Flyers’ Draft Strategy Wisely Avoids Desperation for Aggressive Retool

The Philadelphia Flyers stood idle during swirling trade rumors surrounding Alex DeBrincat and other NHL stars rumored to be available ahead of the first round of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft on Thursday. They ultimately held onto the fifth-overall pick to select Cutter Gauthier of the United States National Team Development Program. While the sequence didn’t exactly align with the supposed aggressive retool planned for this summer, it indicated awareness that the organization’s plan to improve should not involve desperate reaches for longshot hopes to contend in 2022-23. 

Gauthier over DeBrincat

The Ottawa Senators acquired DeBrincat in exchange for the seventh-overall pick, the 39th-overall pick, and a 2024 third-round pick. Philadelphia could’ve realistically matched this relatively reasonable asking price. Elliotte Friedman reported early this week that trade talks fell through because Flyers general manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher wasn’t willing to part with the fifth-overall pick. The hesitancy on Fletcher’s part frustrated some factions of the Philadelphia fan base, but the willingness to pass up an unideal trade for an established NHL first-liner is a positive indicator that the Flyers will not proceed with desperation during the 2022 offseason.

Cutter Gauthier USNTDP
Cutter Gauthier, Philadelphia Flyers (Rena Laverty / USA Hockey’s NTDP)

If the Flyers had given up the pick and a similar supplementary package in a trade to Chicago, they would’ve acquired an excellent 24-year-old goal-scorer who could immediately help the team. However, the lack of certainty surrounding his contract situation created a risk that Fletcher wasn’t willing to take. DeBrincat will command big-time money as a restricted free agent next summer, and there was no guarantee that he would’ve wanted to remain with the Flyers in the long term beyond 2023-24. There was a realistic possibility that he would walk away from a team with minimal cap space after just two seasons with no return.

Expectations for the Flyers Offseason

Fletcher sat next to Flyers governor Dave Scott at a January press conference and spoke about his plan to “aggressively retool” a roster that lacked the “top-end talent” necessary to compete with the skill level of contending NHL teams. Assistant GM Brent Flahr and newly-appointed executive Danny Briere have echoed the buzz phrases that are now shaping expectations for Philadelphia’s offseason.

Related: Flyers Hope to Materialize New Culture, Identity Under Tortorella

The expected strategy was received poorly by fans and media. The notion that the Flyers could turn from a dismal team in the bottom tier of the NHL in 2021-22 to a contender in 2022-23 simply didn’t sound plausible. Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic met the idea with appropriate skepticism that fueled advocates of a full rebuild consisting of moving the most skilled veterans on the roster and bottoming out with the hopes of utilizing picks in the top part of the draft for multiple seasons.

“Any dramatic push to add that type of talent (expensive first-line NHL veterans) runs the very real risk of putting the Flyers in even worse shape long term if said aggressive retool — already a serious long shot to work — fails, necessitating a true rebuild in its wake that suddenly becomes even more difficult to execute in an efficient way.”

-Charlie O’Connor (from The Athletic, “Why Flyers’ promised ‘aggressive retool’ is shaping up to be a near-impossible task,” 4/18/22)

The plan for an aggressive retool seemed like desperation to hold onto the minimal success of 2019-20 and ignore the fundamental flaws of the dismal 2020-21 and 2021-22 teams. However, instead of acting out of shortsighted desperation for a player like DeBrincat who very well could’ve left the team after one or two seasons, Fletcher prioritized a potentially franchise-altering pick and selected a player like Gauthier who helps the organization feel confident in the future.

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Any move that sends draft capital to another organization for the convenience of absorbing James van Riemsdyk’s $7 million cap hit in 2022-23 would similarly express unnecessary desperation. The Flyers already lost their chance to pick in the second round and the seventh round of the 2022 NHL Draft by moving Shayne Gostisbehere to the Arizona Coyotes for cap relief last summer. They should not dig themselves deeper into a hole by repeating the same impulsive strategy when competing in 2022-23 shouldn’t be their top focus.

The Better Plan for the Flyers

Retrace the steps to the infamous January press conference when fans became vehement about the organization’s plans to aggressively retool rather than commit to a long-term rebuild. Scott bluntly pointed out, “I don’t really see this as being a three-, four-, five-year rebuild at all.”

Fletcher said he doesn’t feel the team needs to bottom out and trade all of his useful veteran players for draft capital. While Scott did make a lofty statement about how the Flyers could add a few pieces and be in contention in 2022-23, the emphasis on arbitrary words like rebuild and retool set off hysteria within the fan base that was never necessary.

John Tortorella
John Tortorella, Head Coach of the Philadelphia Flyers (James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE)

The unwillingness to commit to a long-term rebuild doesn’t mean that Fletcher and Scott don’t understand the concept of allocating resources toward the future. It just means they won’t be tanking. They have no intention of putting yet another embarrassing product on the ice next season, and the oversimplified strategy of tanking to gain high draft picks is not necessary for all organizations looking to contend in a long-term window.   

The Flyers have to find the best way to rectify their organization after the embarrassment of the past two seasons in a way that suits them. The decision to hire an established Stanley Cup winner like John Tortorella as their next head coach took them one small step closer to that goal. The new bench boss hopes to set a new standard within an organization that has lost its pride. The organization’s intention is to return to respectability before they have any chance of returning to Stanley Cup contention.

“I want our guys to be proud of themselves. I want you guys (the media), I want our fans to be proud of us, how we look, how we present ourselves, how we attack the game, how we handle situations in the blue paint, and if you’re talking on the ice, how we stick up for each other in certain situations. I want people to be proud of that,” Tortorella said at his introductory press conference.

Expectations for the 2022-23 Flyers

Without an acquisition like DeBrincat, the Flyers are unlikely to make the postseason in 2022-23. They finished the 2021-22 season with a cringe-worthy minus-87 goal differential. Since 2012-13, 22 NHL teams have finished with a goal differential of minus-60 or worse. Only three of those teams qualified for the playoffs the following season.

Johnny Gaudreau Calgary Flames
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The eight teams who earned playoff positions in the Eastern Conference in 2021-22 safely occupied playoff spots after Jan. 2, 2022. The four Metropolitan qualifiers and four Atlantic qualifiers each finished with at least 100 points, the first time in NHL history that all eight teams in one conference field hit the century mark. There was a gap of 16 points between the eighth-place Washington Capitals and the ninth-place New York Islanders. A new coach and better injury luck in Philadelphia won’t close that gap without drastic and unforeseen circumstances.

However, the Flyers should be happy with the choice they made with the fifth-overall pick without worrying about the aggressive retool. They should continue to take small steps in the right direction like they did with the Tortorella hire and the selection of Gauthier without prioritizing a desperate attempt for a playoff berth in 2022-23. Moving forward, they should maintain a willingness to be aggressive for potential star acquisitions like Johnny Gaudreau as long as they avoid a mode of desperation that sacrifices their future assets at unreasonable costs.

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