How High Can They Fly: 2019-20 Edition
They say time heals all wounds. What they don't tell you is that it often creates those wounds in the first place.
One year ago, the Philadelphia Flyers were on the up-and-up. They were coming off a return to the playoffs, bounce-back or breakout seasons from most of their core, and acquired a major boost in James van Riemsdyk via free agency. The stage was set for the Flyers to raise the bar and shed the mediocre label. Given just a little more time, we all thought they were ready to blossom.
Instead, they wilted. The punishment for a mediocre 82-point season and missing the playoffs for the fourth time in seven years was harsh. Head coach Dave Hakstol and general manager Ron Hextall headline the list of those who have left the organization between this year and last.
Time showed us that player growth isn't linear. It showed us that patience is not always a virtue, that good things don't always come to those who wait. After all, if that was true, the Flyers wouldn't be mired in a 44-year Cup drought, the fourth longest active streak of the sort.
But the current state of the Orange and Black is not as bleak as those first few paragraphs make it sound. The Flyers still boast a talented core and one of the deepest prospect pools in the league. They have a new coaching staff and front office that brings plenty of experience and prior success to the table. And many of those of young players that struggled a year ago could easily regain their stellar form.
Oh, and Gritty. We didn't have Gritty this time a year ago. I don't know how I survived, either.
With the 2019-20 lineup starting to take shape (though three RFAs - Konecny, Provorov, and Laughton remain unsigned), and the prospect pool restocked with seven new young talents, we have a pretty good idea of the what the Flyers will look like from top to bottom come fall. So, is this the group that is ready to take a legitimate step towards championship contention, or will they fall flat on their faces once again?
Projected NHL Lines (New Players in Bold)
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny
James van Riemsdyk-Kevin Hayes-Jakub Voracek
Morgan Frost-Nolan Patrick-Oskar Lindblom
Michael Raffl-Scott Laughton-Tyler Pitlick
(Gone from 2018-19: Wayne Simmonds, Jordan Weal, Dale Weise, Jori Lehtera, Phil Varone, Corban Knight)
One area where Chuck Fletcher has universally succeeded in is eliminating the dead weight from the Flyers roster. Weise, Lehtera, and defenseman Andrew MacDonald all entered last year as under-performers on overpaid contracts and did little to spell that notion. As a result, Weise was traded to Montreal, MacDonald was bought out, and Lehtera toiled in the AHL for the second half before heading to the KHL for next season.
Looking at the Flyers projected roster, it's hard to find a true weakness. The one question mark is who will take the second third-line wing slot. There are several prospects, including Joel Farabee, Isaac Ratcliffe, and German Rubtsov, that could easily nab the spot with a strong showing in training camp. For now, let's pencil in Morgan Frost for that spot. Frost is coming off back-to-back 100+ point seasons in the OHL and has bulked up to 186 pounds. Though the other options each bring something special to the table, Frost seems to have the fewest holes in his game.
With the addition of Kevin Hayes, the Flyers now boast an elite top-six, possibly their best of the 21st century. Though perhaps overpaid, Hayes ensures the Flyers will have an excellent second line without having to worry about Nolan Patrick's growth or whether Claude Giroux can handle a long stint back at center.
What makes the group so special is that each player has one elite trait, and few weaknesses to mask it. Giroux is an elite playmaker and an elite power-play quarterback. Couturier should be a year-in, year-out Selke candidate for the next half decade. Konecny has both modern speed and skill and old-school spunk. van Riemsdyk is a pure goal scorer and exceptional around the net. Hayes is coming off his best season and provides a unique blend of both physicality and scoring. And Voracek is also a top-notch passer with silky smooth hands.
Adding Hayes simultaneously improves the top-six and the Flyers depth as well, allowing younger players (specifically Patrick) to marinate in low-pressure roles until they are truly ready to take on big minutes. Patrick and Oskar Lindblom, who both received top-six minutes on a consistent basis at points last year, could thrive alongside a prospect on the third line. Lindblom has proven to be a solid play-driver and a decent scorer in one and a quarter NHL seasons. Patrick has shown flashes of the elite talent that made him a second overall pick - hopefully this is the year they don't disappear on him.
