Back on January 26th, 2022, Dave Scott and Chuck Fletcher held a press conference. The season, realistically, had been lost over a month ago at this point, and the plan moving forward? To aggressively retool. A rebuild wasn’t on the table. Instead, they were going to fill holes in their lineup and put themselves back in the playoff picture. When pressed about elite talent, Fletcher said there was “no question” that the Flyers needed more top-end talent. Yet just a few months later, an elite talent who reportedly wanted to play in Philadelphia, was someone that the Flyers were never in on.
For years people linked Johnny Gaudreau to the Flyers. Heck, just one year into his six-year contract with the Flames, Gaudreau himself said it would be sweet to play here one day. And after parting ways with long-time captain Claude Giroux, it seemed logical to think that Gaudreau would be the team’s top priority, assuming that he didn’t re-sign in Calgary. But that wasn’t the case.
The problem? Fletcher was unable to find a trade partner that would take on James van Riemsdyk’s full $7,000,000 cap hit for a price that they found acceptable.
Should they have moved a first-round pick in order to free up the cap space needed to sign Gaudreau? Probably not. Gaudreau alone wouldn’t have made the Flyers a top contender, and they desperately need to hit on some high draft picks. However, if they were already committed to this “aggressive retool,” which they evidently are, or at least were based on previous decisions, you can’t rationalize not making that type of move. You can’t go half-in on aggressive retool, that’s just not how this works.
The kicker is that with some short-term planning, the need to free up cap space wouldn’t have been an issue.
Let’s go back to around this time last year. Fletcher made a bunch of trades, with his three big additions being Cam Atkinson, Ryan Ellis, and Rasmus Ristolainen. While Atkinson certainly made a positive impact, Ellis suited up for a grand total of four games, and Ristolainen was underwhelming, to put it nicely. By December the Flyers had fired their coach and lost ten games in a row — again. While Ellis and Atkinson had term left on their contracts, Ristolainen was in the final year of his deal and could’ve been moved as a rental at the trade deadline. How the next six months played out is hard to fathom.
As the season continued to snowball further and further out of control, it was clear that the Flyers were set to be sellers; and they were. As the trade deadline approached, the Flyers were ready to move their expiring contracts. Giroux, Justin Braun, and Derick Brassard all found themselves on new teams. However, Ristolainen would not follow them out the door.
Instead of taking the chance to recover lost assets and prepare for the future, they doubled down, extending Ristolainen for five seasons with a $5,100,000 cap hit. This, for a player with major defensive flaws that either went ignored or were assumed to be fixable both then and now. Then just four months later, with concerns still surrounding Ellis’ availability, Fletcher looked to shore up the right side of his defense once more, this time turning to Tony DeAngelo.
Despite scoring 51 points in just 64 games this past season, the Carolina Hurricanes decided against extending DeAngelo, opting to trade for an older, more expensive, and less productive — but still good, to be clear — defenseman to replace him in Brent Burns. It’s obvious that the Hurricanes did not have an issue with paying for talent, as some had been suggesting, but instead had an issue with paying DeAngelo. With a gross past that has been well documented, any sort of off-ice issues shouldn’t be ruled out, but unlike in previous stops, that is not known to be the case. What we do know, however, is that his play without the puck has left a lot to be desired; and the numbers back that up. For a Carolina team that is known for a smothering defense, moving on makes a lot of sense.
Even with an overwhelming majority of his 5-on-5 minutes coming alongside a top defender in Jaccob Slavin, per Evolving-Hockey the Hurricanes allowed more shot attempts against with DeAngelo on the ice than any other Carolina defender on a per-minute basis. And among regulars, only Brett Pesce, who faced much tougher competition, graded out worse via expected goals this past season.
But defense is only half of a defenseman’s job, and surely his offensive prowess outweighs his defensive weaknesses, right?
It’s a bit confusing that the Flyers suddenly seem unbothered by this type of player, after wanting to get out of Shayne Gostisbehere’s contract so badly that they decided to go ahead and attach a second-round pick in order to move his full $4,500,000 cap hit just a year ago. Trading a second, a third, and a fourth-round pick just to be able to sign DeAngelo for $500,000 more per year doesn’t make any sense. But maybe the fact that it doesn’t make sense is exactly why it makes sense. Because nothing that the Flyers have done of late makes much sense.
After all, this is the same team that just gave Nic Deslauriers a four-year contract, and closed the free agency chapter of their aggressive retool by bringing Braun back for a year. I guess high-impact signings like these make buying out the final year of Oskar Lindblom's contract worth it. Totally.
So, instead of preparing to sign the best free agent on the market, who would’ve presumably taken less money to play in Philadelphia, the Flyers spent numerous draft picks and used over $10,000,000 in cap space to lock in two defensive zeroes for five years, and two years respectively.
Then, as if it to suggest that what they’ve been doing of late is actually sound, Fletcher goes on to say that he relies on his analytics department to determine draft pick values and when to trade them. As if any analytical mind worth listening to would’ve actually suggested moving the 14th overall pick in a trade for Ristolainen by itself, let alone accompanied by a 2023 second-round pick and a roster player.
And honestly, if things had been going well, parts of this would have been at least somewhat understandable! If the Flyers had been playing like, or even so much as looked like, a real contender, maybe they would be right to not make changes just to sign Gaudreau. But what has this team shown in the last two-plus years that makes you unwilling to make moves for a player of Gaudreau’s caliber? Why was there so little foresight that it felt as if their only option was to trade a first-round pick in order to clear cap space? They had plenty of time and plenty of ways to prepare for this opportunity, and they failed.
I’d call it a stealth tank, but that implies a plan. That’s giving them too much credit. Truly, what is the point of any of this? What’s the plan? There is no plan.