Flyers discourse is a hell of a drug and a never ending balance of both uppers and downers. After the pre-COVID lockdown high of the Flyers laying waste to the NHL, we’ve been in an undoubtedly low since last year’s playoff run. It was easy to point at the long break in play to say that it certainly derailed the Flyers momentum, but what has happened since then? It is the same front office, same coaching staff and same core players. Has the rest of the NHL adjusted to Alain Vigneault’s system? Is losing Matt Niskanen and Tyler Pitlick really the reason for the defensive clusterfuck we’ve witnessed all season? Is poor goaltending alone destroying this team? Why have some of the most important players on this team taken a step back?
We can probably list another dozen reasons I’ve seen as why this season has been tumultuous as it has. That doesn’t take away from the fact that this team is an absolute mess and the season is done. Some may still think, “but Jay, there is plenty of season left!” I don’t speak for the entirety of the Broad Street Hockey staff, but I’m confident in saying that this team needs an overhaul or a hard reset (I lean toward the former) based on what we’ve seen over the last six months.
I’m sure you could continue to grind it out over the course of these next 20-something games to try and grab that final playoff spot ... but for what? This team isn’t a contender and there are too many unknown factors to even begin to hope that the ship rights itself. There are things that Chuck Fletcher could do now to better prepare the team moving forward ahead of the offseason. If I were Chuck (if you are reading this, hello, Chuck), this is how I’d approach the rest of the season leading up to the offseason.
The Coaching Staff
The easiest finger to point in terms of “why isn’t this going right!?” Alain Vigneault controls the lineups and the overall game-plan. We also assume he really likes his assistant coaches. Vigneault certainly made a very strong impressions in his first season (albeit a weird NHL season) with the Flyers. As much as I think he has certainly had some missteps this year, I can’t see him getting canned in only his second year with the team. He’ll be back for sure, so keep that dream buried deep down.
Should a team with so many talented offensive players keep giving a long leash to an assistant coach who can’t make a power play effective? Michel Therrien needs to go and there shouldn’t be any debate on that. Mike Yeo, the guy in charge of the defense, has escaped criticism because the penalty kill is decent. I wouldn’t hate him escaping the chopping block. Though at this point, firing all assistants (yes, even Ian Laperriere) should be in the cards even prior to the season ending if this death spiral continues.
The Trade Deadline Moves
Some decisions should be made after this season is over (more on that in the next section). The burning question is, “what can we do now to put us in a better position in both the offseason and for next year?” That simply boils down to unloading assets that should be attractive to playoff contenders and looking no further than impending unrestricted free agents (UFAs): Michael Raffl, Scott Laughton, Erik Gustafsson and Brian Elliott. None of these players should be set to any long-term plans. Both Raffl and Laughton have the position/lineup flexibility, productivity, and low cap hit to fetch decent returns.
Erik Gustafsson has proven to be a one-trick pony (a PP specialist) and shouldn’t even be skating in Flyers games at this point. With that, you’ll be lucky to swap a 6th or 7th round pick for him. Gustafsson should be waived in the event of being mathematically eliminated from playoff competition anyway to give room for a “sneak preview” to a player like Cam York, Egor Zamula or Linus Hogberg. Injuries happen to goaltenders, so don’t be surprised if the Flyers get some calls on Brian Elliott. Elliott has been a trooper for this team, even if he’s been misused over the years. I’d wish him all the luck if he were dealt.
Which other non-UFA’s should be given a ticket off this ship? It saddens me to say this because I was pumped to not only see him return, but excited to see his goal-scoring resurgence this season, but ... James van Riemsdyk leads the Flyers and both goals and points. He wouldn’t be a pure rental to the acquiring team because he is signed for two more seasons at a $7 million cap hit. This would be their big ticket trade deadline deal. One that would see a significant return in draft picks and/or above-average prospects.
Others I’d field offers for? I’d wouldn’t be against listening on Nicolas Aube-Kubel. He’s regressed something fierce and easily replaceable. Justin Braun has had a fine season, perhaps the only Flyers defenseman you can say that about. Teams are always looking for that “steady, stay-at-home defenseman” and I wouldn’t hesitate on pulling the trigger.
Last, but not least, is Shayne Gostisbehere. I love the kid, but at some point, whether it’s entirely on him or how he is treated by now three different head coaches ... it might just be best to move on. He is apparently graded on a harder curve than his fellow defensemen and it’s been that way his whole career. I’m not even sure what type of return you get for Ghost, but I really want to see him succeed and I just don’t think that is going to be here.
The Offseason Game Plan
Where does this team go from here? Full teardown and rebuild? Re-tool on the fly? Either way, I do think it’s time to look at the core players on this team. I’m not talking about Joel Farabee, Travis Konecny, Oskar Lindblom and Carter Hart. Kevin Hayes? I like him, he’s been good and I don’t think you can move him with that contract/no-movement clause so let’s move on. If you are doing a full teardown, how does Sean Couturier factor into those plans? He’ll be turning 29 and seeking a new contract next season. Is he someone you feel confident in building around in a rebuild or re-tool? Can you fit his price tag around Jake Voracek, JvR, Hayes and Konecny when you also need to look at future contracts of Travis Sanheim, Hart and Farabee?
How long do you wait for Nolan Patrick to “get back”? The guy dealt with a debilitating migraine disorder and it’s amazing that he is back on the ice. With that, even before he sat out last season he’s never shown No. 2 overall pick level of play. This season has been no different.
Are you winning a cup with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek? Can you even work a deal around Giroux’s NMC or Voracek’s contract? The captain’s current contract is done after next season. What does his next one look like? Do you let the face of your franchise walk, sign him to a short-term contract knowing he will continue to decline, or trade him after the season in a franchise-altering move?
What do you do about the defense going forward? Going into this season, defense felt like the safest area of the team that didn’t need much focus at all (prior to Niskanen retiring, anyway). Ivan Provorov looked like a top-pairing defenseman and Travis Sanheim/Phil Myers were undoubtedly a no-doubt second-pairing. It hasn’t played out like that this season, and each player regressed to the point where you start evaluating in your head if this can be fixed. I do not envy Chuck’s job in determining where to go with this.
Lastly, before you think I glossed over it, I have no issues with Carter Hart moving forward. He is all sorts of mechanically and mentally off, there is no denying that. I’m supremely confident in him rebounding next season and being the franchise goaltender.
Where DO they go from here? We’ve just recently had Chuck Fletcher admit that the chemistry of the team is “off”. Why delay a rebuild/retool based on a dozen or so games remaining in a lost season to begin now? I don’t envy the task that Fletcher is presented, but dragging your feet towards an inevitable conclusion without a plan of action would hurt the team’s future more than he realizes.