Similarly, merely good third-liners Michael Raffl and Scott Laughton become elite fourth-liners on the new look Flyers forward core. Tyler Pitlick may have been acquired because of cap reasons, rather than him being a better player than the out-going Ryan Hartman. However, he has been a solid fourth-liner for Dallas the last two years, and there's no reason he can't be the same for the Flyers this year. No longer do fans have to complain about zero-dimensional players like Lehtera or Chris VandeVelde (shudders) patrolling the ice on a consistent basis. The Flyers have (at least) twelve effective NHL forwards to dress right out of the box.
Notable Prospects (Projected 2019-20 Team Listed)
C Morgan Frost (NHL - Philadelphia Flyers)
LW Joel Farabee (AHL - Lehigh Valley Phantoms)
LW Isaac Ratcliffe (AHL - Lehigh Valley Phantoms)
RW Bobby Brink (NCAA - University of Denver)
C German Rubtsov (AHL - Lehigh Valley Phantoms)
RW Wade Allison (NCAA - University of Western-Michigan)
LW Tanner Laczynski (NCAA - University of Ohio State)
C Jay O'Brein (BCHL - Penticton Vees)
I don't want to go to in depth for the prospects, since I'll take care of all of them in another prospect pyramid latter this summer. But here are some interesting storylines to pay attention to:
- In a post-dev camp press conference, Flyers assistant GM Chris Pryor was asked which prospects he thought had a solid shot at cracking the NHL this year. He named Frost, Farabee, and Rubtsov (not necessarily in that order). With an aforementioned spot available on the wing on line three, it seems that it will be a three-way race to see which former first-round pick breaks camp with the big club.
- Wade Allison said he is still not 100% after tearing his ACL about 18 months ago, but is improving. Allison was one of ex-GM's Ron Hextall's favorite prospects. He is a feisty ginger winger that also possesses a very good shot and scoring potential.
- Both Allison and Tanner Laczysnki are about to begin their senior seasons at college. That means that if they do not sign with the Flyers by July 1st, 2020, they are eligible to become unrestricted free agents and sign an ELC with any team. The fact they are still unsigned doesn't mean a deal can't get done (or is even unlikely), but it is a bit of a concern.
- After a disappointing first year at Providence University, 2018 first round pick Jay O'Brien is heading to the BCHL. The league is considered to be a little lower quality than D1 NCAA, but has produced several very good NHL players over the years, such as Carey Price and Kyle Turris. O'Brien is set to return to the NCAA in the 2020-21 season at Boston University.
All eight players listed above are very talented and project as top of the lineup players (with the exception of maybe Rubtsov and O'Brien, who may end up as still solid middle-sixers). The fact that you could easily add five-six names to that list that wouldn't look out of place speaks to how deep and talented the Flyers prospect pool is upfront.
Projected NHL Pairings
Ivan Provorov-Matt Niskanen
Travis Sanheim-Justin Braun
Shayne Gostisbehere-Phil Myers
(Gone from 2018-19: Radko Gudas, Andrew MacDonald, Christian Folin)
Finding good right-handed defenseman is easier said then done these days. The Flyers know that better than anyone. It's hard to argue that Radko Gudas wasn't the best right-handed defenseman of the decade for the Flyers (before this year), mainly because he hardily had any competition.
Improving that area was a major priority for Chuck Fletcher. Doing so proved to be pricey, both in terms of money and assets. Matt Niskanen is a better puck-mover and skater than Gudas, but acquiring him means the Flyers took on a $5.75 million cap hit for the next two years. Niskanen is also 32 and has been starting to decline the last two years. On paper, Niskanen looks like he could be a good fit in the top-four, but it's far from impossible the move doesn't pan out.
