The Philadelphia Flyers entered the 2022 offseason with the announced intention to “aggressively retool” their way back into playoff contention after the embarrassment of the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. Despite a desire from portions of the fan base for a long-term rebuild, the commitment to winning inevitably led to excitement about potentially landing Johnny Gaudreau to fill the void of “top-end talent” on Philadelphia’s roster.
General manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher bluntly stated on Wednesday, “We’re not involved in the Johnny Gaudreau sweepstakes.”
The dynamic left winger ultimately signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Flyers instead signed 31-year-old bruiser Nicolas Deslauriers and returnee Justin Braun as their two biggest moves on the first day of NHL free agency on Wednesday. The signings indicated a lack of cohesion and direction for a franchise that has fallen hard from its once prominent status as a respected NHL franchise that could consistently compete for the Stanly Cup.
Flyers Moving in Different Directions
There is a fine line between aggressive and desperate. Fletcher apparently demonstrated an understanding of that line when he balked at paying a lucrative price including the fifth-overall pick in a trade package for Alex DeBrincat in his search for first-line caliber players. The hesitancy indicated an understanding that a player who might not stay in Philadelphia for more than two years wasn’t worth such an incredible haul. The supposed view of the bigger picture didn’t last long.
Fletcher quickly pivoted and paid a high price for a talented player who brings less than an ideal fit at the top of the roster when he sent three draft picks to the Carolina Hurricanes for Tony DeAngelo. The subsequent extension worth a $5 million average annual value (AAV) gave the impression that the Flyers intended to stick to their plan for an aggressive retool, and DeAngelo’s subtle inference of recruiting his fellow South Jersey native Gaudreau stirred up some optimism for a new-look team in 2022-23.
The logic seemed simple. Identify good players, and find ways to bring them to the Flyers. In Gaudreau’s case, the circumstances of a player in his prime years coming off of a 115-point season with painfully obvious connections to the Philadelphia area naturally stirred up excitement within a fan base desperate for a return to relevance. Kevin Hayes and other American-born players on the current roster also have easily identifiable connections for a match seemingly made in heaven.
Fletcher was reportedly unwilling to dump James van Riemsdyk’s $7 million cap hit in 2022-23 by including a first-round pick as a sweetener in a trade, and the financial flexibility required to sign Gaudreau wasn’t realistic as a result. The mindset seemed like hesitancy to reach a level of desperation after the Flyers GM had already reached on other moves with an eye on immediate contention.
Analyzing Deslauriers and Braun
Fletcher spoke about the value of having Deslauriers in the lineup next year.
“He’s an opposing physical presence, one of the tougher players in the league. With the number of young players that we expect to be in our roster next year, and in a division where there’s a lot of big physical players.”
The Flyers showed an overreliance on toughness and grit when they brought in a 31-year-old with nine seasons of NHL experience and a career-high of 15 points two days after extending a qualifying offer to Zack MacEwen. Deslauriers and MacEwen both bring legitimate physical elements to the game in their aggressive approach to puck battles on the forecheck and their willingness to drop the gloves with the NHL’s best scrappers.
However, both fourth-line wingers struggle to drive play effectively at five-on-five. Deslauriers finished 2021-22 with a 45.25 expected goals for percentage (xGF%), while MacEwen posted an unimpressive 40.06 mark. The Flyers showed desperation for a subjective change of culture and an emphasis on toughness with a four-year commitment to Deslauriers, who will receive a significant pay increase from his career maximum salary and a questionably long term because of an “aggressive market” for him in free agency.
Philadelphia’s struggling blue line has played an undeniable role in the disaster of the past two seasons. Instead of moving towards a new era, they elected to bring back a veteran stay-at-home defenseman who became brutally outmatched in an expanded role in both seasons. Braun can be a valuable component to an NHL team, as he showed in 19 playoff games as a depth defenseman for the New York Rangers during their run to the Eastern Conference Final.
However, signing a player who recently left the organization in March indicates a comfort level that shouldn’t exist for a team that suffered two double-digit losing streaks last season and tied for the most goals allowed in the NHL over the past two seasons. Braun will likely be forced into an expanded role at one point or another in 2022-23, and it will remind the organization why he finished with a 45.89 xGF% in an unideal situation last season.
