It’s a risk to not take a risk

To take the next step to get from where they were last season to becoming a perennial contender, the Flyers need some things to go right. How are they going to get there?

This piece was going to begin with a bunch of paragraphs talking about the Flyers’ offseason, but if you’re here, there’s probably no need for that. You know what the Flyers have and haven’t done. Their big move so far has been the signing of no-not-that-Erik-Gustafsson Erik Gustafsson to a one-year contract, in a deal that has a pretty wide range of potential outcomes but at least brings some fun potential to the blue line. Otherwise, the Flyers took a surprise hit to their defense when Matt Niskanen retired, lost some depth forwards (Tyler Pitlick, Nate Thompson, and Derek Grant), and have shuffled some pieces around at the AHL level.

That’s about it, and there haven’t been rumors about much more. Elliotte Friedman said on Wednesday that the Flyers called the Coyotes about Jason Demers. There were light rumblings that they were in on former Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie, who went to Toronto on a four-year deal. And they were allegedly in talks with Vegas on some defenseman — most likely Nate Schmidt, who has since been dealt to Vancouver for the paltry price of a third-round pick.

Short of those, it’s hard to recall any noteworthy names that the Flyers have been reported to be in on. Maybe they’ve just been very quiet with their intentions, but until we see otherwise, it looks like they’ve just been very quiet with their actions.

As it is, the Flyers team in front of us now is the Flyers team that trudged off the ice in Toronto in early September, plus Gustafsson (a defenseman who was available on the fourth day of free agency for a one-year deal) and minus the four names mentioned above (Pitlick, Thompson, Grant, and Niskanen). There is still time in the offseason for things to change, but as of this moment, it looks like the Flyers are prepared to enter next season without any big-name changes or additions to that roster. Just ask general manager Chuck Fletcher, from this past Saturday:

Fletcher left the door open for bigger moves during that press availability on Saturday afternoon, and in fairness, it’s not as if he was going to come out and say “we stink, we’re dying out here, we need more nice things” because he needs something resembling leverage in free agent and/or trade negotiations.  Still, at this point, it seems as if the Flyers would find it acceptable to enter next season with a roster that doesn’t feature many major changes or — more crucially — clear upgrades from the last one that we watched play.

That reality has sunk in with most fans, and the reactions to it seem to be largely split into two fairly predictable groups.

The first group sees a team that was underwhelming in two playoff series this past postseason and clearly doesn’t have the combination of star power and depth that the league’s best teams have. They see a lineup that lost a top-4 defenseman who was competent at both ends of the ice and on the penalty kill, and has done nothing to fill that hole in the lineup. And they see a roster whose top forwards are, other than Travis Konecny, almost all towards the back end of their prime, if not even further down the aging curve. Knowing all of that, these people cannot believe that the Flyers are simply running it back as they enter the final season in which their Selke-winning top-line center and their no-doubt-about-it starting goalie are going to be making barely more than $5 million combined against the salary cap.

The path forward that this group is pushing for, then, obviously constitutes some risk. Throwing out money or making a big trade is going to lead to some consequences, in the short-term and the long-term. And, not to mention, it’s easy to say “we need to make big moves to get better” and not as easy to point out an actual move that hits the extremely small target of “making the team better while actually being remotely realistic as well as feasible under the cap”. To brainstorm for a moment ...

  • Want to trade for Patrik Laine? Enjoy losing Travis Sanheim or Phil Myers, and a prospect, and probably more, to fortify a position where the Flyers are already pretty deep, and then pay Laine some ungodly amount of money on his next deal.
  • Wishing the Flyers would’ve shelled out for Alex Pietrangelo? He was never coming here, and even if he was, that move would’ve almost certainly been followed by one or two more moves like the ones Vegas would’ve had to make where they dumped good players like Schmidt or Paul Stastny for nothing, partially mitigating the improvements that come with bringing in a big name like that in the first place.
  • Hoped the Flyers had been in on someone in free agency like Brodie or Kevin Shattenkirk, or had been in the race for Schmidt? Well ... to be honest, me too. But that’s pretty much it for your cap space if you make that kind of a move, and bringing in a defenseman with any kind of term complicates the expansion draft picture./

It might be time to push the chips in. But if you push the chips in, you are really, really gambling on these next two seasons being The Time. Because Sean Couturier is going to, at least, double his salary on his next contract two years from now, Carter Hart is probably going to be making significant money on a long-term deal that will start as soon as next year, and several other important players (Claude Giroux, for instance) will also have to get new deals between now and then. Adding any sort of long-term commitments to anything short of a true difference-maker seems somewhat ill-advised, and not many true difference-makers are changing teams nowadays, and especially not in free agency for the money they make there. (For fun, ask someone who’s mad that the Flyers haven’t done enough in free agency whether they’d get rid of James van Riemsdyk and his contract for nothing right now if they had the choice.)

