After a slew of (sometimes jaw-dropping) trades, there’s no denying that the Philadelphia Flyers will look different in 2021-22. It remains to be seen if they’ll be much better — or at least if they’ll be much better because of those big Flyers trades.
(Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine their goaltending being the flat-out worst in the NHL again. They were the worst by a shockingly comfortable margin in 2020-21.)
Despite Chuck Fletcher seemingly squeezing an offseason’s worth of work into those big trades, the Flyers still have work to do. Let’s review their big run of trades, then ponder what else they need to accomplish — and there will be some focus on Carter Hart.
After looking at trades, entry/expansion draft, a mixed bag for the Flyers
If there’s one big “statement” from all of the Flyers’ trades, it might be Fletcher essentially moving a ton of assets to swap Shayne Gostisbehere for Rasmus Ristolainen. When you look at the cap hits involved (“Ghost Bear” at $4.5M with Robert Hagg at $1.6; Risto in his last year at $5.4M) it’s close to 1:1. Consider the pieces involved.
|Flyers receive||Flyers give up|
|Rasmus Ristolainen ($5.4M through 2021-22)||Shayne Gostisbehere ($4.5M through 2022-23)|
|“Future considerations”||Robert Hagg ($1.6M through 2021-22)|
|2021 first-rounder (14th overall)|
|2022 second-rounder (Flyers)|
|2023 second-rounder (Flyers)|
|2022 seventh-rounder (Blues)|
Pretty bold. Again, the Flyers are making a huge statement here. They could’ve kept Gostisbehere, whose underlying stats argue might be better than his “doghouse” status indicates. Instead, they went with Rasmus Ristolainen, largely under the assumption that they can fix what the Sabres failed to address. Consider their multi-season RAPM comparison, via Evolving Hockey:
Credit Chuck Fletcher with this: it isn’t necessarily easy to pigeonhole his way of thinking. For every Gostisbehere – Ristolainen trade, there’s a savvy pickup like the mostly-promising Ryan Ellis trade. Yes, there’s risk that Ellis won’t be the same player he once was after injuries. But he’s quietly been an analytics (and eye test, frankly) darling for years.
If Ellis and Ristolainen weren’t both right-handed defensemen, they’d be total opposites. Ristolainen is the big blueliner people imagine bigger things from, even if the actual on-ice results are often ugly. Ellis, meanwhile, deserved almost as much Norris buzz as his former teammate Roman Josi.
Ryan Ellis, acquired by PHI, is a top-end puck-moving two-way defenceman. His numbers before this season were elite, and it was a bit of a down-year for him. But he's got a hell of a track record. #anytimeanywhere pic.twitter.com/JYr4pri5LY
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 17, 2021
Meanwhile, the Jakub Voracek – Cam Atkinson trade feels like a nice win. It’s not a huge victory (like Ellis), nor will it inspire a big groan (like Ristolainen/Gostisbehere). Instead, two veteran forwards (who can still play) get refreshing changes of scenery. Plus, the Flyers save money.
Looking at the rest of their offseason to-do list, the Flyers could benefit from those savings.
The tricky case of Carter Hart’s RFA status
Despite covering some bases, the Flyers face one huge free-agent situation (Carter Hart, 22), and one other notable one (Travis Sanheim, 25). Both Hart and Sanheim are RFAs, with Sanheim eligible for arbitration.
Getting Hart’s contract situation right is huge, and tricky. Through his first two NHL seasons, Hart might have gotten a bit over-hyped, but his work was still solid (.917 save percentage in 2018-19; .914 in 2019-20).
Last season, Hart’s game plummeted to a shocking, season-sabotaging degree. He went 9-11-5 with a catastrophic .877 save percentage. While those Rangers meltdowns might make you think that the Flyers’ defense is mostly to blame, that’s mostly untrue.
By various metrics that isolate a goalie’s performance, Hart was putrid. His -22.57 Goals Saved Above Average was by far the worst in the NHL. Disturbingly, fellow Flyers goalie Brian Elliott was a distant second-worst with -14.01.
