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Morgan Frost didn’t need to say all of the right things on Monday morning.
In the wake of being scratched for six consecutive games, he had every right to be frustrated. Sure, Frost hadn’t exactly played his best hockey against Columbus and Ottawa to kick off the 2023-24 season. But neither had many of his teammates, especially against the Senators, who outworked and outplayed the Flyers to the tune of a 5-2 final score. Yet even as the Philadelphia coaching staff juggled their defensemen to ensure that even a clearly-struggling Emil Andrae got regular games, Frost hadn’t dressed since October 14.
Frost could have sulked. He could have griped to his agent, or through back channels to national media members. In short, he could have went into full complain mode, fueled by his own discontent and the daily check-in texts from his mother during the 15 days he spent out of the Flyers’ lineup.
Instead, he waited. And on Monday, Morgan Frost finally got back into the Philadelphia lineup.
“I’ve been wanting to get Frosty in, because he didn’t do anything terrible to be out, he wasn’t benched. Other guys played better,” head coach John Tortorella noted before Monday’s practice, just hours before puck drop against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Let’s be clear: Tortorella did bench Frost in the classic sense, even if that’s not the way that the Flyers’ head coach would personally characterize it. It took a 7-4 defeat at the hands of the club that posted the worst record in hockey last season for Tortorella to prioritize getting Frost back in the lineup. That’s a benching.
Perhaps the initial intent wasn’t to sit Frost for two weeks — but then the Flyers took apart Vancouver and Edmonton, hung right with two Stanley Cup contenders in Dallas and Vegas, and blasted a good Minnesota club, leading Tortorella to fall back on the classic head coach inclination to not mess with line combinations when a team is clicking.
Which put Frost in an unenviable position, even beyond the fact that he wasn’t able to play. Frost wanted his teammates to play well and win — but if they kept winning, he’d never play. It was a situation tailor-made for internal drama, especially given the stakes for Frost, who desperately wants to make his case on the ice that his step-forward season in 2022-23 (46 points in 81 games) was no fluke and that he can take an even larger step this year.
But Frost remained the good soldier.
“I thought Frosty handled it really well,” Scott Laughton noted. “Didn’t let it affect him, was a good guy around the room, worked hard after practice and stuff. That’s all you can really do is control how hard you work, how good of a teammate you are. I thought he did that.”
“I didn’t want to be coming to the rink and being negative and having a bad effect on my teammates,” Frost said. “They were playing amazing. It is what it is. I’m not gonna sit here and say I was happy about it, because I wasn’t. But I think I stayed positive. I’m excited to get back in.”
Frost’s return game on Monday night qualified as fine. When he was on the ice, the Flyers largely controlled play at five-on-five (77.95 percent expected goal share, per Evolving-Hockey), and were especially impressive in the third period. Frost himself led the team in chance creation (0.72 xG) and drew a penalty in the final stanza. But there were still the scattered turnovers that plague Frost at times, and his return failed to boost the power play, which went 0-for-5 in the 3-2 defeat.
In other words, it was a performance that was ideal fodder for online debates: enough impressive plays to encourage Frost’s biggest defenders, but lacking the kind of no-doubt-about-it evidence that would fully convince his detractors.
The shame of it is, even as Frost has become the leading cause of strife in Flyers fan circles — the one name that is destined to spark angry invective from both sides of the divide — Frost himself would like nothing more than to simply put his head down and play hockey. He signed a two-year extension in the offseason rather than push for a change of scenery. He supported his teammates behind closed doors over the past two weeks even as his own personal frustration level surely continued to rise with every scratch. And he even confirmed on Monday that he remains fully committed to staying in Philadelphia, rather than rocking the boat and asking his agent to begin advocating for a potential trade.
“I don’t want to go anywhere. I think I made that pretty clear.” Frost said. “Even when talking to my agent or whoever else it may be, I never had any intention of that. I can’t control what management does. But obviously I didn’t ask for a trade, I don’t want to get traded. I love it here. I love playing here.”
At least for now, the Flyers organization wants him here, too. My understanding is that to this point, they haven’t entered into serious trade negotiations with any club, even those who called to check in on his availability in the wake of the extended scratching. He clicks in the room. General manager Daniel Briere remains a Frost fan. And even Tortorella made an effort over the past few weeks to tone down his public rhetoric regarding Frost, even as he continued to sit him, in what played as an attempt to keep the situation salvageable.
But it’s undeniable that Tortorella still isn’t quite sold on Frost. That was the case even in the second half of last season, as Frost led the team in scoring over the final 54 games. Tortorella’s praise continued to have a grudging vibe, even when acknowledging Frost’s clear improvements.
“We know he has skill,” Tortorella said in late March. “We need to keep on seeing the skill. For a coach to put a player on the ice that he’s still not sure of, that other stuff has to be sound, and I think he’s really improved there.”
