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Things could get real ugly, real fast for a Flyers team coming off a terrible 2021-22 campaign and questionable at best offseason. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

How High Can They Fly: Previewing The 2022-23 Philadelphia Flyers

Things could get real ugly, real fast for a Flyers team coming off a terrible 2021-22 campaign and questionable at best offseason. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

How High Can They Fly: Previewing The 2022-23 Philadelphia Flyers

For the last decade, the Philadelphia Flyers have established themselves as arguably the NHL’s most mediocre franchise. After an impressive five-year run from 2008-2012 which saw them make the Stanley Cup Final once, the Eastern Conference Final twice, and advance in the playoffs every year except for 2009, the Flyers have won just a single playoff round in the last ten seasons. They became the first franchise in professional sports to alternate making and missing the playoff for ten straight seasons. Sometimes they were in win-now mode. Sometimes they were trying to build for the future. And sometimes they were doing both all at once. But you could comfortably pencil the Flyers for a roughly 85-95 point pace to the point where it became automatic.

The good news for the Flyers is that the 2021-22 season bucked their trend of monotonous mediocrity. The bad news is in the way it did so: with the Flyers utterly cratering last season. They finished with the league’s fourth-worst team in 2021-22, which ranked as the second worst record in team history. For just the second time in 55 years as a franchise, the Flyers missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. They gleefully said goodbye to their head coach just two years removed from a Jack Adams nomination. And they sorrowfully did the same to the longest-tenured captain in team history.

If you take their word for it, the Flyers aren’t content with another bottom-five finish in 2022-23. And their offseason moves reflect that… sort of. While the Flyers made moves that fit the profile of a team trying to be competitive in the short term, they fell well short of the significant turnover the fans were expecting after general manager Chuck Fletcher and team governor Dave Scott promised an “aggressive retool” back in January. What it looks like the Flyers have, instead, is the same type of situation they were in when their decade of indifference began — a team that’s, at best, two years away from being two years away. And given the lack of high-end NHL talent and prospect depth the organization currently has compared to back then, that timeline may prove to be far too optimistic.

Forwards

Scott LaughtonKevin HayesTravis Konecny
James van RiemsdykMorgan FrostCam Atkinson
Joel FarabeeNoah CatesOwen Tippett
Nicolas DeslauriersTanner LaczynskiHayden Hodgson

Note: New players are listed in bold.

To be fair to the 2021-22 Flyers, not assembling a good team wasn’t the only reason they finished poorly. Injuries absolutely decimated the team, both in their relentlessness and the players they took out. You could argue that Philadelphia’s three most important forwards on the depth chart above are Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, and Joel Farabee. Couturier is still just two years removed from winning the Selke Trophy. Hayes was a fan favorite despite initial trepidation after signing a 7-year, $50 million contract in June 2019. And Farabee is a former first-round pick who led the team with 20 goals in 2020-21. Those three players missed 106 games combined last season. And they weren’t at 100% for a fair amount of the games they did suit up for. That amount of adversity is difficult for any team to overcome.

Unfortunately, that adversity isn’t exactly easing up for the Flyers. Farabee underwent disk replacement surgery, the same procedure at the forefront of the Jack Eichel saga, in the offseason and may miss the start of Philadelphia’s campaign. Farabee will likely be the key to any sort of relevancy the Flyers may have this season; he’s the only under-25 player on this roster who is undoubtedly a bonafide NHLer, and one with an impressive 2021 campaign to his name at that. His two-way game still has room for growth, even though that was arguably Farabee’s most intriguing attribute when he was drafted 14th overall in 2014.

