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Why this season may end up being exactly what the Flyers needed

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It might not feel like it today, but we probably needed this...

Boston Bruins v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When the season began in October it’s doubtful anyone could see where the Flyers were headed. Most signs pointed to a return to the playoffs, a better team (at least on paper) and the potential emergence of players like Travis Sanheim and Nolan Patrick. In short, this team should not have had another slow start or looked lost at mid-season, but it did.

A familiar formula of alternating year inefficiency and an obvious collapse in confidence, coupled with goaltending issues, sent the Flyers into an aggressive tailspin from which they could not recover. Flyers fans were on the verge of revolting. Attendance suffered and by December many diehard fans were left wondering not whether or not the team could recover, but instead, what needed to change. Some even turned their eyes towards yet another draft, as the Flyers slipped closer and closer to the bottom of the standings.

In spite of a recent run of wins, it’s still highly unlikely the Flyers would earn enough points to reach the playoffs. While a missed opportunity to make the playoffs should feel like a bit of a disaster, somehow it doesn’t. I’m not here to tell you I wouldn’t have been thrilled to see the Flyers young players get into the playoffs and push the pace vs the top teams in the league, but maybe it’s time for Flyers fans to accept that what happened this year was necessary. Maybe it’s time to accept that this season may end up being just what they needed? Why?

The Removal of Ron Hextall

While I know Ron Hextall still has his supporters and I acknowledge that his drafts will likely bare out to be quite fruitful, things needed to change. It was obvious to some that for all of the positive benefits that came with a GM who was willing to not react to every situation with a knee jerk approach, there were equally pitfalls. Hextall never fully addressed the needs of the NHL roster, usually in the name of patience. The goaltending suffered, but we waited. The team showed multiple slow starts, year after year, but we waited. Coaches and players repeatedly showed that changes needed to be made, but we continued to wait. This wasn’t a single year issue.

Hextall was surely hamstrung when he initially took over the Flyers, but such is the life of a new GM. Every new GM walks into a situation with problems. No GM inherits a cup caliber team in need of no corrections. Whether those problems are too little cap space, too few prospects, a poor NHL roster, uncooperative ownership, attendance issues or something else, a firm direction and a fluid plan is required. After four plus years of waiting, it was evident Hextall had a plan, but it was never going to be “fluid”. As opportunities to improve present themselves, perhaps even unexpected opportunities, a GM must be prepared to embrace them and move “on the fly”. Hextall was unwilling to budge.

While I will lament the fact that anyone had to lose their job over the team’s performance, it was time for a shift in mentality in Philadelphia and Hextall was dug in. Chuck Fletcher has been a breath of fresh air and he is already actively working through the process of making needed changes. It’s apparent that he’s a communicator and someone who is more fluidly addressing the needs of the team. Only time will tell if he is ultimately successful, but after nearly five years of Hextall’s “patience”, the Flyers will again be more balanced in their approach and that may not have changed without such a dramatic early season flop.

Ushering in the post Hakstol era

Dave Hakstol seemed embattled even when the Flyers were winning, but as the team fell further and further down the standings and continued to suffer, Hakstol became public enemy number one. Framing Hakstol’s continued employment vs the firing of Chicago’s Joel Quenneville made his seemingly firm grip on the coaching job in Philadelphia even more inexplicable. While other teams were firing coaches who had three Stanley Cup wins, the Flyers were retaining a coach with no playoff wins and four consecutive slow starts.

It was obvious to many, including Chuck Fletcher, that the team had, at best, stagnated under Hakstol and that whatever answers he may have been attempting to provide…simply weren’t working. While Hakstol is no doubt a good guy, like Hextall, it was time for him to be replaced with a new voice. I would argue that it became obvious even prior to this year that Hextall was not the GM to push this team to a cup and Hakstol was not the coach to coach it to one either.

Had the Flyers managed to get hot and go on a run to make the playoffs, I don’t believe Hakstol would have been fired and I also don’t think that run would have occurred due to any changes he may have made. What we saw with this team under Hakstol, we saw every year. Each season started slow and confidence severally waxed and waned. If the top line scored enough, the Flyers managed to make it. If they did not, the Flyers ended up watching the playoffs in April. Upon getting into the playoffs the Flyers regularly looked outclassed and at least some of that falls at the feet of the head coach.

Things had to change at the top and now they have. Scott Gordon took over as the interim head coach and rumors of Joel Quenneville being lined up as a potential target at the end of season, persist. By 2019-2020 it is likely an entirely new coaching staff will be installed and that is, once again, something that had to happen in order to move this team forward.

Provorov’s down season may pay dividends

Having used up his initial entry level contract, Provorov is now due a substantial raise. Last year, during the height of his best season to date, there was speculation that if Provorov had another great year, he might be due as much as 8 million per year. Though that was an argument I never subscribed to due to his RFA status, Provorov won’t come with a bargain bin price. That said, it’s easy to project that based on this down year he might come at a small discount.

