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How High Can They Fly: Previewing The 2021-22 Philadelphia Flyers

How High Can They Fly: Previewing The 2021-22 Philadelphia Flyers

No matter how much you love or hate them, everyone can agree on the phrase that defines the last decade of Philadelphia Flyers hockey: one step forward, one step back. No team in the history of sports had alternated making and missing the playoffs for a decade straight before the 2012-2021 Flyers came to town. Five years of mediocrity, terrible goaltending, and a lack of depth saw the Flyers miss the playoffs entirely. Four years of slightly better mediocrity, below-average goaltending, and high-end stars overshadowing a lack of depth pushed the team to the first round, but no further. It is genuinely hard to do what they have done.

Only in 2019-20 did the Flyers show the potential to be something special, as they won their first playoff series since 2012 and finally seemed to be on the right track. A disastrous 2021 campaign provided a familiar but frustrating setback and management finally decided that enough was enough.

After years of trusting their veteran core and waiting for a wave of quality youth to put them over the top, the Flyers did something only once during the last decade: flipped the roster on its head. The Flyers were one of the most active teams in the offseason, making seemingly daily headlines during the last week or so of July. The club shipped out some of their young talent and even shook up the core in an attempt to fix a mix the team knew was not quite right. Some moves seem like home runs. Others seem misguided. But all of them combined for the team’s biggest off-season in years. The only one that comes close to matching this year’s? The 2019 offseason, which preceded the team’s best season since 2010.

Of course, there is no guarantee that this offseason’s overhaul will bring similar success. Even if GM Chuck Fletcher hits on all of his moves, they will not be enough on their own to bring the team back to greatness. The Flyers will need the young players they kept to deliver major bounce-back years after almost all of them struggled in last year’s shortened season. And the veterans that do remain will need to deliver quality seasons as well. Even as some of them age out of their prime years.

During most of the years where the Flyers disappointed during the last decade, the one saving grace was none of them were “all or nothing” seasons, but that is no longer the case. The Flyers did not make a first round pick in 2021, their first absence since 2010. The team’s captain and their best forward are unrestricted free agents at season’s end. So is one of their priciest offseason acquisitions. For better or for worse, the future is now for the Philadelphia Flyers. The time has come to either step up or be shipped out. So which way is the team trending heading into this incredibly important season?

Projected Lineup: Forwards (New Players in Bold)

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny
James van RiemsdykKevin HayesJoel Farabee
Oskar LindblomMorgan Frost (R)Cam Atkinson
Scott LaughtonNate ThompsonNicolas Aubé-Kubel

Ever since the team traded Jeff Carter to Columbus in 2011, Flyers fans have complained about the team’s lack of a true sniper, with power-plays filled with constant screams of “SHOOOOOOOOT!” from the upper-deck at the Wells Fargo Center. Those fans should be happy to know the team’s main acquisition up-front is a shoot-first player. Cam Atkinson may not have the name recognition of a Vladimir Tarasenko, but the five-foot-eight winger consistently puts over 200 shots on net per season and scored 41 goals in 2018-19.

Granted, Atkinson scored just 27 goals over the last two seasons in 100 games, a somewhat concerning drop-off for the 32-year-old. But even if Atkinson’s best days are behind him, 25 goals seems like a fair target that would put him near the top of Philadelphia’s goal charts. Atkinson’s trigger-happiness, aggressive play-style, and already blossoming friendship with Gritty should make him a fan favorite in Philadelphia, even if his contract is a little dicey (4 years left at $5.75 million).

Adding Atkinson gives the Flyers the ability to have a goal-scorer on each of their top three forward lines. Yes, Travis Konecny’s scoring touch dipped a bit last year, but he led the team in 2019-20 with his third straight 24-goal season, a 30-goal pace over 82 games. James van Riemsdyk was a bright spot for the 2021 Flyers, especially on the power-play, where he finished T-5th in the NHL with 10 markers. He also showed great chemistry with Joel Farabee, who led the Flyers with 20 goals and was practically the only young player who did not struggle last season. JVR’s underlying numbers were actually slightly better away from Farabee, but it feels like reuniting them at least to start 2021-22 would be a good idea.

