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    The Philadelphia Flyers were supposed to be bad. So far, they're not. What comes next?

    Charlie O'Connor Avatar
    November 18, 2023

    This all would be a lot easier if the 2023-24 Philadelphia Flyers were simply bad.

    That sure seemed to be the pathway the organization was going down this summer. The new “triumvirate of leadership” finally, at long last, acknowledged that bandages and quick fixes weren’t going to return the club to prominence, and that a rebuild was necessary. They drafted the Russian with superstar upside, with full knowledge that it might be four years before he played in a game on North American soil. They jettisoned their No. 1 defenseman, their second-leading scorer, and top point producer from the back end and didn’t even really try to replace any of them.

    The stage was set. The Flyers would take a step back and be bad for a couple more years — but this time with purpose, with direction, and with the goal of developing existing young players and using assets to acquire even more of them, with an eye towards the top of the draft, where star-level talent — which the team now conspicuously lacked — is most likely to be unearthed.

    No one expected it would be fun to watch. But it made sense. Finally.

    At least until the Flyers went and kicked off their “rebuilding” season with a 9-7-1 record and sterling five-on-five results, culminating in back-to-back victories over championship favorites Carolina and Vegas.

    Now, it’s a lot more complicated.

    It’s complicated, because in many ways, the Flyers right now look the part of a legitimately good hockey team. They’re sitting in second in the Metropolitan Division by standings points and fifth by points percentage, tied for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot per the latter with the Detroit Red Wings. They entered Saturday with the fifth-best expected goal share at five-on-five in the NHL (55.53 percent) and the fourth-best in all situations (55.75 percent). They have, by all metrics, at least a good starting goalie in healthy-again Carter Hart. Their top goal scorer is ranked in the NHL’s top-10; their top point producing defenseman ranks eighth among those at his position.

    You don’t have to squint to see a team capable of staying in the playoff hunt all year long.

    So why is fan sentiment so mixed about it? Just ask head coach John Tortorella, who sees it not only in print or on social media, but in his daily mail.

    “I know people want that high draft pick next year in the draft. (I often read), ‘You’re not winning the Stanley Cup, so just lose the games.’ It’s not going to happen,” Tortorella vowed on Friday. “It’s so wrong.”

    Here’s the rub: it’s not wrong — at least not totally.

    Through 17 games, this Flyers team may be exceeding all expectations. But it still has one glaring issue: an absence of gamebreaking, high-end talent. It plays into why their power play struggles so much; it’s why they’ve had to embrace a lunch-pail, every-line-contributes on-ice mentality. And the most efficient way to get that kind of high-end talent is to pick at the top of the NHL draft for a bunch of years in a row.

    Yes, the Flyers already have Matvei Michkov and Cutter Gauthier in the pipeline, and both possess top-of-the-lineup NHL potential, particularly Michkov. But as excited as people rightfully are about both of them, neither are sure things. With Michkov, there are the concerns about whether he’ll make it over to North America at all given geopolitics, and whether his attitude will cause problems in locker rooms on this side of the Atlantic. For Gauthier, it’s whether his goal-scoring methods (lots of snipes from the perimeter) will be replicable in the NHL, and if it’s not, whether he uses his size well enough to make up for it.

    If the Flyers unexpectedly are already good — meaning that their days of top-10 picks are finished — then they basically need:

    A. Both Michkov and Gauthier to hit big OR

    B. To get really lucky with mid-first round picks (or later) developing into true top-of-the-lineup stars, which hasn’t happened for the Flyers in 17 years

    It’s basically what they already tried in the latter half of the Claude Giroux era, except replace Nolan Patrick/Ivan Provorov with Michkov/Gauthier. Fans remember how that turned out.

    Those fans are completely justified in pointing out that if the Flyers’ path to getting more cracks at the top-10 is over, then the road to becoming more than just a decent playoff-caliber team becomes exceedingly narrow. It’s even narrower than the (failed) path of the late 2010s Flyers, because 2023 Travis Konecny is no 2017 Giroux, and early-30s Sean Couturier isn’t mid-20s Couturier anymore. It would be an attempt to build another club centered around depth and cohesion, and not a heavy dose of star power — except with even less initial star power this time.

    No wonder why fans coming from this perspective are sending Tortorella pro-tank mail. After all, Bobby Brink sat for the third consecutive game on Saturday, and combined with the surprisingly good record, that means the Flyers are betraying their announced rebuild, right? How dare they.

    But that black-and-white, made-for-Twitter case ignores the grey in the situation. After all, Brink wasn’t the only healthy scratch on Saturday — a cleared-for-return Marc Staal also sat, while a struggling Egor Zamula (who was so underwhelming in Carolina that Tortorella benched him for the entire third period) stayed in the lineup.

