The Flyers and Arizona Coyotes are only separated by one team in the standings.
If you told this to my September self, he would probably have two reactions:
- He would be amazed by the rapid advancement of time travel
- He would assume the current-day version of myself would be well-versed on the Western Hockey League and, more specifically, Connor Bedard
That poor sap would be disappointed on both fronts. Unfortunately for both the team that seemed best-positioned to tank and the fanbase that feels thirstiest for it, the Flyers and Coyotes would combine for only a 15 percent chance at the first pick if the season ended today.
How and why did this happen?
As is often the case in hockey, it’s because of goaltending.
Both Carter Hart and Karel Vejmelka are in the top 14 in goals saved above expected out of 92 goalies, playing two bad teams out of elite lottery odds.
The teams worse than Arizona have struggled mightily in goal. Columbus, Anaheim, Chicago, and San Jose all rank in the bottom 10 in goals above expected. Vancouver, the team that sits between Arizona and Philadelphia, is last.
So, what are the Flyers trying to accomplish? If they are serious about a rebuild, trading Hart is the most effective first step. But is that really what they want to do?
I’ve been pretty reflective recently. I’m expecting my first child this summer and that’s made me reconsider pretty much everything I’ve ever done in a last-ditch effort to avoid passing along my litany of flaws to another generation. I guess it’s too late to solve procrastination. Regardless, I have thought about the amount of time I’ve spent watching sports.
I’d like to think they’re simply so viscerally entertaining it is self-explanatory, but then I catch myself scrolling Twitter at some point during every game.
Really, it’s probably about community. Sports, especially hockey, have served as a social lubricant and foundational piece to a good number of my friendships since I was a kid. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s had that experience. Sports can be the reason we hang out or fill dead air with conversation.
I know this community has a collective understanding of how to win a Cup. You must acquire elite talent, which is easiest to find at the top of the draft, then develop some pieces around that core while making a few shrewd moves to make the most of cap space and draft value. I don’t disagree. But in doing so, over the course of many miserable seasons, many people are going to check out until it’s time to compete. We’re losing some of this social component of our lives as the team rebuilds.
What if we’re measuring success incorrectly by prioritizing championships? What if simply having an escape from reality two or three nights a week with a quality product is a success to some? This seems healthier even if it’s not what I may want. It’s why I have become sympathetic to any opposition of tearing it down to the studs.
But what do the Flyers want to accomplish? The trade deadline is Friday and it should tell us a lot. For years, it’s felt like they did not want a reset. Lately, it’s seemed like they’re grasping reality. How committed will they be in leaning into a rebuild?
If they want to produce a team that can be that distraction a couple nights a week, they can sell off the pending free agents, hope they hit on a few picks, get a couple players back healthy, and, sure, maybe they could compete for a playoff spot in the near future. Keep Hart, he’ll help them become competitive.
But if they want to become contenders, which is unquestionably a more difficult and uncertain path, it’s going to take some real pain and lean years if they want to give themselves the best shot at those prize picks at the top of the draft. That doesn’t only mean trading James van Riemsdyk and Justin Braun this week, that means considering trading some core pieces, especially Hart. Admittedly, this is highly unlikely, but it’s a bold and maybe necessary step if this if they’re trying to find elite talent.
No one raises this team’s floor like Hart, which, in turn, may lower the long-term ceiling. A strong starting goalie, like Hart, will win you a few games. He’ll keep you out of the basement. Just look at Arizona. The Coyotes have more big names on LTIR than on their roster, but Vejmelka has kept them more competitive than expected.
Hart, 24, has already proven to be a good goalie and makes less than $4 million per season through next year, at which point he will become a restricted free agent. It’s hard to even find comparable trades. Darcy Kuemper brought back a first and Connor Timmins over the summer in 2021, but Kuemper was 31 and a pending free agent the following summer. Considering Hart’s age, the duration of team control, and his quality of play, Hart is the Flyers’ most valuable trade asset and the easiest way to truly jumpstart a rebuild. He could bring back both a significant trade return and his absence could pave the way to a top pick to build around. For the Process Truthers, he could be the Flyers’ Jrue Holiday.
And I know, I know, the Flyers and goaltending. How are we going to go generations without a goalie only to get one and give him away?
While Hart’s good, he isn’t single-handedly dragging this team into contention. He’s not Connor Hellebuyck or Igor Shesterkin or Ilya Sorokin or the kind of guy that feels like the brick wall a playoff favorite crashes into come May. Hart could certainly complement a contender. But could he be the reason a team is a contender? To date, that hasn’t been the case. And the best way to acquire the roster that could win a Cup may be to deal him.
So, what do you want the Flyers to accomplish? Do you want them to be competitive or do you want them to be contenders? There’s no wrong answer, but the shortest path to truly rebuilding is through trading Hart. While I understand that sacrificing stability in net is difficult after it’s been a weakness for decades, I don’t want to have to time travel all the way to when my unborn child is my age to see this team contend for a Cup.