Exhibit A.
Exhibit B.

Same goes for the Giroux-Couturier-Konecny line that lit the world on fire in the second half of the 2017-18 campaign. Getting Konecny back to his goal-scoring self is crucial for Philadelphia’s success, especially with Jake Voracek’s departure opening up a spot on the right-side of the Flyers’ top power-play unit. Konecny is at his best as an assertive shooter, so slotting him next to a gifted playmaker in Giroux and one of the game’s premier two-way forwards in Couturier sounds exciting. After all, Giroux and Couturier were the team’s two best players last year. You really cannot go wrong with just about any mish-mash of line combinations you throw together using Philadelphia’s top-nine.

All eyes will be on the latter two players, though; both Giroux and Couturier are unrestricted free agents at the end of the year. They are two of the most important parts of the team’s success and have become franchise faces, with Giroux already establishing himself as one of the best players in Flyers history. Giroux seems like a strong candidate to be a Flyer for life but at 33, he is running out of time to get his name on the Stanley Cup, and the Flyers must prove Philadelphia is a place in which he can accomplish that feat. Couturier should easily double his $4,333,333 cap hit on his next contract; a true Selke favorite has not hit the market in a long-time, and the Flyers would ideally like to lock him up as their first-line center for the next eight years.

This will certainly be the last year Couturier makes less money than the center directly behind him on the depth chart, Kevin Hayes. You could make the argument Hayes actually did not play much worse in 2021 than in 2019-20; his underlying numbers and point-per-game pace were nearly identical. Despite this, however, his penchant for clutch goals and game-breaking short-handed jaunts disappeared, culminating in a (mostly) healthy scratch near the end of the year that certainly was not undeserved. The 7-year, $50 million pact Hayes signed with Philly in June 2019 was all about maximizing the early years (as every long-term UFA deal is) and filling a previously gaping hole at second-line center. It is intriguing to think that the Flyers probably have yet to see Hayes’ best, but time is running out for him to return to his 2018-19 peak level.

Just like the last two years, the biggest opening in Philadelphia’s roster heading into training camp is at third-line center. Nolan Patrick’s return from migraine disorder was a disaster, as he failed to produce and was on the hook for a downright ugly 24% on-ice goals for percentage. The Ryan Ellis trade sent Patrick to Vegas, reopening the 3C void like the portal to The Upside Down in Season 3 of Stranger Things (those damn Russians; sorry, Provy).

Morgan Frost should be heading into camp champing at the bit to nail down this role. Frost played just two games in 2021 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in January, eliminating his chance to build off a solid 2019-20 campaign that saw him get 20 NHL games under his belt. The pass-first Frost could gel very nicely next to Atkinson or Konecny (with whom he had some success with in 2019-20 alongside Giroux). Frost still has one year left on his entry-level deal, however, so he will have to impress, lest the Flyers send him to the AHL.

You could technically say the same about Wade Allison, but the 2016 second-rounder was so impressive in his 14-game trial in 2021 that he surely has the inside track to a roster spot. Allison’s tenacity and energy stood out in part because of just how beaten down the rest of the team was by the time he was called up. Nevertheless, he was genuinely impressive, scoring 7 points and racking up a team-best 59.13% Expected Goals% during his first NHL stint.

Of course, small sample sizes can be deceiving; just ask Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, a similar type of energy bolt to the 2019-20 Flyers. Aubé-Kubel had more points that year than he did in 2021 (when he played 14 more games), fading from forechecking menace to a disciplinary liability. NAK is a more than fine bottom-mixer if he rediscovers his rookie year form, but last year’s downward spiral means he is no longer a lineup lock.

That uncertainty exists in part because Aubé-Kubel is just one of many candidates for a bottom-six role. Scott Laughton is probably better off on the fourth line but could start the year at 3C if Frost is not ready and the Flyers want to keep Giroux at wing. He will no doubt be looking to put last year’s poor second half behind him and play up to the 5-year, $15 million extension he inked at the trade deadline. Tanner Laczynski looked decent in a brief NHL audition that was cut short due to hip surgery. And there is also the return of Nate Thompson, a veteran who can win draws, kill penalties, and is where offense goes to die (for both teams).