Couturier is joining him on the injury front, out to start the year with a back injury that thankfully doesn’t sound as serious as initially reported. Couturier’s micro stats, as manually tracked on All Three Zones by Corey Sznajder, still paint a pretty picture. And he’s scored at least at a 70-point pace in every season since 2017-18 before last year when he was limited to just 29 games. Hopefully he’s at least able to return his season. Hayes looked like a much different player after returning from his fourth surgery since the end of the 2020-21 season. In the 28 games he played after that procedure, Hayes scored at a 64-point pace with much better underlying numbers than earlier in the year. Whether he can put everything together for a full season again is up for debate. But Hayes at least proved he’s not washed.

Scott Laughton isn’t truly a first-line-level player. His projected position probably has more to do with Farabee’s injury status than anything else. Granted, a couple of years ago Laughton did score at a very strong 2.53 points per 60 rate at 5-on-5, which is easily top-six caliber. But he’s been in the mid-ones each of the last two years, more reflective of Laughton’s $3 million cap hit and his general status as a very good bottom-sixer who can fill a larger role in a pinch. His hustle and passion are matched by few players, something the Flyers sought to add more of by adding Cam Atkinson last summer. A late-season injury hurt his overall numbers, but Atkinson still finished second on the team in scoring with a trigger-first, energetic playstyle that endeared himself to fans.

Meanwhile, James van Riemsdyk and Travis Konecny are in the doghouse Orange and Black supporters. van Riemsdyk did lead the team with 24 goals last year, and his underlying numbers weren’t terrible relative to his teammates. But the defensive struggles were real. Among Flyers forwards (min.) 400 5-on-5 van Riemsdyk ranked 10th out of 14 in expected goals against per 60 minutes, and the eye test didn’t show a whole lot, either. Meanwhile, Konecny’s goal-scoring, his signature attribute as recently as 2019-20, abandoned him last year. Despite taking a career-high 9.15 shots per 60 minutes, Konecny scored on just 7.3% of his shots, a career-low. It was the first time he failed to break 10% since his rookie year in 2016-17. While his playmaking and ability to carry the puck are still strong, the Flyers desperately need his finish to replenish.

This season will be a make-it-or-break-it year for Morgan Frost and Owen Tippett. The former 2017 1st round picks are both still looking to establish themselves as full-time NHLers. The former is looking to improve enough defensively to build the confidence that will hopefully allow his smooth hands to rack up points the way they did in his junior hockey days in Sault St. Marie. Tippett, an elite goal scorer when he was drafted, still takes plenty of shots and creates plenty of chances. But like Konecny, he’s seemingly forgotten how to light the lamp. For a Flyers team that needs their depth to be great to have a chance, the development of Frost and Tippett is crucial. That’s especially true for Frost, who’s entering his sixth year in the organization. It’s now or never for him in Philadelphia this season.

That’s especially because the Flyers’ fourth-line, as currently listed, is a total black hole. It doesn’t have to be that way forever, though. 2016 draft picks Wade Allison and Tanner Lacyznski both looked NHL-ready in brief stints in 2020-21 but were injured for much of last season. Allison particularly has a fairly high ceiling if he could just stay healthy. He’s a skilled power forward with an excellent shot, a rare and tantalizing combination. Prospects Tyson Foerster and Zayde Wisdom could also be nearing their NHL debuts. And the talented Bobby Brink should be on the NHL radar when he returns from surgery in a few months.

But there’s little defending the team’s signing of Nic Deslauriers, essentially a boxer on skates who is one of the NHL’s worst players. And that’s even before getting into the terms of the deal. It’s four years, $1.75 million, and a 20-team no-trade list in years one and two if you’re scoring at home. That’s especially true because the Flyers essentially have a younger, cheaper, and maybe slightly better version of him in Hayden Hodgson. Tanner Laczynski also has some upside, but is also 25 with just 6 NHL games under his name. He too is hoping for a much healthier season.

Defensemen

Ivan ProvorovTony DeAngelo
Travis SanheimRasmus Ristolainen
Nick SeelerJustin Braun

No bigger area of Philadelphia’s performance last year was in larger shambles than its defense. The Flyers were fourth worst in shots against per game, fifth worst in expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5, sixth worst in goals against per game, and had the league’s seventh-worst penalty kill.

