The Philadelphia Flyers are an awful hockey team. There are few objective truths in the universe, and this one may end up being a fleeting occurrence that’s proven incorrect via a miraculous run to a Wild Card playoff spot or some such nonsense, but at the moment the Flyers are undeniably horrid. That this is the result of seven years of rebuilding followed by an injection of talent via trades and free agent signings is disappointing, to say the least.
The debate raging on Twitter, Reddit, and the other Flyers forums of the internet has been rather straightforward: should the team launch into a full rebuild by selling off most or all positive assets at the trade deadline this year, or is the roster just a quality coach and a few tweaks away from figuring things out?
When looking at the talent that Philly currently has at its disposal, it can be difficult to say what the answer is. On one hand, the Flyers have been mediocre or worse outside of a brief stretch from January of 2020 to the league’s COVID-19 stoppage; on the other, the players present here have all had good seasons at one point or another, and there are young-sh pieces (Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Travis Konecny) with proven track records of being useful NHLers.
In the opinion of this writer, the players on this roster, outside of maybe Carter Hart, are best served as complimentary pieces. The three aforementioned names all possess lengthy histories of requiring a certain type of partner or linemate to find success (Konecny can’t drive a line, Travis Sanheim gets outmuscled or lost in the defensive zone, and Ivan Provorov lacks any dynamic element to his game). All three have had outlier seasons where they looked like potential studs, but as the sample size has increased, they haven’t replicated those performances.
The players listed also aren’t getting any younger, either, and when looking at NHL development trends it’s arguable that their current level of play is likely going to be their overall career peak, at least by age. The current state of their caliber of play, coupled with a lack of hope for future development, renders the trio of Provorov, Konecny, and Sanheim replaceable.
The more interesting question that ought to be asked here is if NHL general managers have a clue how they should be conducting rebuilds, in terms of the goals of a rebuild as well as the window that it should be completed within.
Ron Hextall attempted to build the Flyers into a contender without completely tearing down their existing roster, keeping Wayne Simmonds, Claude Giroux, and Jakub Voráček through the team’s slog to flush the pipeline with fresh young talent.
The “reload” isn’t an uncommon practice; when currently looking at the league, the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, and San Jose Sharks are all constructing their rosters in the image of “reloading.” None of them have traded the majority of the core pieces from when they were considered championship contenders, but they have seen plenty of turnover at the bottom of the roster because young, drafted players have been chosen as internal replacements for talent lost to free agency.
Another commonality between these teams? All of them, outside of the Blues, are either mediocre or downright bad. Yet, despite being bad teams with the supposedly very good veterans on their roster currently, teams that are realistically nowhere near winning a Stanley Cup in the modern method (taking 10 cracks at it with the same core group, supplemented by drafted talent), the expectation is that these teams will somehow round into contention before the aging stars on their roster become overpaid or ultimately detrimental.
Therein lies one of the fundamental problems with half-doing a rebuild: in order to produce a successful contending window (which is, let’s say, making the playoffs five times in six years) via this method, you need everything to go perfectly, even more so than you would with a full-on tank. You need your veterans to age well; you need your drafted talent to develop successfully and at a rate fast enough to where they’ll be solid or better NHL players before your stars decline. You need to grab enough talent to supplement whatever you’ve lost and the difference between your stars’ previous talents and the present, despite not picking in the top 10 of the draft consistently.
None of that makes any damn sense. The goal of a rebuild should be to assemble a group of three or four NHL players who legitimately elevate the play of those around them, then surround them with serviceable middle and bottom of the roster talent via a blend of drafted players and cheaper free agents. From there, you need to replace any lost talent through trades or internally.
From a macro perspective, the entire vision of a “reload” runs counter to the goals of a rebuild. You hamper your draft position, and therefore hamper the probability of your team selecting a star NHL player. You expend the remaining value of your star players before they’re surrounded with an applicable core, thereby guaranteeing that you’ll get minimal value for them on the trade market while they’ve spent the last however many years hurting your draft stock in meaningless, losing seasons. You waste whatever Giroux, Voráček, and Simmonds have left in the tank if you’re taking seven years to give them a useful compliment of players.
If the Flyers respond to the current team’s problem (a lack of star drafted talent) with another distended attempt to build around Joel Farabee and Carter Hart, you’ve gotta ask what they’re even doing here. This didn’t make sense with Claude Giroux, who was at one time a legitimate top five forward in the National Hockey League; to think it would work with Joel Farabee, a talented but totally unproven commodity, is insanity.
Yet we see teams like the Predators and Blackhawks hope that adding a Matt Duchene, a Seth Jones, and young, promising but unremarkable drafted guys (Philipp Kurashev, Eeli Tolvanen) to their rosters will fix them and give them a shot of making the playoffs.
That brings us to the biggest problem behind how NHL GMs think: the idea that if a team makes the playoffs, anything can happen as long as pieces fall the right way. That might have been the case back before the salary cap, when teams that made mistakes could easily bail themselves out, but in the modern era the idea of “playoff team” and “contender” being synonymous is laughable.
When we look at the teams who have won the Stanley Cup or made the Stanley Cup Final more than once in the past decade and a half, the names that come up are all groups that had a long stretch of making deep playoff runs over that time. The Lightning, Penguins, Bruins, Kings, Sharks, Capitals, and Blackhawks were all very different teams, but shared the characteristic of going through rebuilds and maintaining a core group of star drafted players that were build around. The teams that were built with the “make the playoffs” mentality, lacking a single star or only in possession of a star goalie, usually died out in the earlier rounds or lost in the Final (the Predators, Golden Knights, Stars, and Canadiens).
This is not an argument being made with the idea that a total teardown rebuild is perfect, or that it doesn’t require plenty of luck and constant successes on the scouting, drafting, and developing side of things, all of which function like a crapshoot. What this does tell us is that rebuilds, when managed correctly, give teams a better chance at actually competing for a championship in a way that doesn’t require a miraculous, improbable run to come out of the blue. It tells us that NHL teams fruitlessly pursuing the “just make the playoffs” bar will be doomed to repeat their failures unless the coin lands on heads all the time.
The other important thing to consider is that rebuilds, when successfully conducted, should not take seven years to produce results. Your drafted talent should provide an impact earlier than that. Again, go look at the way that the championship winning teams we’ve looked at were built, and when they saw improvement. It wasn’t via a brief blip over a half a decade into the process; it was through stars helping them take a leap. Rebuilds take three or four years. If your team is building around a core that cannot produce any positive results in that time, you’ve likely failed to draft or develop the right players and should consider starting over or making some serious trades.
There are special cases here, like the Canucks, who drafted quality high-end talent but were hamstrung by awful contracts their GM locked them into. There are the Sabres, who have built a culture of losing and completely obliterated the credibility of their franchise through awful ownership, drafting, and development. But there are also the teams like the Penguins, like the Kings, like the Blackhawks, who built champions because they managed to hit big scores on the slot machine. And as a Flyers fan who is sick of seeing this team need everything to break right for them to even be mildly entertaining, I’d gladly settle in for more awful hockey if it means getting to watch Connor Bedard, Shane Wright, or Matvei Michkov in Orange & Black.
Things certainly can’t get much worse.