Where has it all gone wrong for the Flyers, and where do they go from here?
There is no team in the NHL that brings more chaotic energy to every season than the Philadelphia Flyers. There is always a coaching change, or a blockbuster move, or a 10-game winning streak, or a 10-game losing streak lurking just around the corner. Sometimes all at once. Sometimes, like this season, all in the same season.
The Flyers enter Tuesday’s game against the New York Islanders riding an eight-game losing streak (their second such losing streak of the season) and sit near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. They have already made a coaching change, and barring some kind of insane second half run the playoffs would seem to be an extreme long shot. That would make it three times in four years where they finish on the outside of the playoff picture and the sixth time in 10 years. It is not great.
This season has to be particularly frustrating because there really did seem to be a path to return to the playoffs at the start. They had a wildly busy offseason that saw them overhaul their defense and trade Jakub Voracek for Cam Atkinson, while there was hope for some bounce back seasons from core players like Travis Konecny and Carter Hart. Hart seemed to be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle given how much his struggles a year ago impacted the team, as well as his upside at the most impactful position on the ice. And while he has been better this season, it has not been enough to make up for everything else that has gone wrong.
So let’s dig in a little.
The defensive overhaul has not gone as planned
This is where most of the roster overhaul happened.
- They traded Philippe Myers (and Nolan Patrick) as part of the deal to acquire Ryan Ellis.
- They gave away multiple draft picks to convince Arizona to take on the remainder of Shayne Gostisbehere’s contract.
- Keith Yandle was added in free agency.
- They traded a first-round pick and Robert Hagg to the Buffalo Sabres for Rasmus Ristolainen.
The results have been ugly. A big part of the problem is that Ellis -- an outstanding two-way player when healthy -- has been limited to just four games this season. He was supposed to be the big offseason addition, and at the time and on paper it seemed like a strong move. With better luck, it could have been. Ellis has five points in the four games he has played while also posting strong underlying numbers, but he just has not been available to make a difference.
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Beyond the Ellis injury, Yandle has struggled to find any consistency (and taking him out of the lineup seems to be off the table, at least for now, given his consecutive games streak) while the Ristolainen deal was curious at the time given his struggles in Buffalo.
The result of all of this? One of the league’s worst defensive teams across the board. Just look at where the Flyers rank in several defensive categories during 5-on-5 play.
- Total shot attempts against per 60 minute: 31st (61.01)
- Shots on goal against per 60 minutes: 31st (34.3)
- Expected goals against per 60 minutes: 32nd (2.80)
- Scoring chances against per 60 minutes: 31st (31.1)
- High-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes: 32nd (13.19)
- Goals against per 60 minutes: 24th (2.65)
Those are bad numbers and significantly worse than they were a year ago. The team has taken a decisive step backwards defensively, and given how bad the shot and scoring chance numbers are it is a testament to how well the goaltending has been that the goals against numbers are not even worse.
Injuries, COVID, and regression
It is not just the defensive failures that have left them here. They were one of the many teams that saw their lineup get decimated for a stretch by COVID protocols, while injuries have robbed them of some key players for significant stretches including Sean Couturier and Ellis. In the games Couturier has played, his offensive production is at its lowest level in years.
Then there is the matter of Travis Konecny.
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During the 2019-20 season he scored 24 goals in 66 games and was nearly a point-per-game player (61 points in 66 games) in what was a breakout year offensively. When the NHL returned to play in the bubble he was mired in a goal scoring slump that saw him score zero goals in 16 games. He has not yet rediscovered his scoring touch. Starting with that 2019-20 postseason he has just 17 goals in his past 112 games, including only six in 36 games this season. His goal on Monday snapped what had been a 20-game goal drought. It is a confounding stretch when you consider that his underlying numbers are still among the best on the team while he is generating more shots on goal per game than at any point in his career. His assist numbers are also still in line with his career averages. But he can not buy a goal. That is a problem.
Add in a lack of quality depth beyond the top forwards and a power play that is one of the least potent in the league with some of the worst shot generation and, well, you have the current offensive predicament.
It is an already flawed roster that has had some bad luck compound the issues while their roll of the dice on defense backfired very, very badly.
Time to trade Claude Giroux?
When a team is in this position in the standings at this point in the season trades seem inevitable, but the options for major moves seem very limited. Most of their pending UFAs are on defense and probably have very limited value. They are probably going to get back less for Ristolainen than they gave up for him, while Yandle and Justin Braun will probably not fetch major returns.
At forward, Couturier is probably still an untouchable, while James van Riemsdyk and Kevin Hayes have contracts that probably make them tough to trade. Dealing Konecny now would be insane because his value is at an all-time low and there are enough signs that he could still bounce back. If he does, you want it to be for you and not somebody else after you trade him too soon.
Then we get to Giroux. He is a pending unrestricted free agent after this season, is still playing at a high level that would be attractive to Stanley Cup contenders, and as the folks at Broad Street Hockey argued on Tuesday they probably owe it to him to give him a chance to win a Stanley Cup. It is the perfect trade situation where not even the most loyal Flyers fan could be too mad about it. Team is going nowhere, he is a free agent, he can bring a good return, he gets a chance to win. Seems like a no-brainer and the obvious trade.