So, Where Do We Go From Here?

I am not mad.  I am disappointed.

I am aware the Flyers are a good team.  I want them to be even better.

Depending on what your expectations and goals were for the Philadelphia Flyers this offseason; fans may agree on many things surrounding this team.  Both sides agree that the final goal of this team has to be the Stanley Cup Championship that this franchise has been missing for the last 45 years.  How the Flyers get there and what next steps are required is where fans are divided.

With the NHL Draft and the start of Free Agency already passed, the Flyers course of action (or lack thereof depending on one’s perspective) has been surprising to say the least.  Robert Hagg has re-signed, Nolan Patrick accepted his qualifying offer, and Justin Braun was brought back as was Brian Elliott. 

Matt Niskanen’s retirement came out of left field for fans.  While Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher was made aware of Niskanen’s decision shortly after being eliminated by the New York Islanders in the postseason, there can be no doubt that the Flyers needed to come up with how to deal with the loss of such an important piece to this roster. Conversation and debate heated up amongst fans about what to do next and how to address this pivotal loss in the offseason.

Signing defenceman Erik Gustafsson to a 1-year deal worth $3 million was a surprising move that caught everyone off guard.

Why was this the move that Chuck Fletcher made?  What does it mean for other players on this roster?  Is this the precursor to a further move?  Is Fletcher just feeling out the market?  Is he waiting to pounce on teams that need to get cap compliant before next season begins?  What exactly is the end game here?  The surprising signing has raised far more questions than it has answered. 

But now we get to the divide.

There is a vocal segment of this fan base that believed that action was not necessary this offseason as the Flyers had a breakthrough season in 2019-20 under the unique backdrop of playing bubble hockey in the midst of a global pandemic.

I am not one of those people.

Before calling me negative and telling me that this Flyers team is a good team (which I already know and have acknowledged already); allow me the courtesy of explaining why another group of Flyers fans have been disappointed in the Flyers offseason thus far.  While it is true that the Flyers had a successful season by winning their first playoff round since 2012, this offseason of inaction to this point has left a lack of clarity with regards to the trajectory that this club and it’s management team are taking in pursuit of what should be the ultimate goal of bringing a championship to the city of Philadelphia.

For those who are in favor of the lack of activity this offseason, the path to the Stanley Cup is clear – keep the status quo.  The Flyers should and will get better through age and experience alone on the backs of further development from Travis Konecny, Joel Farabee, Travis Sanheim, Phillipe Myers, and most critically goaltender Carter Hart.  To this segment of the fanbase, improvement will come through further development and even more patience as the younger members of this team take the reins from the older, more established players.

This is especially the case as we are now in a flat cap situation with spending capped at $81.5 million dollars for the foreseeable future.  Add to that the spectre of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, and the protection of players and decisions on who to leave exposed for possible selection absolutely complicates things even further.

For proponents of the ‘stay the course’ plan of action (or inaction as it were), the lack of clarity in the future for the salary cap, the expansion draft, and the upcoming contract negotiations with players like Sanheim, Hart, Myers, and Couturier make plotting a course for the future of this franchise a veritable minefield full of danger and potential pitfalls.  With all the uncertainty, why make any moves when the Flyers may make the wrong one?  Why change when we are happy with the players that we have and have grown attached to them (especially as most people in this camp are relatively newer fans of the Flyers)?

To those fans, I say you cannot let fear dictate your plan or course of action and force you into a position where doing nothing is the only option.

While there is a temptation to play it safe, that decision has consequences as well that the franchise has to deal with.  It raises other questions that once again are not answered by doing nothing.  How confident are we that as constructed this Flyers team can contend for a Stanley Cup in the near future with the current roster as is?  How are holes in this roster going to be filled?  What about players that have no real role on this team that are eating away cap space and roster positions?

Even with Chuck Fletcher opting for the ‘stay the course’ option, the sudden retirement of Matt Niskanen should have jarred the Flyers into some form of action.  Niskanen had a very good regular season with the Flyers and was a massive addition in that he helped Ivan Provorov bounce back from an off year the season prior.  With Niskanen gone, the Flyers now have a massive hole on the right side of their top pairing with the only plan seeming to be to promote Phillipe Myers to fill the void.

I do like Myers, however promoting a player who is 23 years old and has only 71 games of experience to lean on does not seem to be the way to go.  After all, if Chuck Fletcher believed in ‘stay the course’ why would he replace a veteran who gave Provorov the ability to find and play his game with a young player who is still trying to find his role in the NHL?  Why break up the pairing of Sanheim and Myers who performed very well as a tandem together and risk putting Myers in a situation and role for which he may not be ready?  Should the promotion of Myers happen (and this seems very likely), there is now a hole on the second pair that needs to be filled as Sanheim now needs a partner.  Filling a hole by creating another hole elsewhere on the defense does nothing to solve that issue (and can potentially create a ripple effect by throwing all of the pairings out of sync).

Enter Erik Gustafsson.

