A Prison of His Own Making

Admittedly, I am not a big fan of the Beatles.  I mean they were certainly talented and have a place in music history, but their music just never did it for me. I know that statement alone will probably garner a ton of negative reaction.

Perusing through my Twitter timeline, there are a lot of reactions about the Flyers season thus far that does not have the near universal reaction as the statement above.  After all, the Flyers are 3-2-1 after six games and have banked 7 points out of a possible 12.  Plus it has to be mentioned that both Sean Couturier and Phillipe Myers are out due to injury and will be missing at least the next few weeks. 

So, it sounds like everything is going according to plan right?

But as I sat here writing this article and reflecting on the state of the Flyers, the Beatles song Help! came out of my speakers.  As I listed to the first bit of the song, the lyrics screamed out to me as a perfect euphemism for the Flyers season.  For those that are unfamiliar, the opening lyrics of the song are as follows:

Help!  I need somebody

Help!  Not just anybody

Help!  You know I need someone

Help!

Yes, the record is good (I’m talking about the Flyers here and not the Beatles).  But to be perfectly honest, their play has been sporadic, inconsistent, and far from impressive.  Even in their 3-0 shutout win against the Buffalo Sabres, I felt that the Flyers still lacked urgency and failed to push the play against a Sabres team that humiliated them by a score of 6-1 the night before.  The score was flattering to say the least.  Unless you watched the game, you would have been oblivious to the fact that Brian Elliott was easily the best player on the ice for either team as he stopped all 40 shots he faced.

The Flyers can score goals thus far in the early going; but they seem incapable of outshooting their opponents, establishing the forechecking style that paved the way to their success last season, and stringing together more than one period of solid consistent play at a time.  Pressure on the opposition cannot be sustained for any length of time, and much more often then not the goaltender in net has been the deciding factor of if the Flyers will take home any points.

The real concern is the team’s lack of toughness and the play of the defense.  After Matt Niskanen decided to call it a career during the offseason, Flyers General Manager Chuck Fletcher decided to stick with the group that he had adding only defenseman Erik Gustafsson to a one-year deal worth $3 million dollars.

Fletcher made it clear during his press conferences and media availability that Gustafsson was not a replacement for Matt Niskanen.  Taking it a step further, Fletcher stated that no defenseman was available that would have been an adequate replacement for what Niskanen brought to the Flyers lineup during the 2019-2020 season.  He also stated that Gustafsson was not identical in his playing style to Shayne Gostisbehere and provided a different skill set than that provided by the former 65-point defensemen who the Flyers were rumored to be actively shopping. 

Was Fletcher providing cover for his new signing?  It certainly seems that way as Gustafsson has been exactly what many pundits have identified him to be: an offensive defenseman who is a good skater and puck mover that can play the point on the powerplay but struggles in the defensive zone.  Different from Shayne Gostisbehere you say?  But I digress.  No defensemen that could replace Niskanen you say?  Well, Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, T.J. Brodie, Zdeno Chara and Nate Schmidt among others have found themselves onto new rosters during the offseason.  Yes, I understand that there were circumstances working against the Flyers in signing all of the players mentioned but again…I digress.     

Fletcher made the decision to go forward into this season with the same group that struggled in the playoff bubble at the behest of a portion of this fan base that believed that improvement would naturally occur on this roster due to an increase of experience and further maturity and development of the younger players on the squad.  The expectation was that this group would be fighting for the East Division title and the general consensus around the league was that the Flyers are to be considered a contender.

Others (myself included), thought that the offseason needed to address the hole that Niskanen left on the back end.  Also of concern was the fact that although the Flyers had depth in the forward positions and a young stud of a goaltender, the team was pushed around in the playoffs by both the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Islanders.  Sandpaper was needed and it wasn’t going to be purchased at Home Depot or Lowes, but rather addressed through free agency.

Fletcher did not make any changes to address adequately either the back end or the toughness.  The result is that the Flyers appear to be a team that is overly reliant on their goaltender to bail them out of games and seem incapable of matching opposition teams physicality.  In other words, the book is now out on how to play the Philadelphia Flyers due to the fact that Chuck Fletcher chose to ignore the issues that are inhibiting this team from taking the next step into contention.  The Flyers are not going to sneak up on teams this year and as a result the opposition has read the book that the key to controlling games against the Flyers is to aggressively pressure their defensemen and to challenge the Flyers physically.

