Flyers
Anthony Mantha (second from the left) celebrated his Capitals debut with a goal, assist, and a trendy beatdown victory over the Flyers. It’s what all the cool kids are doing these days. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

Let’s have a chat. The Philadelphia Flyers lose, 6-1, to the Washington Capitals, as the misery continues. It’s their seventh loss by five-plus goals this year. They had three of those last regular season in 27 more games. Conor Sheary, Tom Wilson (PP), Nicklas Backstrom (PP), and Carl Hagelin all scored in the first period for the Capitals. Ilya Samsonov also scored in that period by throwing away a James van Freebiesdyk that Sean Couturier deflected in. Anthony Mantha lit the lamp in his Capitals debut after being acquired from Detroit in the second period. And Alex Ovechkin lit the lamp for another PP marker in the third. Brian Elliott allowed all six (though he didn’t get much help from his teammates) and took the loss in goal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Flyers’ future over the past few days, which also means I’ve been thinking a lot about their past. To me, it seems abundantly clear the organization never pushed hard enough for (or very hard, period) to win or even contend for a Cup during Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek’s primes. You can add Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn to that mix if you want, too, even though they’re long gone. Same with Shayne Gostisbehere, who will probably be long gone in the offseason. Now, they have the problem of those two guys exiting their primes as players but not their contracts. It’s a difficult tightrope to navigate, especially with a flat salary cap.

Ron Hextall’s decision to retool was probably the right one but there’s one miscalculation I think they made: the timing. As I wrote in July 2018, “there may only be a 2-3 year window to win a Cup with this current core.” And while I didn’t necessarily mean the window was beginning to open right then and there, the Flyers are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the second time in three years since I wrote that article. It’s just not good enough.

The point I’m trying to make here is that you can’t just throw a very good team together at the last minute and expect to win the Cup. Stuff like your starting goaltender falling apart, your 1st-line center missing a dozen games, and this year, a global pandemic can pop up and ruin any season (ok, maybe not every season with the whole pandemic thing) on a whim’s notice. Winning a championship in hockey is a careful balance of tinkering and trial and error, of gradual progress that may stagnate at times, but eventually, breaks through.

A lot of people mocked former Seattle Mariners chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln for saying, “The goal of the Mariners is not to win a World Series. It is to field a competitive team year after year, to put itself in a position to win a World Series and hope at some point that happens” about two decades ago when the Mariners were near the top of the league. But honestly, I think he might be on to something.

Let me explain for a second. Obviously, it’s every team’s ultimate goal to win a championship each and every year. And when you have a good team, especially at a moment like the trade deadline, yeah, your goal is to do what it takes to win a title. But if you’re a general manager, what you’re really trying to do (in my humble opinion) is build a stable, strong core with a good supporting cast that can be adjusted over time until you find the right championship mix.

Sometimes, you need to add someone to that core; the Flyers are certainly at that stage right now. But if you look at it, basically every recent champion didn’t win the Stanley Cup by building a Cup caliber team once. You do it by building a championship-caliber core whose supporting cast you tinker with year after year until you find the right group that breaks through.

Some teams run out of time before that happens, but that doesn’t mean the strategy isn’t sound. Look at some recent Cup champions’ paths to winning it all. Each of the last two champions, the Lightning and Blues, made five playoff appearances in six years before winning the Cup on the seventh try. Before them, Washington had made it nine of ten years. Before them, Pittsburgh was on a playoff run of over a decade. Chicago’s three Cups came in the midst of nine consecutive playoff trips. Supporting casts changed. The stars at the core mostly remained in place, or perhaps the core receives an additional boost, as was previously mentioned.

That aforementioned reasoning is why one-year wonders like the 2018-19 Flames, 2013-14 Avalanche, or 2015-16 Panthers couldn’t translate their one-off dominant regular seasons into playoff success. That’s why practically no one is picking the Panthers to come out of the Central this year, even though their regular season has been just as good as Carolina’s and Tampa’s. If they play like this next year, everyone will take them a lot more seriously.

