How High Can They Fly
The 2017-18 Philadelphia Flyers season was a roller coaster in pretty much every sense. They went from bad to good, consistent to random, futile to first place at breakneck pace without any warning signs. Players such as Wayne Simmonds, Nolan Patrick, and Travis Sanheim saw their seasons meet this pattern as well. Players like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Ivan Provorov, and Shayne Gostisbehere emerged (re-emerged in some cases) as superstars in the NHL, while Simmonds, the departed Valtteri Filppula, Radko Gudas, and Jordan Weal all saw their stocks plumit in some way. Yet when the dust settled, the Flyers season looked rather ordinary from the outside: they met expectations as a fringe playoff team, creeping in to the playoffs in their last game, and other than a few periods, were soundily defeated by the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round in 6 games.
Now that the bulk of the offseason is done, with only RFA Robert Hagg, the Flyers know what their organization will look like for next season. Plenty of questions still remain, both at the NHL level and beyond, but since this is a Flyers blog, I wanted to give you my thoughts on not just the 23-man opening night roster, but the organization as a whole.
Projected NHL Lines
Top Prospects (Team based on where they played last season)
C Morgan Frost (OHL - Sault St. Marrie Greyhounds)
C Jay O'Brien (NCAA - Providence Friars)
LW Joel Farabee (NCAA - Boston Terriers)
LW Issac Ratcliffe (OHL - Guelph Storm)
LW Matthew Strome (OHL - Hamilton Bulldogs)
RW Wade Allison (NCAA - Western Michigan Broncos)
With the signing of James van Riemsdyk to a reasonable 5 year, $35 million contract in free agency, the Flyers have one of the best forward corps in the NHL. Leading the charge is captain Claude Giroux, fresh off a career-high 102 point season that got him the 4th most votes for the Hart Trophy (should've been a finalist at least). Along with Giroux, Selke runner-up Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, the aforementioned JVR and Travis Konecny lead the charge offensively. The Flyers will be counting on further development from Nolan Patrick, who finished the year on a tear in the second half and was one of the better forwards in the playoffs in my eyes, and Oskar Lindblom, who looked strong in a 23-game NHL stint but wore out in the playoffs after playing a career-high 92 games between the Flyers and the Phantoms (including playoffs for both).
The Flyers clearly have their fair share of star power, but their depth is not to be taken lightly either. Wayne Simmonds would be a top-6 forward on almost every other team, and while he could be with the Flyers, he will most likely start the season on the 3rd line in a pivotal contract year. The fourth line of Raffl, Laughton, Weal could be one of the best in the NHL - all three guys can score and both Raffl and Laughton are solid in their own zone and should see PK time (especially Laughton).
The only personnel question the Flyers face is 3rd line center, with the departure of the ineffective and aging Valterri Filppula. There are a lot of players that could fill that role. Among players with NHL experience, the Flyers could easily choose to promote Laughton to the 3C role and fill in veteran Jori Lehtera (the wrong but the most likely choice given Dave Hakstol's track record). Jordan Weal has also been mentioned as someone who could fill that role, but that seems unlikely given his lack of track record at the NHL level. Putting him at 3C would either push Laughton to the wing and Lehtera in at 4C or Lehtera, Dale Weise, or the forgotten Taylor Leier on the wing instead.
The more intriguing option, at least to fans like myself, is to dip into the Flyers deep prospect pool. It's one of the best in the NHL, especially upfront. Mikhail Voroboyev seems like he could be the perfect bottom-6 center in the NHL given his size and scoring ability, and after a solid first year in the AHL, especially by advanced metrics, there's a good chance he could get the call. Former Hoby Baker Award finalist Mike Veccihone could get a shot as well. The wild card for the race is (for now) the guy I'm penciling into the lineup, Morgan Frost. The 27th overall pick last year (acquired from St. Louis in the Schenn trade) lit up the OHL, scoring 102 points, 2nd most in the league. Frost reminds me a lot of Travis Konecny when he broke the team out of camp one season after being drafted following a 101-point campaign in the OHL split between the Ottawa 67s and the Sarnia Sting. Frost has a bit longer odds - center is a much more demanding position to play than the wing, and he will still need to bulk up a little bit before he is likely to be able to hang with the big boys, but he'll certaintly get a shot.