If Tortorella was still “not sure of” Frost even as he spent months racking up more points than any other Flyer, it’s easy to understand why Frost was the player he selected to sit after just two games to get both Bobby Brink and Tyson Foerster in the lineup at the same time.
So what would convince Tortorella? When asked on Monday what he wanted to see out of the 24-year old center, the Flyers’ head coach went back to a long-discussed critique.
“Yeah, I just want to see pace,” Tortorella explained. “We’re really trying to push the pace. We’re trying to be a pressure team. We want to play fast. I just want to see him join in that way. We’ll see where it goes.”
It’s not an unfair criticism, and it’s one that has dogged Frost for years, dating back to his time as a prospect. In fact, some scouts incorrectly tagged Frost as an average skater as a result, because all too often, they watched him deliberately lug the puck up ice, preferring to constantly scan passing lines rather than attack at his (actually quite impressive) full speed. Frost wasn’t slow — he just played slow, with the knowledge that backcheckers in juniors weren’t going to catch him anyway, a luxury he wouldn’t have at the pro level.
But Frost has worked on the pace problem, and even on Monday night, he showcased the urgency that allowed him to produce 40 points in 54 games to close out 2023-24. It was most noticeable on the power play, where Frost did legitimately help the Flyers gain the offensive zone with control on numerous occasions, using his combination of speed and creativity to push back opposing defenders. Philadelphia’s PP problem on Monday wasn’t gaining the zone; it was creating quality chances once there, and Frost’s presence did contribute to their improvement in the former. It’s not like Frost isn’t trying to follow the instructions of his coaches.
In reality, the pace critique strikes me as more of a stand-in for Frost’s bigger obstacle, a tangible area that the coaches can cite when talking with Frost instead of discussing the more nebulous elephant in the room: Frost’s long-term fit with the organization.
Right now, Frost does have a spot as one of the team’s top three centers. But out of the three, Frost’s long-term hold on a job appears the most tenuous. Sean Couturier may not be all the way back yet as a play-driving monster, but he has eight points in nine games thus far and (more importantly) has seven years remaining on a massive $62 million contract that includes a no-movement clause; most likely, Couturier isn’t going anywhere. Noah Cates last season provided similar offensive totals (eight fewer points) while grading out as far better defensively, and as long as Tortorella remains in the mix, Cates isn’t going anywhere.
That leaves Frost as the offense-first center in their mix, except 46 points in 81 games isn’t exactly standout production for a player with little two-way value. Without a further scoring leap, it probably won’t be enough to keep top prospect Cutter Gauthier from taking Frost’s spot down the middle once he signs his entry-level contract and turns pro — which could happen as soon as next spring.
Could they move Frost to the wing down the road? It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but the Flyers are stocked with quality prime-age wingers right now as well, and they have Matvei Michkov coming for one spot down the road too. Also, Tortorella threw cold water on the idea on Monday.
“I think (he’s a) center,” Tortorella confirmed.
Which likely plays into why the Flyers continue to push Frost to up his pace even further, and why Tortorella wasn’t satisfied with a 46-point season the way Frost’s biggest fans were. Right now, Frost is a perfectly solid middle-six scoring center. But in two or three years, there’s a good chance the Flyers won’t have a spot for a merely good player of that ilk. If Frost is going to stick in Philadelphia as a one-way scorer, he’s going to have to score a lot, in order to convince the Flyers that they simply need to find a place for him — whether it’s moving Gauthier over to the wing, or opening up a long-term top-nine wing spot by moving out someone like Travis Konecny or Owen Tippett.
They’re not going to do that for 46-point Frost, even if another team might find that player quite valuable. They might do it for a more pacey, complete 60-70 point Frost, though — which is want they’ll continue to demand that Frost become.
Frost, to his credit, wants to make it work in Philadelphia.
“I’m not gonna overreact or get too overwhelmed with it,” he said. “Like I said, it sucks. But at the same time, I want to make it here and I want to be part of this group.”
And based on Tortorella’s comments on Monday, it doesn’t seem like he’s going to pull the plug on Frost’s return to the lineup after just one game. He’s going to give Frost a little leeway.
“I’m certainly cognizant of how much time he’s been out. I’m not an idiot,” Tortorella said. “I think it’s going to take a little time for him to get back to it.”
But Tortorella’s decision to sit Frost for two weeks didn’t come out of nowhere. Part of it probably stems from Tortorella’s negative first impression of Frost at the start of last season, and the lingering skepticism when it comes to Frost’s game. But underpinning it all is very real, justified uncertainty regarding whether Frost fits what both he and the Flyers are trying to build over the long-term.
And if Frost truly wants to be part of that, he clearly still has work to do in order to win over his coach, and ensure his name is written into future Philadelphia depth charts with ink rather than pencil.
“I think I can make a big impact here,” he asserted. “I think it’s just a little bump in the road.”