There is a good chance all of them (and others) will see the light of day for the 2021-22 Flyers, though only Laughton is a true lineup lock. There is also a lot to like in the pipeline, even if the Flyers lack true game-breakers waiting in the wings (or at center, for that matter). 2020 draft picks Tyson Foerster (first round) and Zayde Wisdom (fourth) both had strong performances in the AHL last year. Both players produced and drove play in probably the third best hockey league in the world as 18-year-olds, though Wisdom sadly underwent recent shoulder surgery and is out indefinitely. Connor Bunnaman looked like a quality fourth-line center down the stretch in 2019-20, but he struggled mightily in his NHL action last year.

This is a huge year for two high 2016 draft picks: German Rubtsov and Isaac Ratcliffe. Rubtsov needs to show he can produce enough offensively to be a productive bottom-six NHL center; he has the defensive side of his game down pat. The six-foot-six Ratcliffe was a prolific goal scorer in junior but his offense has not yet translated to the pro game, as he scored just 22 points in 77 AHL games across the last two seasons. This is the last year of Ratcliffe’s entry-level deal and he needs to take a big step forward this season.

Looking at some of the more long-term options, Bobby Brink (2019 second-rounder) is still a solid prospect but needs to bounce back from a nightmare 2020-21 season in which he scored just one goal. Philadelphia was hopeful Noah Cates would turn pro after scoring 19 points in 28 NCAA games (joining his brother Jackson), but he is heading back to school for his senior year. On the other hand, 2019 first-rounder Jay O’Brien had a legitimately good return to the NCAA, scoring at a point-per-game clip in 16 games for Boston University. For all intents and purposes, the Flyers have lost prospect David Kase for the time being; he is going to play in Europe this year, but the Flyers still hold his NHL rights if he returns.

Most recently, the Flyers took Finnish winger Samu Tuomaala, a plus skater and goal scorer, with their first pick in the 2021 draft (46th overall). All of these players (save for maybe Cates) are a couple of years away from donning Orange and Black. The Flyers also added a few quad-A players like Ryan Fitzgerald and 2019-20 AHL MVP Gerry Mayhew as depth pieces who will almost certainly play the entire year for the Phantoms.

Projected Lineup: Defensemen

Ivan ProvorovRyan Ellis
Travis Sanheim (RFA)Rasmus Ristolainen
Keith YandleJustin Braun

Matt Niskanen’s retirement was not the only reason for Philadelphia’s disappointing 2021 campaign, but it may have been the most talked about and most obvious difference between 2021 and their strong 2019-20 season. It is easy now to divide Ivan Provorov’s career into two categories. In 2016-17, 2018-19, and 2020-21, the Flyers did not provide Provorov with a top-pair caliber partner; Provorov put up good but not great performances in each of those years. But in 2017-18 and 2019-20, when playing with a fringe Norris-caliber version of Shayne Gostisbehere and Matt Niskanen, respectively, Provorov’s game was on another level. At 24, it is unlikely Provorov will ever become a true number one defenseman at this point. So it was paramount for Fletcher to find another outstanding defenseman with whom Provorov could be paired.

Mission accomplished, courtesy of the Ryan Ellis trade. Ellis is easily the best player the Flyers acquired this offseason and perhaps their biggest acquisition of any offseason since Chris Pronger in 2009. A broken knuckle contributed to the 30-year old’s mediocre 2021 season, but Ellis’ profile is clearly that of a very good top-pair defenseman. Ellis can move the puck extremely well and contribute in all areas of the game. Thinking of what he can do at full health next to Provorov is arguably the biggest reason to be excited about the 2021-22 Flyers. They could be scarily good together.

If the Flyers’ top pair is a home run, Fletcher’s fix to the second pair feels a bit closer to a Hail Mary. Anyone can see why the physical makeup of Rasmus Ristolainen is so appealing to the Flyers. Big, physical, right-handed defensemen who can skate do not come around very often, and the ones that do exist are extremely valuable. Case in point: Phil Myers, who fits this profile and was a key piece of Nashville’s return for the aforementioned elite Ellis.