While Frost is the biggest name in the Flyers pipeline amongst forwards, he is certaintly not the only notable prospect. Bruising left winger Isaac Ratcliffe had a strong season with a poor Guelph Storm team and looks to be using his hulking 6'6'' frame to his advantage. Right winger Wade Allison has looked so good for Western Michigan than Ron Hextall tried to get him to turn pro this summer, but Allison was intent on staying for his senior year. Matthew Strome also had a strong year, helping Hamilton reach the Memorial Cup, and while his skating is still a major issue, he's improved with help from NHL skating coach Barb Underhill. 2018 1st rounders Joel Farabee (14th - also acquired in the Schenn deal) and Jay O'Brien (19th) will look to develop as they begins their collegiate careers at Boston University and Providence respectively. And that's not even inculding guys like 2016 1st rounder German Rubtsov, Maksim Sushko, and Tanner Laczynski, among others. Even as guys like Giroux, Voracek, van Riemsdyk, and potentially Simmonds age into their 30s, the Flyers system is more than capable of replacing them.
Projected NHL Lines
Phil Myers (AHL - Lehigh Valley Phantoms)
Sam Morin (AHL - Lehigh Valley Phantoms, starts season on NHL IR)
Mark Friedman (AHL - Lehigh Valley Phantoms)
Adam Ginning (SHL - Linköpings HC)
After constantly being tasked with holding mediocre veterans such as Andrew MacDonald, Michael Del Zotto, and Brandon Manning above water, the pairing of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, the organization's two best defenseman, flourished from late-December all the way through the end of the regular season. The two complement each other perfectly. Gostisbehere is the more aggresive of the two, always jumping up on the rush and known for his power play skills, and while Provorov is the more steady of the two, he quietly scored 17 goals, including 15 at even strength, tied for the most in the NHL. Gostisbehere's improved play in his own zone was critical for the tandem's success, although they struggled and were eventually split up during the playoffs.
The rest of the defense is a bit more questionable. Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg had up and down seasons, with Sanheim even seeing some time mid-season in the AHL. Sanheim is the better of the two and has higher upside, but it seemed like the coaching staff preferred Hagg's steadiness in his own zone and physical play (he led the NHL in hits for a large part of the season). Radko Gudas and Andrew MacDonald are interesting cases. MacDonald slightly improved from his disasterous 2016-17 campaign, but still spent far too much time in his own zone. Gudas played about as well as last year, but will always be remembered for his two awful turnovers in Game 6 that allowed the Penguins to tie the game late in the second. Both have two years left on expensive contracts ($8.35 million combined), and it will be interesting to see what role they have on the team going forward.
Most of the Flyers top young talent on the back end either rests in the NHL or on its cusp. Sam Morin had a Murphy's Law type season last year, struggling through injuries after failing to secure an NHL job at camp. He'll be out until February with a torn ACL in the Calder Cup Playoffs and should challenge for a spot with the Flyers then. Again, there's a wildcard, and it lies in Phil Myers. Signed as an undrafted free agent, Myers shot up prospect lists everywhere and now has top-pair potential. He put up a solid but, like Morin, injury plauged first professional campaign with the Phantoms, something he struggled with in junior. He may need some more season, but I'll optomistically put him with Gudas on the 3rd pair. Ideally he'd be with Sanheim, but I don't see Hakstol giving a rookie second-pairing minutes he doesn't have to, especially alongside Sanheim, whose biggest issue was in his own zone.
Beyond those two, the Flyers d-prospects are a little weak. Mark Friedman had an OK first year with the Phantoms but doesn't have much upside beyond a 3rd pairing defenseman. Diddo for Swedish defensemen David Bernhardt and Linus Hogberg. Even second-round pick this year Adam Ginning's defensive style likely limits him to becoming a 4th defenseman in the NHL at best. The Flyers did grab some intriguing names like John St. Ivany and Wyatt Wylie (the Flyers entry for best name in the draft) in the later rounds, but I'd be shocked if Hextall didn't pick a defenseman in the 1st round of the 2019 NHL Draft.
Projected NHL Goalies
Carter Hart (WHL - Everett Silver Tips)
Felix Sandström (SHL - HV71)
At the NHL level, this likely the Flyers biggest weakness. Brian Elliott played better than his .909 save percentage, but will need to show he can bounce back after having core surgery mid-season and looking like a mess after being rushed back for the playoff push. He may just be a stopgap, but he's going to be the Flyers #1 goalie this year, and they will need him to be strong if they want to contend.
Backup goalie is wide open at this point. Michal Neuvirth had a good bounce back season while he was healthy, but continued to look like the glass-bones, paper-skin man from Spongebob more so than ever. His injuries have opened the way for at least 3 other goalies to compete for his role. Alex Lyon struggled during his first NHL stint in early February, but was arguably the Flyers best goalie down the stretch. His 94-save performance in the Phantoms 5-OT win in the Calder Cup Playoffs certaintly turned heads as well. Anthony Stolarz looked good in a brief NHL stint in 2016-17, but missed basically all of last year with injuries. The former-second round pick is probably the lowest on the Flyers goalie depth chart right now and will need a strong camp and (likely) AHL performance to change that.
