Flyers Fan Reaction (FFR4) Gm 44: LA 3, PHI 4 (OT) – May-phew
The Philadelphia Flyers WIN, 4-3, over the Los Angeles Kings. There’s no need for a clever introduction when a team wins their first hockey game in exactly a month, which the Flyers did dramatically on Saturday afternoon. The team concluded one of the most miserable months in franchise history on somewhat of a high-note; yes, they did blow a 3-1 lead, allowing the Kings to tie the game in the final minute of regulation. But Scott Laughton managed to save face with his second career regular-season overtime winner (he’s got three if you count the playoffs) to send the considerably less-than-capacity crowd at the Wells Fargo Center home happy.
The Flyers’ first win since Dec. 29 (and first home win since Dec. 18) didn’t come in their best performance. Nor was it the product of Carter Hart truly standing on his head, which seemed like the only way out of the hole after the Flyers turned in quite a few solid performances over the last two weeks that failed to end the skid. Their performance was somewhere in between. They were slightly outshot (40-36) and out-chanced (47.67% expected goals). It wasn’t the prettiest game, but there were some pretty plays; a “Makar-Esque” move by Rasmus Ristolainen, as described by the man he set up with it, a suddenly red-hot Gerry Mayhew (3 goals in 5 games), a nice move by Cam Atkinson on a short-handed breakaway that produced his second goal of the game, and a solid performance from Carter Hart (3 goals against on 3.95 expected, all situations).
However, the notoriety of this game, even accounting for the result, still pales in comparison to Chuck Fletcher and Dave Scott’s press conference on Wednesday. We’ll still go over today’s game and some of the important on-ice trends. But let’s devote the bulk of today’s main section to the team’s long-term plans since those are what matter most in any season as lost as 2021-22 is for the Flyers.
What Went Wrong With The 2021-22 Flyers?
At the time of the presser, the Flyers were still mired in their losing streak, just coming off loss number thirteen the night before to the Islanders. Fans were probably expecting Fletcher and Scott to rip into the team; anything less than a total evisceration of the team, à la the Ed Snider days, would have been viewed as massively disappointing and out of touch.
If you’re someone in that boat, then prepare to be disappointed. In his introductory message, Scott said, “If you were to ask me what our number one challenge is, today, it’s injuries. It’s not an excuse, but it’s our reality.” Finding the balance of whether injuries are an excuse or a reason for the team’s failures is a delicate balance. There are quite a few key, healthy players who aren’t playing up to snuff. But take away a team’s top-two centers and their likely best defenseman, and it’s natural for them to struggle. Eat up at their depth as well, and the path to a thirteen-game losing streak is more plausible. Still avoidable, but more plausible.
As for a short-term fix, don’t expect it to come this season. “The math is daunting (for us)” Fletcher admitted. So when the March 21 deadline rolls around, it won’t take much guessing as to which side of the market the Flyers fall on. As Fletcher said, “If (these struggles) continue, we’re gonna look to do what we can at the trade deadline to improve this team going forward.”
Who Is (And Who Might Not Be) In The Team’s Long Term Plans?
Almost no team ever returns the exact same lineup from season to season, and even given the injury factor, it’s a certainty the Flyers won’t fall under that category when the puck drops in 2022-23. Fletcher’s last comment implies the team will be sellers; so, who will they be selling? Well, after excluding borderline AHL/NHL players like Mayhew, Nick Seeler, and Kevin Connauton, the Flyers still have five UFAs on their roster, plus two more on IR in Derick Brassard and Nate Thompson. Those two (assuming they return to health) plus Martin Jones, Keith Yandle, and Justin Braun could all be dealt for mid-to-late round picks.
Jones is probably the least likely to be dealt simply because trading goaltenders mid-season is tricky. Braun is probably the only player in that group who could net more than a fourth-round pick. These would be your standard “contender acquires rental depth” trade deadline move. And make no mistake about it; the Flyers are shaping up to be sellers in 2022. “
Scott’s message that “we’ve got a core group to build on” was preceded by him mentioning four names: Sean Couturier, Ryan Ellis, Joel Farabee, and Kevin Hayes. Carter Hart is probably a safe bet to be included in that group; his name probably just slipped Scott’s mind, as there’s no way the Flyers would trade a 22-year old goaltender who has been at least a solid starter in three of his first four seasons for a team who has dealt with goaltending issues for decades.
But that still leaves some notable names missing. Claude Giroux, of course, is a pending UFA who the team could trade at the deadline. However, Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, and Travis Konecny — the first three first-round picks of the Hextall era — aren’t on that list. The former two have delivered disappointing seasons, with Sanheim stabilizing after a rough start, albeit in a lesser role. If the Flyers want to make another big shake-up like they did last offseason by trading Jake Vorâćek as well as Shayne Gostisbehere, those seem like the most likely candidates.
What About The Off-Ice Concerns?