The problem with Ristolainen is that he has been a statistical mess every year of his career. Part of that can be explained by spending his entire career in Buffalo (read: hockey hell) in the 2010s alongside a revolving door of partners and coaches. But so much so to the point where he is worth $5.4 million against the cap, plus the first and second-round picks it took to acquire him (and Robert Hägg), plus the second and seventh it took to dump Shayne Gostisbehere’s contact in Arizona? That seems a little far-fetched. It is easy to see that his pair with Travis Sanheim has the potential to be a defensive mess. And considering Ristolainen’s performance in Buffalo, it is extremely questionable to assume the pair will generate enough offense to erase out their mistakes and then some.

The Flyers’ third pair seems like a logical balance of an offensively-minded veteran with a defensively-minded veteran. Keith Yandle chose to come to Philadelphia over more lucrative offers to win, and reuniting with Hayes and Alain Vigneault from their Rangers days is a nice plus. Yandle is no longer one of the game’s premier blue-liners, as evident by the Panthers buying him out, but he is still a solid puck-mover and PP quarterback who can definitely handle a third-pair role. The defensive-first Justin Braun will be tasked with handling Yandle’s defensive deficiencies; on paper, it seems like they should mesh just fine.

Yandle is 41 games away from passing Doug Jarvis for the longest ironman streak in NHL history, but he will have some competition that could keep him from reaching that milestone. Most of it will come from Cam York, Philadelphia’s 2019 first-round pick who turned pro in the spring and looked solid in a brief NHL trial. York is the Flyers’ best prospect, a skilled defender who can move the puck and contribute on the PP as well. Egor Zamula, another big prospect, also got a brief look in the NHL last year and could challenge for a spot, but he seems likely to be boxed out of an NHL role, at least to start the year.

Samuel Morin is in the mix as well, but he is likely to be the seventh defenseman (if York starts in the AHL) or sent down (if York makes the team). His physical presence is something the Flyers could definitely use, but Morin simply is not as good as most of the players against whom he is competing. He is a fine depth or injury replacement option, though. Most of Philadelphia’s defensive prospects (Wyatte Wylie, Mason Millman, Jack St. Ivany, and Emil Andrae, among others) are still at least a few years away, and only Andrae (a 2020 second-round pick) realistically has higher than third-pair upside. The Flyers also signed veteran Adam Clendening to a contract; the 28-year old has 90 games of NHL experience but will likely spend most if not all of the year in the AHL.

Projected Lineup: Goaltenders

Carter Hart
Martin Jones

There is no player more important to the Flyers success in 2021-22 and beyond than Carter Hart. That is not a hot take, just a commentary on how important goaltending is to every team in hockey. As former coach and broadcaster Harry Neale once said, “Goaltending is 75 per cent of your hockey team, unless you don’t have it. Then it’s 100 per cent.” Goaltending, as it has often been over the last two decades, was 100% of the 2021 Flyers. Hart and backup Brian Elliott were last and third-to-last in goals saved above expected. It does not matter how well Ellis, Ristolainen, and Atkinson fit in or how well Giroux, van Riemsdyk, and Hayes age or how well Farabee and York develop. If the Flyers’ do not receive significantly better goaltending this year, they have no chance of winning.

Fortunately, there is every reason to believe Carter Hart will be significantly better this year. Hart has succeeded at every level: the WHL, Team Canada, the AHL, the NHL — you name it. With the COVID-19 pandemic starting to ease up (get vaccinated!), it should be a much more normal season on and off the ice for everybody. That should only help Hart, who put up a .915 save percentage across his first two regular seasons and a .926 SV% in the 2020 playoffs. Maybe 2021 was the beginning of a tailspin for Hart’s career, but the odds of that being the case seem incredibly low. Twenty-two-year-olds with his type of track record do not go from quality starter to ECHL-caliber overnight. Hart has to be better this year, but that should not be a problem.

What might be a problem is that the Flyers decided to add the second-worst goalie in terms of goals saved above expected last year to be their new backup. Martin Jones was once an above-average starter; he led the Sharks to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and delivering quality goaltending for them from 2015-2018. That version of Jones would be welcome on any NHL roster.