This is also where new head coach John Tortorella’s impact should be felt the strongest. It is worth noting it did take a little bit for Tortorella to get the d-zone under control in Columbus. His first two full seasons with the Blue Jackets saw the team finish bottom 10 in expected goals against per 60. But they were 11th in the league in that department in 2018-19 and 3rd in 2019-20. And if your focus is results, Columbus ranked sixth in the NHL in goals against from 2016-17 to 2020-21. Having Sergei Bobrovsky for most of that span helps. But there’s little doubt Tortorella can help the Flyers, if only because of how poor they were a season ago.

The number one item on Tortorella’s agenda should probably be fixing Ivan Provorov. The former No. 7 overall pick has looked like a shell of himself for large parts of the last two seasons, struggling to move the puck and trying to do too much too often. With Ryan Ellis’s NHL future very murky due to serious injury, the Flyers didn’t want to take the chance of stranding Provorov without another high-end puck-mover. So they went out and acquired Tony DeAngelo, who brings two 50-point seasons to the table but some serious defensive and off-ice concerns as well.

The Provorov-DeAngelo pairing feels very high-risk, high-reward. If DeAngelo takes some stress away from Provorov and provides a jolt to Philadelphia’s pathetic power-play, it could be a home run. But Tortorella generally doesn’t take kindly to players who struggle defensively and aren’t always team first. DeAngelo has red flags in both of those departments.

The good news is the Flyers’ second pair actually graded out decently last season as a unit. Out of 78 defensive pairings that spent at least 400 5v5 minutes together, the Travis Sanheim-Rasmus Ristolainen duo ranked 13th in expected goals for per 60 relative to their teammates. Their raw 47% mark isn’t great, but compared to their teammates, the duo was driving play. The bad news is that a deeper dive suggests that was almost all due to Travis Sanheim, who took a step forward across the board after a tough first month. Ristolainen was slightly better than his Buffalo days, but still the same type of player: overly physical, to the point of chasing hits so much it caused more bad than good. The Athletic’s Dom Lucsyzysn’s model values Ristolainen’s contributions as worthy of $1.3 million. The Flyers, meanwhile, handed him a 5-year, $25.5 million extension. Yikes.

Like at forward, the Flyers have some young options with upside for the bottom of their lineup. Once again, the Flyers are penciling Justin Braun into a depth role on their defense. Braun can certainly handle that; even at 35, he’s still solid defensively at 5-on-5 and the penalty kill. The problem is he’s crept up to the top pair for lengthy periods each of the last two years, and the results haven’t been pretty. Although with rookies Egor Zamula and Ronnie Attard both making the team, the days of Braun and the unspectacular Nick Seeler on the third pair may be numbered. Expect another rookie, Cam York, to play a role at some point.

Goaltenders

Carter Hart
Samuel Ersson

Even though the raw numbers aren’t great, there’s probably no position, save for perhaps left defense, the Flyers feel more comfortable about than starting goaltender. It’s ironic that a team that a decade ago was known for having everything but great goaltending might have nothing except that today. Again, that’s a strange thing to say about Carter Hart if you look at the numbers over the last two seasons. Hart followed up an absolutely brutal 2020-21 campaign with only a return to NHL-caliber numbers. Yes, a .905 save percentage and -6.6 goals saved above expected aren’t spectacular stats. But anyone who watched the Flyers last season could tell you Hart was the least of the team’s worries.

For the second straight year, Philadelphia’s team defense was so bad it’s at least plausible to wonder if public models fully capture the extent of their ineptitude. But instead of adding to their woes, Hart impressively held the fort on more than a few occasions. The 24-year-old looked much more like the goaltender who put up a .915 save percentage across his first two NHL seasons and was second to Andrei Vasilevskiy in goals saved above expected during the 2020 playoffs. Perhaps Hart won’t ever be the superstar he looked to be when he was racking up accolades in junior. But at least getting quality starter numbers seems like a safe bet from Hart.

