Flyers need to learn the right lessons from 2021-22 meltdown

Flyers need to learn the right lessons from 2021-22 meltdown
Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

PHT’s “What Went Wrong?” series asks that question about teams who’ve been eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why did this team fall short, and how surprising was that fall? Are there signs that things might go right next season? This series tackles those questions, and more. In the latest edition of “What Went Wrong?,” PHT breaks down the 2021-22 Philadelphia Flyers.

The Philadelphia Flyers weren’t alone in suffering through an awful 2021-22 season. That’s basically what this “What When Wrong?” series is all about.

So, they’re not the only team with problems. The uncomfortable thing about the Flyers, though, is that they don’t seem to be reacting to the failures of 2021-22 in the most promising ways.

They’re not pulling off the Band-Aid and rebuilding like the Ducks. Instead, it feels more like the Flyers view the 2021-22 season as more of a hiccup or blip. While the message can change, Chuck Fletcher and others pointed toward a plan to “aggressively re-tool,” implying a push for a playoff berth next season.

Is that a wise direction after an astoundingly bad 2021-22 season for the Flyers? And, if there’s truly a lane for this to work out, is Chuck Fletcher really the person to guide Philly out of this mess?

Because, make no mistake about it, this was a disaster. And the early signs point to Fletcher doubling down on some of the decisions that doomed the Flyers in 2021-22.

Selective accountability

When Mike Yeo and the Flyers ended Keith Yandle‘s ironman streak with the whimper that is a healthy scratch, it felt tacky. It’s one thing if allowing Yandle to approach 1,000 games played in a row threatened a playoff berth. Instead, the Flyers scratched Yandle long after any playoff hopes were up in smoke.

Now, sure, there’s the argument that playing in the NHL is a right, not a privilege. But it doesn’t exactly feel like accountability gets doled out in fair portions.

Let’s be honest. At this point, Mike Yeo and Chuck Fletcher resemble the management equivalents to fringe NHL players. Even with an interim tag, it was jarring to see Mike Yeo as an NHL head coach again after rarely ascending above the level of “meh.”

And if Chuck Fletcher isn’t merely replacement level as a GM, shouldn’t we have seen something more promising by now? Between his Wild and Flyers runs, he’s been an NHL GM since May 2009.

In that time, his most memorable moves have mostly blown up in his face in ways that evoke Wile E. Coyote. His signature blunder was signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year contracts at $98 million apiece. But Fletcher’s taken many big swings over the years, and he’s largely struck out.

You can gain some entertainment thumbing through Fletcher blunders like people used to leaf through bargain bin CDs at record stores. “OK, sure, the case is cracked, but this greatest hits collection has Thomas Vanek’s eventual buyout.”

It would be one thing if those big whiffs were just from the Wild days. Really, it would be refreshing if he learned hard lessons, and nailed his second chance. Unfortunately, it seems like he’s just piling up mistakes.

Look at how the Flyers perceive Rasmus Ristolainen alone, and Fletcher’s stacked investments nearly to the defenseman’s towering height.

Chuck Fletcher’s big offseason gambles went bust

To be fair, not every error evoked a chorus of agonized groans.

When it came to trading for Ryan Ellis, there were obvious risks. He really wasn’t healthy in 2020-21. But there are worse gambles than hoping that Ellis could find his Norris-range-form from a year before.

Whether you chalk it up to bad luck, excessive optimism from medical staffers, or a lack of due diligence, the bottom line is that Ryan Ellis only played four games for the Flyers in 2021-22.

And there really aren’t a lot of excuses for the staggering amount of resources the Flyers sunk into Rasmus Ristolainen. Here’s the quick version.

  • It cost the Flyers a first-round pick, a second-rounder, and Robert Hagg to trade for Rasmus Ristolainen.
  • They also gave up a second-rounder to clear room for Ristolainen by trading Shayne Gostisbehere.
  • Somewhere, you can probably debate Gostisbehere vs. Ristolainen until your face turns blue. But it can’t feel great to ponder the possibility that Gostisbehere was Ristolainen’s equal, or maybe even a bit better, this season.

