The Philadelphia Flyers entered the 2020-21 season with high aspirations for Stanley Cup contention. Their success during the 2019-20 season under first-year head coach Alain Vigneault included their first playoff series victory since 2012, and hopes for a new era swirled in Philadelphia. However, the Flyers limped to a sixth-place finish in the MassMutual East Division. They allowed the most goals in the NHL, and they finished second to last in the NHL on the penalty kill. What was even more disconcerting than any statistical weakness was the disappearance of the team identity that seemed to have been established during the previous season.
The 2019-20 Flyers benefitted from the leadership and personality of Kevin Hayes in his first season in Philadelphia and the continued development of winger Travis Konecny into the type of pesky agitator who could compete with the likes of Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins. They showed strength on the forecheck and competed physically. They finally featured depth pieces who could take pressure off of long-time captain Claude Giroux.
The 2020-21 Flyers showed no such continuity, personality, or chemistry. As Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman put it on the 31 Thoughts podcast, the organization “really hated their mix” and felt that “last year’s group didn’t play for each other.” The condemnation aligned with general manager Chuck Fletcher’s belief that the team fell into a state of “malaise” when things went south last season.
Fletcher, Flyers Activate Major Overhaul
In a candid interview with NHL Network during the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, Fletcher admitted that he knew the organization “couldn’t bring the same group of players back and expect different results.” He has proven as much with a massive roster overhaul that added Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Keith Yandle on defense as well as Cam Atkinson and Nate Thompson upfront. He most notably moved on from respected veterans Jakub Voracek and Shayne Gostisbehere and underperforming young players Nolan Patrick and Philippe Myers.
Fletcher has consistently emphasized team defense beyond just the addition of one player on the blue line or improvement from goaltender Carter Hart. His intention was never to indict the play of Voracek, a former alternate captain, or any of the other departed members of the 2020-21 Flyers. However, defensive weaknesses in Voracek’s game clearly factored into the decision to move him. His $8.25 million cap hit played a major part as well.
Gostisbehere’s defensive discrepancies were also well-documented, and his departure seemed like a logical conclusion after several years of uncertainty in Philadelphia. Myers also struggled in the defensive zone last season. Patrick, who was formerly expected to be a franchise centerpiece, reportedly expressed an interest to be traded.
New Additions Bring Grit, Leadership, Experience to Philadelphia
All five previously mentioned offseason additions have worn a letter as an alternate captain during their respective careers, which undoubtedly factored heavily into Fletcher’s decision-making in attempts to “change the dynamic of our team going forward.” The Flyers lacked the grit, intensity, and tenacity needed to live up to a high standard of aggressive hockey for a once-proud NHL franchise. All five acquisitions directly address weaknesses of the 2020-21 Flyers and needs directly expressed by Fletcher on the record. They will immediately join Giroux, Hayes, and Sean Couturier in the team’s leadership group.
Ellis fills the primary need on the Flyers roster as a top-pair caliber right-handed defenseman. His reputation as a great teammate and his role on the 2017 Nashville Predators team that reached the Stanley Cup Final clearly played a factor in the pursuit of the 30-year-old blueliner as well. Ristolainen fulfills Fletcher’s desire to “bring a little bit of nastiness to our lineup.”
Fletcher referred to Atkinson as a “high motor” player who will bring value in the attempt to improve on the penalty kill in 2021-22. Friedman referred to Atkinson and Ristolainen as “guys who have good reputations as demanding but caring teammates.” The hope for a better level of accountability as a mark of the team’s chemistry next season were addressed by the acquisitions.
The addition of Yandle adds experience to the blue line, likely on the third pair and the power play. Fletcher described Hayes as an “important part of selling the virtues of the Philadelphia Flyers” when asked during his Wednesday media availability about the long-standing friendship between the two Massachusetts natives. These virtues have been missing for too long, and any duplication of the infusion of personality that Hayes provided in 2019-20 could help restore the fallen identity of the organization.
Thompson, who will likely play a more limited role than the other four previously mentioned additions, returns after a brief stint with Philadelphia following a trade deadline deal in February 2020 and a season with the Winnipeg Jets in 2020-21. Fletcher’s self-assessed need for “more of an identity to our fourth line” as a guest on Snow the Goalie shed light on the Thompson signing. The need for a veteran who can play the penalty kill and switch to multiple positions became even more prevalent after the loss of Michael Raffl at the 2021 trade deadline.
The 2021-22 Philadelphia Flyers
Fletcher addressed the issues of the 2020-21 season emphatically over the course of the past two weeks. He has brought talent, experience, grit, and mentorship to the Flyers roster while shrewdly remaining under the flat salary cap. His emphasis on the NHL’s return to an 82 game schedule and the variable of the Olympic break next February also led him to several depth signings, most notably goaltender Martin Jones to back up Hart.
His words following the colossal disappointment of last season indicated an obvious distaste for the effort shown on the ice last season, especially on the defensive side. Vigneault echoed the same sentiment by pointing out the shaky situations that surrounded the pandemic in relation to offseason training last year. The supposed expectation is that players who were affected negatively by extenuating circumstances will not have the same obstacles disrupting the rigors of their offseason schedules this summer.
The only true way to justify the reported displeasure, however, was through action. Regardless of any potential criticism of the moves made by Fletcher, nobody can claim that his plan for the 2021 offseason lacked a course of action. Only time will tell if the plan fulfills its intended purpose to restore the identity of a fallen franchise whose Stanley Cup drought has reached 46 years.
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the “Legion of Doom” and Claude Giroux to forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.