Of course, it isn’t just the team’s on-ice performance that has fans up in arms. Every aspect of the organization is under fans’ microscopes, including the off-ice culture. Frustration is not stemming from just the team’s on-ice struggles, but the lack of big changes is a stark contrast to the Ed Snider era when fans could at least count on a fiery press conference vowing to do better. Yes, the Flyers fired Alain Vigneault and Michel Therrien in response to the team’s first ten-game losing streak. But another, even longer skid set in, and no major changes came about. And of course, that streak included a home game on Snider’s birthday, which the team didn’t recognize, much to the anger of an already frustrated fanbase. So is there reason to worry about the organization as a whole?
Not according to Scott. “I feel if you talk to people inside the organization now, and I think it’s been pretty stable for a couple years now, whether it’s on the business side, I’ve had Valerie Camillo, she’s in her fourth year. She’s a terrific executive. She’s built a great team. Chuck’s been here now, just about as long. No, I think if you asked anybody in hockey ops, they would say nothing’s changed. Talk to the old-timers, people that are still with the organization. I think if you’re on the outside looking in, maybe you’re hearing some things and seeing it differently. But with that said, you can always make it better. I want it to be a family atmosphere.”
But that doesn’t mean everything is fine, of course. Scott began the press conference by directly apologizing to fans and voicing his frustration. “From where I sit, we’re in a terrible spot right now. I can tell you I’m angry, I know our fans are more than angry, and the whole organization’s angry. We’re sick of losing.” One issue that the duo did dispel was the narrative from some fans that Comcast Spectacor wasn’t giving the team enough to work with. “I can tell you that thanks to Dave, we doubled the size of our development staff last year,” Fletcher said. “We’re doubling the size of our analytics department. We just named Alyn McCauley director of player personnel, and we’ve added to our pro staff, we’ve added to our amateur staff. We’ve overhauled our strength and conditioning department last summer. We’ve massively increased our budget.”
How Is The Team Planning To Move Forward?
Let’s start with management (namely Chuck Fletcher) and the coaching staff, simply since those are the areas with the fewest people to account for. There wasn’t much clarity on the coaching staff’s future; other than that newly hired assistant John Torchetti is in COVID protocol (he wasn’t behind the bench Saturday). Fletcher specifically mentioned that there “are no guarantees” when describing Torchetti’s future, a message that probably applies to the rest of the staff. That doesn’t mean to expect everyone to be canned; for example, Yeo could easily move back to his duties running the PK (which was 13th in the league when he switched to head coach and was up-and-down the previous two years).
When asked about the coaches specifically, Fletcher said, “We’ll see how the rest of the season plays out. The best time to make those decisions is in the summer, in the offseason when you’re not burdened with the daily grind of games and practices.” But even acknowledging the injuries, it’s going to be hard to justify bringing Yeo back as head coach, barring an unlikely turn-around.
As for Fletcher? Don’t expect him to go anywhere soon. All signals point to Fletcher getting another chance to fix the team. “I like the way he’s built this organization,” Scott said when asked why Fletcher is “his guy”. “I’ve worked with some of the predecessors over time. I like his style. I like his leadership. He’s smart, he’s collaborative. I’ve never seen the front office, working this well, together.” It’s a half-shot at the unpopular close-mindedness of the Ron Hextall era; but also a legitimate endorsement of Fletcher as well.
There are plenty of options for the future of the Flyers bench. And we know that Fletcher is almost certainly safe, at least for another summer. But let’s focus on the general philosophy of roster construction; after all, that is ultimately what influences wins and losses more than any other factor. Perhaps the most encouraging part of the press conference were two key problems that Fletcher proved the team is well aware of.
“Look, I don’t think there’s any question we need more top-end talent,” Fletcher said. “Claude Giroux is our best offensive hockey player, he’s 34 years old, he was drafted 16 years ago. We have some good young players. And some of those young players, their career arc is still going to play out. But we do need more top-end talent, there’s no question.”
Barring generational talents like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, a 34-year old being your best player isn’t optimal. To be clear, that’s a referendum on the players around Giroux, not Giroux himself; he continues to play spectacular hockey. And the organization clearly doesn’t think that injuries are the only reason for the team’s downward spiral; after all, most analysts weren’t picking the Flyers to make the playoffs before the season, even assuming full health. The easiest way to accumulate high-end talent, of course, is by building through a series of high draft picks. Philadelphia is well on their way to a high pick this season; their currently 7th last in the NHL, which would give them a 13.7% chance of picking in the top two. Is this how the Flyers plan to fix their lack of high-end talent?
“Bottoming out? I don’t think that’s what we feel we need to do,” Fletcher said. “I do believe we have good pieces. Realistically, players like (Sean) Couturier and (Ryan) Ellis are going to come back at some point. When they come back, we’re a significantly better hockey team.” Scott added. “We’re looking at the front office, we’re looking at the coaching staff — which we have been — players, investment. Whatever we need to do to improve this team. But I don’t see it being a three, four, five-year thing. We should get this right, we should be in it next year.”