Don’t take more of the wrong lessons from 2021-22 – or – Flyers should not trade Travis

While it feels unlikely, there’s the chance that the Flyers end up looking smart with their copious investments in Ristolainen. Stranger things have happened. Defensemen can sometimes be tricky to judge.

Again, though, I’d say it’s more realistic that the Flyers fell in love with the idea of Ristolainen. Maybe they were preoccupied with style over results.

Two things are clear:

  1. The Flyers deflected criticisms of Ristolainen’s often-terrible underlying results. In other words, they ignored “the nerds.”
  2. Right or wrong, the Ristolainen extension happened.

Not ideal, but the Flyers can still show that they’re not taking all the wrong lessons from 2021-22. Maybe they just need a simple mantra.

Don’t trade Travis.

Amusingly enough, Fletcher could restore some faith (from me, at least) if he didn’t trade Travis Sanheim and Travis Konecny during the offseason.

In the case of Travis Sanheim, it’s simple. He’s the sort of defenseman the Flyers are tearing a quad to try to get. He’s steady, underrated, and in his prime. Frankly, if perceptions are low on Travis Sanheim, the Flyers might even be able to sign him to a team-friendly extension this summer. They might just ink him before people catch on that the 26-year-old is a hidden gem.

The advice with Travis Konecny is more nuanced. If they’re determined to trade Konecny, fine. But don’t do it now, when his stock is basically at an all-time low.

You see it time and time again. Less-savvy teams sour on a player, trade them for pennies on the dollar, and then everyone has a good laugh on Twitter. Sometimes you can see it coming from a mile away with a talented player whose shooting percentage goes cold.

The Oilers turning Jordan Eberle into Ryan Strome and then Ryan Spooner is a textbook example of such short-sighted blunders.

[What Went Wrong for the Devils this season]

This season, Travis Konecny’s shooting percentage is 6.8%, by far the lowest of his career. It’s almost half of his career average of 11.6-percent. All things considered, his offensive output (13 goals and 45 points in 71 games) could be worse.

For a time, Konecny looked like a star in the making. Now, it feels like he’s dangling on the edge of a trade where the Flyers would sell low.

Is Konecny perfect? No.

Just look at how perceptions can change. Last offseason, the Blues couldn’t find someone to trade for Vladimir Tarasenko. Now, he’s enjoying one of the best seasons of his career.

If Konecny has to (eventually) go, why not let him rebuild his reputation?

The 2021-22 Flyers didn’t look like a team just an offseason away from contending

So, the Flyers should keep calm about certain elements of the 2021-22 season. Yet, the calls for a rebuild weren’t outrageous: this Flyers team was very, very bad.

When you glance at the 2021-22 Flyers using Evolving Hockey’s Team RAPM charts, there’s not much to do except noting where they were bad vs. even worse.

It’s not as though you can just pass this off as a strange fluke.

From 2012-13 through 2019-20, the Flyers rotated seasons where they missed and made the playoffs. During that time, they only won playoff series during one run, and that was the oddball 2019-20 bubble season.

Now it will be two straight seasons where they missed the playoffs, and this time, it wasn’t close. In 2021-22, the Flyers clearly ranked as one of the worst teams in the NHL.

[PHT’s Power Rankings]

How much can that change with coaching? Fletcher’s the person who chose Alain Vigneault, and this isn’t the first time he’s leaned on Mike Yeo. Are we anymore confident Fletcher will choose the right coach than we are that he’ll ace free agency?

Ignore the numbers and the season for a minute. Instead, scroll their team page at Cap Friendly. There are some solid players, sure, and one could picture rebounds/better health from Ellis, Hayes, and so on. Maybe Carter Hart goes on a heater next season.

Really, though, is there much there to make you think the Flyers are an offseason — even a splashy, bold one that evokes the days of Iya Bryzgalov … only successful this time — away from turning this around?

They already burned a great opportunity to speed up what should obviously be a rebuild with their trade deadline decisions. The uncomfortable truth is that the 2021-22 season and larger outlook continue to gesture toward the obvious need for a Flyers rebuild.

If the Flyers truly don’t have a stomach for that, then they better hope that this situation is a lot better than it looks.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

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    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports
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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

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    Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports
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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

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    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.