Since the 2018-19 season, however, Jones has been brutal, delivering a .896 SV% in each of the last three seasons. Signing Jones does not seem like a gamble the Flyers should have taken, considering better goaltenders either signed for slightly more (James Reimer), the same (Braden Holtby), or less (David Rittich) compared to Jones’ 1-year, $2 million deal. The one intriguing factor working in Jones’ favor is that he worked with Flyers goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh when he was an up-and-comer in the LA Kings organization. Dillabaugh believes he can fix Jones; for everyone’s sake, I hope he is right.

It is especially important that he improves because the Flyers do not have another goalie with so much as a single game of NHL experience in their organization. Third-stringer Alex Lyon departed for Carolina in the offseason; in his wake is a trio of prospects competing for ice-time in the AHL and ECHL. Samuel Ersson has the most potential in this group; he has consistently put up great numbers on bad teams in Europe, and the 2018 fifth-rounder is coming over this year. Felix Sandström had similar success in Europe a few years back but has yet to find that same level in the North American ranks, though he did have a strong finish to 2021. In 2019-20, he had been jumped by Russian goalie Kirill Ustimenko, who missed all of 2021 with hip surgery. All of them will start in the minors; the order is anyone’s guess.

Coaching and Management

Head Coach: Alain Vigneault (3rd Season)

Assistants: Michel Therrien (3rd), Mike Yeo (3rd), Darryl Williams (1st)

General Manager: Chuck Fletcher (4th)

The Flyers made some new additions and promotions to the organization this offseason. But the big names are largely still here. The lone familiar face missing from the Flyers bench is Ian Laperriere but he has not gone far; he will be replacing Scott Gordon as head coach of the Phantoms. Replacing the fan-favorite Lappy is Darryl Williams, an assistant coach for the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers (2019-2021) with two separate stints working with Vigneault (Vancouver: 2008-2014, New York: 2014-2018). Other than that, it will be the same old faces as the last few years, meaning the pressure to produce is heightened.

It is difficult to know how much stock to put in the coaching staff after last year’s downwards spiral. On one hand, the team’s COVID outbreak in February resulted in an extremely tight schedule the rest of the way to the point where the Flyers could barely practice down the stretch, but Alain Vigneault’s stock has been declining since the 2019-20 regular season; his lineup decisions in the bubble were not always well-received (specifically playing Nate Thompson and Derek Grant for 31 out of 32 combined possible games), a trend that continued at times in 2021. He will definitely need to avoid the Thompson trap on a consistent basis this year, but the bigger issue is getting the Flyers back to the aggressive, tenacious play (particularly on the forecheck) that defined their regular season success in his inaugural year in Philly.

Special teams were a disaster for the Flyers last year. After jumping from 26th to 11th in PK% from 2018-19 to 2019-20 (and leaping from 27th to 6th in Net PK%, which factors in short-handed goals), they plummeted back to 30th in the league last season and went from T-6th to T-29 in shorties. At least Mike Yeo’s unit was falling from a high ceiling; the Flyers power-play was T-17th in the NHL at a respectable 19.2%, and also 17th in shot attempts and expected goals per 60 on the man advantage (though they were just 22nd in Net PP%). Those numbers were slightly worse than in 2019-20 (20.8%, 14th), but most people who watched the Flyers man-advantage operate will probably say those numbers overestimate the unit’s effectiveness.

The net front presence of JVR was a huge reason why the Flyers made it to the middle of the pack; he scored 10 of the Flyers 32 power-play goals (31.3%). That was tied with Leon Draisaitl for fourth-highest in the league; only Joe Pavelski (35.1%), T.J. Oshie (34.2%), and Auston Matthews (32.3%) were ahead of them. Michel Therrien failed to get the most out of Giroux, Voracek, and others on the man advantage. Other than a six-week-or-so surge at the end of the 2019-20 regular season, the PP simply has not been very good under Therrien, and it has not improved from Kris Knoblauch’s tenure at all. Maybe the addition of Atkinson and a more prominent role for Konecny, two shoot-first players, could flip the switch. But two seasons (albeit one abbreviated) and a 16-game playoff run is enough of a sample size to be critical of Therrien’s work.

