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Make the move, Chuck, so we can figure out what this team is

This team is either a defenseman away from being legit or it’s not, and there’s a lot of value in simply finding out either way which of those two it is. Time to do something.

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NHL: Washington Capitals at Philadelphia Flyers
Let’s find this man a defensive partner.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday afternoon, Broad Street Hockey learned from a source in the Flyers’ organization that the Flyers have been in preliminary talks with the flailing Nashville Predators about a potential trade. While discussions are still early, the trade being discussed at this stage would (perhaps unsurprisingly) involve defenseman Mattias Ekholm and (more unexpectedly) winger Viktor Arvidsson being sent to the Flyers, with Shayne Gostisbehere and some draft picks (at least one first and another conditional pick) being a starting point of a potential package to Nashville.

The Flyers’ interest in Ekholm has been speculated on for weeks now, as he’s almost certainly the highest-profile defenseman on the trade market and the Flyers’ need for another defenseman is clear. He’s the number one name on The Athletic’s Trade Deadline list, and their own Pierre LeBrun listed the Flyers as one of four potential suitors for him almost a month ago. Couple all of that with the fact that the Flyers and Predators seem to be over the whole Shea Weber Offer Sheet-Induced Trade Freeze that they were under for most of the last decade, and there’s a move to be made here for a team that is still hopeful that there’s a deep playoff run in them.

Of course, the issue there is glaring us all in the face right now: if you watch what’s happened on the ice lately, we don’t even know that there will be a playoff run for the Flyers to have with Ekholm this year.

The Flyers lost again on Thursday night to the Washington Capitals by a score of 5-3, falling into a deep hole with an absolutely brutal second period and not quite having enough in the tank to complete a comeback in the third despite a valiant effort. Compounding things here is the fact that all four of the teams the Flyers are currently jostling with for playoff positioning in the East won their games at the same time the Flyers, who are now a comfortable fifth in the division, lost theirs.

Overall, the Flyers are 5-5-1 since returning from their COVID stoppage in mid-February. That’s probably not good enough in general given their competition; it’s definitely not good enough when you add in the context that three of the five wins came against the Buffalo Sabres. The going has been tough lately and the schedule does lighten up a bit; five of their last six have been against either Pittsburgh or Washington, and after Saturday’s remaining tilt against the Capitals, eight of their next 10 are against the East’s three non-contenders. (Though, after that, they’ve got nine out of 10 against those top four teams.) But if the Flyers entered last week in a solid position (it’s easy to forget, but they were first in the division in points percentage entering that three-game set with Pittsburgh), they’re now in a much more precarious one.

To some, this will prompt the question of whether you want to push the necessary chips in to make a move now. The logic has quickly gone from “you make this move because you’re one obvious top-4 defenseman away from being a contender” to “do you make this move if you’re only a 50/50 shot to make the playoffs?”. Particularly when you consider the complications that someone like Ekholm would bring to the Flyers’ expansion draft picture; given the near-certainty that the Flyers will be protecting all of Ivan Provorov, Phil Myers, and Travis Sanheim in expansion, an Ekholm move increasingly looks like it might just be a one-season rental. and making that move only to miss the playoffs would be disastrous for Chuck Fletcher.

And yet that’s the thing that makes a move like this all the more necessary. The degree of uncertainty that surrounds this team right now needs addressing and needs resolution, and maybe there’s something to be said about taking your medicine on a move that doesn’t work out.

Think about where things stood a year ago today. The Flyers had just a couple days earlier taken a 2-0 loss to the Bruins, but they’d played well in that loss and it marked the end of a nine-game winning streak that had brought that group from the playoff bubble to Metropolitan Division title contention. (Remember the Metropolitan Division? Good times.) And they were down in Tampa, about to face the East’s on-paper best team in the Lightning, in what appeared to be a big test of how much progress they’d really made this season.

That game, of course, never happened; with the COVID-19 pandemic looming, the NHL suspended its season on the afternoon of March 12, 2020.

You probably don’t need a reminder of how things have gone for the Flyers since then, but you’re gonna get one anyways. They dominated the three-game round robin session in the bubble while facing three other teams that probably cared less about those games than the Flyers did. They flailed their way through an excruciating six-game series win over the Canadiens thanks mostly to Carter Hart, then had an absolutely painstaking seven-game loss to the Islanders in which they were again bailed out by their young goalie but were the worse team on the ice in, conservatively, six out of seven games. They lost their number-two defenseman to surprise retirement in the offseason and otherwise largely ran this group back, and while this season on aggregate hasn’t gone terribly, it also hasn’t been up to the expectation they’d set for themselves based on last season, and if it ended today they wouldn’t make the playoffs.