This is where the most concerning part of the press conference comes in. So, if the Flyers don’t plan to be a consistent lottery team over the next few seasons, there are two other ways to address the lack of star power. The first would be hitting on a not-top choice, finding their own Brayden Point or Kirill Kaprizov (drafted by Fletcher in the 5th round in 2015). The Flyers are at least making an effort to change this; shifting their draft philosophy from safer picks, á la German Rubtsov or Adam Ginning, to those with dynamic tools; think Tyson Foerster’s shot or Samu Tuomaala’s skating. Does that guarantee the Flyers will find the next Pavel Datsyuk? No. But it does increase their chances of doing so.
However, none of those high-skilled prospects are likely to play on the team next season, let alone become stars. Maybe a 2015-16 Shayne Gostisbehere type player emerges out of nowhere, but that’s hardly something the Flyers should depend on. So the only other way the Flyers can find that star talent they need is either through free agency or the draft. Trading for a high-end player seems difficult given the team’s lack of high-end prospects. The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked the team’s system at 13th in the NHL, although he did say that has more to do with the number of solid prospects than the quality of the Flyers’ system. Teams would basically demand a high-end prospect in return for a star (along with at least a 1st round pick, if not more).
Ok, then, there’s still free agency. Looking at CapFriendly, the Flyers should have about $12 million in cap space next summer. That’s enough to afford a star. What it isn’t enough to do is replace Giroux and Ristolainen’s holes at 1LW and 2RD and add a star; let alone the two or three extra pieces Scott felt they needed. Of course, the Flyers could trade a player like Konecny or Sanheim to clear up more space; buying out James van Riemsdyk (also a trade candidate) is another option. But then you have to replace those players as well; you’re “net piece sum” doesn’t change. It’s difficult to see a way for the Flyers to add significantly more talent they give up.
What you’re looking at is another offseason like 2021 where the Flyers are more different than objectively better. Different can mean better. But if the Flyers double down on the approach that’s brought them to the bottom of the standings (even if doesn’t mean doubling down on the same personnel), they better be right. If they’re not, the rebuild the team seems to be avoiding at all costs may creep up on them, regardless of their intentions.
The “less-than-capacity crowd” assertion certainly underestimates Saturday’s actual attendance. The combination of the Flyers’ losing skid and significant snow in the Philadelphia area led to easily the sparest crowd the team’s had all season; it may have even been smaller than some of the games last spring when COVID restrictions limited attendance to just a few thousand spectators. Attendance technically came in at about 14,000, but that just counts tickets sold; there probably wasn’t even half that many people in the Wells Fargo Center. Those who made the trek didn’t just see a win but received lower-bowl seats regardless of their initial ticket, plus free food and soda. Call it half a sad statement about where the Flyers are as a team, half a nice gesture to repay some of the goodwill lost to the fans who did make it out.
Though Couturier and Ellis very well may not play again until 2022-23, the Flyers should be getting some reinforcements in the near future. The obvious one is Wade Allison, who Mike Yeo said after his injury has a “good chance” of returning after the break. But Derick Brassard might not be that far behind him. He’s been a participant in the team’s last few practices, including Tuesday’s. He won’t solve all of the issues, of course; but just getting a no-doubt NHL-caliber center back is important for the Flyers.
The Flyers’ penalty kill may not be as consistent as they were early in the season, but one thing they’ve excelled at all season is scoring short-handed. Philadelphia has six shorties are tied for second in the NHL. They need just two more to tie their most since the last lockout of eight (2019-20, 2013-14). Of course, Kevin Hayes was a short-handed scoring machine in ’19-20; his four SHGs were tied for first in the league. This year, Cam Atkinson has been filling that role; his three shorties, including one Saturday, are tied for second in the NHL. And Atkinson’s 15 shorties since 2016-17 lead the league.
Another point Fletcher made Wednesday is the team’s injuries do provide an opportunity for some of the team’s young players have to prove that they belong. Isaac Ratcliffe took a step towards doing so in his NHL debut; the 6’6” winger more than held his own, taking three shots on goal and a 66.44% expected goals share.
Goalies are usually tough to trade, but that may not be the case this year. Elliotte Friedman reported in his latest 32 Thoughts article that the Oilers made offered “a late-round pick” for Martin Jones; however, Fletcher declined in hopes that he’ll get a better offer closer to the deadline.
3rd: Viktor Arvidsson (LA) – 2 Goals (11, 12), 9 Shots
2nd: Cam Atkinson (PHI) – 2 Goals (16, 17), Assist (18), 4 Shots, 3 Blocks
1st: Scott Laughton (PHI) – Goal (7), 3 Shots, 4 Hits, 53% Faceoffs
LA: 1/30, 1 PM @ PIT (27-10-7, OTL2)
PHI: 2/1, 7 PM vs. WPG (18-16-7, W1)
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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick