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    Flyers mailbag: Trevor Zegras, Chuck Fletcher, and the trade deadline

    Charlie O'Connor Avatar
    January 26, 2024

    The original plan was to run the January edition of our PHLY Flyers Mailbag sometime during the second week of the month.

    Then, the Cutter Gauthier trade happened, and it was pushed back.

    Next, I aimed to work on the mailbag the start of this week. Instead, my focus turned entirely to Carter Hart’s leave of absence, and its troubling potential implication.

    But now, at long last, the January Flyers Mailbag is ready, and it’s a beefy one, with a whopping 20 questions. And this is just Part 1 — keep an eye out for Part 2 over the next few days, which is the Diehard-only Mailbag for our members.

    What I will say is that it would make sense. I haven’t heard anything specifically linking the Flyers to Zegras, but during his interview with PHLY on Monday, president of hockey operations Keith Jones did strongly imply that the organization is now prioritizing the center position over defenseman in the wake of the Jamie Drysdale trade.

    The Flyers need young centers with 1C potential. Zegras is absolutely that. So Flyers GM Daniel Briere would be foolish not to at least take a shot at acquiring him.

    What would I put on the table for Zegras? Well, a first round pick presumably would be the cost of even getting into the conversation for a player with the upside of Zegras. Morgan Frost would be a logical piece to include as well, given his struggles to fully convince Tortorella of his quality, and the fact that Zegras would simply slide right into Frost’s current role of offense-oriented center anyway. So let’s say a first + Frost is the starting point.

    Beyond those two pieces? I’d expect Anaheim would push for another asset of first round quality, whether it be a second first round pick or a prospect of equivalent value. Obviously Matvei Michkov would be off the table in terms of prospects, and I’d do my best to avoid losing Oliver Bonk as well. But I’d be open to discussing pretty much anyone else in the prospect pool (though I’d really like to keep Denver Barkey).

    As for the fit under Tortorella, I’m sure it would be rocky at times. Zegras isn’t exactly a defensive stalwart, and certainly is more a finesse/skill type than one of Torts’ beloved chippy grinders. But I do think the two could make it work, especially now that the coaching staff has the Flyers playing a fast-paced, rush-oriented style, which does fit with how Zegras likes to play. It might even prove to be an ideal fit, if Tortorella could push Zegras to fully round out his game and be more of a play-driver at 5-on-5 rather than just a point producer.

    I believe the Flyers should look to be strategic sellers. I wouldn’t advocate they look to trade any core pieces — the team has played well enough to convince me that this rebuild doesn’t necessarily require a five-year timeline before the club is remotely competitive, which means that players like Travis Konecny could actually fit and don’t need to be rushed out of town. But I do believe they should look to sell pieces who don’t fit even with an accelerated rebuild timeline.

    Sean Walker is the obvious piece I would look to move; he’s a rental and makes little sense to re-sign now that Jamie Drysdale is in the fold. I’d also gauge the market for Nick Seeler — if a team is willing to offer at least a third round pick for him, I’d trade him as well. If even one viable offer for Marc Staal pops up, he’s gone as well. Beyond those three? I’d seriously listen on Cam Atkinson, though I’m skeptical he’ll have much of a market until the summer when the NHL cap ceiling jumps by $4 million.

    But yes, I believe the Flyers should be sellers. Not “trade everything not nailed down” sellers, but sellers nonetheless — especially given the fact that they currently have too many quality defensemen, and just sent Bobby Brink down to the AHL in large part because there isn’t a nightly lineup spot available for him. Ideally, Briere can use the trade deadline to simultaneously accumulate assets and clear out his roster logjam.

    Oh man, now here’s a fascinating question.

    Chuck Fletcher isn’t merely viewed with disdain by most Flyers fans these days. People downright loathe the guy. He became the symbol of the team’s collapse in the aftermath of the pandemic. His attempts to right the ship consistently flopped, and in his final season, he was seemingly trying to sell the fans on the idea that things weren’t nearly as bad as they actually were, essentially playing the role of Kevin Bacon’s character at the end of Animal House.

    It is worth noting, however, that the 2023-24 season does hint that Fletcher wasn’t totally wrong to believe in the Flyers’ talent pool.

    What was Fletcher’s plan heading into 2022-23, after all? He thought that a healthy Flyers club with Sean Couturier back and a quality head coach getting the most out of a group of young players could be in the mix for a playoff spot. That’s more or less what has happened in 2023-24 — it’s just that this time, Couturier actually was able to play (as was Cam Atkinson, another piece Fletcher was depending upon).

    In addition, quite a few of Fletcher’s moves are looking much better now than they did back when he was relieved of his duties in March 2023. The Claude Giroux trade — which brought back Owen Tippett — appears to be a masterstroke, especially given the fact that Giroux was only willing to go to one team. The Joel Farabee contract looks like a big win; the Travis Sanheim extension at the very least doesn’t look like a total disaster. Nick Seeler is proving to be a legitimate find; Fletcher basically plucked him out of possible retirement. Rasmus Ristolainen has indeed remade his game to the point where he is a useful defensive defenseman, just as Fletcher believed he could. Draft picks like Tyson Foerster, Bobby Brink and Samu Tuomaala are looking like shrewd ones. In retrospect, there was more good in Fletcher’s tenure than most realized.

    But let’s not give him too much credit. The Kevin Hayes signing didn’t work as intended. The Tony DeAngelo acquisition was a predictable disaster. Fletcher’s inability or unwillingness to trade Ivan Provorov is looking even more foolish with time. The fact that these Flyers have excelled with good coaching speaks to how poorly coached past teams were, with Fletcher’s hires running the show.

    Most importantly, Fletcher either refused or was not permitted to accept the reality of the situation in 2022-23 — that the Flyers needed to do a full-fledged reset and commit to a rebuilding strategy. His entire “plan” from March 2022 onward — trade Giroux, re-sign Ristolainen, pass on Gaudreau, spend assets to acquire DeAngelo, sign Nicolas Deslauriers, re-sign Sanheim — lacked any coherence whatsoever, and rightfully led to his ouster.

    So does this season provide a bit of redemption for Fletcher? Maybe! But let’s not be too charitable. If the Flyers were still holding to Fletcher’s “half-in, half-out” team-building plan, there would be little reason to have hope for the organization’s future, even with the team on the ice looking as surprisingly competitive as it has this season.

    I wouldn’t expect that kind of move at the deadline. Briere straight up said on Wednesday that he didn’t have another blockbuster trade comparable to the Cutter Gauthier deal on the immediate horizon, and while big deals can come together fast, it seems unlikely one would come together that fast.

    The offseason, though? It’s possible. President of Hockey Operations Keith Jones said in our interview with him earlier this week that center is now a priority position for them — probably the top priority position. And if a team wants to trade for a center with top-six potential, a first round pick will almost certainly be part of the cost. They’re not going to trade high-end assets for rental players, but would they relinquish a first for an under-25 center who they believe fits with the rebuild timeline? Sure, I absolutely think they would do that.

    The big reason is fit. Seeler at least in theory has a spot on this blueline moving forward. Walker basically doesn’t.

    Look at the Flyers’ right-side on defense now. Jamie Drysdale is going to get top-4 minutes. Rasmus Ristolainen is under contract for another three seasons. Travis Sanheim appears to be more effective on the right side, or he at least has been this season. And then there’s prospect Oliver Bonk, who might not be ready for a couple years, but certainly will need a spot on this blueline for development purposes once he’s ready to make the jump.

    Walker has been very impressive this season, and I’d agree that he’s outshined Seeler. But Drysdale simply pushes him out. They pretty much have their three right-side blueliners in the short-term, and over the long-term, Bonk and maybe even Ronnie Attard will be in the mix. Trading Walker would be trading from a surplus, which is why it makes so much sense.

    As for Seeler, it’s much easier to envision him fitting long-term as a third-pair/regular healthy scratch hybrid. He would be the utility “culture guy” on the back end, and while I do have concerns that a re-signed Seeler will block prospects like Emil Andrae and even Bonk, there’s a way to make it work, as long as the coaches are willing to view Seeler as not necessarily an every-night player and Seeler is willing to accept a reasonable cap figure. It’s difficult to see any way they can make Walker work, given the pieces on defense they already have in the organization.

    I think the best answer here is maybe. They certainly aren’t lacking for young talent in the organization — Drysdale, York, Bonk, Andrae, Zamula. That gives them a lot of chances to develop a true No. 1.

    I’m skeptical that any of these guys will turn into that kind of player, though Drysdale certainly shows flashes and Bonk could exceed pre-draft expectations. But in the here and now, I think the best move is to keep developing their young defensemen, hope that one of them turns into a No. 1, and if none do, attack the trade market and try to get that guy from elsewhere.

    I agree with Jones that center is now the bigger organization priority. They at least have a few plausible internal paths to getting that No. 1 d-man. They essentially have zero paths to getting a long-term 1C, aside from Morgan Frost taking an enormous leap in his mid-20s or Sean Couturier discovering the fountain of youth and actually improving in his thirties. It’s not that the Flyers should stop drafting defensemen with high picks — given the depth at the position in this draft, a blueliner very well could be the best player available when the Flyers select. But with Drysdale on board, center now is the bigger organizational hole.

