The Philadelphia Flyers defense was put under the microscope during the offseason when general manager Chuck Fletcher went to work overhauling what had been a very stale and underwhelming group. With additions in Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen and subtractions in Robert Hagg and Phil Myers, things have gone surprisingly well for the corps in 2021.
There are many moving parts when it comes to the future of the Flyers defense. From expiring contracts to young guns knocking at the door, the 2022-23 group has the opportunity to look substantially different than they do this season. There are some major questions to ask first.
Does Ristolainen re-sign?
The fate of Rasmus Ristolainen will give a look into the mindset of the organization more than just about any other player not named Claude Giroux. Fletcher gave up a first and second round pick along with Robert Hagg to acquire Ristolainen last offseason and he’s been a good addition to the lineup. If they flip him at the trade deadline, do they get the same package back? If the organization still feels the need to remain competitive don’t they just have to invest more time, money and possible assets into finding a replacement? At this point, unless the Flyers are intent on a teardown, which seems unlikely, keeping Ristolainen at a 5×5-6×6 deal might be what’s best for the team.
Do Cam York or Egor Zamula make the jump?
The Flyers aren’t exactly deep in the prospect pool anymore, but they do have two enticing options currently with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in 21-year-old Cam York and soon-to-be 22-year-old Egor Zamula. Both are left-handed defenseman, which complicates their call-up process, but it could work out well for the Flyers. They both have one year left on their entry-level contracts, so the team can invest a little more cash on the right side if they so choose. There’s a good chance at least one will be ready to make the jump to the NHL next season.
Does Travis Sanheim stick around?
After signing a two-year, $9.35 million ($4.67 aav) contract extension last summer, Sanheim has emerged as a decent defenseman during the season. He has to be feeling the pressure from York and Zamula, who are both breathing down his neck for a potential roster spot. Sanheim’s $4.6 cap hit could be an easy option to deal away if they are in need of a few extra bucks to address other holes in the lineup and could easily be replaced by one of the younger guys. He’ll have the rest of the season to prove he can stay on his improved pace or he may be on the hot seat entering the offseason.
What to do with Ryan Ellis?
What seemed like the crown jewel of the offseason really hasn’t been seen yet in Philadelphia. Ellis, whose injury history has been well documented, has missed all but four Flyers games this season. If he’s only reliable for 40-ish games a year, he can’t be considered an option on a nightly basis, but instead a luxury that will show up for a couple weeks at a time, which isn’t great when he’s basically considered your top defenseman. He’s under contract for five more years at a $6.25 million cap hit, so he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but the Flyers need to do a better job of having a “plan B” incase he’s nowhere to be found next season too, because someone like Justin Braun just hasn’t been good enough in an increased role, despite being very good in limited minutes.
Potential Free Agent Additions
The free agent market won’t be providing much help this summer. The headliner of the crop of defenseman may be the Flyers very own Rasmus Ristolainen. Otherwise it’s either a bunch of veterans past their prime like Kris Letang and PK Subban or less enticing faces in the crowd like Colin Miller, Justin Schultz and Olli Maatta. Focusing solely on the righties, because the Flyers have an abundance of in-house options on the left, cuts an already thin herd down quite a bit.
John Klingberg- UFA
In terms of finding a 2RHD on free agency, Klingberg is the best chance they’ll have to find a suitable replacement for Ristolainen if they so choose. Klingberg, who is a year older than Ristolainen, has been serving as the Dallas Stars’ top righty for years and an offensive track record hovering around the 50-point plateau during full seasons.
Josh Manson- UFA
If there’s a defenseman out there that would be a prototypical Flyer, current Anaheim Duck Josh Manson is your guy. He’ll turn 31 years old at the start of the 2022-23 season and is an eight-year NHL veteran with about 500 games under his belt as season’s end. He’s a big, mean, physical stay at home defenseman who can play second-pair minutes. He’d be a solid replacement for Justin Braun and someone who can step up if Ellis ends up on the shelf again.