(Braden Holtby ranked third-worst with a -12.97 mark. Only eight goalies were in negative double digits by Hockey Reference’s version of GSAA.)
[See where the Flyers fit among “Winners and Losers of the 2021 NHL Draft”]
Based on pedigree and reputation, Hart might argue for a significant contract. That disastrous 2020-21 season should be a red flag for anything too risky, though. All things considered, a “bridge deal” might be wise.
Either way, the Flyers would gain some insight about their cap flexibility if they sign Hart. That said, he’s an RFA, so they don’t need to rush.
If there’s one area where the Flyers failed Hart above all else, it was failing to find a reliable Plan B. Their 2020-21 goalie plan was essentially “Carter Hart or bust,” and bust it was.
Credit Brian Elliott for sticking around in the NHL longer than expected. Yet, that might be a failure of imagination on the Flyers’ part.
Looking at potential free-agent goalies, the Flyers could definitely make an upgrade at the backup spot. Jaroslav Halak and Jonathan Bernier seem like logical, safe options. Since Fletcher loves gambles, Antti Raanta‘s interesting (great results, scary injuries).
Logically speaking, it’s difficult to imagine the Flyers not improving in net this season — even just by default. If their goaltending’s downright strong, it might even make them look smarter in other areas. (In other words, it might soften the blow if Rasmus Ristolainen is what we thought he was.)
Plenty of other key free-agent decisions for Flyers
Via Cap Friendly, the Flyers have about $12.5M in cap space. That’s with 17 roster spots filled.
It’s probably safe to assume that they’ll have some cap space after signing Carter Hart and a backup goalie. Fletcher could supplement the Flyers with supporting cast members. There’s conceivably room for another bold move — via a trade, or free agency — too.
But some of the Flyers’ biggest offseason questions revolve around the larger future. Consider these.
More ripples with Ristolainen?
By forking over so much draft capital for Ristolainen (especially if you count the Gostisbehere bribe, which you should), the Flyers probably don’t want him to merely be a rental.
So, that’s where a risky trade becomes an even scarier gamble. What if the Flyers decide to extend Ristolainen before he even plays a game for Philly? (That appears to be what the Blackhawks will do with their own risky defenseman via trade, Seth Jones.)
Truly, it would probably be smarter to wait-and-see. Yes, it would sting if critics were right that Ristolainen just is less than the sum of his tantalizing-on-paper parts. But at least you wouldn’t dig the ditch deeper with additional sunk costs.
The Flyers may fervently believe that they’re simply right about the big blueliner, though. In that case, an extension may happen during this summer.
Other extension questions: Giroux, Couturier enter contract years
Two faces of the Flyers franchise enter contract years in 2021-22:
- Claude Giroux, 33, sees his $8.275M cap hit expire.
- Sean Couturier, 28, should expect a huge raise from his $4.33M AAV.
With any bold move, the Flyers must consider future costs. Really, they might appreciate the piece of mind that would come with determining how much, exactly, it would cost to keep Couturier in the mix. They also need to ask some tough questions about Giroux’s future. How much less would he accept to stick around?
Such concerns could trickle down into other areas. Deep down, the Flyers might not have been too unhappy if the Kraken took on James van Riemsdyk. JVR was brilliant in 2020-21, but he carries a pricey $7M cap hit for two more seasons. It’s not outrageous to imagine the Flyers trying to shake loose from the 32-year-old before that contract expires.
Interesting either way
Back in the Paul Holmgren era, the Flyers seemed to make mind-blowing moves every other month. It was often a mess — but a fun one. And the Flyers ended up pretty good at times, even though the party broke up once the bill came due.
Ron Hextall ended up throwing out all of the trash and broken glass. He had to be the hall monitor, practicing patience by getting out of bad contracts, and building through the draft.
The last week has been a return to that kegger atmosphere with Fletcher. He’s certainly been willing to take risks beyond that, particularly in signing Kevin Hayes.
Even if you critique the moves, it sure makes it fun to follow league transactions. Flyers’ fans mileage may vary, though.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.