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Preview: Sinking ship

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Hey, it’s the Michael Raffl reunion game!

Washington Capitals v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s the day after Silly Season, and the Flyers look a bit different. Tonight, Philly is set to take on the Washington Capitals in a game where losing might effectively end whatever minuscule playoff hopes the Orange & Black still maintain. What are the storylines, who exactly got moved at the deadline, and what banger have I plucked from the aether today? All that and more below.

The Capitals

So, you might have already heard, but the Capitals certainly made a splash at the deadline. Of course I’m referring to their earth-shaking acquisition of star forward... Michael Raffl, who came from the Flyers in exchange for a 2021 fifth round pick. Raffl seemed like a pretty milquetoast pickup for a team that’s looking to finish out the Alex Ovechkin era with another championship or two, but it’s never a bad idea to add a depth forward when heading into the postseason.

NHL: APR 10 Bruins at Flyers
Goodbye, Raffl. You were a good soldier, even if a section of the fanbase hated you because you were undeniably boring.

Wait

You’re telling me something else happened with the Capitals? Something bigger than a Michael Raffl trade? Preposterous, all NHL GMs are cowards who are terrified of making mistakes, you’re full of it.

Oh. OH. The Capitals ended the deadline with the biggest trade the NHL has seen since the Laine for Dubois swap earlier this year. To be honest, I’m absolutely gobsmacked at the assets Washington was willing to expend for Anthony Mantha. Mantha is a player who has been star-caliber when healthy, but that hasn’t been very often; the 26-year-old winger has never been fully available in an NHL season, having missed significant time in every year besides this one. It’s an enormous risk for the Capitals to trade Jakub Vrana, a 25-year-old forward who has flashed 60+ point upside and already has a pair of 20+ goal seasons under his belt, not to mention the additional assets in tow here.

Washington in total gave up their 2021 first round pick, 2021 second round pick, Panik and Vrana for Mantha. The onus of this trade likely stems from a rough run for Vrana under newly christened coach Peter Laviolette. Vrana’s production this year has declined, as has his analytical impact, and with an RFA negotiation looming this wasn’t the worst move Washington could have made.

Now, on to how this Caps team matches up with the new-look Flyers, who we’ll get to in a second. The Capitals are a team that’s going to primarily generate offense off the rush, rather than via forechecking or the cycle. What’ll likely be problematic for them is that Vrana was the team’s best transition player and rush creator. Vrana was particularly unparalleled among Washington players in accruing chances via plays set in motion in the neutral zone, so with the addition of these new, less familiar players, the Flyers will want to play an aggressive style in terms of the gaps, forcing turnovers early in an attempt to bury Ovechkin and company before they can adapt.

Image via Corey Sznajder
Image via Corey Sznajder

Less fortunate for Philly is the possibility of Mantha meshing instantly and providing zero room for error. The Detroit product put up similar microstats to Vrana in a far worse situation, so if he enters tonight’s game and looks comfortable early, the Flyers will want to match him up with more elite defensive players as often as possible. Claude Giroux in particular wouldn’t be an awful guy to frustrate the big winger with.

The Flyers

The Flyers made two other moves besides the Raffl swap. Chuck Fletcher shipped Erik Gustafsson to Montreal with 50% salary retention in exchange for a 2022 seventh round pick, which was genuinely an impressive return to me; getting any kind of asset for the NHL equivalent of a flaming bag of dog crap is a win. More notably, Scott Laughton was given an extension for five years at $3 million AAV. That’s a hefty deal for a depth piece, but keeping Laughton isn’t the worst thing in the world, and the Flyers see him as a crucial glue guy who can keep an already fragile locker room from reaching Buffalo-esque catastrophe.

Now, the Orange & Black come into this game having been sellers at the deadline in a year where they were expected to contend. If that isn’t demoralizing enough, the last game this team played was an embarrassing loss to the aforementioned black hole that is the Sabres. Against a sturdy Washington team, Philadelphia’s best hope is to come out gangbusters before riding Brian Elliott to a win. Is that really feasible? Probably not, but it feels about as likely as the Flyers playing dominant hockey against a superior team at this point.

Three Big Things

  1. Establishing the forecheck early is going to be critical. Without their usual transition fulcrum in Vrana, the Caps will need to incorporate Mantha early to replicate their usual success. If the Flyers can frustrate those attempts with heavy pressure and wins in the corners, that’s going to assist the other things they’re looking to execute upon.
  2. Watch Ivan Provorov on the power play and compare him to John Carlson. I don’t like to harp on one thing, but No. 9 is clearly not cut out to quarterback a 1-3-1 unit, while Carlson is among the best in the league at doing just that. Particularly hone in on the difference between how the two move at the top of the umbrella; note the decisiveness with which Carlson makes decisions, how he commands coverage and creates imbalance by walking the line, etc. This is a good exercise in understanding why a top power play unit featuring so much talent has been effectively sterile.
  3. Tanner Laczynski has earned the confidence of the front office with his outstanding play in the AHL, enough so that he’s been handed a roster spot for the remainder of the season. Chuck Fletcher wants to see what he has in the Ohio State product, and so should you. Laczynski was among the best transition players in the AHL this year, and the tracking data that Brad and Maddie have compiled backs that up. Pay attention to his entry successes and tendency to dictate the pace of the game; it’s arguably his best trait.

Game Day Tunes

#AllCaps is an annoying slogan, even if it’s better than #AnytimeAnywhere, or God forbid the classic “Andrew MacDonald is ready for #ClutchTime.” A better version of All Caps is the song of the same title, by maybe my favorite artist of all time. Enjoy. Note that this song isn’t clean.

Happy game day, and as always, go Flyers.