    So what is it? Are they sticking with the kids and rebuilding? Or are they prioritizing locker room chemistry and winning?

    The truth is that they’re trying to do both. That’s what makes this all so difficult to analyze.

    The Flyers are rebuilding. One can argue until becoming blue in the face that the bigwigs in the organization are actually lying through their teeth, but it won’t make the argument any less foolish. In short, what would their incentive be to proclaim a rebuild and not execute one? To pacify a few loud, angry people on social media and one particularly obstinate beat writer? A big reason why they refused to utter the word “rebuild” for years was due to ownership’s fear that it would demoralize fans and hurt ticket sales — so why would they intentionally hamstring their marketing department if they always secretly planned to revert to a “playoffs or bust!” mentality? It’s a rebuild, folks.

    But both GM Daniel Briere and Comcast Spectacor chairman and CEO Dan Hilferty made it abundantly clear in announcing the rebuild that it wasn’t a tank. And in their mind, that means retaining the approach of trying to win as many individual games as possible, even while taking the long rebuilding view as an organization.

    Trying is the key word here, because one gets the unmistakable sense in talking to Tortorella after big wins — Saturday was no different — that even he doesn’t believe this Flyers club is going to keep this up.

    Perhaps he’s saying different things behind closed doors. But in public, there’s no “you all were wrong about us” smugness directed at all the media members who predicted a finish in the Eastern Conference basement. If anything, Tortorella seems intent on hammering home the fact that these wins aren’t likely to be the start of some magical, Cinderella run fueled by vibes, togetherness, and a bunch of criminally underrated players.

    “We’ll have a dip,” was Tortorella’s immediate response on Saturday when asked if their play against top-tier clubs thus far implied his club was poised to take a further step.

    “If they stay concentrated and stay together, we’ll be in games,” Tortorella continued. “How many we win, I don’t know. But we’ll be in games.”

    “How many we win, I don’t know?”

    “We’ll be in games?”

    Not exactly the words of a coach who thinks he has a finished-product Good Team on his hands that was unfairly counted out by prognosticators.

    “I’m not gonna jump up and down and think we’ve got all this solved, because it’s not gonna happen that way,” Tortorella cautioned. “We’re gonna have some struggles as the year goes on.”

    For fans dedicated to the rebuild who grind their teeth after every win, worried that the Flyers are too good to get the kind of blue-chip prospect that they feel the organization needs, Tortorella’s postgame message has been simple and consistent: Don’t worry, the losses will come. He and his team will do their best to rage against natural regression, but rest assured, he hints — a regression is still the most likely outcome.

    It doesn’t take a hockey expert to explain why. Travis Konecny is probably the Flyers’ best player at this point; on Vegas, he’s somewhere between their third-best (after Jack Eichel and Mark Stone at least) and seventh-best (depending on your valuation of Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault). Their top-four on defense consists of a player coming off a miserable season, a salary cap dump, an inconsistent 22-year old, and a player who just two years ago nearly stepped away from the game entirely.

    It’s a team of young and/or inexperienced players trying to find their ways (Joel Farabee, Owen Tippett, Cam York, Brink, Morgan Frost, Noah Cates, Zamula), supplemented by a few key veterans probably past their peaks (Sean Couturier, Cam Atkinson), quality role players stationed one or two slots higher than ideal (Scott Laughton, Sean Walker, Seeler) and only a few true in-prime guys (Konecny, Travis Sanheim, Carter Hart) — none of whom qualify yet as the types of stars who would crack a Top 50 NHL players list.

    Someone with the experience of Tortorella can likely see that a dropoff remains probable for this particular roster. If anything, he seems most worried that pumping their tires too much may knock the whole project off the rails, perhaps because he realizes how little margin for error this club has due to its roster limitations.

    “I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves, when you win a few games in a row, because that’s when you go down the wrong road,” he noted on Saturday.

    But — and this is the important part — Tortorella is not going to stop them from winning. It’s his adamant belief that the Flyers’ culture, or “standard” as he prefers to call it, will suffer significantly if the coaches and players accept losing as a means to an end.

    “We still have a lot of work to do, and a lot of pain to go through,” he noted on Friday. “But we’re certainly not going to just give in and say, ‘Okay, let’s get that high pick.’ I know the people above me and I know my coaching staff, and the players absolutely, totally disagree with that.

    “We go into each and every game, and we talk about that we are competitive enough to win this hockey game. Sometimes it just doesn’t come down to age and youth of the team. There are other ways of staying competitive, where you just break this game down simple as far as work habits.”

