Flyers Roster Turnover Mirrors Successful 2007 Rebuild

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher enacted a major roster overhaul over the course of the past few weeks. He added leadership, talent, and experience with the acquisitions of Ryan Ellis, Keith Yandle, Cam Atkinson, Martin Jones, Nate Thompson, and Rasmus Ristolainen. Although it is a bit lofty to call the Flyers a Stanley Cup contender after missing the playoffs last season, progression into the NHL’s elite is not always a linear path. The organization proved as much with a similarly structured roster turnover in 2007 that allowed the Flyers to make a massive leap forward. The team advanced to the Eastern Conference Final in 2008 after finishing dead last in the NHL in 2006-07, thanks mainly to six key moves made by former general manager Paul Holmgren.

Two Forgettable Flyers Seasons

The 2006-07 season was the worst in Philadelphia Flyers history. Franchise legend Bobby Clarke resigned as general manager in late October following a poor start by the team. Head coach Ken Hitchcock was fired, as long-time chairman Ed Snider was also dissatisfied with a first-round exit in the 2006 Playoffs. Holmgren replaced Clarke, and John Stevens took the Flyers bench. The franchise entered unfamiliar territory after finishing first or second in the Atlantic Division in each of the previous 11 seasons. The situation unraveled and went from bad to worse, and the Flyers finished with a measly 56 points. 

Paul Holmgren Philadelphia Flyers
Paul Holmgren, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Flyers were also stunned with a disappointing finish in the shortened 2020-21 season. Expectations soared after a strong 2019-20 season, the first under head coach Alain Vigneault. They won their first playoff series since 2012 and came within one win of the Eastern Conference Final. The developing core of young talent looked promising entering the 2020-21 season, but the Flyers came up drastically small with a sixth-place finish and a disheartening defensive effort. While they performed better than the 2006-07 team overall, they still left all members of the organization unsatisfied and anxious to see major changes.

The rosters of the 2006-07 and 2020-21 teams surprisingly included recognizable and reputable NHL talent. Neither resembles the rosters of teams who commonly finish at the bottom of the league because they aren’t allocating resources to win in the present. The underperformance of individual veterans and a collective lack of commitment are additional similarities that led to the respective roster overhauls. 

Holmgren Reshapes Flyers Future

Holmgren made six successful moves that shaped the immediate future of the franchise beginning just ahead of the 2007 trade deadline. He acquired defenseman Braydon Coburn, who ultimately spent nine seasons as a key contributor in Philadelphia, for a relatively expendable piece in Alexei Zhitnik. He addressed horrendous goaltending struggles with the acquisition of Marty Biron, who started all 17 playoff games during the team’s run in 2008. 

His biggest move was trading aging and often-injured superstar Peter Forsberg to the Nashville Predators for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, and two draft picks. After the season, he sent one of the draft picks back to Nashville for the rights to unrestricted free agents Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen. Both players became core members of the franchise over the course of the next seven seasons. Upshall also made solid contributions in parts of three seasons with the Flyers.

Kimmo Timonen Scott Hartnell Philadelphia Flyers
Former Philadelphia Flyers Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Star forward Danny Briere then signed a lucrative contract with Philadelphia on the first day of free agency. He spent six seasons as a top point producer for the Flyers. He recorded the most points in a single postseason of any player in franchise history, with 30 in 2010. 

Holmgren’s willingness to part with former fourth overall pick Joni Pitkanen also paid dividends. They dealt the struggling young defenseman along with Geoff Sanderson and a third-round draft pick for Joffrey Lupul and Jason Smith. Lupul had two strong seasons in Philadelphia, highlighted by a Game 7 overtime winner in the first round of the 2008 Playoffs. Smith brought a veteran presence to a blue line that struggled mightily in 2006-07. He was the team captain during his only season in Philadelphia.

Fletcher Recreates Similar Turnover

Fletcher’s major acquisitions align with similar needs addressed by Holmgren in 2007. In response to a horrid month of March by the Flyers, Fletcher sold minimal assets at the 2021 trade deadline. To begin the offseason, he fulfilled the obvious need to bring in a big name with the acquisition of Ryan Ellis. Like the Briere signing, the splashy move restored legitimate belief that the organization could recover from a dismal season. Ellis, like Timonen, comes from a Nashville organization with a tremendous reputation for developing defensemen.

The trade for Ristolainen echoes the move to acquire Coburn. Both players are big, strong defensemen and former eighth overall picks. Ristolainen, although he is older and more experienced, hopes to benefit from a change of scenery in a similar way that Coburn did in Philadelphia. 

Buffalo Sabres Rasmus Ristolainen
Former Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

The loss of Jakub Voracek to the Columbus Blue Jackets removes a core player and reputable leader from the roster, just as the departure of Forsberg did. However, the move was indicative of Fletcher’s desire to “change the dynamic of our team going forward.” Neither Holmgren’s decision to move Forsberg or Fletcher’s decision to move Voracek serve as indictments on either player, but they were both executed because of the realization that it was simply time to move on in favor of an overall shakeup. The Flyers hope that the addition of Cam Atkinson in exchange for Voracek can create even half the value brought back in Holmgren’s two moves with Nashville in 2007.

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Fletcher’s decision to part with Nolan Patrick mirrors the decision to move on from Pitkanen. Both players showed flashes of potential early in their careers after being selected at the top of the draft by the Flyers. However, they also had trouble gaining their footing and fell into awkward positions within the organization. While Pitkanen had more tangible success, the organization recognized the unlikelihood of either player reaching his full potential in orange and black.  

Nolan Patrick Philadelphia Flyers
Former Philadelphia Flyers center Nolan Patrick (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Adding Yandle, a defenseman who provides experience on the back end past the peak of his career, aligns with the logic of acquiring Smith. The 34-year-old Yandle will allow prospects Cam York and Egor Zamula to ease into NHL roles in a way that Pitkanen never experienced. 

The approach to goaltending is the key difference between the two roster overhauls. Holmgren acquired a starting netminder to replace two veterans he did not value long-term. Fletcher wisely elected to keep his confidence in 22-year-old Carter Hart after a brutal statistical season, but his decision to sign Martin Jones as the backup brings uncertainty in the form of a reclamation project instead of a more reliable veteran backup.

Moving Towards the Future

Briere later noted that his decision to sign with the Flyers was based on the belief that they had the right pieces in place to be a contender despite the wretched 2006-07 season. His leap of faith ultimately proved beneficial. Although they did not storm out of the gates to begin 2007-08, the Flyers were able to make a deep playoff run as a six-seed in the Eastern Conference because they were properly constructed. They went on to win seven playoff series in the five seasons following Holmgren’s restructuring in 2007.

The organization hopes that the recent roster turnover will right the ship in a similar way. Fletcher mentioned that center Kevin Hayes was important in selling the “virtues of the Philadelphia Flyers” in order to finalize the Yandle signing. His promotion of virtues for a franchise barren of anything to be proud of for far too long is another leap of faith that can only be proven true by success in the coming seasons. 

Will this success materialize?