The Flyers Should Not Expect their Fans to Join them on the Road to Nowhere
This week, Philadelphia Flyers General Manager and President of Hockey Operations Chuck Fletcher addressed the media and finally acknowledged reality: the venerable franchise he is entrusted with stewarding has fallen into a state of utter disrepair.
There would be no playoffs this year. Gone was the strangely optimistic, arguably pollyanna-ish message of December, when Fletcher lauded the competitiveness of his club and pointed out the Orange and Black were just five points out of a playoff spot.
There would be no “aggressive retool,” the Flyers too constrained by bad contracts and a dearth of young talent to execute such a scheme. Instead, the fan base finally received the pledge that they should have heard after last year: a commitment from the front office that they would be “building this the right way.”
Some might argue, given the Flyers’ impressive history of regular playoff appearances and Stanley Cup contention, that Fletcher and company would instead be “rebuilding” the organization. Such “terminology” remains verboten at Flyers headquarters, apparently, with the GM pointing to his insistence that he won’t tear the roster down to the studs as his reason for not employing this word:
Fletcher on whether they are willing to call it a "rebuild" yet:
"I just… it's terminology. I mean, are we going to gut this team? No. We're not going to gut this team. I'm not looking to trade Tippett and Farabee and Frost and Gauthier and just trade everybody and start over."
— Charlie O'Connor (@charlieo_conn) February 28, 2023
Ultimately, there were no statements Fletcher could deliver at his press conference that matched the power of the message the Flyers fan base delivered through their absence on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center. As Kevin observed in his Thursday post, the Flyers’ home barn experienced a Blueshirt invasion, with Rangers fans showing up in overwhelming numbers to support their club on the road. They were treated to an overtime victory and a game-winning goal delivered off the stick of Vladimir Tarasenko, one of New York’s key trade deadline acquisitions.
There was a time, seemingly not that long ago, when the Flyers were regular buyers at the trade deadline, scooping up talent like Tarasenko and doing whatever it took to enhance their chances at the Stanley Cup. It was a different era, those salad days before the salary cap when having an aggressive owner like Ed Snider proved to be a major competitive advantage.
Snider passed away in 2016, and since that time Comcast has assumed full ownership of the Flyers. It’s been a much different experience, to say the least. The fan base has not seen playoff hockey in Philadelphia in five years. The last time Philadelphia did make the postseason, in 2020, their games were played exclusively in Toronto without fans in attendance due to the COVID pandemic. After winning a playoff series against the overmatched Montreal Canadiens, the Flyers fell in seven games to an Islanders team that dominated large stretches of the series.
Before the coronavirus derailed that campaign, the Flyers were on an absolute roll. They had won nine games in a row and were nipping at the heels of the first place Washington Capitals. The team had bought into Alain Vigneault’s system, and Carter Hart was standing on his head in net. It’s fair to wonder what might have been had that season progressed uninterrupted, though it would have been a tall order to defeat the Bruins or the Lightning in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup.
Nevertheless, it felt to this fan like 2020 was a turning point. Instead, it was just another mirage. Through a combination of injury, bad luck, and questionable decision making, the Flyers returned from their brief journey to contention back to the pit of mediocrity. Vigneault is gone, and so is interim replacement Mike Yeo, who was given the thankless task of coaching the team through the end of a miserable 2021-22 season.
The man behind the bench now, John Tortorella, has taken on quite the challenge. The roster is in shambles, with multiple high-priced players out with long-term injuries. Sean Couturier, who is signed through the end of the decade at an annual cap hit of $7.75 million, has played just 29 games since agreeing to his extension. It stands to reason that depending on a center in his 30s who is struggling with a nagging back injury is not a recipe for success. Is it possible that Couturier will never play again? Even if he can get back on the ice, is he still capable of handling the physical toll of an 82-game season?
Joining Couturier among the walking wounded is Ryan Ellis, who is under contract for four more seasons. Ellis, who was brought in last year to complement Ivan Provorov and bring stability to the #1 defensive pair, has played a total of four games for the Flyers. He has been dealing with a complex injury that has affected his abdominal area and his back, and it seems clearer with each passing day and no update that his career might be over.
