent, but in order to gain more of the “top-end” talent Fletcher said they were missing back in January, the Flyers will have to give up some of those talented players to clear cap space. Even if the Flyers were to sign someone like Johnny Gaudreau, doing so would fill their first line left-wing void. But in turn it would also likely open up a whole at second-line wing as well with the trading of someone like Konecny or James van Riemsdyk to make space.

Barring the hockey equivalent of the Herschel Walker trade, the Flyers aren’t going to be able to completely cover all of those holes. They’re going to have to pick certain bets to hedge. Maybe it’s trusting Morgan Frost to finally lock down 3C after three seasons of being unable to do so. Perhaps the Flyers trust a left side of Sanheim, Cam York, and Egor Zamula to get the job done and trade Ivan Provorov for cap space/forward help if they don’t believe Provorov will bounce back to 2017-18 or 2019-20 form. Maybe they trust that Ivan Fedotov or another internal option can lock down the backup goaltender spot. But for the Flyers to have any shot at a quick turnaround, they’re going to have to make some uncomfortable decisions.

That in itself isn’t the problem. The problem lies in the third road, the one the Flyers are the likeliest to travel down. The Flyers aren’t as bad as they showed this season. And even if they are, getting Couturier and maybe (probably?) Ellis back next year will help. That and some better injury luck, plus a better coach, should automatically give them a boost. Fletcher will probably hit on at least one offseason addition that makes the team better. It’s not an illogical at all to think the Flyers could be back in the playoff picture next season. Or at least right on the cusp of it.

But that right there is the problem. Maybe the Flyers can get back to being a fringe playoff team. But how can they be get to be anything more? The additions that Fletcher makes, even accounting for potential subtractions, will probably cap the team out. And given that Fletcher compared his desired 2022 offseason to 2019, there will probably be at least one significant long-term contract handed out in free agency. The Flyers don’t have nearly as much flexibility as a bottom-five team should right now. And that only figures to get worse as time progresses and the Flyers push further towards turning things around in the short-term.

Unfortunately, trying to flip the short-term script often locks in the same one long-term. Just look at that 2019 offseason, one that is incredibly revered by Fletcher (and rightfully so). But after a strong initial boost, it didn’t age all that well. The Flyers inked a massive contract with Kevin Hayes, which while great initially, is in danger of becoming an albatross. The Matt Niskanen trade couldn’t have started any better. But circumstances Fletcher couldn’t have predicted in a million years prevented the deal from reaching its full potential. The Justin Braun trade was solid. But it didn’t dramatically move the needle, even in year one. And Braun spent his last two seasons in Philadelphia in a role way over his head. The Vigneault hire looked great at first, but crashed and burned before long. It ultimately only produced one pretty good season and two absolute nightmares immediately after.

The biggest concern about the Flyers’ offseason is that it’s going to be incredibly difficult for Fletcher to make the 2022-23 Flyers better than the 2021-22 team was on opening night; just different. The gap between, say, Gaudreau and the current blank space at 1LW on the Flyers depth chart isn’t nearly as big as the gap Gaudreau would actually be filling if he signed in Philadelphia. That would be the one previously held down by Claude Giroux, arguably Philadelphia’s best forward this season. There’s basically no amount of additions the Flyers can realistically make to get them into playoff contention alone. They’ll need players like Konecny, Provorov, and Sanheim to continue to take meaningful steps in their mid-to-late 20s. Or/and return to a level they haven’t been at in a couple of seasons. That’s a tall ask, one that doesn’t receive a positive answer very often.

Maybe Fletcher and company can prove the skeptics wrong, and the Flyers do have another post-2007-esque turnaround in them. It would certainly be a welcome outcome. But that doesn’t mean the Flyers are right to try the Hail Mary heave a quick fix seems to be. The Flyers have been stuck on this third road for a decade now. And that’s in large part due to a combination of wrong moves made at the wrong time. Fletcher can, in theory, control whether he makes the right or wrong moves this summer. But too much damage may have been done this season and in that last decade for 2022-23 to be the right time to leading the Flyers to the meaningful, positive changes they should be seeking; not merely just avoiding another long summer, no matter the potential long-term costs.

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