    Personally, I expect Briere will wait until closer to the deadline. He made it clear on Wednesday that he’s not going to give away his players — he’s going to hold them unless teams are willing to pay what Briere deems to be fair value.

    Is it possible that another team panics and caves to Briere’s demand a few weeks early? Sure. But deadlines spur action, and usually the best offers aren’t made until contenders have the pressure of running out of time to make an add.

    Zero percent on all of them (especially Hart now). Couturier has a full no-movement clause, so they couldn’t trade him without his permission even if they wanted to move him (and they don’t). As for Konecny, a decision on his future with the Flyers is going to have to be made at some point — his contract expires in 2025 — but it doesn’t need to happen now, with the team in the midst of a playoff race. I cannot imagine Briere sells his best player in March unless the return is absolutely gargantuan.

    The latter. One thing I’ve heard a lot over the past few months from multiple people within the Flyers organization is to look at Travis Sanheim when evaluating the development of defensemen. He’s just becoming the best version of himself (in their minds, at least) at age 27. It can take time at that position, they believe.

    So no, I didn’t hear that Jonesy comment as a Freudian slip regarding the length of the rebuild. It more speaks to the internal belief that the development timeline for blueliners is long, and Drysdale might not be a true finished product and showcase his actual ceiling until his mid-20s.

    Trevor Zegras is obviously at the top of the list, given his talent and plausible availability. I’d check in on Quinton Byfield, Kent Johnson and Shane Wright, too, though I have doubts any of them would actually be available.

    I imagine if there’s interest in Marc Staal, he’ll be moved — he’s essentially the No. 8 defenseman right now and if he wants to play for a team where he can, you know, actually play, I suspect Briere will try to oblige.

    Beyond Walker, Seeler and Staal as possible options? I suspect they may at least gauge interest in Cam Atkinson. Torts loves him, but he’s shown signs of his age this year (recent surge aside) and doesn’t really fit the Flyers’ long-term timeline. Tortorella talked in his recent interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Ashlyn Sullivan about getting emotional when discussing which players might need to be moved because timeline factors — I couldn’t help but wonder if he was acknowledging that one of his favorite players on the team might not fit, especially given the looming need to develop natural RWs in their system at the NHL level, like Brink and Samu Tuomaala.

    I’m skeptical of the idea that the Flyers could “sell high” on Atkinson at all. Yes, he’s in the midst of a hot streak (10 points in six games) and that could reassure other GMs that he’s not flat out cooked. But other teams know that Atkinson is 34 years old (going on 35) and probably is more of a 20-25 goal scorer now than the 30+ guy he was in his prime. They also know his cap hit isn’t exactly small ($5.875 million) and he’s under contract for another year after this year.

    Opposing GMs aren’t exactly going to be banging down Briere’s door for Atkinson, even in the midst of a hot streak.

    That said, the cap ceiling is rising this summer, and Atkinson is a high-character veteran player who can still help a team in a depth role. Teams could have interest, either now or in the summer. I just question the narrative of “he’s hot, trade him now!” that pops up on social media. If a team trades for him, it’s not because they were heavily influenced by this recent resurgence. It’s because they think this lesser version of Atkinson still can provide them some value.

    I’m sure the players in the locker room will be bummed if the front office makes some subtractions at the deadline. But in the here and now, I don’t believe they’re focused on what might happen. The mantra from every player over the past two months has been “one day at a time,” and I doubt they’re thinking about Tortorella’s comments in a television interview much at all right now.

    Now, if trades do happen, could that jolt the room in a negative way? Sure, it’s happened before. Jones was asked this very question in our interview this week, and he basically responded that the front office has been open with the players from the start that the organization is taking a future-focused approach, and he believes that forthrightness — and the strength of the room — will prevent against any sort of post-trade deadline collapse into despair if someone like Sean Walker gets moved. But only time will tell if he’s right.

    My read is that the only way the Flyers “stand pat” at the deadline is if the offers they receive on their rental players are thoroughly underwhelming. If the best offer they get for Sean Walker is a third round pick and teams are only willing to go as high as a fifth for Nick Seeler, sure, I could see Briere telling teams that he’d rather just keep them to help out the team’s playoff push and give the youngsters more experience in meaningful games. But I get the sense that Briere wants to be making trades and accumulating assets. Teams are just going to have to pay up.

    I believe the answer to both of these questions is yes. Tortorella has done a fantastic job this season, in terms of maximizing the talent on hand and transitioning the club into playing a more open, attacking style. He also has them skating with the structure and commitment to defense that they lost in the wake of the organization’s post-pandemic collapse. He’s clearly “the coach” for this team.