You earn your stripes in the playoffs, then you get your Cup — if you’re lucky. The Sharks, who made the playoffs fourteen times in fifteen seasons from 2003-04 through 2018-19, can tell you that even consistent success doesn’t guarantee a championship. If a team that iced Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and an evolving cast of elite talent couldn’t win a Cup, it’s going to be awfully hard for the Flyers to randomly break through the glass ceiling one of these years with their current formula. And while they’re on their way towards building a group like that, this year proves they still are quite a few pieces away.

That’s what makes this year (and all the other recent years) so frustrating. The Flyers had that core of Giroux, Voracek, and Simmonds; championship-caliber players. Not only did they never build enough around them to compete, they never even tried. The Flyers haven’t even dealt their first-round pick since 2011 when they dealt for Kris Versteeg. Ok, maybe I see why that left them a little gun-shy. But still. It’s a huge reason why they haven’t made consecutive playoff appearances since a run from 2008-2012, which is a huge reason why they haven’t done much with the four playoff appearances they’ve had since that stretch concluded.

Last year felt like it could be the first step towards that gradual climb up the Stanley Cup mountain. Instead, the Flyers have completely lost their footing and are right back where they started last season; looking up in awe at the massive challenge they have to summit. You climb hockey’s Mount Everest one step at a time, one move at a time, one trade at a time, one draft pick at a time. The Stanley Cup is not a one-year trophy; it takes years, over a decade even, to accomplish what’s necessary to win it. And erasing a lot of your progress every year makes it awfully hard to complete that checklist.

Now what matters is can the Flyers contend with a core built around guys like Sean Couturier, Ivan Provorov, and Carter Hart? Sure! All of those guys are very good players that are capable of playing top-of-the-lineup roles on an elite team. Couturier’s won a Selke and scored at a 70-plus-point pace each of the last three 82 game(ish) seasons. Provorov may not be a number one, but he’s definitely a strong number two whose eaten top pair minutes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner since his rookie season. And disastrous struggles of the last month-and-a-half aside, I think Hart will ultimately settle in as an excellent starter, with the ceiling to at least reach the fringes of the elite tier. If nothing else, he’s proved capable of being a very good goaltender in the past, a level if certainly can at least return to in the present and future.

But those three aren’t enough, and nor are the players around them. General manager Chuck Fletcher needs to supplement that core with more elite talent. Finding that talent was Fletcher’s biggest weakness when he was GM in Minnesota was finding elite talent. Which makes sense; it’s the hardest thing for a GM to do. Fletcher thought he’d done so with the 13-year, $98 million deals he gave Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, locking those guys in as THE core. But ultimately, those contracts prevented him from ever getting the Wild enough help to put them over the top as legit contenders. Suter and Parise were and are very good players, just maybe not the absolute game-changers they were hyped as.

Of course, finding and bringing in elite players is not nearly as easy as I make it sound. But winning the Stanley Cup isn’t even either. The difficult things must be done if the Flyers are to ever change the narratives of complacency and accepting failure that are surrounding them like moths around a flame.

The Flyers are kinda in the same spot as the Wild were (and somewhat still are, despite their outstanding season) in that department, but not exactly. For one difference, Minnesota found an elite talent in the 5th round (Kirill Kaprizov) who’s probably going to be rookie of the year. But you could argue the Giroux and Voracek deals have a similar effect as Parise and Suter’s, although they’re thankfully not as much of long-term anchors. And while the Flyers don’t have a talent like Kaprizov in their pipeline, but they do have a very deep group of young talent who projects to or already are making an NHL impact.

Young players like Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim, and Joel Farabee are very solid players that can absolutely play a big role in a Cup-winning team. But can they be the ones you bank on to carry the team along with those aforementioned three guys? I’m significantly less sold there. They’re going to need help, and it’s up to Fletcher to do what it takes this off-season to do that. The Scott Laughton extension shows Fletcher hasn’t lost all faith in the current group. But he certainly knows their current mix isn’t right.

