Life or Depth: Why the Bottom of the Flyers Lineup Has the Chance to Take the Team to the Top
23 games (2018-19). 47 games (2018-19). 89 games (2017-2019). 161 games (2016-2019). 205 games (2011-2018). 250 games (2013-2017). 291 games (2014-2019).
These were the tenures of Corban Knight, Phil Varone, Jori Lehtera, Dale Weise, Brandon Manning, Chris VandeVelde, and Andrew MacDonald. Though they were not all the same, they (and others) tend to mush together in the darkest corner of the minds of Flyers fans. They were the throw-aways, the un-wanteds, the placeholders. Zero-dimensional players (some more preferred by their coaches than others) that played because no one else could.
Though the negative memories associated with these players may not fade away for a long time, their is a tinkle of hope because of one common factor of this group. They are all former Flyers. Gone from the team. Bought out, traded, contracts un-renewed. Their lack of talent taken elsewhere if lucky, left unclaimed if they weren't.
The ultimate goal of Ron Hextall's vision when he was rebuild-sorry, retooling the Flyers, was to create a prospect pipeline that controlled the lineup at its peak. It felt like these players would be around for the long haul, but in reality, they were nothing but stopgaps. Hextall's stubbornness to move some of them, or find better options to take their places, ultimately led to his undoing.
However, that does not mean his vision will go unfulfilled forever. It's no secret that Chuck Fletcher was busy in the offseason. His moves may not have grabbed as many headlines as the Devils or Rangers, but that doesn't mean they weren't notable.
According to the laws of physics, every action has a reaction. Though some of the Flyers new additions are expected to play in high-pressure roles and become new members of the Flyers core group, their presence has a trickle-down effect that makes the Flyers even stronger than you might realize.
Last year, a large part of the Flyers chances of success hindered on their youth. Nolan Patrick was expected to become a true 2nd line center after a dominant second half. Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere were expected to at least hold steady as dark horse Norris candidates. Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom were expected to develop consistency to the promise they showed the year prior. Only the last of those three came to fruition.
Now, their expectations are much lower. Kevin Hayes' presence means Patrick is penciled as the 3C, where his consecutive 30+ point campaigns are certainly respectable. Provorov will still probably lead the Flyers in time-on-ice, but he may have a new partner in Matt Niskanen, who can move the puck and brings plenty of experience and wisdom to the table. Ghost will slot in somewhere on the bottom two pairs and can focus on the power play and get all of the o-zone starts. If Sanheim and Lindblom regress, the Flyers can still field a strong top two forward lines or defensive pairs without them.
Having good players like those in the top-six shifts other quality forwards down the lineup. The Flyers have usually had some solid players in their depth roles, but their play was usually cancelled out by ineffective veterans. Up front, Scott Laughton is a good penalty killer, can play center and the wing, and scored 32 points a year ago against tough competition with no power play. Michael Raffl has driven play (good Corsi, especially relative to teammates) over his career and plays both wings. Tyler Pitlick, who was added from Dallas for Ryan Hartman, brings physicality and is a decent goal scorer. He too is flexible, with experience at both right wing and center.
While the Flyers may have gotten older on the backend by adding Niskanen and Justin Braun, their third pair is as young as ever. Phil Myers is all but a lock to start the year as third pair right-d, which is where Chuck Fletcher said he sees Myers beginning. There's a good chance Shayne Gostisbehere, just one season removed from a 65-point season where he received Norris votes, plays with him. Both are outstanding puck movers and should receive a ton of offensive-zone face-offs. Ghost is better than a third pairing defenseman, but the Flyers have so much talent elsewhere on the backend that they can afford to put him there.
If not Ghost, perhaps Travis Sanheim, who broke out last season with 35 points and spent all of the second half on the top pair, could play alongside Myers. The player not paired with Myers will likely play with Justin Braun. Braun's advanced metrics aren't amazing, but he's a solid defensive defenseman who has held his own against top competition in San Jose. Sanheim or Gostisbehere are better than Brendan Dillon, Braun's most common partner in San Jose. Their ability to move the puck well could fit very well alongside the reliable Braun - his presence could free up his partner offensively, allowing them to take chances to generate offense with him as a safety net.
Brian Elliott entered each of his first two seasons expected to be the 1A in the Flyers goalie tandem. He posted a respectable .908 save percentage over his first two seasons in Philly, but that has been masked by injury troubles and a poor playoff performance (one where he wasn't 100% after returning from core surgery). With Carter Hart now in the fold, Elliott will probably only have to play 25-40 games. He should thrive with a much less strenuous workload, hopefully one that allows him to stay healthy. Elliott is better than most fans are willing to admit - this year is a perfect chance to prove that.
The Flyers have always had solid depth pieces sprinkled in throughout their lineup over the last few seasons. The problem is that these players have either been forced to play too high in the lineup, have been surrounded by incompetent line mates, or both. Even if someone struggles or is injured, there are so many prospects on the cusp of the NHL (some with a little NHL experience)
But now that Chuck Fletcher has added talent, and cut the dead weight from the Flyers roster, everyone on the 2018-19 Flyers will be in a role that they can handle. Though high end talent is vital to a team's success, especially in the playoffs, getting contributions from up and down the lineup is critical to sustain successes over the course of an 82 game season. In this regard, the Flyers are suited to be one of the most complete teams in the NHL, both this season and in the future.