Whatever the coaching staff does, however, is for naught if they are not given the right players to work with. That is not to say that they could not have done a better job in 2020-21, but Fletcher himself acknowledged that last year’s mix was not right. The coaches and players certainly deserve their fair share of the blame but Fletcher’s passiveness last offseason ultimately proved to be the wrong call; maybe a more aggressive 2020 offseason could have nipped Philadelphia’s regression in the bud. Remaining passive was a logical decision at the time; the Flyers had some plausible in-house candidates to hold down Niskanen’s spot until at least the trade deadline, and running it back after the team’s best season in eight years was hardly indefensible. The end result, of course, was unacceptable to everyone, leaving Fletcher with a difficult 2021 offseason to navigate.

Anyone who complained about the Flyers lack of offseason activity under Ron Hextall cannot quibble with Fletcher’s bias for action. For the second time in three years, Fletcher made massive changes to the Flyers lineup. This time, the flat cap meant he also had to make some notable subtractions, too. If you were starting an NHL team from scratch, which of these two groups would you rather have?

Ryan EllisJakub Voracek
Cam AtkinsonShayne Gostisbehere
Rasmus Ristolainen2021 1st, 2022 2nd, 2023 2nd, 2023 7th
Martin JonesPhil Myers
Nate ThompsonNolan Patrick
Brian Elliott
Robert Hägg

The draft picks make the subtractions group the winner in my opinion in terms of total value of assets, but I would take the collection of players on the left if I had to win the Cup right away. The Flyers lost a lot of talent and draft capital this offseason, that much is clear, but this type of summer has been a long time coming; it was one of the last parts of the Hextall plan from years back. Once the Flyers accumulated enough quality prospects and maneuvered out of salary cap hell, they could take some big shots again. And that is exactly what happened this offseason.

The players Fletcher added are not going to carry the Flyers from 19th place to a deep playoff run all by themselves, but that was never the point. The Flyers were never going to ship out all of their talented young players. They lost Patrick and Myers, but Konecny, Sanheim, Farabee, Frost, Hart, and others remain. For the Flyers to contend this year, they need their best 25-and-under players to play up to their potential. All of them except for Farabee failed to do that last season, and we all saw how that played out. The Flyers are not as talented on paper as the league’s premier teams (Tampa Bay, Vegas, Colorado), but they certainly have enough to return to that second tier of teams who comfortably make the playoffs and push for the Cup, even if they are not necessarily favored to bring it home.

And ultimately, that spot is where I think the Flyers will end up this year. The Flyers are better equipped than ever to maximize their team’s talent and potential and become a feared team once again. It is not as though the Flyers are asking for something unreasonable from their young talent; all they need is for them to return to their 2019-20 levels. If that happens, the team is all but a lock to reach the playoffs.

Giroux and van Riemsdyk, both 32, may start to show some age, but both are falling from high peaks and should remain productive players. Even if Ristolainen does not make the leap the Flyers are hoping for, it is hard to imagine the defense being worse than it was last year, especially with a legit star in Ellis joining the fold. That in turn should boost the goaltending back into the realm of respectability. And of course, Hart has the potential and the track record to be even better than that.

If there is one good thing that the Flyers have consistently done over the last eight years or so, it is that they acknowledge adversity and make a big push in response. Whether it was catching fire late in 2015-16 to make the playoffs, winning six straight after losing 10 in a row in 2017-18, or an eight-game winning streak in 2018-19 to keep the season on life support, the Flyers have usually avoided slipping away to the point of no return, at least for as long as their roster at the time could manage.

Are the Flyers winners, losers, or somewhere in between? Only one way to find out.

This entire season will be centered around that theme. If the Flyers bust again, heads will almost certainly roll, potentially to the point of ending this era of Flyers hockey for good. But none of that needs to happen. Play well, and everything will work itself out. This is the most pressure this team has faced heading into a season in a long time. Their response to it will shape not just their 2021-22 season, but the future of Flyers hockey.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5, Score and Venue Adjusted, unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick; except GSAE, which is via MoneyPuck.com

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