The optimist would tell you that this is largely the same team that was one of the best in the NHL from November on in 2019-20, and was quite possibly the best team in the NHL from January up until the stoppage. They’d tell you that this forward corps has talent on all four lines, that the defense still has its best days ahead of it, and that its starting goalie has a good track record and is going through a rough patch during a very weird time for all of us.

The pessimist would tell you that the Flyers haven’t really had a dominant effort against a team that isn’t the Buffalo Sabres in a calendar year or so, their “forward depth” is one strong line and a bunch of other guys who may or may not show up on a given night, the defense is a disaster, the goalie situation is an enormous question mark that looms over everything, and — given all of this — the two months where the Flyers ran over the league last year were clearly the outlier.

The truth, in all likelihood, is somewhere in between. It was always going to be difficult for the Flyers to be the team they were post-Disney On Ice trip last season forever. It is at the same time hard to believe that there are this many guys who have taken a step back this year, and it’s similarly hard to account for that happening when the team’s only meaningful loss in the offseason was that of 34-year-old Matt Niskanen.

Yet there’s a lot of wiggle room in “somewhere in between”. The Flyers at their peak last season are probably not walking through that door — some guys certainly overachieved to an extent, some percentages were in their favor that they can’t count on, etc. But they can get close, can’t they? Especially if the only thing that’s missing on paper is another good top-4 defenseman to replace Niskanen?

If an Ekholm-level add on defense (without any meaningful subtractions to the active roster) brings the Flyers, who for everything that has gone wrong have played at a 99-points-per-82 pace this season, up to the level of, say, a 102 or 103-point-calibre-team? Not what they were at their peak last season, but in the ballpark of what they were on the whole — the sixth-best team in the NHL in the standings, undeniably an upper-echelon team that can do something special with some breaks? That team is probably making the playoffs, even in this division. It’s gonna be a tough out for whoever it faces when it gets there, and it’s going to have a chance to go on a real run. And most importantly, it shows you that this team is closer to what it was last year than it’s looked like it is this year, and every decision you make henceforth is made with that knowledge in mind.

Then, though, there’s the other side of it. What if an add doesn’t push this team to where it needs to be? What if Ekholm shows up and things get a little bit better, but the defensive breakdowns just go from “always present all the time” to “slightly less frequent but still there”? And the forwards never find the consistency or ceiling they need, and the goalies don’t bounce back to the degree we need them to, and the coach can’t press the right buttons, and they still fade from the playoff race?

Well, then you know.

Then you know that there’s more required here than replacing Matt Niskanen. Then you know that this group is further away than you thought they were. Then you know that the final two months of last year’s regular season were a team catching lightning in a bottle with a first-year coach in a way that is going to be very difficult to replicate or count on. Then you know that there is still serious work to be done, and maybe that forces you to take things in another direction entirely. Who’s to say.

Would it suck to burn a first-round pick, a roster player, and whatever else goes out as part of this deal only to come away with that kind of ending? Sure would. Would it suck even more to do that and then either lose that guy to expansion or send even more stuff to Seattle to make sure they take someone else instead? Absolutely.

But ... doesn’t this already suck? Wouldn’t you rather just know if what you’ve got here isn’t good enough? Don’t you want to eliminate the chance to make excuses that keep you in limbo the way you are now?

It feels almost unfair to put that much weight on the potential impact of one move and its result on 30 or so games during a weird, shortened season, facing off against one of the most competitive divisions in recent memory. But sometimes this game is unfair, and when you have one playoff series win in the past nine seasons and follow up your best year in a decade with the start the Flyers have had, it’s on them to show who the real them is.

The Flyers think they have a good team. That is evident from how last offseason went; you don’t finish 6th in the league, lose in the conference semifinals, and then stand pat the way they did despite having the room and assets to maneuver if you don’t think your team is close. Yet even then, it seems like they knew they weren’t there — in his article mentioned above, LeBrun had the following to say right off the bat about the Flyers:

The void left behind by Matt Niskanen’s surprising retirement wasn’t really addressed in the offseason, but it wasn’t from a lack of trying. My sense from talking to other teams is that no GM tried harder to land a top-four D than Chuck Fletcher, but the deal just wasn’t there.

Deal wasn’t there? OK. If the Flyers make an add and then miss the playoffs by two points, we can circle back to the potential that a deal not being made in the offseason sunk this team because we had to put up with at least 24 games of this. Yet the point there is clear: They know they’re close, but they know they need something. Chuck knows they need something. And if he knew in October, he sure as hell knows now.

Make the move, Chuck. Get Ekholm. Or someone else that makes look more nice and neat on paper than it does now. And if it still doesn’t work, we can light the paper on fire and start over. But it’s time for us to figure out if this team is what it thinks it is, and we can’t do that without this.