The Flyers signed Gustafsson to a 1-year $3 million AAV to add depth to the blueline and address any potential shortfalls.  The former Blackhawk had a career high 17 goals and 60 points with Chicago in the 2018-2019 season.  The Flyers are banking on Gustafsson somehow returning to form (his next best NHL season was 6 goals and 29 points in 2019-2020 split between Chicago and the Calgary Flames).  The most optimistic of fans have already placed Gustafsson on the top powerplay unit as the solution to solving the woes that the Flyers have had while on the man advantage.

Sound familiar?  The Flyers already had this same type of player already on their roster and his name is Shayne Gostisbehere.

Shayne Gostisbehere is emblematic of the confusion surrounding the direction of this team.  Long hailed as a powerplay specialist even though statistics over the last few years do nothing to substantiate those claims, fans of Gostisbehere continue to cling to his 65 point campaign in 2017-2018 as proof that the Flyers have misused the player and not utilized his potential.  This group of fans continue to claim that injuries have hampered Gostisbehere’s production and despite that he has come nowhere close to being a difference maker on the ice (with the exception of the 65 point campaign as well as his rookie season) even though he has been given multiple opportunities to be a fixture in the lineup.

The signing of Gustafsson while having Gostisbehere on this roster is befuddling to every Flyers fan.  It is no secret that the Flyers were shopping Gostisbehere, but it is unclear how close the Flyers were to dumping the remaining 3 years with a $4.5 million AAV.  Continuing to have this player on the roster and signing Gustafsson makes no sense whatsoever and demonstrates a lack of forethought into the future of this defense corps.  Add to that the re-signing of Braun, Hagg, and Friedman to new deals this offseason, and the logjam at the defense position becomes a hindrance to this team moving forward. 

Even if the Flyers could have traded Gostisbehere for a pittance of a return, the cap space that would have been freed up would have allowed for Chuck Fletcher to be more creative and would have weaponized the cap space to much greater effect.  In other words, even if the Flyers got a late round pick for Gostisbehere the low return would have been mitigated by the return of taking advantage of cap strapped teams in the form of adding players off of their rosters to fill holes and getting compensated with picks or prospects by taking on less attractive salaries.

To be clear, I don’t think the Flyers are in a position where picks or prospects would make a tangible difference into turning this team into a cup contender.  However, taking advantage of teams struggling to be cap compliant would be.  Some fans love acquiring picks and prospects (I do too), while others wanted to fill holes with proven NHL players to make this team better (I also fall into this category as well).  Either way, it was imperative that Gostisbehere and his contract had to be moved during this offseason.  Failing to do this one move out of fear that somehow Gostisbehere would magically regain his career best form is absolute lunacy.

Even if the organization believes in Ghost, signing Gustafsson is at best a sideways move.  Adding Gustafsson to the depth chart with similar attributes as Gostisbehere also does nothing to make Ghost a more attractive trade target nor does it move the needle in terms of making the team better.  Critics might say that it is unfair and premature to judge Gustafsson as he has not yet played a game for the Flyers.  I agree, but whether or not Gustafsson performs this upcoming season is immaterial to helping the Flyers become a contender.

Let me explain.

If Gustafsson does not carve out a role on the powerplay and muster up 30 or 35 points, the Flyers just won’t re-sign him when his deal expires at the end of the upcoming season.  But it does mean that the Flyers experimented with a player and with it not working out, entering into the 2021-2022 season with questions on the blueline still lingering in addition to having to sign Travis Sanheim to a new deal.

If the Gustafsson signing works swimmingly and the player regains his offense with the Flyers, the team has to decide whether or not he should be re-signed (to a deal with an increase in term as well as dollar amount from the point of view of the player) and the Flyers are put into a precarious position with regards to Travis Sanheim.  Perhaps this makes the idea of trading Sanheim more palatable to a fanbase seemingly resistant to trading anyone; but regardless it does not address turning this team into a contender and in fact creates the veritable minefield that some fans and management wanted to avoid with Gustafsson, Sanheim, Ghost, and others vying for limited spots on in the lineup. It also is unclear what effect losing Niskanen will have on Provorov who is undoubtedly the teams most important blueliner and arguably second in importance to only Carter Hart in terms of the team meeting success and being valuable to the franchise.  

Maybe Chuck Fletcher is being patient knowing that as the season approaches, teams will have to shuffle their rosters and make deals with teams that have cap space available.  Maybe being patient and letting unproven players or players with substantial question marks vie for roster spots will allow for some holes to be filled from within.  But does that mean that the players filling those holes will do so tremendously successfully?  Does filling the hole with a placeholder mean that the issues currently on this roster will just come up again and again until the hole is actually filled appropriately? 

