I’ve long been alone in feeling there are similarities between the Philadelphia Flyers and the San Jose Sharks, but a new goaltender, paired with a new-look defense might finally convince some folks that Philadelphia is doomed to repeat the errors of Sharks teams past.
Yes, the Flyers will now get the joy of the Martin Jones Experience™ — perhaps only marginally better than the last two years of Brian Elliott — fully embracing the Sharks’ leftovers.
It’s just one of the several desperate plays general manager Chuck Fletcher made over a busy off-season. Will it be enough to get the Flyers back into playoffs?
Where they left off
Odd-numbered years aren’t very kind to the Flyers and 2021 showed no mercy. Riding the high of their second-round exit in the 2020 postseason bubble, Philly looked to be on the up-and-up, even into the first month or so of the season. In January, the team posted a 7-2-1 record, with five of those wins coming at home.
But a middling February (4-2-2) led to an embarrassing March and April, and they went 14-19-5 from March through the end of the season. With just 58 points in the standings, the Flyers finished sixth in the East Division, eliminated from postseason contention with six games left to go.
Perhaps they still could have righted the ship and sneaked into playoffs, but ahead of the trade deadline, Chuck Fletcher was in sell mode. He shipped off forward Michael Raffl to the Washington Capitals and defender Erik Gustafsson to the Montreal Canadiens, retaining salary on both pending free agents, and picking up draft picks in exchange.
So what went wrong to make a team that could win a round of playoffs suddenly out of contention entirely in just one off-season?
It’s all about goaltending, baby.
Philly fans are going to hate hearing this, but the tandem of Carter Hart and Brian Elliott combined for the league-worst goals saved above average, with a -14.01 for Elliott and a shocking -22.57 for the young Hart. Unsurprisingly, the Flyers ended the season with the league-worst goals-against, with 201, counting shootout losses.
The team’s goals-for count was more middling, at 163. Three teams with fewer goals-for made the postseason — the Montreal Canadiens with 159 and the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators, who both came in at 156 — and the Flyers weren’t too far off the mark of the perennial-contending Boston Bruins (168) and St. Louis Blues (169).
As Sharks fans know, though, scoring goals has a limit of helpfulness when the goaltender is letting in everything that comes at them. The Flyers may have been able to score at about a league-average rate, but a change in net needed to happen before the puck dropped on the 2021-22 season.
2021 Entry Draft
Coming into the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, the Flyers were armed with the 14th-overall pick (technically the 13th selection, with the Arizona Coyotes forfeiting their first-round pick due to violating the league’s combine testing policy), but ultimately did not make a selection until 46th overall, the middle of the second round.
That’s because the team sent that first-rounder to the Buffalo Sabres, along with 26-year-old defender Robert Hagg and a second-round pick in 2023, in exchange for 26-year-old defender Rasmus Ristolainen. While Ristolainen is an upgrade over Hagg, it’s a risky play to lose out on two early draft picks to acquire him. The Sabres used the 2021 pick to draft Swedish forward Isak Rosen, and that alone may make the Flyers regret passing on this first round.
Fletcher and company went on to make a single selection in each of the subsequent rounds, largely targeting defenders. Here are the six selections they made on the second day of the draft:
- Samu Tuomaala, RW (46 overall)
- Alexei Kolosov, G (78 overall)
- Brian Zanetti, D (110 overall)
- Ty Murchison, D (158 overall)
- Ethan Samson, D (174 overall)
- Owen McLaughlin, C (206 overall)
Overall, the draft was a less-than-impressive effort, salvaged only perhaps by Tuomaala and to a lesser extent, Kolosov. Tuomaala was a much-needed selection in the second round and has a fair chance of making the NHL, albeit with a slightly frustrating style of play. If they’re lucky, over-ager Kolosov will shape up to be an NHL back-up goaltender. But all of those picks on defenders are just under-cooked pasta thrown at a wall that Fletcher is praying will stick.
If Fletcher’s draft strategy seemed confusing, wait until you see how he handled free agency.
Ahead of the draft, the Flyers were already signaling that they would burn the house down to fix a leaky roof. First, they acquired 30-year-old defender Ryan Ellis, who is under contract for a cool $6.25 million through 2027. All it cost them was fringe defender Philippe Myers and the signing rights to 22-year-old forward Nolan Patrick, who the team drafted second overall in 2017. Patrick was then used to acquire center Cody Glass, another 2017 first-round pick (eighth overall), from the Vegas Golden Knights.