Could Provorov come in around the same value as Seth Jones at around 5.4 million against he cap? Perhaps. If so, the Flyers will be getting a small discount against inflation and a very good defenseman for a long time. Regardless, it’s undeniable that Provorov won’t get quite as much as he may have made if he added another 15-20 goal season as the a number one defenseman to his resume.

His slump may have been concerning to some, but Provorov is not the defenseman we’ve seen this year. Whether his play can be attributed to offseason surgery, worrying about his contract or the type of slump most young players have before taking the next step, Provorov isn’t this player. Securing Provorov long term, based on not only his previous experience, but this down year, means the Flyers are going to retain their top defenseman and likely a little bit cheaper than previously thought.

While no one would have wished this type of season on Provorov, he will no doubt use it as fuel to have his best season next year. Combining that with the potential leverage the Flyers now have to get a deal done, might be enough to make at least a little of the team’s overall struggle worth it going forward.

The Carter Hart era begins

In many ways Carter Hart is the symbol for hope in Philadelphia. He is new, pure, good natured and clearly, one hell of a goaltender. The Flyers, under Hextall and Fletcher, clearly both believed Hart to be the successor to the throne that Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth were expected to keep warm. He was always on the way, but several factors led to his early entrance onto the scene in the NHL.

You could certainly argue that without Hextall’s removal, Carter Hart may have still been waiting for a call up at this point. Without the injuries to Elliott, Neuvirth, Stolarz and others, Hart may also have been left in the AHL to develop. If the Flyers goaltending is even average does Hart get his call up before the trade deadline? If not for the odd “he’s fired…he’s not fired” technique the Flyers somehow managed to stumble through when they relieved Dave Hakstol of his duties, does Carter Hart start the next home game?

Odds are at least one of those hurdles would have kept Carter Hart in the AHL and I think most of us would have been generally ok with Hart not playing NHL hockey this season. Instead, Hart has gotten a head start on earning his NHL stripes. He’s looked calm, controlled and positionally sound in front of the same team that used six other goalies before him. Hart excelled where others failed and now you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Philadelphia or in NHL circles who doesn’t believe that the Flyers have finally solved their goaltending issues going forward. This probably would have eventually happened next year, but the fact that the Flyers now know what they have and that Hart will know exactly what he needs to improve upon, means everyone is in a better place.

One final great draft pick

The thing we most certainly didn’t expect when the year started was to be in a position where the Flyers first round draft pick was a potential top ten pick. I think most fans and media alike would have probably predicted with players like Carter Hart, Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost and many others in the chamber, this year was the first year in a few where the Flyers top pick was more likely to be traded for NHL talent than ever before. Currently sitting within striking distance of that top ten pick it’s pretty obvious…things change.

The Flyers shouldn’t be in this position, but they are. They don’t really need another high-end prospect with the glut of depth they have within their system, but they’ll take it. A team that already has one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL is now poised to add another very high-end player, perhaps even one as good as Jack Hughes. That’s exciting even if you don’t love tracking prospects. Why?

Adding another top pick, especially if it’s someone as good as Jack Hughes, allows Chuck Fletcher to supplement the NHL roster, almost immediately. Even if the player the Flyers add isn’t Jack Hughes, but is another top ten talent, the Flyers will still have added even more high-end depth and that will provide Fletcher with a great deal of flexibility. More specifically, another high draft choice would likely replace any prospect Fletcher may have to part with while making acquisitions for next year.

Essentially, regardless of where the pick ends up, it’s adding to an overflowing coffer that Chuck Fletcher is likely to dip into soon. Does a team require someone like Rubtsov, Allison, Frost, Farabee or another top prospect to give up that top pairing D or high-end NHL player? If so, another top ten pick could be used to backfill that subtraction. I’m not advocating Fletcher burn the system to the ground, but he’s certainly in a better place to make a move to acquire a top NHL player, knowing another big time prospect will be added next June.

Summary

Everyone, myself included, was hoping this year would be the year the Flyers finally took a massive step forward. However, if we’re all being honest, I think most of us also saw the inherent flaws in the process that led us to exactly where we are. Had this team suffered through another terrible start and then continued to do what they always do (aka make a push for the playoffs and talk about how they’re “better on paper”) it’s possible nothing would have changed.

Going into 2019-2020, the Flyers have made several substantial shifts in their way of thinking that were needed for a long time. Patience is no longer enough. Prospects, while wonderful and needed, aren’t the only solution to problems. A new coach will likely replace interim coach Scott Gordon and Chuck Fletcher will likely make substantial changes to the NHL roster. These are all things that have been paid for by the suffering of the fans and the team itself.

The failures this year will bring growth and change, not more lip service. The corrections that will come from these trials and tribulations will give this Flyers season meaning. This year it’s not “business as usual” and for those things I’m thankful. What follows is likely a rebirth of expectation and accountability, striving for greatness and Stanley Cup aspirations. As someone who was critical of the inability of the last regime to embrace moving back in that direction, I am even more thankful. Hopefully, soon, the Flyers will prove that this season, though wasted in some ways, is acting as the catalyst for exactly the changes we needed to make and a brighter tomorrow.