The prospect wild card between the pipes is Carter Hart. Long-term, he is as good as the Flyers could hope for, winning his 3rd straight WHL goalie of the year award and being named CHL goalie on the year last year. Now 20, Hart will turn pro, and while he is likely headed to the Phantoms for more seasoning, he will have the chance to make a strong case to jump right to the NHL this fall. Right now, Neuvirth seems the most likely to make the team, but if injured or traded, the door swinIgs wide open for one of those 3 goalies.
Beyond Hart, the Flyers goalie situation is still solid. Felix Sandström also struggled with injuries playing in the SHL last season, and will remain there for another year to hopefully get back ont track. Even he has starting goalie potential. 2017 3rd rounder Kirill Ustimenko (thanks Zac Rinaldo) and 2018 5th rounder Samuel Ersson also have potential to develop into solid NHL goalies as well. Goalie is usually the most fluky position in terms of development, but the Flyers are well positioned to finally find their franchise netminder.
Coaching Staff and Front Office
Dave Hakstol (4th year)
Ron Hextall (5th year)
Here lies arguably the biggest conundrum amongst Flyers fans right now. While the Flyers have made the playoffs in two out of three seasons under Dave Hakstol, he has often drew the ire of the fanbase, usually for his questionable lineup decisions and goalie management. Hakstol has notoriously played guys like Jori Lehtera, Valterri Filppula, Brandon Manning, Andrew MacDonald, and Dale Weise over young, more skilled players because of their "veteran presence" (shudders). However, Hakstol did help develop key young players like Konency, Provorov, and Patrick, all of whom took major strides under Hakstol, especially in the 2nd half last year. Of course, the Travis Sanheim debacle is a perfect counter to that. As it stands right now, Hakstol is probably fine as the Flyers head coach in the sense he won't hurt the team, but I doubt his ability to lead them long term. Hakstol has done a great job getting the team to respond to adversity throughout his tenure, but he has also been a part of creating that adversity. This will be a true make or break year for him. Everything except the goalie situation screams that the Flyers are ready to break out this year. They may not be on the levels of powerhouses like the Capitals, Lightning, Jets, and now, the Maple Leafs, but they are close. Just making the playoffs probably isn't good enough now, and if it is, it won't be for much longer. The Flyers are ready to take the next step, but they're not sure if Hakstol is too.
Ron Hextall is definitely the more favorably viewed of these two, but up until July 1st (or late on the night of June 30th), he was facing his fair share of critics. Hexy's draft and develop mindset certaintly helped the Flyers out of salary cap hell and the several bad contracts while restocking the farm system, but fans began to wonder if Hexy's patience might leave the Flyers in a situation where they would always be two years away from being two years away. It was certaintly better than throwing money at every free agent and hoping they would push the team over the edge. And then he promptly shut those fans up by signing argubaly the second-biggest free agent in James van Riemsdyk, directly contradicting a press conference just days earlier where he said he would not give out massive contracts in free agency to "good" players.
Right now, the Flyers organization is in about as good a place as any in the NHL. However, looking at the roster and pipeline, there is one problem that sticks out at me.
It seems as if the Flyers window is mostly reliant on Carter Hart developing into an elite, or at the very least a solid starting goalie. Even someone as optomistic about Hart as myself knows it would be next year at the earliest, more likely the 2020-21 season, when Hart (and Hakstol) are ready for him to take on that role.
But at the beginning of the 2020-21 season, Claude Giroux will be 33. James van Riemsdyk and, if he's still around, Wayne Simmonds will be 32. Jakub Voracek will be 31. With over $23 million dollars accounted for (not including a potential Simmonds extension) between Giroux, JVR, and Voracek, the Flyers will need them to be big contributors. Granted, it's not like those guys are going to fall of a cliff by then, but if they're not at the elite level they are today, can the Flyers win a Cup with those players on the books? They certaintly have core players developing now in the NHL and in the minors, but there may only be a 2-3 year window to win a Cup with this current core.
But that's then, and this is now. Even with those concerns, the Flyers look strong enough on paper to at least return to the playoffs for the first time in consecutive years since 2008-2012 (the last time they won a playoff round), and, if things breaks right, potentially become a dynasty and end their 43-year cup drought.