If there’s maybe one reason to be concerned about Hart, it’s the lack of a veteran safety net for the first time in his career. Neither Brian Elliott nor Martin Jones was a workhorse behind Hart after the youngster took over as the team’s starter during the 2018-19 campaign. But both had plenty of experience and could spell Hart effectively if he got into a week-or-two long funk.

Philadelphia’s lack of cap space forced them into some difficult decisions. And one of the ones Fletcher made was to go with an internal competition for the backup goaltending spot. And with the front runner for the job, 2015 7th round pick Ivan Fedotov, unlikely to be allowed to come to North America due to mandatory military obligations in Russia, the options behind Hart look even less intriguing. Felix Sandström was once a prospect on par with Hart. After some trying years, he didn’t look out of place in five NHL games in 2021-22, recording a .910 SV%.

That’s one more NHL game than 32-year-old Troy Grosenick has to his name. Grosenick did put up a spectacular season in the AHL last year. And he performed well in four NHL games evenly distributed between the 2014-15 and 2020-21 seasons. If Grosenick really is an NHL-capable goaltender, odds are he would have shown it by now. But perhaps he could be the underrated depth add the Flyers have largely failed to find in recent years. 2018 5th-round pick Samuel Ersson has flashed promise before but has just five AHL games under his belt. However, he stole the backup role from the former two, although that could change as the season progresses.

The Verdict

For every potential good thing about the Flyers, there are at least a handful of qualifiers or ways that things could go south that can’t go under the rug. Sure, if you can squint, you can see a comparison to the 2018-19 New York Islanders. Hire a respected, veteran, no-nonsense coach? Check. Lose your captain and franchise face? Check. Bring in a fourth-line left-wing enforcer? That’s a little niché, but also, check. Have the entire hockey world doubting you? That’s an emphatic check.

But like with those Islanders, that doubt is very warranted for the 2022-23 Flyers, a team that doesn’t have the goaltending depth or dynamite top pair (assuming Ellis is out long-term) that those Islanders did. The Couturier injury especially kills the comparison. A lot of their best players are coming off down years, injuries, or both. And while that does offer some plausible scenarios for bouncebacks, prior success is the best indicator of future results. Some of the Flyers’ biggest names coming off down seasons will probably rebound. But some of them probably won’t.

But that might be for Philadelphia’s best. Even if every Flyers player performs to their potential, the Flyers would still be light years behind the NHLs juggernauts. Maybe even that far behind the teams in the league’s second tier, too. And that would likely leave the Flyers with the same amount of playoff success as they achieved in 2021-22. Only this time, they would be without a high draft pick to soften the blow.

While the Flyers almost certainly won’t be a great or even good team next year, figuring out how bad they’ll be is tricky. Tortorella should be a nice help to the team’s structure. But he’s lost locker rooms in short order before. There are plenty of key contributors from the very good 2019-20 Flyers team still around. But most of them have played roughly 100-plus NHL games since and haven’t come particularly close to matching that level. And the players the Flyers have added since don’t match the ones they’ve lost since then, either. It’s no wonder why most project Philadelphia to be at or near the bottom of a stacked Metropolitan Division as well.

It’s possible to squint at the 2022-23 Flyers and see a decent team looking back at you. But the same was true at this time last year, when a Flyers renaissance seemed much less far-fetched. Look how that turned out. You can only have so many Murphy’s Law seasons before you have to stop saying “whatever can go wrong will go wrong” and look in the mirror to realize what you’re doing is wrong. And after an offseason that makes that message more prevalent than either, expect more frustration in Philly this season and beyond.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick, Moneypuck.com, and All Three Zones (subscribe to Corey Sznajder’s Patreon here)

Lineup Projection via DailyFaceoff

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