After two straight abysmal seasons of hockey in Philadelphia, the Flyers did something shocking during the 2022 offseason; Nothing! The acquisition of Tony Deangelo was their big plan and marked the entirety of their noteworthy summer upgrades. They did part ways with Mike Yeo in favor of John Tortorella, hoping he can reintroduce some of the long lost “jam” behind the bench. Things look bleak across the board, but just what can we expect of the 2022-23 Philadelphia Flyers?
For the second time as general manager of the Flyers, Chuck Fletcher had to hire a coach. After a month-long search the Flyers brought in John Tortorella, a 19-year NHL veteran coach. He won a Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Lightning, and even made reference to the Bolts’ battle with the Flyers in a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Final that year during his introductory press conference. That era of Flyers hockey has long since passed, but he sure seemed ambitious to bring it back. At the end of the day, Torts and the Flyers feel like a match made in heaven. The sports-crazed city and a generally crazy old man ready to fight both with and against each other.
His assistants, PP/forward coach Rocky Thompson and PK/Defense coach Brad Shaw were slightly underwhelming additions. Shaw is a Torts guy and had mixed success on the penalty kill during his days in Columbus, and Thompson had success at both the junior and AHL levels before coaching one season in San Jose with a basement dwelling powerplay before his opposition to vaccines forced him to step down from his position as coach.
The Flyers finished dead last on the powerplay last season and 26th on the penalty kill. The lack of change on the roster doesn’t exactly bode well for the assistants with a recent record of underwhelming special teams records, but both are regarded as coaches good with the players, part of the continued effort to build a better room. Does rallying the troops led to more on-ice success instead of hiring a coach with a proven track record? Time will tell.
The forward group went basically untouched during the offseason. Oskar Lindblom got bought out and Nic Deslauriers got brought in. Other than that this is the same group of players. The same group that finished 31st in goals for per game, scoring just 210 on the season. Only the Coyotes produced less offense than the Flyers. Instead of bringing in new toys from the outside, they’re going to rely on the youth stepping up and earning playing time. Now, they didn’t get any of the lackluster veterans to open up roster spots to make that happen, so mare than likely the youth get pushed to the bottom six so James Van Riemsdyk gets one last kick at the can under Torts. definitely a winning strategy if ever there was one.
There are plenty of criticisms to throw the way of Chuck Fletcher, but one of the most consistent failures during his time as general manager is the constant refusal to add legitimate center depth. He signed Kevin Hayes during his first summer in 2019 and has ignored the gaping hole ever since. They have Sean Couturier, the 30-year-old coming off back surgery on his shiny new $62 million contract, 29-year-old Kevin Hayes, who has been fine when healthy but those moments have been few, and apparently Morgan Frost will take the role of 3C once again, trying to fit that square peg in a round hole for a fourth year. 4C appears to be Tanner Laczynski’s job to lose, considering they really don’t have anybody else. Scott Laughton can step into bottom-six center duties if needed, but he has found most of his recent success on the wings over the last few seasons.
As far as NHL options go, those five are about it. Zack MacEwen and Patrick Brown slotted in at center last season based on necessity thanks to injury, but both are natural wingers. Max Willman is still lingering around the organization as well, but just isn’t an NHL-caliber forward.
The franchise is putting way too many eggs in the basket of Sean Couturier, banking on him not only coming back at 100% from his back surgery, but also still playing like he did from 2017-19 when he was a 30-goal, 76-point guy. Now he has to accomplish that feat without his partner in crime Claude Giroux, and an overall lackluster forward group with no real offensive threats to pad his stats. There’s no doubt he and Hayes are a solid one-two defense-first punch when healthy, but for a team whose offense is as anemic as the Flyers, those two simply aren’t going to cut it when it comes to on-ice success of the club.
The depth at left wing is dry. Sure, you can easily move one player from side to side on paper, but in execution, not everyone can play either side flawlessly. The team bought out Oskar Lindblom this summer and Joel Farabee is going to start the season in IR after a neck injury occurred while training for the season. That right there is two players who could handle time on the left side out of the picture. That leaves James Van Riemsdyk and Scott Laughton as your only natural left wingers on the roster. Provided Noah Cates makes the NHL out of the gate, that bumps them to three. At that point one of the depth forwards like Nic Deslauriers to start the season on the forth line left wing spot.
This motley crew doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but it could be a big chance for Noah Cates, who could very well be the top line left wing on opening night. Laughton and Hayes have worked together well in years past, that means Morgan Frost may be the poor bastard strapped to JVR on the third line and Deslauriers bringing up the pack on the bottom line.
Due to the abundance of fringe-NHLers who are technically right wingers, one or two could move over to the left side if it means an NHL opportunity. Tyson Foerster and Wade Allison are the big two. Even potentially Owen Tippet if he’s comfortable. Isaac Ratcliffe, who got his first taste of NHL action last season and re-signed, is a natural left winger as well. If he impresses during training camp, he could very well snag a main roster spot in the short term.
It’s a shallow position, but could be just the glimmer of an opening some of the younger players are looking for to establish themselves at the NHL level. That is, of course, provided JVR isn’t just plopped on the top line by default.
