Is There a Viable ‘Middle Path’ for the Flyers?

The offseason is in full swing and the Philadelphia Flyers have addressed their coaching vacancy with the hiring of John Tortorella.  With the 2022 NHL Entry Draft coming up as the next major event on the offseason calendar, questions remain about the direction of the franchise and how much change Chuck Fletcher is both willing and able to make to the current roster.

The Flyers are quickly coming to the proverbial ‘Fork in the Road’ where decisions will be made that will provide more insight on the direction of the team going forward.  There has been much debate about the efficacy of a ‘rebuild’ versus a ‘retool’ among fans, and there are both positives and negatives for either road that the team ultimately chooses.  While the long-term success of a rebuild seems like the more sensible approach, the Flyers are facing pressures to win now with fans who have soured on the failures of the Hextall era and ownership that wants to see a consistently packed Wells Fargo Center.  For all intents and purposes, Fletcher and Dave Scott have effectively squashed the idea of a rebuild of any kind and have signalled and stated their intention of returning to playoff contention this coming season.

With the usage of the phrase ‘aggressive retool’ in the midseason press conference, Fletcher and Scott seemed to indicate that the Flyers would seek immediate help via trade and free agency to transform the fortunes of the spiralling franchise.  There still seems to be confusion and skepticism of what the aggressive retool actually means and whether or not it can truly be a viable option for where this team is at currently.  Targeting players like Johnny Gaudreau or Filip Forsberg will infuse skill and goals into the lineup, but the cost is sure to be very high to attract either of these free agents to Philadelphia.  In addition, there is the critique that the signing of expensive players in free agency will only further handcuff a team that does not have that much salary cap room to begin with (currently $5,118, 560 as of writing as per Cap Friendly).  Granted, there are moves that can be made to get more cap space like finding a way to trade James van Riemsdyk ($7 million AAV), buying out Oskar Lindblom ($3 million AAV), and potentially making trades to free up cap space.

Then there is the specter of Ryan Ellis and his $6.5 million dollar cap hit and the uncertainty of his availability this coming season.  While the Flyers can and will put Ellis on LTIR if he in fact is not ready to go at the start of the season, the fact remains that the upcoming season really hinges on a healthy Ellis to partner with Ivan Provorov to increase the chances for the success that this team craves.  If Ellis’ availability is in question (and it should be), that would indicate that the highest priority for the offseason would be to get a defenseman for the top pair.  Neglecting to prioritize this position could once again derail the Flyers hopes for the 2022-23 season even with a healthy return from Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes.  With all of the lack of clarity regarding Ellis, there are also questions abound about what the aggressive retool would look like and the chances for success of this course of action. 

Is it simply a case of choosing one path or the other?  Are the Flyers forced to decide to go all in with a full-scale rebuild or all out with an aggressive retool?  Is there a third way that can straddle the most appealing aspects of both options while providing a cogent, meaningful, and doable approach that can please fans, management, and ownership?

One of the central teachings of Buddhism is the finding of the ‘Middle Path’ which seeks to avoid the extremes in order to seek a more just and righteous path based on Buddha’s teaching of the Eightfold Path to find the end of suffering.  Here is the idea of a ‘Middle Path’ that could potentially be the way forward for alleviating much of the suffering and frustration surrounding this fanbase and those in charge of charting the way forward.

The Flyers’ ‘Middle Path‘  

So how would the ‘Middle Path’ work?

The Flyers’ Middle Path plan involves changing the roster to reignite fan interest in the product while also attempting to prioritize cap space and trying to build the foundation for this franchise for both the present and the future.  It is a pragmatic attempt to please the ‘we want change to win now’ portion of the fanbase with an eye on trying to bring in young players that can grow into roles on the team while Tortorella implements a new culture while supplementing those young players with pieces from the 2022 and 2023 NHL Entry Drafts.

Yes, it is ambitious.  But desperate times call for desperate measures, and both halves of this fan base hates either of the popular approaches then why not propose something different?

To start, the obvious first move this offseason is to try to shed the 1-year remaining on James van Riemsdyk’s contract.  At a $7 million cap hit, that might be easier said then done but he gets paid about $5 million in terms of actual salary and could be used to help a team hit the salary cap floor.  In particular, the Arizona Coyotes and the Seattle Kraken look to be the teams that could be interested in making such a deal.  Seattle needs any kind of offense to try to improve in their sophomore season, and Arizona has the space to get the deal done.  In both cases, I would be extremely hesitant to attach any assets with van Riemsdyk but there may have to be some wiggle room here as this has to be the first domino to fall for the Flyers offseason.  Ideally, the Flyers could retain salary to help facilitate a deal; but only if the whole salary is shed then some type of draft asset could be included (perhaps the 2023 4th Round pick that Edmonton traded to the Flyers in the Derrick Brassard trade deadline deal).