On the other hand, Braun is a more physical, defensive-defenseman, and also 32. Braun should help the Flyers traditionally poor penalty kill, but trading a second and a third to acquire his services seems pricey when looking at his age, $3.8 million cap hit, and unspectacular advanced metrics. The good news for Braun is he should be paired with a good puck-mover and probably won't face top players quite as much as he did in San Jose.
The left side seems to have a similar theme - two players looking to bounce back from down years, and one looking to build on a good 2018-19 campaign. Travis Sanheim took a huge step, becoming an everyday player capable of playing in top four minutes plus power play. Phil Myers broke into the NHL in February, and though he did have some growing pains, flashed top-four (or better) potential in his puck-moving and physicality.
In 2017-18, Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov were head and shoulders above the rest of the Flyers defense. Ghost had a career-high 65 points and obtained Norris votes. Provy was tied for the league lead in goals by defenseman and led the Flyers in time on ice.
However, both struggled mightily last season. Provorov seemed to be fighting the puck for the entire first half and his advanced metrics were underwhelming. Ghost saw his production regress, especially on the power play, and was even healthy scratched down the stretch.
Of the two, Provorov is more important to the Flyers success - he still led the club in time on ice a year ago and has been a workhorse throughout his three year NHL career. He is also an RFA as of publishing, still in need of a new contract. However, Gostisbehere is a key part of the Flyers power play and a dynamic weapon when he's his confident self. The Flyers desperately need bounce-back years from both.
D Phil Myers (NHL - Philadelphia Flyers)
D Sam Morin (NHL - Philadelphia Flyers)
D Cam York (NCAA - University of Michigan)
D Yegor Zamula (WHL - Calgary Hitmen)
D Mark Friedman (AHL - Lehigh Valley Phantoms)
D Adam Ginning (SHL - Linköping HC)
D Linus Högberg (SHL - Växjö Lakers)
D Wyatt Kalynuk (NCAA - University of Wisconsin)
D Ronnie Attard (NCAA - University of Western Michigan)
The Flyers defense lacked the high end talent they had up front heading into the NHL Draft with Myers' graduation to the NHL. Chuck Fletcher changed that by selecting mobile blueliner Cam York. Though perhaps the skilled sniper Cole Caufield would have been a better selection, York has a very high upside and his game fits the modern NHL. Ronnie Attard, fresh off a 30-goal season in the USHL, was also taken in this year's draft (round 3).
Other notable prospects on the backend include Swedes Högberg and 2018 2nd rounder Ginning, Wyatt Kalynuk (back-to-back 25 point seasons), one-game NHL veteran Mark Friemdan, 2018 dev-camp invite Yegor Zamula, who earned an ELC and had an excellent 2018-19 season, and poor-man's Chris Pronger Sam Morin. Each of those have their flaws, but also possess skills that could make them quality NHL blue liners in the future.
Starter: Carter Hart
Backup: Brian Elliott
(Gone from 2018-19: Michal Neuvirth, Cam Talbot, Anthony Stolarz, Mike McKenna, and You. Yes, you played goalie for the Flyers last year. No, you weren't very good, either)
Ever since Ron Hextall left Philadelphia as a player, goaltending has been a major question. Sieve after sieve has failed to hold down the fort on a consistent basis, despite some showing some promise.
So it's ironic that question mark turned into a smiley face shortly after Hextall left as GM. Less than one both after Hextall's firing, Fletcher called up top prospect Carter Hart. The 20-year old did not disappoint, posting a .917 save percentage in thirty-one games. Now, there is optimism and no more questions about the Flyers number one goalie of the future. This is Carter Hart's crease as long as he wants in, possibly for over a decade.
However, rather than having that question mark in goal eliminated completely, it was simply pushed to the backup spot. With a couple of different paths available, Fletcher chose to bring back Brian Elliott on a one-year deal. Elliott has been solid as the Flyers starter the last two years, but has struggled with injury trouble. Hopefully, he can thrive with a less strenuous workload.