Cam Atkinson has also been absent this year, and Travis Konecny has recently joined him on the injured reserve list. That is quite a bit of talent, and a significant portion of the roster, missing in action. The veterans who have been in the lineup, including James van Riemsdyk and Kevin Hayes, have either underwhelmed or landed in Tortorella’s doghouse. Given Hayes’ inconsistency since the 2019-20 season, it seemed destined that he and Tortorella would clash. However, his level of play rebounded enough this year to earn him an All Star selection. Now might be the ideal time to move Hayes and recoup some of the cap space his contract was due to take up over the next three seasons.
The blue line, meanwhile, seems to be in flux. During the Ron Hextall era, fans were sold on the idea that the defense corps would be an area of strength for years to come. Travis Sanheim has taken a step back since signing his massive, eight-year contract extension. Ivan Provorov, the other gem of that prospect group, is rumored to be on the trade block.
Drafting and development, which are necessities in the modern NHL, have been seriously lacking in the Flyers’ program. Morgan Frost and Joel Farabee are very talented players whose considerable potential still needs to be unlocked. Nolan Patrick, the #2 pick in the 2017 draft, never looked like the player he was projected to be even before injuries derailed his career.
Swings and misses on prospects lead organizations with playoff aspirations to get too aggressive in the free agent market, offering terms to established veterans that might well hamper the club’s ability to spend in the future. Complicating matters is the economics of the entire NHL, which is still digging out of the COVID hole and consequently might only raise next year’s cap by $1 million. This year’s upper limit of $82.5 million is a small change from the $81.5 million ceiling in place over the three previous seasons.
Even the brightest actuaries and smartest cap wizards would have failed to predict this state of affairs pre-pandemic and struggled to manage a roster with large contracts. Nonetheless, Fletcher has made some bad strategic bets with the resources at his disposal. Banking on an injury-prone Ellis was a mistake, as was overpaying for Hayes. He made the right choice in hiring Tortorella, but the pair have seemed misaligned philosophically throughout the season, particularly with respect to the quality of the team on the ice and the consequent level of expectation.
In sum, the Flyers are a disaster. “We have made our own bed,” Tortorella acknowledged during the postgame press conference when asked about the Rangers fans taking over the Wells Fargo Center.
Indeed they have, and the Flyers should expect to sleep in it alone until a path forward is established and pursued with better focus. The first order of business needs to be removing at least one of these unwieldly veteran contracts. The cap crunch of the past few years has created a buyer’s market for pricy veterans on expensive deals, and teams willing to take on salary have been rewarded with high draft picks for their troubles. This situation is likely the reason why the Flyers could not unload van Riemsdyk last offseason. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back a bit in coming years as the NHL’s finances stabilize.
Next, the Flyers need to commit to Tortorella and allow him to develop the players who remain on the roster. With Craig Berube and Dave Hakstol succeeding in their new professional homes, it should be clear by now that the head coach has not been this organization’s biggest problem, despite the carousel that has spun behind the bench over the past decade. There should be no talk of hot seats in Philadelphia for at least two years.
The Flyers must also re-conceptualize and rebuild their front office. Decoupling the president of hockey operations from the general manager role might be a good idea to start. Whatever the arrangement, there must be alignment between the front office and the head coach on mission, direction, and timeline.
Bottoming out should be the primary focus as this forgettable season winds down. Though their odds to land generational prospect Connor Bedard won’t be very high, the Flyers should maximize their chances at the top spot or, failing that, put themselves in position for one of the three highly-touted prospects that are expected to fall in the 2-4 range.
Right now, though, it feels like the Philadelphia Flyers are on the road to nowhere, and they shouldn’t expect any fans to hop in the passenger seat, or any of the seats at the Wells Fargo Center. Not until a clear direction is articulated and, more importantly, executed.
Kinkead: gotta add this in here –