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    Flyers mailbag: Evaluating the rebuild, trade deadline approaches, and John Tortorella

    Charlie O'Connor Avatar
    December 8, 2023

    Another month, another Flyers Mailbag.

    The focus this month turns to where the Flyers stand — currently second in the Metropolitan Division after the team’s 4-1 victory on Thursday night over the Arizona Coyotes — and the implications it brings for the team’s rebuild. What comes next for the organization, at the trade deadline and beyond?

    Let’s go to the questions.

    The short answer is that everything that the Flyers do on the ice has an impact on the rebuild, so yes.

    The long answer is far more complicated.

    This whole debate is really just two sides of an equation: Do the Flyers benefit more from:

    A. Long-term pieces raising their plausible ceilings for 2-3 years down the road

    OR

    B. A higher likelihood of getting the best players to come out of the next couple drafts

    The Flyers’ front office very much believes in A. Their viewpoint basically is that creating a culture focused on trying to squeeze the most out of the talent they have on hand makes it more likely that players like Tyson Foerster, Bobby Brink, Joel Farabee, Owen Tippett and Cam York will reach their ceilings as players, and the benefit that comes from that outcome is worth picking 14th instead of fifth or sixth in the 2024 draft.

    Is there a case to be made for B? Of course there is. It’s difficult for me to envision any of the young players currently on the Flyers roster having the ceiling of “best or second best player on a Cup contender,” which means what they’re really doing right now is developing the second and third tiers of a contending lineup. By not more thoroughly tearing down the roster last summer — and hiring/keeping John Tortorella as head coach — they’ve made a full-fledged bottoming-out of the roster far less likely. If this keeps up, they’re not getting any more top-5 picks (Matvei Michkov may have been taken at No. 7, but let’s be honest: he’s a top-5 caliber pick), which means they desperately need both Michkov and Gauthier to hit in order for this work — or, they need to find their top-of-the-lineup players in a lower percentage way, like selecting them with non-top five picks or making a big trade.

    As I’ve noted, this entire debate could ultimately be rendered unnecessary. For all of the consternation surrounding the Flyers and whether they are winning too many games, they entered Thursday still just out of a playoff spot by points percentage, and there’s still over two-thirds of a season left.

    But if the Flyers do keep winning, it doesn’t necessarily mean the rebuild can’t work. It would just change the formula a bit. They’d become a sound team with strong underlying stats lacking the star power to truly contend — but hoping against hope that Michkov and Gauthier’s arrivals will provide it, along with a few shrewd trades and signings from Briere.

    It’s an interesting question, because a distinction should be made here between “biggest hole in the organization” and “biggest hole in the farm system.”

    If we’re discussing the organization at large, I’d contend that the Flyers most desperately need a true No. 1 defenseman. Travis Sanheim has performed admirably in the role thus far this season, but his play has slipped in recent weeks, serving as a reminder that ideally, a team shouldn’t be giving him 26 minutes per night in all situations. Cam York is having a solid sophomore season, but he hasn’t flashed star-level potential; he looks more like another quality top-four blueliner. Oliver Bonk’s ceiling is probably that of a quality No. 2 — he’s hasn’t yet shown a dynamic, dominant element to his game, either.

    It’s far, far easier to contend for Stanley Cups if a team has that alpha-level blueliner. Look at the current favorites right now. The Rangers have Adam Fox. Boston has Charlie McAvoy. Carolina has Jaccob Slavin. Colorado has Cale Makar. Vegas has Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo. Dallas has Miro Heiskanen. Perhaps the only two contenders who don’t have true No. 1s are Toronto (Morgan Rielly is good, but not elite) and New Jersey (Dougie Hamilton is of that quality, but he could miss the rest of the season). The Flyers need a player like that in a big way.

    But if we’re talking about the farm system, I’d argue the biggest hole is down the middle. Obviously, Cutter Gauthier is the wildcard here — if he can stick at center in the NHL, then it’s not a hole at all. But the jury is still out on whether he’ll ultimately have to move over to wing when he goes pro. Aside from Gauthier, however? There’s very little there, and certainly not when it comes to top-half-of-the-lineup players. Elliot Desnoyers might be able to stick at center, but he’s a bottom-sixer. Cole Knuble (2023 fourth round pick) has center potential, but he also has only two points in 16 games as a freshman at Notre Dame.