If Elliott (or Hart, who missed two weeks with injury last season) need to go on the shelf, the Flyers have a couple of options in the minors. Alex Lyon has put together back-to-back strong AHL seasons combined with 13 games at the NHL level. The Flyers also recently signed veteran goalie J.F. Berube to a two-year deal. He is coming off a poor season in the AHL, but his track record in that league is much better.
But the spotlight in goal is clearly on Carter Hart. As Flyers (and Hurricanes) fans can attest, you really only can go as far as your goaltending takes you. Carter Hart has the chance to be something special, the franchise goalie the Flyers have been missing for 30 years. His technique is excellent, his positioning superb, and he has the composure of a 10-year vet. It's not guaranteed that Hart is a superstar next year, for sure. But realistically, the Flyers just need him to be as good as he was a year ago to check this box off their list of concerns.
G Felix Sandström (AHL - Lehigh Valley Phantoms)
G Samuel Ersson (SHL - Brynäs IF)
G Kirill Ustimenko (ECHL - Reading Royals)
While Hart is the highest regarded of the Flyers goalie prospects, he's certainly not the only one with potential. For a while, Felix Sandström was considered just as good as Hart. However, he struggled a bit in 2017-18 (aided by injuries), hurting his hype. Though Hart has clearly jumped him, Sandström put up good numbers with HV71 of the SHL a year ago and is heading to North America. He will begin the year in Lehigh Valley, where Fletcher said he will play a lot.
Kirill Ustimenko is also heading to North America after two strong seasons in the MHL (the top minor league of the KHL). He will play with the Flyers ECHL affiliate, the Reading Royals, who many casual fans don't know exist. The ECHL is usually only used for really underwhelming low-end prospects or mediocre veterans. However, Ustimenko is neither of those - he's just a goalie, and there are far fewer of those spots available than there are for skaters.
Though there are a few other decent goalie prospects in the pipeline, the one that stands out is Ersson. The 2018 5th-rounder the dominated the Allsvenskan last year, and should play a big role for Brynäs IF of the SHL. If you had to bet on which Flyers goalie that isn't turned pro yet will be the best, the safe money is on Ersson.
Head Coach: Alain Vigneault (1st Year)
Offensive/PP Coach: Michel Therrien (1st Year)
Defensive/PK Coach: Mike Yeo (1st Year)
Off the ice, the Flyers look completely different than they did just one year ago. That's what happens when you fail to meet expectations, especially in a market like Philadelphia. Last year, Dave Hakstol started as head coach, and was fired in December, with Scott Gordon (previous and current Phantoms head coach) taking over. Kris Knoblauch ran the power play. Ian Laperriere was in charge of the penalty kill. Gord Murphy began the season running the "d," but was also fired in December and replaced by Rick Wilson.
Now, only Laperriere remains. Lappy, a fan-favorite in Philadelphia as a player, has been shifted to a pre-scouting role for this year. Leading the Flyers new-look staff this year is Alain Vigneault. Vigneault brings a strong track record to the table, having won two President's Trophies and gone to to two Stanley Cup Finals in this decade with Vancouver and the Rangers. Though there have been questions in regards to his handling of young players, they aren't nearly as extreme as Dave Hakstol's preferences. Vigneualt's on-ice results are a reason to be optimistic about his fit behind the bench.
Both Therrien and Yeo have had their ups and downs in the coaching rankings. Therrien lead the Montreal Canadiens to the playoffs three straight years from 2013-2015, going to the Eastern Conference Finals in the middle. However, he clashed with P.K. Subban, a player not too unlike Shayne Gostisbehere, as well as failing to turn former 3rd overall pick Alex Galchenyuk into a star. He was fired 58 games into the 2016-17 season, which saw Claude Julien take over and lead the Habs to an Atlantic Division title.
On the other hand, Yeo was the bench boss behind many of the hyped-upped Minnesota Wild squads that made the playoffs but could never get by round two. He then oversaw the Blues epic collapse last year and won just 7 of 19 games to start the year before being axed.