    That said, look at what Montgomery has done in Boston. In Year 1, he won 65 games with a Boston club that entered the season projected by many to do battle for the wild card. This year, the Bruins have the best record in the Eastern Conference, despite the retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci and the fact that their top centers are Charlie Coyle and Pavel Zacha, who ideally are both 3Cs. Montgomery is a fantastic coach, and his work has only cemented my belief from the summer of 2022 that he should have been the Flyers’ top choice for HC. It’s not a slight against Torts, but more a testament to Montgomery and what he’s done in Boston.

    Briere made it clear on Wednesday that for as long as Carter Hart is on leave this season, it’s Sam Ersson’s net. As for the backup job, Cal Petersen is getting first crack at it, but I imagine if he struggles, they’ll give Felix Sandström a go. They clearly see him as a passable NHL option, given the fact that they waited over a month to waive him this season out of fear that he could get claimed. He’s still on their radar.

    Over the long-term? That all depends on how the Hart situation plays out. If he returns because his leave of absence had nothing to do with pending legal issues, he’ll jump right back into a timeshare with Ersson. If Hart doesn’t return, it wouldn’t at all shock me if the Flyers look into signing a quality backup in free agency this summer to give Ersson some support. They won’t want to throw him to the wolves from a workload standpoint.

    I personally think Brad Shaw would make a fine NHL head coach. He’s done an absolutely fantastic job coaching the penalty kill and defense, and deserves a look to see if that teaching acumen could translate into an HC role.

    That said, I don’t believe he’s necessarily viewed as the natural successor to Tortorella. For starters, based on what Jones said in our Monday interview when asked about the Craig Berube-to-Philly rumors, Torts isn’t going anywhere just yet. They seem to expect he’ll be coaching the Flyers for quite a few more years at least.

    Also, it’s worth remembering that Shaw is 59 years old — just six years younger than Tortorella, who people are already speculating could be retiring or moving into an advisory role in the not-so-distant future. If Shaw has to wait a few years for Tortorella to do just that before he gets his shot, would the Flyers just be replacing one short-term coach with another? Maybe. It would have to be a consideration, at the very least.

    Here’s what I will say: Bonk is certainly making a strong case this season that he was the right choice. He now has 49 points in 35 games for a very good London Knights team, showcasing the kind of offensive upside that many scouts feared he didn’t have. Combine that with his steady defensive skills — that few in the game ever question — and Bonk is looking like a very good blueline prospect.

    Should Perreault have been the pick? On draft day, he was my preference. His production at the USNTDP was astounding, and players with plausible star-level upside don’t usually slip to No. 22. That said, there are legitimate concerns surrounding Perreault’s NHL upside, mostly due to his relatively small frame and mediocre skating ability to go along with it. That’s not a package that tends to translate well to the pro game.

    So far, Perreault is still flourishing — he has 34 points in 21 games as a college freshman at Boston College, and racked up 10 points in seven games at World Juniors. Maybe he will be Claude Giroux 2.o — a player whose elite vision and puck skills allows him to overcome a lack of elite physical traits. But it’s no guarantee. Add in the fact that Bonk plays in London, an ideal spot for development given the quality of their program and the strong bond between Keith Jones and head coach/owner Dale Hunter, and it’s easy to see why the Flyers went with Bonk over Perreault, who was poised to spend at least a season listening to Cutter Gauthier in his locker room speak on why he soured on the organization.

    Trades for picks are certainly easier to execute, and the Flyers would certainly love to head to the draft in Vegas with three first round picks in their back pocket rather than just two.

    But I think it’s fair to characterize Briere as a much more creative GM than Chuck Fletcher was, at least based on his track record so far. He’ll look at reclamation project types, I’m sure.

    That said, the Flyers don’t have many more NHL spots available for developing outsiders. The defense is pretty full, especially accounting for the fact that they’ll need to make spots available for Emil Andrae and Ronnie Attard and (eventually) Oliver Bonk. I’m not sure they’d necessarily be able to handle yet another youngster who needs regular NHL playing time and still properly develop all of Drysdale, York, Zamula and the looming prospects.

    They have a little bit more space up front, but they did just send Bobby Brink down in large part because their roster crunch hasn’t afforded him enough playing time. If they’re going to add more reclamation projects and give them the developmental focus necessarily to truly reclaim them, Briere would probably have to move out a few veterans, like Cam Atkinson or Scott Laughton. Just keep in mind that the Flyers can’t go after every project player out there — there’s only so many spots in an NHL lineup.

    Sure would be nice!

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