For an organization lacking at pretty much every single position, the Flyers have about three teams worth of natural right wings on their roster, and that’s not including Tony DeAngelo (ba dum tss). Right now alone the Flyers have Cam Atkinson, Travis Konecny, Joel Farabee, Nic Deslauriers, Bobby Brink, Owen Tippett, Zack MacEwen, Tyson Foerster, Samu Tuomaala, Zayde Wisdom, Wade Allison, Hayden Hodgson and Cooper Marody.
Even if we just limit that to the players fighting for an NHL gig that’s still at least eight or nine of them. Considering how shallow they are on the left side, some players will have to change up if they want a shot in the NHL, but outside of Joel Farabee, none have really proven to be acceptable on the left. Youngsters Wade Allison and Tyson Foerster both do most of their damage from the left side on the powerplay, but vets like Atkinson and Konecny have played almost exclusively on the right side for most of their careers.
In the short term, both Brink and Farabee will start the season on IR recovering from hip and neck surgeries respectively, so there is a chance for the fringe guys like Tippett and Allison to make a name for themselves as both injured players aren’t expected back for months. It’s a huge opportunity for the kids and, at least momentarily, solves the overcrowding problem, now it’s just a matter of whether or not Tortorella will give the kids an actual chance.
If the Flyers have any success this season, the entire crux of it will boil down to their defense. The opening night projection is-
Ivan Provorov – Tony DeAngleo
Travis Sanheim – Rasmus Ristolainen
Cam York – Justin Braun
That’s about as close to the definition of “hit or miss” as possible. A lineup that, when firing on all cylinders, could be a very effective puck moving offensive-minded system. The drawback? We’ve all seen the top four of Provorov, DeAngelo, Sanheim and Ristolainen have off-nights, and if all the negative stars align, could lead to a real ugly evening of hockey.
27-year-old Tony DeAngelo was their big fish of the offseason, a puck-moving powerplay quarterback, something that in all honesty was desperately lacking on this team for the last few years. His love of punching his own goaltenders goes against the new culture the team is supposedly trying to build, but if he can keep his hijinks quiet, he can. at least serve a purpose on the roster.
Everyone had questions about the Sanheim-Ristolainen pair going into last season, but they surprised the critics when the duo worked very well together, leading to Sanheim’s best overall season and Ristolainen holding his own more often than not. Provided they pick up where they left off, it’s a more than respectable second defense pair.
Justin Braun’s return is actually a good thing for the Flyers, though you have to question his sanity voluntarily returning to this mess. pProvided he can just chill on the third pair and play limited defense-heavy minutes, he will be a welcome addition. He’ll also get to mentor 21-year-old Cam York, who is poised to make his full-time NHL debut. He is a natural lefty, but was forced to play on his off-side during his 30-game stint with the big club last season, first on the third pair with Keith Yandle and later on the top pair with Provorov.
Sanheim’s contract is up next summer and they’ll have to decide to re-sign him or let him walk. Provorov is locked up until 2025 at $6.7 million, so they can’t have two six-plus million defensemen on the left side. That’s where Cam York comes in. York’s job will be to dethrone one of Sanheim or Provorov for top-six minutes and make their decision heading into next offseason clear. Egor Zamula’s development will go a long way of making a decision as well. If he continues to trend in the right direction, it’s very possible to end the season with a Provorov-York-Zamula 1-2-3 punch on the left side.
The Flyers went from set in net to a hope and prayer real quick. Carter Hart is obviously the starter, even though his numbers last season were pedestrian to say the least. A 3.16 goals against average and .905 save percentage and just 13 wins in 45 games aren’t numbers to be writing home about, but quite frankly a majority of the disaster isn’t his fault.
Hart is still looking for bona fide pure dominance at the NHL level. He’s shown flashes of it now and again, with the highlight coming during the 2020 playoffs, but between injury, general struggles, and the atrocities the team in front of him are committing on a nightly basis, there just hasn’t been a chance for momentum to properly build. They’re once again going to rely heavily on the 24-year-old and hope his play is at an elite level to cover for the rest of the roster.
Elsewhere, the Flyers went from super deep in goal, to scrambling for bodies in just a few short weeks.
The organization was finally able to sign 2015 draft pick Ivan Fedotov to his one-year, entry-level contract, but he was immediately swooped up by the Russian military for evading service time after leaving CSKA Moscow as a free agent. The 6’6 netminder will no longer factor into the Flyers’ plans this season, ending what was a hopeful signing for the club. He was supposed to be the backup that gave the Flyers a legitimate 1B option in net, obviously based on his transition to North American ice, but now the Flyers once again enter a season with no clear solid backup option in place.
Now the backup job will be fought over by Felix Sandstrom and recently-signed Troy Grosenick.
25-year-old Sandstrom has been the Phantoms’ starter for the last two seasons and has look good in the role all things considered. His number both in the NHL and AHL aren’t spectacular, but that’s in part thanks to the terrible product in both Lehigh Valley and on the main roster. He signed for two years, a bit of a surprise considering the terrible way the team handled him last season, but he appears to be the backup with Fedotov out of the picture.