If the Flyers intended on choosing a so-so veteran retread with their limited cap space, they likely could’ve retained goaltender Martin Jones on a one-year, $2 million deal equal to the contract he signed with the Seattle Kraken. Although the veteran was never a perfect solution between the pipes in 2021-22, his relationship with goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh and starter Carter Hart created a stong dynamic that surprisingly stabilized the crease in Philadelphia. Felix Sandström, a 25-year-old with five games of NHL experience, will be the frontrunner to back up Hart in 2022-23.
Old School or New School
“Today (the first day of free agency), to us, was more about depth signings, getting guys to make us a little bit harder to play against,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher himself initiated the conversation about the lack of top-end talent last year. He then placed the subjective idea of becoming “harder to play against” as a top priority to build the Flyers back into a contender while the one player in the NHL who qualifies as top-end talent and also happens to have an individual preference for playing in the city of Philadelphia was served up to him on a silver platter in free agency.
He similarly failed to identify appropriate priorities when he acquired Rasmus Ristolainen for (by his own admission) a hefty price last offseason to make the team harder to play against. The acquisition of a player who grades poorly by essentially all advanced metrics doesn’t align with any clear philosophy of an organization that hired two new full-time employees to its analytics staff in February and signed the intimidating defenseman to a five-year extension one month later. The 6-foot-4 Finn provides a valuable physical edge, but he doesn’t fit the mold of an analytically driven mindset.
The failure to account for DeAngelo’s extensive ice time with an ideal partner like Jaccob Slavin as one factor to his success last year in Carolina similarly ignored the purpose of expanding the use of analytics. The Flyers’ presumed top right-handed defenseman started 61.07% of his shifts in the offensive zone in 2021-22, a mark that is highly unlikely to occur again if he plays at the top of the lineup with Ivan Provorov on a team that finished with the fourth-worst record in the NHL last season. Provorov started just 41.55% in the offensive zone, and second-pair defenseman Travis Sanheim came in even lower at 38.33%.
Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour had a clear preference for using DeAngelo against “low-end ‘gritensity’ competition” in 2021-22 (from The Athletic, “Breaking down the NHL’s best and worst first defence pairs this season,” 2/19/22). If the expected absence of Ryan Ellis forces DeAngelo into a top-pair role with Provorov, the luxury of sheltering a defenseman who isn’t particularly strong in his own zone won’t exist.
Flyers Need Confidence, Identity
A legitimate case can be made for the Flyers to prioritize a season that includes competitive hockey and moves them past the pure failure of 2020-21 and 2021-22 with a respectable product on the ice without allocating too many significant resources toward immediate contention. The choice to hire John Tortorella as their new head coach suggests a desire to take steps forward, even if those steps don’t immediately result in Stanley Cup contention.
Fletcher’s insistence on not “bottoming out” makes sense for an organization looking to reestablish a legitimate standard without prioritizing draft order. Full rebuilds have at times created a losing mentality for NHL franchises like the Buffalo Sabres. Along with many other potential logical summaries of an NHL organization’s direction, this idealogy doesn’t align with the Flyers’ offseason.
Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic contrasted the buyout of Oskar Lindblom, a cancer survivor and widely recognized inspirational success story, and the addition of DeAngelo, a controversial figure because of his debatable past, and pointed to a contradiction in the idea of establishing a new culture (from The Athletic, “Flyers’ Lindblom buyout is another example of a plan lacking coherency and consistency,” 7/12/22).
“How does essentially swapping Lindblom for DeAngelo fit at all with that mandate? How does that make the fans ‘proud’ of the team?”
The Flyers aren’t using a flawed plan with a slim chance to work because of risky high-priced veterans. They aren’t using a mundane, long-term plan that includes brutal stretches of losing and taking hopeful swings for top-end talent with premium first-round picks. They aren’t giving clear indications that Tortorella’s new standard will be their top priority. They lack a realistic chance for contention in 2022-23, and they lack much of anything at all.
All advanced stats apply to 5-on-5 play, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
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. He joined the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA) in 2022.
Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.