    It’s theoretically possible that Massimo Rizzo could help in this regard, or maybe Denver Barkey takes the Brayden Point route to NHL stardom. But when your only clear-cut high-quality center prospect might not even be a center, it’s a major hole worth addressing.

    Don’t hold your breath. The Flyers front office is very happy with his bounceback season, Tortorella is still singing his praises, and Sanheim has a no-trade clause that would allow him to block any move.

    He’s happy here. The Flyers are happy with him. Sanheim isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

    For biggest surprise, I have to go with Sean Walker. A few months ago, he was a throw-in cap-dump for Los Angeles. Now, national insiders are talking about Walker as one of most coveted pieces potentially available at the trade deadline. By Evolving-Hockey’s xG RAPM model, no defenseman in the entire NHL has driven play better than Walker this season. He’s been an absolute monster, not merely bouncing back to his pre-injury form, but reaching an entirely new level.

    Biggest disappointment? I’ll go Noah Cates, who the Flyers were hoping to see take another step forward in Year 2 — this time offensively. Instead, they were on the verge of moving him back over to wing to try to break his early season scoring slump (four points in 21 games) and then he broke his foot, knocking him out of action for two months. It’s undeniably a speed bump in terms of his development, and while Cates is very much still part of the future in Philadelphia, he’ll need to have a strong second half if he wants that future to be more than just a depth defensive role.

    And for my favorite song? I’ll go with Salad by Blondshell. Great 90s alt-rock throwback with a fantastic vocal performance from Sabrina Teitelbaum.

    In some ways, he’s bounced back. Provorov has 15 points in 27 games, which would be his best per-game rate of his career, even accounting for the increased scoring environment of the past few seasons. And his even strength impact results have improved significantly from last year as well, when it became abundantly clear he wasn’t happy in Philadelphia.

    That said, it’s not like he’s blowing the doors off in Columbus, either. He’s basically just back to his pre-2022-23 form — fine, but nothing spectacular.

    All metrics even strength only. Percentiles in comparison to other NHL defensemen. All data courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.

    Provorov has clearly improved from 2022-23. But it’s not like a change of scenery has magically turned him into an elite blueliner.

    If the “who benefits from Gauthier having his ELC start in 2023-24?” question was a scale, it would certainly fall in Gauthier’s direction. There’s a reason why the player’s camp tends to be the one pushing for it. He gets to fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL as soon as possible, he gets money quicker, and he gets to his second NHL contract — presumably with a big raise, assuming he’s not a bust — a year sooner.

    There are some benefits for the team, however. First, as you hinted, it gets the player under contract. Sure, the team could call the agent’s bluff and hold firm to a 2024-25 contract start date, figuring that the player will ultimately cave because he wants to play in the NHL that badly. But there is a risk — however small — of the player simply returning to college out of frustration, and the subsequent bad blood between player and organization leading to a refusal-to-sign situation. It also could start the two camps out on the wrong foot; not an ideal scenario for the Flyers, who envision Gauthier as a long-term part of their future. They hope it won’t be the last time they’re negotiating with him on an important contract.

    Finally, the early-sign tactic does allow a player to get his feet wet at the NHL level, giving him an idea of what aspects of his game he should address in the summer, in order to be truly ready to earn a roster spot out of camp and thrive in an 82-game schedule. That’s a real benefit.

    I can’t see the Flyers buying. General manager Daniel Briere has been adamant about a patient approach to the rebuild, and while it may not be the outright tank that some fans wish he would embrace, I believe he’s committed to the idea of stockpiling assets and prioritizing the future, not the present.

    It really comes down to whether they sell or hold.

    If the Flyers fall out of the playoff race, they’re going to sell. Nick Seeler and Marc Staal to the highest bidder, and Sean Walker as the big prize. I imagine he’d listen on players like Cam Atkinson and Scott Laughton as well, and maybe even Carter Hart, if the Hockey Canada investigation is resolved.