A major overhaul could on the horizon. Giroux’s deal is up at the end of next year; he’ll probably return, but at a reduced cap hit. He’s still part of the core, but is a bit separated by his age (32 — he’s still a vital part of the team, but you have to acknowledge his best days are almost certainly behind him. There’s a good chance at least two of James van Riemsdyk, Gostisbehere, and Voracek aren’t returning. Other notable players could also be moved. So that’ll clear up space. But now comes the hard part; finding a way to find elite talent. Whether that’s signing a true top-pair defenseman like Dougie Hamilton, or trading for the sniper that every recent Cup winner (Kucherov, Tarasenko, Ovechkin, Kessel, Kane) seems to have, or something else (or a combination of the three), it needs to be done.

It’s officially time to stop playing it safe; look at where it’s got the Flyers right now. All of that waiting has just boxed them into a tight corner that’s going to be tougher to work out of than ever. But escaping the purgatory of the 2020-21 season and finding greener pastures is still possible. Yesterday’s minor trades of Michael Raffl and Erik Gustafsson are just the start of the change. The Flyers have had exactly one offseason since 2011 where they’ve made major moves. It was the 2019 offseason, which resulted in their only playoff series win since 2012. Good things come to those who change. It’s about time for the Flyers to do just that again.

Check out my recap of the 2021 NHL trade deadline here.

Lindies

In addition to his goal, Anthony Mantha also registered a secondary assist on Wilson’s goal. It took a highlight-reel glove save by Brian Elliott to prevent him from scoring a second. Michael Raffl did not play; in fact, Chuck Fletcher said yesterday Raffl is dealing with an injury. I hope he’s ready to go for the Caps-Flyers game in Philly Saturday. He deserves a homecoming.

Despite that great glove save, not exactly a banner game for Brian Elliott, to say the least. The Wilson goal was a weird bouncing puck, but it just plain went through him. And his lateral movement on the Backstrom goal was painful to watch. At 36 years old, while I appreciate everything Moose has done for the Flyers over the last four seasons, I think it’s time to move on in the offseason.

One Raffl fun fact I forgot to include: he scored the game-winner in each of the Flyers last two season-openers; a 6-3 win over Pittsburgh this year and a 4-3 victory in Prague against the Blackhawks last season. Miss those days.

At least Sean Couturier is doing well; he’s got seven goals in his last twelve games. Look, I’m trying.

Scott Laughton is now without a point in thirteen consecutive games. Some of that probably stems from trying too hard to produce lately to secure an extension. But it would’ve been really nice to see him bury one of his great chances (including a breakaway) tonight.

Tanner Laczynski had some really nice looks tonight, coming awfully close to his first NHL goal. Expect him to get into most if not all of the Flyers remaining games with Raffl out of the picture.

Few things are more confounding than the fall from grace the Flyers penalty kill has undergone this year. Unlike most of the Flyers’ flaws, there just doesn’t seem to be a good reason for it. Losing Matt Niskanen and Tyler Pitlick certainly hurt, but the Flyers have enough quality PKers that it shouldn’t be a drastic problem. I could’ve expected (and dealt with) a slight drop-off. Yet they’ve gone from 11th with 8 shorties (T-6th) to 29th with zero shorties, tied with Detroit for last in the league.

Another frustrating thing: Nicolas Aube-Kubel’s complete lack of discipline. It was a problem in his first AHL season, and it’s reared its ugly head far too often this year. Aube-Kubel’s fifteen minor penalties are six more than the next Flyer. And his interference penalty tonight led to Backstrom pumping in a crucial goal tonight. He’s been brutal all year.

The Capitals have won their last two games by a combined margin of 14-2. Must be nice.

Playing in his 800th game, John Carlson registered his 400th NHL assist. Only one other active defenseman (Kris Letang) got to 400 helpers within their first 800 contests. Your welcome for trading the pick you used to draft him for Steve friggin’ Eminger, Caps (no offense, Mr. Eminger).

3 Stars

3rd: Ilya Samsonov (WSH) – .967 SV% (29 Saves/30 Shots), 1 GA on 2 xGA

2nd: Anthony Mantha (WSH) – Goal (12), Assist (11), 6 Shots

1st: Conor Sheary (WSH) – Goal (11), 2 Assists (7, 8)

Next

PHI – 4/15, 7 PM @ PIT (27-13-2, W3)

WSH – 4/15, 7 PM vs. BUF (10-25-6, W1)

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