To me that is the most damning indictment of Chuck Fletcher’s offseason thus far.  Last season he displayed the Midas touch by bringing in Hayes, Niskanen, and Braun to shore up the lineup and make the team perform beyond expectations.  It is clear that Fletcher has a knack for identifying talent and figuring out how that talent fits on the roster that he is in charge of.  So why leave it to chance?  Why rely on the castoffs of other teams who are in need of freeing up space instead of actively identifying the players that would make this team better now?  Why not exercise that control rather than relying on the General Managers of other teams to hold the cards?

Maybe I am off base here and need to let Chuck Fletcher play the cards that he has been dealt.  Maybe the team’s ultimate plan is to be patient and allow for the experiences gained this season to translate into further development and future success down the road.

I just don’t see it the same way and think that maintaining the status quo actually does not alleviate the risks associated with making poor roster decisions and turning this team into the Stanley Cup contender that all fans want this team to be.

To close, I just want to point out the philosophy of the Las Vegas Golden Knights and how they have approached building their franchise from scratch into a perennial Stanley Cup contender thus far in their short history.  With the signing of Alex Pietrangelo as a free agent this offseason, the comments made by GM Kelly McCrimmon speak volumes about the philosophy of the Golden Knights and how they operate.  In the press conference unveiling Pietrangelo McCrimmon said,

“When we looked at opportunities to improve our team, we had what we believed was an incredibly rare opportunity to add a defenceman, an elite player, like Alex to our team…We projected what a contract would be for Alex and then at the end of that process asked ourselves, ‘Does this make us a better team? Does it improve our chances of winning?’ We believe quite strongly that it does.”

He went on to say that the organization also felt this way when Vegas acquired Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline in 2019.  The rationale was that players like Stone and Pietrangelo are very difficult to acquire, and when opportunities present themselves to get a player of that stature the team should attempt to make that happen.  In other words, the organization values action to actively improve their team and ultimately help their pursuit of a Stanley Cup.

I know that the Vegas situation is much different than the Flyers situation.  But the ultimate philosophy of improving the team and getting players like the aforementioned Stone and Pietrangelo when they become available is paramount to building a winning culture.  Yes, it cost them players like Erik Brannstrom and Nate Schmidt in the process (as well as a yet undetermined player to make the Golden Knights cap compliant for the upcoming season) but being a contender comes with risks.  Whether it gets Vegas to the sport’s ultimate prize remains to be seen, but fans of that club know that their management has and will continue to do their utmost to put a very competitive product on the ice.

Conversely, those that advocate for the ‘stay the course’ model point out that the current Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning won the ultimate prize on the backs of homegrown drafted talent.  They point to the teams success with Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, Point, and Vasilievsky as being comparable to the model that the Flyers are trying to replicate with Konecny, Provorov, Couturier, and Hart.  This also is gross misrepresentation as Stamkos and Hedman were first overall draft picks that the Lightning were able to surround with talent while the highest the Flyers were able to draft were second overall picks Nolan Patrick and James van Riemsdyk (who is on his second stint with the club).

This shouldn’t have to base an either or philosophy.  Still, the core of this team is not at the same level of Tampa nor do the Flyers have the ability to attract free agents the way that Las Vegas has.  Rather, the Flyers should be making decisions on which members of this team should be sticking around and identifying players that will make that group better going forward. 

Yes, there is an expansion draft and a flat cap to deal with and it makes things more difficult.  But it shouldn’t make it impossible.  Chuck Fletcher is experienced enough that he should have been better equipped to deal with the retirement of Matt Niskanen and the hindrances of the expansion draft and the flat cap world.  It must also be said that the latter two are affecting every other team in the NHL as well.  Coming up with reasons for inaction will not be the saving grace for this team in my opinion.  Signing Erik Gustafsson does nothing to address the needs of this team either.  It reeks of a lack of direction for this upcoming season where clarity and decisiveness are needed. 

After all, you can’t make the Gustafsson signing and argue that maintaining the status quo of this roster is the way to go.  You can’t go into an offseason with trade rumors swirling around Gostisbehere, not move him for whatever reason, and claim that he is an important piece for this team moving forward.  You can’t go through this offseason and have extensive discussions with the Winnipeg Jets regarding Patrik Laine and claim that this team is good enough as is moving forward. 

Everything that the Flyers have done (or more accurately not done) is more indicative of a team that is unsure of what the best way forward is.  At this critical juncture, the fans, the players, and the organization should have a clear idea of how this franchise sees itself and how it plans to take the next step in its evolution into a contender.  The signing of Gustafsson does nothing to assure this fanbase about the course and trajectory that this team is on and neither does the ambiguity about what this team is trying to accomplish. 

Fletcher needs to decide which path the Flyers need to be on to take that next step.  Trying to both change and stay the same is not a viable strategy or philosophy for success.

I still am left with the unanswered question, ‘Where do we go from here, Chuck’?    

***

Do you agree with the article?  Do you disagree?

Feel free to leave any comments or feedback via twitter or at www.brotherlypuck.com.  .

Until next time from BrotherlyPuck.com,

I remain,

Manny Benevides

@mannybenevides

photo credit tfp.com

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