While both are coming off rough endings as head coaches, being an assistant is a much different role. Time will tell how both work out, but their experience with growing players should help out. Therrien led players like Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher to greatness, while Yeo brought up solid defenseman such as Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, and Marco Scandella. Hopefully they add to those lists in Philadelphia.
GM and President: Chuck Fletcher
While there is more to a front office than the general manager, Fletcher is the guy who has the biggest say in what happens with the on-ice product. However, notable news came on Thursday, July 11, as the Flyers announced that Paul Holmgren will shift to senior advisor to Dave Scott. Holmgren had been the Flyers president, a position he was promoted to after serving as GM from 2006-2014.
It was actually Holmgren's decision to initiate the move, which had been in the works since June 2018. Holmgren, now 63, said he wants to spend more time with his family and eight grandchildren. As a result, Scott will take a larger role in the Flyers front office as Chuck Fletcher's direct superior.
Fletcher was hired by the Flyers back in December to take over for Ron Hextall. He was cited as a passionate executive with a "bias for action" and the right fit to guide the Flyers back to contention. Most of the moves he made during the season were popular. Fletcher cut dead weight players like Jori Lehtera, Dale Weise, Christian Folin, Tyrell Goulbourne, and more. Trading Wayne Simmonds was viewed as inevitable, and the return he got seemed more fair considering Simmonds' poor-showing in Nashville.
His work over the summer hasn't been as universally pleased. The Flyers main holes were second light center, third line wing, right side on defense, and backup goalie. To his credit, Fletcher filled every one of those needs except 3rd line wing, where a prospect ready to take the leap can almost certainly be found. It's how he filled those needs that has caused some discontentment in the Flyers fanbase.
In a vacuum, the acquisitions of Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun, and re-signing Brian Elliott seem solid. But each one had a negative string attached that the Flyers fanbase couldn't stop tugging on. Hayes had been overpaid and given too much term, the cap implications of the Niskanen trade were upsetting, Braun should have cost lest considering his stats and the Sharks cap crunch, and Elliott had significant injury history in his first two years as a Flyer.
Each of those concerns is valid. However, for a fanbase that says they want their team to be great, it feels like we're undervaluing the on-ice impact that these players could have. Hayes is coming off his best season and stacks the Flyers down the middle. Niskanen is the best right-handed defenseman the Flyers have had this decade. Braun can help the Flyers dreadful penalty kill. And Elliott has put up solid numbers in those first two years and his injuries were associated with his workload more than just chance (unlike Michal Neuvirth).
The two biggest criticisms of Ron Hextall's regime was Hextall's passiveness in fixing the NHL roster and his tight-mindedness. Fletcher has clearly blown away the first problem. As for the second? Holmgren said today the reason he felt comfortable leaving his role was because of how much he trusted Fletcher. He cited a meeting a few weeks ago where everyone, from the assistant GMs to the analytics department, was collaborating and making decisions together. That alone is very encouraging.
The ultimate evaluation of Fletcher's moves will come once the Flyers return to the ice in October. However, the process that has governed them appears to be clear. Fletcher has identified the players that he knows can not hack it, and has made little haste in ridding the Flyers of them. He then identified the issues with his team and found players that he felt could fix them. It sounds simple, but sometimes the obvious answer is just that. Whether you agree with the moves or not, Fletcher has executed his plan pretty well thus far. Hopefully, it garners the great results that he and the fans desire.
State of the Franchise
Even though the Flyers missed the playoffs a year ago, there seem to be plenty of reasons for optimism. The main issues that dragged them down a year ago (defense, goaltending, coaching) appear to have been addressed. There are plenty of exciting kids that could help the roster, either with their skills or as trade bait for established stars.
Perhaps the biggest change between this year and last is the role of young players on the NHL roster. Last year, the Flyers were dependent on their young players. They anticipated Nolan Patrick becoming a 2C, Ivan Provorov developing into a borderline Norris candidate, and Shayne Gostisbehere playing tough minutes for a full season. They were dependent on them, and other players like Mikhail Vorobyev, taking a big step forward.