Grosenick is a 33-year-old journeyman AHL goalie with four games of NHL experience to his name. His numbers with the Providence Bruins last season were spectacular, a 2.00 GAA and .933 SV%, but he appears to be that third-string option this season in case of injury. He’ll probably get his shot in camp, and if Sandstrom falters early, could potentially win the race, but at this point, it does feel like Felix’s job to lose.
The other youngster, 23-year-old Samuel Ersson is still recovering from surgery that ended his rookie season prematurely. He mentioned during development camp that he was ahead of schedule but still not feeling 100%. While he wasn’t really considered an NHL option this season anyway, now it appears his goal for the season will be to rehab and get back to form, ultimately winding up as the Phantoms’ starter and third-string option for the Flyers next season.
Of all the things that went wrong during the 2021-22 season, the flyers’ special teams was high on the list of failures. They finished with the 26th ranked powerplay at 75.7%, and the league’s worst powerplay, clocking in at just a measly 12.6%, over a full percentage point worse than second last Montreal. The gaggle of lackluster assistant coaches, affectionately known as the band of misfits, was a big reason for the failure, but the miserable state of the Flyers’ roster was a big factor as well.
The team did address the powerplay to a certain extent with the addition of DeAngelo. 20 of his 51 points last season came on the man advantage, and 64 of his 157 career points were scored on the powerplay. Having a legitimate QB run the show should go a long way to success.
The powerplay is also where the team will feel the sting of losing Giroux the hardest. He was the lifeblood of the man advantage over the last decade-plus and the don’t have a real option to fill his shoes. The results will heavily be based on who makes the team and who is healthy. If Tyson Foerster makes the team out of camp, his presence on the powerplay will be a huge plus for the team, flashing an Ovechkin-like one-timer from the left circle. If not, Owen Tippett and Cam Atkinson will be splitting time in the role.
The powerplay does feel like a situation where they could have success if the pieces fall in their favor, but when was the last time things went right for the Flyers?
The penalty kill will be boosted by a healthy Couturier and Hayes, but this is a situation where the lack of roster additions really does them no favors. It’s a roster filled with young players who may not be ready for the role, and washed up vets who have proven they can’t hang. They’ll need Couturier at a superhuman level and coach Brad Shaw to bring the absolute best out of these players in order to have a real shot of success on the penalty kill.
It’s a bold strategy to run it back with primarily the same team that finished fourth worst in the league last year and expecting different results. In a lot of ways, they’re spinning their tires in the same spot they’ve been in for a decade. Projected to be too good to completely fail, missing the opportunity to throw their hat in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes, yet not good enough to actually succeed by making the playoffs. The stars that would have to align for even a wildcard spot at this point seems borderline impossible. All of this while putting way too many eggs in the baskets of a handful of prospects to save the day in the not too distant future.
They’re banking hard on one or two of the kids emerging as superstars and carrying the load for the rest of them. It’s a plan that hasn’t worked out for the Flyers for much of the last decade, so let’s try it again! The injuries to Farabee and Brink out of the gate are disheartening, as they seemed like the likely two to have the best chance of success. But hopefully their absence leads to other young guys getting a shot.
That’s going to be the storyline of the season, really. Who is getting the most ice time? Does the coaching staff lean into James Van Riemsdyk, Cam Atkinson, Scott Laughton, Nic Deslauriers, or do they give the younger players a bigger slice of the cake? Given it’s Tortorella, you have to assume the vets are favored, but if that’s the case, it totally defeats the purpose of wasting another season.
The trade-off for a terrible 2022-23 campaign was to let the young players work out their kinks on the fly. Get it out of their systems now so they can enter 2023-24 as a solid young team. If they ultimately play second fiddle this year to the veterans this season, it’ll be a gigantic misstep that will have repercussions for years.
The forward group is underwhelming. There’s no other way to put it. The refusal to address a need for center depth and missing out on the flurry of star wingers that moved around during the offseason is a disaster. With any luck one or two of the young forwards can step in and stop the bleeding, but that’s not a guarantee.
The Flyers are going to live or die by their defense and goaltending. It may not be the best unit ever assembled, but there is, for the time being, at least enough benefit of the doubt to see the potential positives.
But there’s two sides of the coin to the defense.
If Provorov returns to the top defenseman we’ve seen him be in the past, if Sanheim continues to play well, if DeAngelo and Ristolainen don’t make many mistakes, if everyone’s healthy, the defense can at least keep them afloat more often than not.
If Provorov is still a hot mess, DeAngelo is a disaster, Sanheim and Ristolainen can’t rekindle their chemistry, if Justin Braun is playing top pair minutes again, this could be a long season.
Spending another offseason hoping all the stars align for even a slight modicum of success after Chuck Fletcher promised an “aggressive retool” certainly wasn’t how fans expected the summer to go. If feels like failure is inevitable, and when it happens, heads will, hopefully, deservedly roll. The business side of the Flyers is in shambles, their image tainted more than anybody in the front office seems to know, and if another season of mediocrity and a missed postseason occurs, the Flyers ownership group is going to have to take a hard look in the mirror and resort to drastic measures to bail out the Flyers before things get to a point of no return.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: @NHLFlyers