From Austria With Love: Why Michael Raffl Mattered, At Least To Me
(Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)
As I was walking to my Ethics in Journalism class at about 5:15 PM last Monday, I found myself feeling... emotional. My feelings were hard to put in words, but I at least knew their source: the Michael Raffl trade. The trade broke just 30 minutes before my Beginning German II class, and I finally had a chance to sit back and reflect on the move after finishing the article in class (sorry for not being very attentive that day, Professor Benz). I expected it to pass through me quickly like the Erik Gustafsson move. It didn't.
Michael Raffl signed his entry-level deal with the Flyers on September 12, 2013. I was less than two weeks into sixth grade at the time. As I'm writing this, I have just over a month remaining in my freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, the school I dreamed of attending when Raffl put pen to Orange and Black paper. To think that Michael Raffl has been a Flyer for everyday in that span is stunning.
Raffl was never a superstar in Philadelphia, nor was he expected to be. But what Raffl lacked in high-end skill, he made up for in work ethic and versatility. Michael Raffl has played up and done the lineup at center and both wings over the years, all without complaint. At his peak, he was the ultimate Swiss Army knife, looking in place on the first line and fourth line and anywhere in between.
While he wasn't a superstar, it's not like Raffl was a slouch. He put up 21 goals in the 2014-15 season. On some truly mediocre to actually bad teams, Raffl emerged as an elite play-driver, with strong Corsi and Expected Goals numbers hovering around 52-54% at 5-on-5 in first three of four years in the NHL (per Natural Stat Trick). He was also a key penalty killer and often received PP2 minutes. There was nothing Raffl wouldn't or couldn't do.
And if you're a member of a sports team for as long as Raffl was a Flyer, you tend to have some signature moments regardless of your skill level. It was Raffl who scored the very first goal after Ed Snider passed away from cancer in April 2016, lighting the lamp 57 seconds into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. He scored the game-winner on a gorgeous power-move in a wild back-and-forth game against Edmonton at the peak of the Connor McDavid-Brandon Manning beef (still can't believe that was a thing). Raffl scored the game-winner in the season opener this season. He did the same thing last season. Down the stretch in 2017-18, with the Flyers playoff hopes coming down to the wire, he replaced Travis Konecny on the top-line with Raffl. Raff responded with a goal in each of his two games on the line, both Flyers wins, the last of which punched their playoff ticket.
But nothing Raffl did as a Flyer will matter more than his series-winning goal against Montreal in the first round last summer. Winning the Stanley Cup is always the main goal, but as someone who didn't start cheering for the Flyers until 2014 (the end of Raffl's rookie season), I'd never even seen the Flyers win a series. I wanted it to happen so badly. And when Travis Sanheim's shot apparently glanced of Raffl before hitting the post and the back of Carey Price to cross the line, I was so happy (I'm still not convinced the puck actually touched Raffl, but I'll let it slide; if any Flyer in that game deserved a good break, it was him). And when the clock hit zero, with that goal holding up as the game-winner, I was outright euphoric. The Flyers had finally done it!
As I was walking to class, I had an epiphany that I think explains by emotions. Yes, I waited seven seasons to see that series win, and I was very grateful to finally see it happen. But you know who else waited the same amount of time for that first series victory? Raffl. Last year is the only time in his career to this point he's advanced past the first round. I can't imagine how happy he was to have contributed in such a big way to a milestone that seemed so far away during some of the Flyers most disappointing stretches of Raffl's tenure.
Of course, the Cup is still the ultimate goal, even though it's all but a foregone conclusion it won't be coming to Philadelphia. And with that realization comes the fact that Raffl will likely never win a Stanley Cup with the Flyers, barring an unexpected return in a few years as a depth player. Raffl, who was playing hurt, was already being scratched so the Flyers could give players like Tanner Laczynski looks.
It's the right decision to make in a season that's gone so far off the rails, but I'm sure it isn't an easy one for Raffl. Last year he was a part of an outstanding fourth line and finished with more playoff goals than any Flyer not named Scott Laughton. In fact, it was Raffl's departure that made the extension Laughton signed the same day bitter-sweet. Laughts resembles Raffl in a lot of ways: the versatility, the timely scoring touch, the locker room popularity. Monday almost felt like the passing of the torch between those two.
On a larger sense, it also felt like a passing of the torch of my life. Like I said, Raffl's NHL career started when I was in sixth grade. Needless to say, a lot of things changed between September 12, 2013, and this past Monday. Through changing friend groups, graduating high school, and of course, dealing with a pandemic, Michael Raffl remained a Flyer. Michael Raffl wasn't a huge part of my childhood. But he technically was a part of it, hiding behind the shadows of real world issues, the loneliness caused by my two best friends moving in middle school, and top-five in league scoring seasons from line-mates Jakub Voracek (2014-15) and Claude Giroux (2017-18). I'm 19, and like I said earlier, in college; my childhood's over, and I understand that. But there are moments where that statement hits harder than others. This is one of those.
Laughton will likely play a similar role during this next stage of my life. He won't have a direct impact on my decisions and status, of course. But I'll be two years out of college by the time his deal expires, hopefully with a strong job that allows me to keep doing what I love (this) and some more happy Philadelphia and Notre Dame sports memories to boot. But the promise of the future doesn't hinder the disappointment of Raffl's legacy, however small it may be.
There are tons of players, like Michael Raffl, who deserve to win the Stanley Cup. Not all of them do. I hope Raffl wins it eventually. I hope the next batch of those who come to the Flyers win it with us, too. But until then, I'll have an Austrian-Rocket-sized hole in my heart. Eight years is a long time to play the same role, no matter how small or unnoticed it may be. It's hard not to bank a little bit of goodwill during such a tenure. I'll miss you, Rafflcopter. Thanks for (for lack of a better word) everything.