So far, that playbook has been used to great effect by both the Sabres and the Bruins.  You can bet that every team in the division will be playing the exact same way to frustrate and stymie the Flyers.  Thus far, the Flyers are unwilling to match opponents physically and as a result teams are able to control the neutral zone, set up in the offensive zone, and create dangerous scoring opportunities with little resistance.  Adding to the problem is the complete confusion that every Flyers defenseman not named Ivan Provorov seems to be experiencing.  Travis Sanheim continues to not use his size both against the boards or in front of the net.  Justin Braun seems to be a step slower than he was in the playoff bubble (if that is even possible).  Robert Hagg has carelessly iced the puck while under no pressure.

And then there is Erik Gustafsson.

Gustafsson has been by far the worst defender by a country mile.  He came exactly as advertised.  He can get pucks on net in the offensive zone while the Flyers are on the powerplay, but he has absolutely no concept of what defensemen are supposed to do while they are in their own zone.  When the puck is on his stick behind his own blue line, Gustafsson has been guilty of careless giveaways thereby putting his teammates out of position and leaving the goaltender at the mercy of opposing forwards.  When he does not have the puck, Gustafsson seems unclear about positioning and his defensive awareness has been atrocious.  Pucks have gone through his legs, his stick has not been active in trying to disrupt plays, and he is constantly out of position. 

As far as I am concerned, the Erik Gustafsson experiment should be over.  It may be harsh as we are only six games into the season but without stabilizing the defensive pairs, Gustafsson will only be a liability as this point for a team that needs to commit to team defense and get back to basics.  Even with that, the hole left by Niskanen is likely to be a continuing problem as the season continues forward.  At least Fletcher was right in stating that Gustafsson was not a replacement for Niskanen.

With the injuries mounting though, it is unlikely that Gustafsson comes out of the lineup anytime soon.  In fact, the latest reinforcements for a defense that lacks physicality and is poor in it’s own end is Shayne Gostisbehere who is practicing in Philadelphia after being placed in COVID-19 protocols and should be ready to play the New Jersey Devils this week.  Surely, Gostisbehere is exactly the remedy for what this team needs! Note the sarcasm in the previous sentence.

Now the Flyers have the possibility of having both Gustafsson and Gostisbehere in the lineup at the same time.  Opposition forwards are drooling.  The fact that Gostisbehere is being looked to as the knight in shining armor that is going to rescue this team is comical. 

So it all leads back to the Beatles as most music aficionados would argue.  In terms of Help! what other options are there?

I am actually surprised that Nate Prosser hasn’t been activated from the taxi squad.  He is a veteran defenseman who has played 354 NHL games (all but one game with the Minnesota Wild).  There is also Samuel Morin who absolutely fits the bill in terms of size and aggressiveness, but has been recently converted to being a left winger and is coming back from his second ACL surgery.  If the injuries continue to pile up, fans will begin clamoring for 6’4 Yegor Zamula to be inserted into the lineup.  Although he certainly plays the game with snarl and has size, Zamula barely tips the scales at 180 lbs and is most certainly suited for a season of AHL seasoning.

Again, the lyrics of the Beatles song Help! are telling; especially the part about needing somebody but not just anybody.

So, what about a trade?

Although there were whispers of defensemen being available in the offseason, I am very doubtful that Fletcher pulls the trigger on a deal to help.  After all, Flyers Twitter provided immense cover and excuses for Chuck Fletcher to continue with the status quo during the offseason.  Bringing in someone via the trade market was not ideal because of both the flat salary cap (with the Flyers having to sign key players in the coming years) and the expansion draft handcuffing the teams ability to protect its core players.  T.J. Brodie was apparently pursued by the Flyers with a contract offer of 4 years at $20 million dollars ($5 million AAV), but the Toronto Maple Leafs eventually signed him as they included a no trade clause in their offer.  The other free agent defenseman were either too old (Chara), too expensive (Pietrangelo), or not a fit (Krug, Schmidt, and others).  

Sections of this fan base provided every reason under the sun for Fletcher to go into this season with essentially the exact same roster.  What has become clear, is that not effectively replacing Niskanen has left a gaping hole for opposition teams to exploit on a nightly basis.  Outside of Provorov’s pairing, everywhere else on this defense corps is unstable and in a constant state of disarray.  Even before the injury to Myers, the Flyers still did not look like the contenders that everyone was expecting from this team.  The offense against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening two games masked the deficiencies although people who truly watched the gameplay and not the box score could see that the issues were there.

In my opinion a trade is unlikely for many reasons.

