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It took all of nine days for the Great 2023-24 Morgan Frost Scratch Saga to return in full force. Hopefully, everyone enjoyed the brief respite.
Frost, he of the 46 points in 81 games in 2022-23, entered this season with hopes of building upon what to that point had been the breakout NHL season of his career. It started off innocently enough — an uneventful training camp and solid point production in the preseason. But after two ineffective games to kick off the actual campaign, head coach John Tortorella took the drastic step of removing Frost from the Flyers lineup altogether and sending him up to the press box — where he’d remain for six consecutive games.
“Other guys are playing better,” Tortorella bluntly said in the immediate wake of the first scratching. “There’s not too much science to my thinking when it comes to lineup decisions.”
And now, after four games back in the Flyers’ lineup, Morgan Frost has been scratched yet again.
The case for Frost’s removal from Philadelphia’s lineup isn’t difficult to construct on the surface. In six games this season, Frost has zero points, and his primary (arguably only) job in the Flyers forward corps is to create offense. He’s a point producer who isn’t producing points. And with center Sean Couturier set to return to action on Tuesday night, a center needs to make way for him. So, scratch the player who already was on the lineup bubble who plays that position and has yet even once this season to do the main thing he’s in the lineup to do. Sure, makes sense.
Scratch just a little bit below that surface, though, and the case looks more and more nonsensical.
First off, by both public metrics and my personal eye test, Frost isn’t even playing that badly. During those first two games that earned Frost his initial healthy scratch, he was legitimately ineffective. Since returning to the Flyers’ lineup last Monday, though? Philadelphia has collected 69.62 percent of the expected goals at five-on-five with Frost on the ice — the best mark among top-nine forwards. The points weren’t there, but he was regularly setting up his linemates for quality scoring chances — namely, his most frequent linemate, Tyson Foerster. It’s not Frost’s fault that Foerster is downright snakebitten at the moment, to the point where the coaches are putting Foerster — whose best attribute is his plus shot — at netfront on the PP in hopes that a puck might bounce off him and end his slump.
Has Frost been perfect? Of course not. I’d like to see him deferring a bit less to linemates and trying to create more scoring chances for himself. He also hasn’t done much to help the PP beyond aiding in the team’s entries into the offensive zone, though in Frost’s defense, the decision by the coaches to test the slight playmaker out at netfront on Saturday didn’t do him any favors. But solely based on the last four games, is Frost the forward most deserving of a scratch?
I’d argue no.
Compare Frost’s recent play to that of fellow center Noah Cates, as an alternative. Both players have been held scoreless over the past week. But unlike Frost, who has helped the Flyers to a significant scoring chance edge at five-on-five, Cates’ on-ice xG share is way down at an ugly 41.51 percent over his past four games, lowest among Philadelphia forwards. He committed backbreaking third period turnovers in back-to-back games on Monday and Wednesday, and finished with a -3 by plus/minus on Saturday.
Now, to be clear — I don’t want the Flyers scratching Noah Cates! He’s earned lineup security due to his strong 2022-23 campaign and overall upward developmental trajectory. But the same could be said for Frost, who led the Flyers in scoring in the second half of last season. If someone has to be benched for Couturier, and the past four games matters more than play over the larger sample of last season — well, Cates’ case to be the player who sits is far stronger than that of Frost.
But John Tortorella loves Noah Cates. And his actions strongly imply that he does not love Morgan Frost.
That’s what appears to be at the core of this — Tortorella simply isn’t sold on Frost, even after his strong closing kick to 2022-23. It’s happened twice already this season: team has a bad game, and Torts immediately responds by pressing the “scratch Frost” button. He did it once last season, as well. It’s a comfort move for him.
Thus far in 2023-24, Frost has clearly been the first player Tortorella thinks to bench. Not fellow youngsters like Cates or Owen Tippett, who have also had uneven starts to the season but Tortorella very much believes are part of the future. Not a rookie like Foerster, whose NHL development is clearly being prioritized over Frost’s ice time. And not even the fourth line, which has received a grand total of two combined healthy scratches across the three players, despite the fact that none of Ryan Poehling, Garnet Hathaway or Nicolas Deslauriers are likely to be key cogs on the next great Flyers club.
Instead, it’s always Frost. And regardless of what you think of Frost’s play and his upside, that’s not fair to him.
Personally, I’m not necessarily sold on Frost’s fit in the Flyers’ future. He’s a clear-cut NHL-caliber player, to be sure. But he’s not a play-driver at five-on-five, and if a player is going to lack two-way ability and provide all of his value via offense, he better score a lot of points and also be an integral part of the power play, where Frost has been actively poor. To me, Frost needs to prove he can be a high-end point producer to truly have a long-term fit in Philadelphia, and over a full season, he has yet to do so. Until he does, I’ll remain skeptical.
But the 2023-24 season — a year very much about furthering the rebuild and not squeezing out extra wins to try and sneak into the final Eastern Conference playoff spot — is the perfect time to give Frost an honest shot to prove he can be that level of player.
It was never going to be easy for Frost, especially once Couturier returned as an effective top-six center. As soon as this spring, the Flyers’ top three centers could be Couturier, Cates, and top prospect Cutter Gauthier, who is expected to sign his entry-level contract once his sophomore season at Boston College is complete. There isn’t an obvious spot for Frost down the middle, which means that he has to prove to the organization that he can be so consistently productive offensively that they simply must find a way to fit him.
That could be testing him out at wing, which they believe isn’t his ideal position. It could be pushing someone like Gauthier or Cates off center. The Flyers justifiably won’t do that for a 46-point Morgan Frost. But for a 70-point Frost? That could be a different story.
But for that to even be a possibility, Frost needs to play. And through 13 games, a fully healthy Frost has sat more than he’s started.
I’m not sure if Frost is capable of making a strong enough case to be part of the long-term future in Philadelphia. But he’s not even getting the chance to make it. It would be one thing if Frost had an 82-game opportunity and finished with 45-ish points with mediocre underlying numbers for the second straight season. That would be actual evidence that a further leap for Frost isn’t likely to happen, and the organization could move on with a clear conscience and confident that such a step forward won’t happen elsewhere.
But that’s not happening now. Instead, Frost is simply languishing, and the questions remain unanswered.
Which brings us to another point. Let’s imagine for a second that the Flyers’ braintrust has already decided that Frost just doesn’t fit, both in the short-term and (especially) the long-term. The solution, in that case, would be to trade Frost (under contract through 2024-25) for value that can be part of said future. But he’s not going to have much league-wide value if he’s not playing. In fact, Tuesday would be the perfect time to try and showcase Frost to potential suitors, given the opponent is the worst club in the NHL, a team that has allowed ten goals in two consecutive games. If the coach now looks at Frost and simply sees a future draft pick, why not give him the opportunity to increase the plausible value of said pick?
Here’s the long and short of it: If the Flyers still view Morgan Frost as part of their future, they should play him as much as possible to try and get him going offensively. If they’ve decided he’s not part of the future, they should play him as much as possible (especially against lesser competition) to increase his trade value. And if they’re legitimately unsure and in the meantime going with a “we play who deserves to play” lineup construction plan, then actually do that and don’t play favorites.
Frankly, this saga is getting ridiculous.
All metrics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.