Ethan Bear- RFA
At the risk of becoming a meme at the mercy of the Hurricanes social media team, Ethan Bear may be an intriguing option if the Flyers are feeling frisky to enter the restricted free agent pool. He’ll turn 25 during the offseason and is still a work in progress on the blue line. He’s a bit nondescript when it comes to his overall game, but as a third pair option, he’d hang just fine in the Flyers lineup.
Below are two options, the likely, run-of-the-mill corps that will likely get deployed and the over-the-top lineup that would be way too much fun to actually exist in Philly.
Ivan Provorov – Ryan Ellis
Travis Sanheim – Rasmus Ristolainen
Cam York – Josh Manson
For all intents and purposes the defense, especially the top four, will return in one piece. Cam York makes the roster by default with the mission of playing well enough to dethrone Sanheim of the second pair during the season, and his partner on the third line currently being filled by Josh Manson, but even that may be too high when it comes to predicting who the team will add, though the thought process is that when Ellis eventually finds himself on the sidelines, Manson can move up the lineup with more ease than other options. Don’t think it’d be surprising to see someone like Erik Gudbranson, or even a returning Justin Braun down there instead. If Sanheim and Ristolainen can stay at the level they’re at this season, and Ellis can actually play in a few games every now and again, it should at least be a semi-competent defense corps.
Ivan Provorov – John Klingberg
Cam York – Ryan Ellis
Egor Zamula – Rasmus Ristolainen
The Flyers have a lot of holes to fix this summer, mainly up front, but this approach does at least give them a trade chip in Travis Sanheim to work with. John Klingberg give the Flyers a more reliable (albeit not an ironman) top pair defenseman to lineup alongside Provorov so the entire defense doesn’t collapse when Ellis inevitably ends up on IR again. That means Ellis can slide down the lineup and use his few and far between healthy games to mentor stud Cam York and Ristolainen can be deployed in favorable third pair minutes with talented youngster Egor Zamula.
How does the money work on this one? Well that would need to be expanded upon elsewhere in the lineup. Clearing Sanheim’s $4.6 contract would go a long way to covering the cost of Ristolainen’s extension, York and Zamula both in their ELC’s saves a pretty penny, but there’s a good chance that Klingberg gets at least a 7x$7 on the open market. It’ll be a tight squeeze, but nothing overly impossible for the team to manage, at least into next season.
First and foremost this offseason the Flyers will have to decide whether or not they attempt a rebuild or not. Right now, it’s pretty safe to say they opt to stay competitive so what will Fletcher deem the problem? A serious makeover at forward seems to be the most pressing need, but a smart upgrade or two on defense can push an already good group over the top. Ellis, even if he is a borderline elite defenseman, is unreliable when it comes to health, which is ultimately the issue causing the most chaos this season. If they take the “expected” route, making a serious addition like Josh Manson on the right side is crucial to save their own ship just incase Ellis misses months of action again. And if he does manage to stay healthy, it’s an added benefit to the lineup to have serious depth.
Elsewhere, Cam York will probably make the jump and replace Keith Yandle as the third pair lefty and he’ll have all of next season to prove he has a bright future playing behind Provorov and Sanheim, and then a decision on Sanheim’s future happens when his contract expires in 2023. At that point York could move up to the second pair and Zamula can make the full-time jump on the third pair. Even though Sanheim is as streaky a player as they come, pulling the rip cord on him and letting two untested, albeit very talented, rookies replace him by committee may not be the best option especially if the Flyers are looking to stay competitive.
Unless the Flyers collapse entirely and are way out of a playoff spot come the trade deadline in March, it seems reasonable to assume the Rasmus Ristolainen isn’t going anywhere after his contract expires. He’s been a perfectly fine player for most of the season and, as noted, is probably the crown jewel of the righties on the free agent market. Unless the Flyers make another massive trade to replace him, it may just be easier and cheaper keeping him around.
The potential routes the Flyers could take when it comes to shaping their defense for next season seems limitless. We didn’t even get into trade possibilities here. Though with limited money and a lackluster group of forwards to deal with as well, Chuck Fletcher may put little thought into a serious shakeup on the blueline, but rather a few well calculated moves and additions to get the most out of his roster both next season and for years to come.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: nhl.com / prohockeyrumors.com / pressofatlanticcity.com