Needless to say, that didn't happen. So this year, the Flyers are simply asking the young players to do their job. None of them project to take a much bigger role than last year. Travis Konecny needs to still be a top-six scoring forward, Oskar Lindblom needs to be a great middle-sixer, Provorov needs to be a great defenseman (maybe not Norris quality), Patrick needs to be an elite 3C, and Hart needs to be a legit starting goalie.
All of them, as well as others such as Phil Myers, have filled these roles over portions of their carer. They need to develop consistency, otherwise their future in the organization (with the exception of Hart) may be up for debate. Because if they can't, there is definitely someone else out there who can do what they are (reasonably) being asked to. And Fletcher doesn't have the same loyalty or patience as Hextall did before him.
Looking at the roster on paper, the Flyers do not have a major hole. They need one third line winger, but they have so many prospects on the cusp of the NHL it's almost certain that they have someone who can fill that void effectively. Whether it be Kevin Hayes or Phil Myers or anyone in between, each player is currently in a role where they are well suited for. No skater is being asked to play a role well above their skill level.
Goaltending is a little different, since it remains to be seen exactly how starts will be split between Hart and Elliott. But Hart has the potential to play 60 games and the experience and skill to play at least 40. Elliott can take care of most of the rest. Five games of Lyon or/and J.F. Berube will not break this team. Twenty-five might. Hopefully, it does not come to that. You know, again.
It does feel like Flyers fans are scared to put their full faith in this year's team. I get it. The Flyers are promoting a message all too similar to last offseason, which we saw doesn't guarantee success. Over their years of watching, all of these fans have been heartbroken by at least one Flyers team. Whether it's Leon Stickle or Darren McCarty or Patrick Kane, there always seems to be somebody or some team ready to crush the Flyers spirits and bring disappointment to all of us.
The first two months of this season will be critical to the long-term direction of the Flyers. Recently, they have been slow starters to seasons. 2018, they couldn't win back-to-back games for the life of them. 2017, the ten-game losing streak. 2016, the goaltending was abysmal. 2015, they began 5-8-3. Granted, the Flyers have a weird schedule to begin the year. They start in Prague, come home for one game, then go on a Western Canada road trip.
But a rough first two weeks is much different from two months. If the Flyers are in the gutter at that point in time, it's not out of the realm of possibility at all that Fletcher starts selling key pieces. I'm talking Gostisbehere, Voracek. The only three players I believe are untouchable are Giroux, Couturier, and Hart. It would be weird to see a rebuilding team trade away a young player like say, Konecny. But we haven't seen how Chuck Fletcher reacts to desperation. It could be wild (no pun intended).
It's hard for us to not imagine the worst case scenario play out. That's what happens when you go through over four straight decades of disappointment. But we owe it to Chuck Fletcher, Alain Vigneault, and the 2019-20 Flyers to give them their shot. If they crash and burn, hey, at least they tried. However, it seems far more likely they are ready to take a step forward.
As for my predictions? Well, the Flyers haven't won a playoff round since 2012. That has to change for me to consider this season a success. I believe it will. The Flyers will make the playoffs as either the two or three seed in the Metro. They'll win a round. Maybe two. Maybe. If they do, who knows what happens after. I'll come to a more concrete prediction once we get to training camp.
In the meantime, there is work to do. Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny remain unsigned, in need of a new contract. They should account for a large chunk of the Flyers $13 million-ish of cap space. Maybe there is another big move in the cards. Probably not, but the way this summer has played out, you never know.
We have been ready for a long, long time for the Flyers to take a step up in the pecking order of NHL teams. Fletcher's moves have given them the chance to fulfill our goals. What else can you ask for?
The only thing to do now is drop the puck.
By the way, today marks the one year anniversary of the creation of Back of the Net. Thank you very much to everyone who has read so far. Make sure to share us with all the hockey fans you know, and follow us on Twitter @BackOTNet.