With that salary cleared, the Flyers should look to target young players that will provide a sense of excitement in the fanbase and provide the potential of improving the roster.  The time to gamble on these types of players is now; with a new coach in Tortorella trying to instill an identity and culture back into what has become a stale product.  These players will be getting a change in scenery, and with that fresh start should be an attitude of trying to fit in and proving themselves with a clean slate.  The players that I have listed as potential targets include:  Jesse Puljujarvi (EDM), Kirby Dach (CHI), Martin Necas (CAR), and Rasmus Sandin (TOR).

Jesse Puljujarvi (RW)

Puljujarvi has seen his name come up all offseason as a player who may be looking to make his way out of Edmonton.  The Oilers nice playoff run reinforced that their offseason will be preoccupied with solidifying their goaltending as they will have Mikko Koskinen off the books and Mike Smith looking like most if not all of next season will be spent on LTIR dealing with various injuries.  Admittedly, the Flyers deepest position on the roster is on the right-wing so a potential deal for Puljujarvi may not appear all that likely.  However, if the Flyers are interested in acquiring the 24-year-old former 4th overall pick it may mean that Travis Konecny could be moved to make way.  Puljujarvi is a year younger than Konecny and although he has arbitration rights; he is likely to sign a deal topping out around the $4 million AAV range (saving the Flyers another $1.5 million).  Rumors are swirling that the Oilers would be willing to take a draft pick in exchange for Puljujarvi, and if Konecny is dealt first then any draft capital that comes in that deal could be used to try to acquire Puljujarvi.  It must be noted that Konecny did outproduce Puljujarvi this past season (Puljujarvi scored 14 goals and 22 assists for 36 points in 65 games while Konecny scored 16 goals and 36 assists for 52 points in 79 games).

Kirby Dach (C)

The fact that the Chicago Blackhawks are entertaining the idea of listening to a potential trade involving the 6’4” 3rd overall pick from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft is a bit puzzling.  Granted, his offensive production has not come along as quickly as most pundits were expecting.  This past season he only amassed 9 goals and 17 assists for 26 points in 70 games.  Not ideal.  But it must also be remembered that the Blackhawks were abysmal last season with issues both on and off the ice, and Dach came back from a horrific wrist injury that required surgery with a lengthy recovery time.  He is a player that was expected to take big strides this season and didn’t.  Is this simply a case of the Blackhawks trying to gage potential interest and finding out the value of their roster players in anticipation of a potential rebuild centred around the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, or is there significant concern that the wrist injury will have lingering effects on Dach and his development?  There is certainly risk here, but there are also indicators that perhaps the Blackhawks may be giving up on the player a bit early.  Center is a position of dire need for the Flyers and Dach could certainly fit the bill on the third line with room to grow and move up the lineup.  There are questions if he is still the top line player that he was projected to be, but if the player hits his potential, it is a grand slam home run.  If he doesn’t, then he still fills a hole at a position that the Flyers have been lacking at for years now.  I have no idea what the asking price could possibly be, but Chuck Fletcher should absolutely engage Chicago in talks to find out.  He is an RFA that should see him sign a very team friendly deal.

Martin Necas (C/RW)

Necas is a talented and speedy player that has been used primarily on the wing but does have the ability to play center.  After a disappointing performance in terms of production in the playoffs and a regular season that saw him score 14 goals and 26 assists for 40 points in 78 games, more was expected from the 12th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.  After all, he scored one more point in 25 less games in 2020-21 so the Carolina Hurricanes may be willing to talk trade if the price is right.  Rumor has it that the Hurricanes may be looking for a young defenseman in return, although I doubt that the likes of Cam York would be made available.  Elliotte Friedman on the ’32 Thoughts’ podcast has spoken about how the Carolina Hurricanes do business with players by coming up with terms that they are willing to meet, but they hold firm to those terms and offer little wiggle room.  They obviously would have a contract that they would like Necas to take, but the interesting part would be how Necas and his representatives see themselves.  Reports are circulating that the sides are not close to a deal.  This may make Necas a prime target for an offer sheet, although it is fascinating to see if the Hurricanes recent offseasons (matching the Habs Aho offer sheet and retaliating by signing Jesperi Kotkaniemi a season later) will have any impact here.  It would seem like the likeliest way to get Necas would be through an offer sheet to pressure the division rival Hurricanes into matching beyond terms that they are comfortable with, but the Flyers lack a 2nd Round selection in this years draft and would look to add one in order to make this move feasible.  Currently the 2nd Round compensation on an offer sheet would mean signing Necas for an AAV between $2,100,473 and $4,201,488.  The maximum would be needed to give Carolina any hesitation, although truthfully it would probably take an offer in the next tier which would elevate the compensation to 1st and 3rd Round picks.  To entertain this as an option, the Flyers would need to recoup a 2nd Rounder through a separate deal to make this happen.   

