Entering the 2019-20 season, the Philadelphia Flyers’ forward depth was initially considered one of the team’s strengths. With a fully healthy roster, exciting forward prospects such as Morgan Frost and Joel Farabee were projected to spend the season with the American Hockey League’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, since the Flyers had such a glut of talented forwards. However, that has not been the case, as due to both long term and short term injuries to its forward corps, a position of strength has now turned into one of the team’s largest weaknesses.
Plagued by Long and Short Term-Injuries
The injury woes among the Flyers’ forwards began even before the season started, when the team revealed that third-year center Nolan Patrick was battling chronic migraines and would be out indefinitely. It is now mid-January and there has been no indication that Patrick will return anytime soon, though general manager Chuck Fletcher did say during his mid-season press conference that he expects him to play this season. Patrick’s injury has been a huge blow to the team’s center depth; he was slated to be the Flyers’ third-line center and many projected him to have a breakout season.
The Flyers were dealt another devastating blow in mid-December when the team announced that promising winger Oskar Lindblom would miss the rest of the season after he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Lindblom was in the midst of a breakout season and was one of the team’s best players, as well as a major reason why they were playing so well and challenging for a playoff spot. At the time of his diagnosis, Lindblom was the team’s leading goalscorer. He is missed in both the Flyers lineup and dressing room, and his impact is felt immensely. Despite not having played in over a month, Lindblom is still fourth on the team in goals and eighth in points, thus revealing the team’s scoring and depth issues.
In addition to the two long-term injuries, the Flyers have also been without key lineup cogs such as Michael Raffl and Scott Laughton for extended periods of time. Raffl and Laughton are two of the team’s key depth forwards who were sorely missed while they were on the shelf. While neither of them is a star, they are both among the league’s better bottom-six forwards and helped comprise one of the NHL’s best fourth lines. They both spent significant parts of the season playing up in the lineup due to injuries and contributed in those larger roles. Laughton has been very impressive, amassing ten points in 26 games. While they were out of the lineup, the Flyers had to rely on AHL-caliber players who did not contribute at all while playing with the big club.
Injury Replacements Not Getting the Job Done
Several of the Flyers’ minor leaguers have had extended opportunities to contribute with the NHL club, though nearly all of them have faltered and failed to make a case for an extended stay in the show. Talented and promising prospect Frost was the best of the AHL call-ups, though he was not consistent in his play and showed that he needed more time to develop in the AHL. He got off to a hot start, scoring in each of his first two games, before cooling down a bit, ultimately posting seven points in 18 games.
He was demoted to the AHL because head coach Alain Vigneault and Fletcher did not want him playing limited minutes and believed that playing on the top line in Lehigh Valley was better for his development. While Frost is not ready for a permanent stay in Philadelphia just yet, he will be a key member of the Flyers for many years to come.
Another AHLer who received an extended audition with the Flyers was center Mikhail Vorobyev. Vorobyev was once a hyped-up prospect among Flyers fans, though opinions of him have soured in recent years. He has received several opportunities with the big club, yet did not contribute at all in his numerous recalls. In his most recent call up this season, he recorded three points in 20 games. The only reason he was with the Flyers as long as he was is because of the team’s lack of center depth and production. The team’s brass eventually ran out of patience and sent him down earlier this week in favor of Connor Bunnaman, who scored his first career goal in his first game back, a critical goal in an impressive comeback victory over the Boston Bruins.
Other fourth liners who have contributed next to nothing are Andy Andreoff and Chris Stewart, both of whom are AHL-caliber players. Andreoff has just one point in 13 games and is barely playing, averaging slightly over eight minutes of ice time. Stewart has not made any sort of impact with just one point in 15 games, while playing under eight minutes a game. While Stewart is a popular player in the locker room, he is not a useful NHLer at this stage in his career. Unfortunately, his is too slow for the pace of today’s game, and frankly, he is occupying a roster spot and cap space which has prevented the cap-strapped Flyers from making roster moves.
Where Do the Flyers Go From here?
The first course of action for the Flyers, which they did on Wednesday, is to waive Stewart and send him to the AHL. The team desperately needs to open up a roster spot and create some additional cap space, and Stewart frankly is not a good usage of either for a team in salary cap hell. While this may not go over well in the Flyers’ dressing room, it is a necessary move at this stage, (from ‘Chris Stewart’s Flyers contributions seen more off the ice than on,’ Courier Post, 01/02/2020).
The next course of action is to make trades. While the Flyers’ cap situation limits their trade options as the deadline approaches, the team should seriously consider making a hockey trade. The most common name as a trade candidate is defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who has been the subject of trade rumors for quite some time.
Gostisbehere isin the middle of his second consecutive down season and has shown that he does not fit in Vigneault’s system. He has been a healthy scratch for a few games this season and has just 12 points in 40 games, despite being a couple of years removed from a 65-point breakout season. Furthermore, the team’s defense is playing just fine without him in the lineup.
While the Flyers would be selling low on Gostisbehere, it is time to trade him to a team in need of defense in exchange for forward depth. One team that comes to mind is the Toronto Maple Leafs. With their top two blueliners, Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly, out for extended time, Gostisbehere would help bolster their defense. Leafs forwards Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Jeremy Bracco have been the subject of trade rumors for a while, so a trade between the two teams would make sense. Perhaps the Flyers could send Gostisbehere and a prospect or draft pick to Toronto for some combination of Kapanen, Johnsson, and Bracco.
Another team in need of defensive help is the Nashville Predators, and GM David Poile is no stranger to making big trades. The Predators have quite a few forwards on the trade block, so the Flyers could look to pluck Nick Bonino or Mikael Granlund out of Nashville.
If the Flyers truly have their sights on making the playoffs this season, they must make some moves. They do not have the depth or production to keep the lineup as is, especially in a very competitive Eastern Conference. With teams like the Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets surging in the standings of late, the Flyers must address their issues at forward if they hope to play more than 82 games this season.