    Which brings us to the key dividing line between the Flyers’ organization, and hard-line rebuilder fans. The latter group listens to Tortorella wax poetic about “work habits” and staying competitive despite roster limitations, and they collectively wince. In their minds, the worst-case scenario is playing out before their eyes. The Flyers aren’t that talented, they know they’re not that talented, but they’re winning anyway, in the process pushing themselves out of range for the Macklin Celebrini or Artyom Levshunov or Anton Silayev that the club so desperately needs.

    In Tortorella’s mind, however, this is the best case scenario.

    “We talked about last year, I’ll say it again — stop sending me letters about tanking, because it’s not going to happen,” Tortorella reiterated on Friday.

    Tortorella’s goal — the goal that all of he, Briere, Keith Jones and Dan Hilferty agreed upon — is to build a new standard in Philadelphia. It’s to construct an environment where young players don’t stagnate and regress during their developmental years, but thrive. Where Owen Tippett and Joel Farabee and Tyson Foerster and Bobby Brink can reach their ceilings as players, rather than go down the path of Provorov or Philippe Myers or even Patrick, who was trending in the wrong direction even before injuries ruined his career.

    A “tank,” in the Flyers’ opinion, would mean dooming another generation of youngsters to a toxic developmental environment. What’s happening right now — a team playing above its talent level due to hard work and commitment to Tortorella’s system — is only going to help, not hurt.

    “You’re not teaching your young players the right way to play, if you’re not trying to win,” Tortorella contended. “You’re not teaching your young players that nothing’s for free, you still have to kick in, you still have to be ready to play.”

    That doesn’t mean that it’s not a difficult needle for the Flyers to thread. Take the Brink situation. Brink hadn’t stood out in his three games prior to the initial scratching, but it’s not like he appeared overmatched at this level. This isn’t a player in need of a remedial demotion to the AHL to find his game. It’s an NHL-ready player who should be playing in the NHL. And Tortorella acknowledged that.

    He just felt the needs of the many outweighed the individual needs of Brink, especially after a hard-fought collective effort against the Hurricanes.

    “The team was a team after that game, you could feel it in the room after we won that game,” he recalled. “I’ve got to worry about – I don’t want to break that up, just for the sake of because I have to get Bobby in. (And) I have to get Bobby in. But I have to find a better time than (now) when I think about the team.”

    It doesn’t seem like Tortorella is happy about sitting Brink for a week; it’s not like he’s a Disney villain, gleefully rubbing his hands together as he watches the masses lose their minds when news of the scratching of another kid becomes public. He just honestly believes that sitting a forward after the team’s effort in Raleigh — even one as important as Brink — will send the wrong message, and actually hurt the rebuild more than help it.

    “You juggle all that stuff,” he said. “You may agree with us, you may not. I’m just kinda giving you the philosophy of how we’re going about it.”

    That’s really the key here. This is still a rebuild in Philadelphia — it just may not be the rebuild that you, dear reader, specifically want. And it’s because the Flyers view this as much as a cultural rebuild as a talent accumulation rebuild. The latter would be straight-forward — either gun for a Stanley Cup, or lose as many games as possible, with no middle ground. The former lends itself to a process with far more grey area.

    “We’re the Philadelphia Flyers, trying to get some respect in this league,” Tortorella said on Friday. “We’re going to try to win.”

    Maybe they won’t be able to strike their desired balance. Maybe the balance doesn’t exist at all. Maybe games like their 4-3 overtime victory over Vegas do nothing but hurt the Flyers long-term, increasing the likelihood just a bit more that by the end of the rebuild, they’ll be somewhere in the muddled middle of playoff contenders, destined to top out as the plucky, hard-working club that gave the dynasties of the era tough tests in Round 2 before ultimately bowing out. That’s all possible.

    But it could all work out. Maybe when 2023-24 comes to an end, the Flyers will still end up in the top-10 on draft night despite their continued commitment to winning, after experiencing a number of Tortorella’s predicted dips, making all of this consternation look foolish in retrospect. Or perhaps players like Konecny, Hart, Sanheim, Tippett and Farabee continue to lead the way, establishing themselves as not-quite-stars but very much the next tier down, just waiting for Michkov and Gauthier to put a club with the right culture and a stellar underlying five-on-five process over the top with their star power.

    Maybe the constant push/pull of winning vs. development is indeed the right way to rebuild, avoiding the proliferation of bad habits while waiting for the cavalry to arrive, instead of encouraging said habits just to beef up the size of said cavalry.

    “I think (winning) goes hand in hand with development,” Tortorella said. “Trying to win goes hand-in-hand with developing players.”

    If he’s right, then all is going according to plan.

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