Rasmus Sandin (D)

Rasmus Sandin (brother of Linus Sandin) is intriguing because he is a defenseman.  The uncertainty surrounding Ryan Ellis will force the Flyers to get some insurance on the right side.  Sandin though is more than just insurance.  The 22-year-old Swede is highly regarded within the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, but his status as an RFA and the Leafs cap situation will need to be navigated carefully by Leafs GM Kyle Dubas.  Priority number one this offseason is to shore up Toronto’s goaltending.  Jack Campbell performed well for the Leafs during his tenure, however he may have priced himself out of Toronto’s plans.  Part of the issue is that Petr Mrazek is under contract for another 2 years at $3.8 million per year with a modified no trade clause.  Jettisoning his contract to free up cap space needs to happen; but with other teams jockeying for position and the 2022 NHL Entry Draft swiftly approaching, Dubas will have to face the clock as well as other GMs to try to solidify his roster.  I have no doubt that the Leafs want to keep Sandin, but it is a bit curious that they signed defenceman Timothy Liljegren first to a 2-year deal with a $1.4 million cap hit.  To compare both players; Rasmus Sandin scored 5 goals and 11 assists for 16 points in 51 games, while Liljegren scored 5 goals and 18 assists for 23 points in 61 games.  Liljegren is a year older, but the Leafs perhaps signed him first to set a price range for Sandin to sign a somewhat similar deal.  It would be highly unlikely that the Leafs would consider a trade for a player that has upside and counts minimally against the cap.  Therefore, it would stand to reason that the Flyers could make life uncomfortable for the Leafs with an offer sheet.  3rd Round compensation would likely be matched to its maximum of a $2,100,472 especially if term is added.  The Flyers would have to acquire a 2nd Round pick to make this offer sheet more effective (maybe around $2.5 million AAV).  The offensive production isn’t there yet, but it is a bet on the player taking steps in the next 1-2 seasons to allow for some flexibility with Sanheim needing a new contract next season and Provorov potentially being dangled as a trade chip.  Sandin can play both sides in a defensive pair, and should see increased reps and responsibility with the Flyers which could pay nice dividends on his development.

Conclusion

The targeting of young players with potential that may need a change in scenery is not a perfect plan.  But if you ask fans, there are significant drawbacks to entertaining a rebuild or following the vague notion of an ‘aggressive retool’ as well.  The ‘Middle Path’ approach is an attempt to try to satisfy the hunger and appetite for change while at the same time putting a more interesting product on the ice for the present and for the future.  New Head Coach John Tortorella would be able to give all of these players a true clean slate and be able to judge the players on this roster and how they fit into the culture and attitude shift going forward.

If the players adapt quickly and pay dividends right away, fans will be happy that the Flyers are a hungrier and more competitive team.  If they make the playoffs (or just miss out), fans can be disappointed that a top three selection in 2023 eluded the team but can at least point to the young talent that was acquired and supplemented with more draft picks to ensure a more sustainable future.  Essentially the Flyers would be hedging their bets by continuing to add young players with potential while continuing to draft talent.

If the acquired players fail to make an impact immediately, the Flyers miss the playoffs once again but still get to add to their roster via the compelling 2023 draft.  Any players acquired can also be viewed as assets that can allow for more trade flexibility should a player of consequence become available for trade or should Tortorella not want them on the roster.  It also allows them to clear a bit more cap space and allow them to play in a larger and more impactful free agent pool during the next offseason.

Either way, the ‘Middle Path’ offers something other than an ‘all or nothing’ approach which is sure to alienate half of this polarized fanbase.  Many fans are sick of being patient and want action now to improve the roster.  I am one of them.  Instead of applying blunt forced trauma on this roster by spending large on a Gaudreau or Debrincat, why not surgically add pieces in positions of need to make this roster grow and learn together under to tutelage of a new coaching staff?

One of the criticisms of the ‘Middle Path’ is how to get these young players without expending draft capital (especially the 5th overall pick in 2022).  It is a very fair critique, especially since other teams will be looking to add that particular piece in a potential deal.  This is where the creativity of the GM has to come into play and other moves or deals like a van Riemsdyk trade will likely have to happen first.  With that cap space will come greater flexibility to retain salary to facilitate a deal.  I don’t think the Flyers are in a position to take on bad contracts for mid-round picks.  I think the cap room should be utilized to try to coax teams that are stressed by the cap to be more amenable to make deals that don’t require the draft capital desired in a trade via salary retention.

I know, I know.  Much easier said then done. 

At least half of the ‘win now’ folks will be furious at this plan because it doesn’t go far enough to get proven NHL talent on a roster that so desperately needs it.  Conversely, half of the rebuild crowd will say that this plan is destined to fail because the Flyers will win too many games and ruin their lottery chances in 2023.

Half of Flyers fans are at war with the other half anyway.  This ‘Middle Path’ suggestion can either give pause to both sides to try to attempt to see the merits of the other’s perspective, or both sides will unite and destroy this plan for a multitude of reasons.

Either way, I am good with it.  The fans shouldn’t be the ones picking sides and drawing battle lines.  Fletcher is the one tasked with choosing a path that can be beneficial for both the present and the future of this franchise. 

Choose wisely Chuck.  Just make sure you choose with the best of intentions as Buddha would have intended.  We all deserve to be in a state of nirvana after all, and Flyers fans expect no less.       

***

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: tricycle.org / inquirier.com

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