To their credit, Ellis is a good get, and having a defender who can drive play the way he does will help repair Philly’s blue line. Patrick has also missed out on a lot of ice time due to a genetic migraine disorder that may ultimately disrupt his hockey career (and a weird coincidence, the aforementioned Myers accidentally hit Patrick in the ear in April, causing him to miss two games with migraine concerns).
On the flip side, a resurgence from Patrick on another team could hurt, and on the wrong side of 30, Ellis’ contract could start to look rough within a few seasons.
Fletcher didn’t stop there when it comes to trading young talent away from the team. Defender Shayne Gostisbehere was practically gifted to the Coyotes, along with a second and a seventh in the 2022 draft in exchange for future considerations. Gostisbehere has struggled over the last few seasons, but it’s not often you see “future considerations” in an NHL trade. The Flyers are committing to a brand new defense, whatever that takes.
Finally, on the second day of the draft, Fletcher sent long-time Flyers forward Jakob Voracek back to the team that drafted him, the Columbus Blue Jackets, in exchange for forward Cam Atkinson. The two players are quite similar — both age 32, able to play wing on either side — but Voracek is the more expensive and more talented player. Atkinson may save the team $2.375 million in cap space, but it will come at the expense of points.
The biggest free agency signings include veterans Keith Yandle, Adam Clendening, Nate Thompson and Derick Brassard. The team did not re-sign pending free agent Brian Elliott, choosing instead to sign Martin Jones to be Carter Hart’s new back-up in net. It’s an incredibly small improvement to the point of being negligible — Jones’ -11.71 goals save against average ranked him just three spots above Elliott last season. And though he played in four more games, Jones allowed 20 more goals total than Elliott, and 13 more than Hart. When it comes to addressing the real issue of goaltending, the Flyers failed to improve in a meaningful way, instead adding a goaltender who was bought out for being, well ... pretty stinking awful at netminding.
At the end of the day, the team still has Claude Giroux and an incredible top line, as well as Kevin Hayes and Ivan Provorov, to lead the roster. I’m just not sure this off-season filled in the supporting roles well enough, especially after losing players who have helped build the character of the team. I mean, Philly media has already blamed Matt Niskanen’s retirement for ruining the team culture last season. Losing Voracek and Gostisbehere will only compound the issue, if it's truly there.
Here’s how Daily Faceoff expects the Flyers’ roster to look:
Claude Giroux — Sean Couturier — Travis Konecny
Joel Farabee — Kevin Hayes — Cam Atkinson
Scott Laughton — Derick Brassard — James Van Riemsdyk
Oskar Lindblom — Nate Thompson — Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Ivan Provorov — Ryan Ellis
Travis Sanheim — Rasmus Ristolainen
Keith Yandle — Justin Braun
What can we expect in 2021-22?
Frankly, it comes down to 23-year-old Carter Hart.
The poor kid had a really rough go of it last season, after taking his rightful place as the Flyers’ once-heralded franchise starter in 2019-20. It feels obvious that last year was an exception to his otherwise solid career, but it was a still a pretty big flop of a season, and that’s hard to shake off.
Fletcher targeting the defense in the off-season is a calculated move, tightening up play in the team’s own end to see fewer shots getting through to Hart to begin with. However, both Ellis and Yandle are offensive defenders, which can lead to high risk play — something we’ve seen happen in San Jose over the last few seasons. Play like that necessitates a goaltender who is able to stand on his head when those risks result in a turnover going the other way. Martin Jones is certainly not that goaltender. Last season’s Carter Hart was not that goaltender, either.
But at times, they both have been before. The Flyers’ 5-on-5 offensive numbers last season were quite good. Even a small improvement in net could easily bounce them right into the thick of the playoff race, especially as they return to the Metropolitan Division.
That is, if the team culture is able to stick together and maintain those numbers, too.
The Sharks and Flyers will face off twice in the regular season, once at each of their home arenas. The Flyers will be the Sharks’ final opponent of 2021, with a game at SAP Center on December 30. A week later, the Sharks will visit Philly, wrapping up a four-game road trip on January 8, 2022.