Firstly, the Flyers don’t just need anyone to come in and stabilize this defense.  They need a proven commodity.  Those types of players are just not available on the trade market this early in the season.  Chuck Fletcher squandered his opportunity to make a tangible difference to this roster during the offseason when all of the aforementioned players listed above (and more) were available.  The fact remains that he chose to not address Niskanen’s retirement for a multitude of reasons (or excuses), and now that inaction has put the Flyers in the position that they are now a mere six games into the season.  That is solely on him.  His responsibility is to place the best possible players onto the roster while managing the salary cap in order to make the Flyers as competitive as possible.  He failed to do that in the offseason when players were readily available to be signed, and as of now players of that calibur are just not available.

Secondly, the Flyers were in a position of strength in the offseason with about $14.9 million in cap space and some decisions to make on the roster.  While other clubs had to jockey for positioning to either free up cap space or become cap compliant, Fletcher had the privilege of having some semblance of wiggle room to make a potential deal.  Not only did he not use the opportunity to create even more flexibility by trading Shayne Gostisbehere and his $4.5 million AAV contract to create more room to land a more prominent impact player, he completely and foolishly rolled the dice on signing Erik Gustafsson to a $3 million dollar deal that effectively quashed the Flyers salary cap flexibility.  Once again, decisions made by Chuck Fletcher have put the Flyers in the position that they now find themselves in.

Thirdly, the rest of the league has been watching the Flyers struggles early on.  That means that if a deal were to present itself, teams will see the Flyers as being in a position of weakness and will therefore have to pay a premium to make a move happen.  That in and of itself is a big if.  Due to COVID-19 restrictions between the Canadian and American governments, any trade that transpires between teams from those respective countries must observe a 14-day quarantine prior to joining their new club.  It doesn’t make a deal impossible (as evidenced by the Winnipeg Jets trading Patrik Laine to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Pierre-Luc Dubois) but it is a hurtle that has to be taken into consideration.  After all a team that has been struggling defensively as much as the Flyers have been will have to extend their misery for another two weeks while waiting for reinforcements.  The teams in the East Division will also be unlikely to come to the Flyers aid as they are in direct competition with the Flyers for a playoff spot.  Division rivals will be extremely unlikely to provide a hand to the Flyers unless the trade is heavily lopsided in their favor.  As a result, half the league right off the top is in a position to not do a trade with the Flyers which significantly reduces the prospective players that can help the Flyers get out of the jam that they are in.  Once again, Chuck Fletcher is in a difficult position that he has the unenviable task of finding his way out of.

Lastly, I have to question the will of Chuck Fletcher to want to make a deal especially at this juncture.  He emphasized repeatedly in press conferences that the bubble and the post-season were “small sample sizes” and that judgement of this team should not be based on those experiences.  Seeing that we are only six games into this current season, the term small sample size would likely be defined similarly in Fletcher’s mind.  To abruptly change course from a ‘go with what we got’ attitude to a ‘we need external help now’ would be very out of character for Fletcher himself and would be very confusing to the fanbase. 

I feel that it is extremely likely that Fletcher continues to preach patience and give his players the opportunity to turn things around.  He and many fans will point out correctly that injuries and bad luck have played a major role in the season shaping up as it has thus far.  Critics are also correct to point out that the Flyers did not look convincing in defeating the Penguins to open the season, and that the team reverting to its playoff form was an entirely predictable outcome due to the lack of roster movement in the offseason to address both toughness as well as the concerns this team has defensively.

Whether it was out of stubbornness, excessive patience, misjudging the talent on the current roster, or fear of making the wrong move; Fletcher is now at this point watching his team struggle immensely to the shock and horror of a passionate fan base.  The team is in this position due to Fletchers own actions (and ironically enough inaction).  It is incumbent upon him as the team’s General Manager to figure out a way to turn this ship around.

The current mess that we are witnessing was not an inevitability.  There were ample opportunities and free cap space available to improve this team and to try to take another step forward to contend for a Stanley Cup.  Those opportunities have evaporated and where this team is now at the moment is a prison of Fletcher’s own making.  He is responsible for the course of action that was taken, and now he is responsible for finding a way out.

That is his job.

It is hard to imagine improvement though without some form of action.  Fletcher has already done things his way.  Yet here we are.  As the Beatles song Help! says:

I never needed anybody’s help in any way

But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured

Hopefully this team can turn things around to show improvement and live up to all of our expectations.  If they can’t, here is hoping that Fletcher has a plan and does what is needed to right the ship.

Until then, fans will continue to call for

Help!  I need somebody

Help!  Not just anybody

Help!  You know I need someone

Help!         

***

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: buckscountycouriertimes.com

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