Being mad that the Flyers haven’t gone all-in on this team is, essentially, imploring them to take a risk. And it is one — because if they play these next couple of years wrong, the past decade of mediocrity has the potential to become the new normal again, and sooner than we think.

And those concerns bring us to the other side of this split in opinion. The second group sees a team that was sixth in the NHL standings last year, is bringing back almost everyone important from that team, and has young players that should improve next season all across the lineup. They see a free agency period that had a couple of white whales that the Flyers were never going to be in on, and then a bunch of players who got overpaid by teams that weren’t the Flyers. And they see a roster that is going to need cap space over the next two offseasons as several players — key among them Hart, Couturier, and Giroux — are due for extensions, and are fine not adding long-term money on guys who are probably not difference makers. Given all of this, not to mention the expansion draft headaches that would likely come with making a big add, the lack of action in free agency and the trade market seems like the right move to these people.

There’s less elaboration required here. The Flyers made a one-year signing for a defenseman and otherwise stood pat on what was, by any objective account, a good team last year. These people, by and large, seem to agree that the Flyers probably need another defenseman following Niskanen’s retirement, but are otherwise OK with the decision to “play it safe”.

Yet there’s the rub: playing it safe isn’t really playing it safe. The decision to not take a risk is, in its own way, a risk.

If your goal for this team is to hope that they can hang at about the same place they were last season, be something like the seventh best team in the league, and be in that territory where they can go on a heater in the playoffs if a lot of things go right, all while not sacrificing any kind of long-term flexibility? Maybe they’re already there. Maybe. If that’s good enough for you, you probably didn’t need any big adds this offseason.

But choosing to more or less run it back is a decision that comes with its own set of gambles, in both the short and long-term. To name a few:

  • Are we sure that the Flyers have one no-questions-asked top-4 right-side defensemen, let alone two? Do we think any of them are close to ready for top-pair minutes? And if the plan there, as I’ve seen it speculated, is to add in reinforcements during the season or at the trade deadline, are they going to be able to win out in any kind of bidding war that will inevitably take place?
  • Is the personnel, especially without Niskanen, going to be good enough to keep this team’s very strong penalty kill from last season intact?
  • Up front, are we prepared for the likelihood that Travis Konecny is probably not going to shoot 17 percent again, and are we acknowledging that the team’s three other most frequent wingers from last season (Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and James van Riemsdyk) are all falling one year further down the aging cliff?
  • Is one of Morgan Frost and Nolan Patrick going to be able to immediately show up and play at an above-average level as a third-line center, and what’s the plan if neither one is?
  • I won’t even entertain the prospect that Carter Hart has a bad season, because come on, I’m not that much of a downer, but in a season that has the potential to be very, very weird and may feature compressed schedules that involve a lot of back-to-backs, backup goalies are going to be as important as ever — does Brian Elliott have another good year in him?/

There are other questions on top of these ones, all of which deserve some more discussion (it’s a long offseason, we’ll get there) but are simplified here. And yes, every team has questions. But I can’t shake the feeling that there are more “what if this thing that was good last year goes wrong this year” questions than there are vice-versa when it comes to this team.

Now, if the answers to all of these questions end up being positive ones? Well, this team’s a Cup contender. Hands down. But holding on to the possibility that everything — or even close to everything — that you need to go right will break your way? That’s taking a risk. A different kind of risk than, say, giving out a big contract to a defenseman in free agency or via a trade acquisition, and one that’s less directly obvious. But it is a risk. And as much as adding a no-doubt reinforcement via free agency or trade (one who, with due respect to Erik Gustafsson, is better than Erik Gustafsson) may add some long-term risk, a guy who can wipe out a question mark or two that currently exists with this team helps eliminate some short-term risk, and that’s what the Flyers are missing out on by essentially sitting out the offseason.

Chuck Fletcher is making a bet on this team. And for as much as his lack of action this summer does give the team some more long-term flexibility, the Flyers’ window very well might be right now. Before Couturier gets a huge raise that takes him through his 30s, before Hart stops becoming the shiny new toy and becomes the goalie with the spotlight on him (and, presumably, a large contract to boot), and before the big names at the top of the lineup really start to hit the twilight of their careers without any particularly obvious replacements in line. Part of having flexibility is knowing when to use it, and Fletcher — who last summer was very willing to use the space he inherited to add the likes of Niskanen, Justin Braun, and Kevin Hayes — is saying that now’s not the time.

So to answer the question of which group is right? The speed-it-up-ers or the not-so-fast-ers? I’m not sure. But I know that neither path is really, truly the “safe” one for this team and this franchise, and we’re going to have to hope Fletcher picked the right one.