    If they remain in a playoff spot or are just a point or two out, however? I personally would expect Briere to largely stand pat. Seeler and Staal (particularly the latter) likely still get moved as long as there are takers, but none of the key pieces from a leadership standpoint — those deals can wait until the summer, if Briere really wants to make one. Walker would be 50/50, because I can’t imagine the Flyers hold onto him unless they can come to terms on a new contract so they don’t risk losing him for nothing this summer. But I’d lean towards them finding a way to keep him, in part because if the Flyers are good enough to stay in playoff contention through early March, perhaps the rebuild isn’t going to take 4-5 years to produce a true contender after all.

    Let’s break it down into good and bad rebuild developments driven by Tortorella and his coaching staff.

    Good

    • Re-implementation of defensive structure and a successful 5-on-5 system, which aids in development of existing players
    • Keeping Tyson Foerster up with the big club, despite early scoring struggles
    • Regular playing time for Bobby Brink (21 out of 26 games) and Egor Zamula (19 of 26)
    • First pair minutes for Cam York
    • Heavy usage for Owen Tippett
    • Extracting more value than expected out of potential albatross contracts (Travis Sanheim, Rasmus Ristolainen) or negative-value assets (Sean Walker)

    Bad

    • Has the team playing well enough to knock them out of top-five and maybe even top-10 pick contention
    • The Morgan Frost situation
    • Occasional scratches of Brink and Zamula
    • Lower than ideal minutes for Joel Farabee given his statistical step forward

    It hasn’t been perfect, and there are certainly areas that can inspire reasonable criticism of Tortorella. But I’d give him a solid 7, because I think his impact has been mostly positive and I’m not of the belief that a rebuild that doesn’t involve getting four or five top-five picks is destined to fail. My guess is that those who do hold that belief would give him something like a 3 or 4, though.

    It would be absolutely fascinating to see Tortorella and Michkov interact.

    It’s certainly possible the two could get along swimmingly — Torts and Artemi Panarin clicked in Columbus, after all, and he was an offense-centric, hyper-creative Russian winger as well. Tortorella’s view is basically that if a player is going to be offense-only, he better produce a lot of offense, and Michkov absolutely has the upside to do just that. Maybe Tortorella largely leaves Michkov alone, while adding a bit more structure to his game to make him into one of the best players in hockey. That’s how he’s treated Travis Konecny — letting him do his thing, with just enough grumbling in the background to try and push him a bit more in Torts’ direction.

    Of course, there’s serious downside, too. Michkov isn’t a lazy player by any means, but he is far from a defensive stalwart. It’s not at all difficult to imagine the two butting heads over on-ice priorities and a lack of attention to structural detail. And that’s not even accounting for potential fan outrage — there’s already frustration that Morgan Frost is getting scratched. Imagine if Torts decides to scratch the Mad Russian for a game in his rookie season to make a point, particularly a home game? The backlash would be enormous.

    In conclusion, I think a Tortorella/Michkov marriage could work, and not only that, could be very beneficial to his development. But the Flyers would need to keep a close eye on the situation, because they can’t afford for their head coach to torpedo their best chance at a superstar since Eric Lindros.

    Don’t worry about the timing with regards to the cap ceiling. Konecny’s new deal won’t kick in until 2025-26 regardless of when it’s signed, and trust me, agents are baking the expected cap increase into negotiations already. The Flyers aren’t going to get a bargain by signing Konecny now versus this time next year — both teams and agents are already accounting for it.

    All that said, the Flyers are still going to have to make a decision on Konecny at some point in the not-so-distant future, so when will they do it? I would be very surprised to see the Flyers trade Konecny at this trade deadline, given his important role on the team and the fact that they certainly don’t have to trade him now. They could wait until the summer, or even next season’s trade deadline, and still get a haul of assets back for him.

    My guess is that once the season is over, the Flyers will circle up with Konecny’s camp and see what their initial demands would be on a new contract. They can’t sign him until July 1, but they can certainly talk. That will likely influence their approach to the summer. If they believe his demands are outlandish, they’ll likely at least quietly shop him. Or maybe they’ll make the decision after the season that he doesn’t fit their future plans, regardless of his ask. In any case, I think they’ll have a pretty good idea by June what they want to do with Konecny — whether they see him as part of the next great Flyers team, or as an asset that can help them build said team.

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