The Philadelphia Flyers have run through a number of defencemen this season from veterans to rookies. From watching and listening to how the team is going to move forward, it looks to be with a similar back-end in 2022-23, but this time around, healthy.
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The defencemen I believe are the core group and will be back for at least one more season are Ivan Provorov, Ryan Ellis, Travis Sanheim, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Cam York. The Flyers weren’t able to see how this group could perform while at full power this season along with more injuries up front. There are multiple reasons to run with these five solid defencemen next year, so we’ll get into that.
The Money Is Workable Right Now
The Flyers can’t be allocating too much money to their defencemen, especially if they aren’t performing up to par. If healthy and playing like each individual has in recent years, the Flyers have one of the best defence groups in the NHL. But this season hasn’t shown anyone they are. It will be a new season and they will have to go out and prove it.
The Flyers’ timeline on their defencemen line up perfectly. Sanheim has one year remaining on his deal. Ristolainen was just re-signed, so he isn’t going anywhere. Ellis is the same but he needs to stay healthy. While teams who have players on entry-level contracts often have the advantage throughout the season, York is one of those players. He will be in the final year of his contract next season before he will likely be asking for a significant pay raise, even if it’s only on a bridge deal.
His performance has made the decision easy for the Flyers to keep him up with the NHL club for good now. It would be a waste to send him down when he is the clear future on the blue line. Chuck Fletcher did say that the first time he was sent down was to give him more puck touches and ice time, but he has done all he can in the American Hockey League (AHL) and is capable of playing both sides of the ice (from “Flyers’ fond memories of Cam York carry him back up to the NHL”, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 2022). This will come in handy when the Flyers want to spread out the ice time a little more and give York more opportunities once all the defencemen are healthy.
A Look at Defence Pairings & What Has Worked
We’ll start with the second pairing from this season and the likely second pairing again going into next season. This duo consists of Sanheim and Ristolainen as they spent the most time together by more than 150 minutes more than any other pairing on the Flyers this season. To be together through all of the tough stretches and lows of the season, these two have surprisingly decent stats. According to Natural Stat Trick, their expected goals for percentage (xGF%) is just 48.09 which is second on the team among pairings that have played more than 100 minutes together. But the more impressive stat is they have a 51.14 goals for percentage (GF%) which is the most among pairings with more than 100 minutes played.
Ristolainen has and will play his best hockey if he remains with Sanheim, but we have yet to see a pairing of Ristolainen and York for any significant amount of time. This is a future duo that would be intriguing. For next season the best course of action would be to keep Sanheim and Ristolainen together if healthy and mix York in if any injuries occur.
Next, is the projected top pairing for next season. Ellis and Provorov only spent 54 minutes together since Ellis suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth game of the year. Their xGF% wasn’t great but it was also a very small sample size and didn’t seem to matter because they were on the ice for two goals for and zero against at even strength. This should be the first pairing and we will hopefully get a longer look at what these two players can do together next season. If Ellis does have more injury trouble, it’s not the worst news in the world since York has been playing alongside Provorov and their xGF% is over 50.
York has and will probably be seen as a Swiss Army knife for the Flyers next season. The coaching staff has tried to get him as much playing time as possible without taking too much time away from the NHL regulars they will also be moving forward with. So once Justin Braun was traded, it freed up a spot for York to step into the top-four. I don’t expect him to start there next season, but I do believe he will spend a lot of time there and even match or come close to the minutes of some of the other d-men. If an injury occurs to any of the projected top-four defencemen, York will be the first man bumped up.
Raise Trade Stock If Plans Go Sideways Once Again
This is mostly directed at two players in particular that talks have centered around in Provorov and Sanheim. The frustration between Provorov and the Flyers could have easily just stemmed from the horrible year all around that the team was having. He had been taken off of the top power-play unit when there was tension between the two parties and the Flyers had given York a chance there.
Another year of production like 2021-22 won’t drop his trade stock by too much, especially if the team in general is bad again. But his stock could easily go back up considering his prowess, what he has been able to do in the league, and the interest already there if the Flyers decide he needs a change in scenery.
Having a healthy Ellis for longer than four games would really help Provorov out. It seems as though he needs a certain type of veteran presence beside him to allow his game to elevate. His drop-off lined up perfectly with the sudden retirement of Matt Niskanen, and the start of this year was looking very promising for the new top pair of Provorov and Ellis. He has had some injury trouble throughout his career, so the Flyers shouldn’t fully count on getting 75-plus games out of him. But enough could do the trick and see Provorov’s confidence come back.
Sanheim is the other name that may be thrown around in the summer or throughout next season as teams were also interested in him. Since the Flyers held onto both Provorov and Sanheim through the trade deadline, there’s just one more stop until we see them both back on the ice with this team next season, and that’s the offseason. Sanheim is on a good deal for one more season being paid $4.675 million and has had a very underrated year.
Unless there is a clear plan in place for getting someone young with potential in return or the season falls apart, the Flyers shouldn’t move on from either Provorov or Sanheim just yet as York gets better acclimated to the NHL. He will soon take one of their places, but not before next season though.
Things derailed in a hurry with the Ellis injury and other significant blows to the team. It immediately messed up the pairings. Next season, barring no major injuries, the Flyers should be set with their core group of five defencemen and will only have to figure out what to do with the remaining one or two spots. I will be more confident going into next season with how the Flyers’ defence looks than in recent years.