By Siobhan Nolan, Sports Talk Philly Contributing Writer
At the end of the 2020-21 season, a total of eight Flyers players will be up for new contracts. Of these eight players, four are unrestricted free agents and four are restricted free agents. It can be safely assumed that RFAs Carter Hart, Travis Sanheim and Sam Morin will be offered extensions with the Flyers, and UFA Erik Gustafsson's fate will be determined after his first season with the team, though the current thought is that he will be on his way back into free agency in a year.
The remaining four players have a hazier future in Philadelphia.
Scott Laughton has had a rather bizarre career trajectory since being drafted by the Flyers in 2012. Laughton suffered a slow start to his professional career from 2012-2015, but saw improvement in the 2015-16. However, an injury the following year caused him to miss a significant amount of time with the Flyers, eventually forcing him to spend the rest of the season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Laughton has seen his luck turn in the past three seasons, becoming a staple of the Flyers’ bottom-six with appearances in 321 games. Despite not having much of an offensive impact, he provides solid depth at 5-on-5, is one of the team’s most reliable penalty-killers and has used a boisterous locker room presence to become one of the Flyers’ underrated leaders.
He’s been able to find his footing within the last season, scoring a career-best 13 goals, along with showing considerable growth in his work in the neutral zone, puck handling, and continuing to improve on the penalty kill. Laughton is also a valuable part of the depth in the Flyers squad, and if he is able to capitalize on the progress he made last season, he stands a good chance of extending his contract.
Michael Raffl is another reliable depth player who is an affable and respected member of the Flyers team. He’s played 470 games over the course of seven seasons, making him another staple bottom-six player. However, Raffl has only skated an entire 82-game season once, hindered by numerous injuries and a consistent lack of production on the ice.
Similar to Laughton, Raffl has seen a turnaround in recent seasons. While he missed some time in the 2019-20 season with a broken finger, he was able to rack up 20 points, including eight goals, in 58 games, which is his average point tally for a season. He’s also been able to team up with Kevin Hayes to provide the Flyers with another reliable penalty kill option.
Raffl is not a bad player by any means — he’s intelligent, responsible, versatile, and works hard during his game shifts. He is another essential part of the depth that makes this current Flyers team a force to be reckoned with, which is a characteristic that shouldn’t go unappreciated. However, Raffl could find himself as the odd-man out if a younger player emerges or if the team is looking to shed some cap space following the season.
Rounding out the UFAs is Brian Elliott, the tried-and-true backup goaltender. There are no words that can be used here to describe Elliott that you haven’t heard before — solid, reliable, team player, experienced and so on – all accurate descriptions. However, at 35 years old – making him the oldest player on the roster – Elliott is in the twilight of his career. He has signed a one-year extension with the Flyers for the 2020-21 season, but it’s unlikely that he will stay much in Philadelphia for much longer. Elliott has never been the consistent first-choice goalie for the Flyers, most recently having to play second fiddle as 22-year-old Carter Hart emerges.
To his credit, Elliott does show up when Hart isn’t chosen to start in net. This consistency cannot be overstated, mainly due to the fact that while talent, ability, and maturity practically seep out of Hart’s pores, he’s still young, largely inexperienced overall, and prone to mistakes. Hart had a shaky record in away games last season, and while he was an overall standout player during the 2020 playoffs, there were some individual performances that showcased his greenness.
Elliott definitely won’t be overtaking Hart as the first-choice Flyers goalie, but until Chuck Fletcher can secure a solid younger backup goalie for Elliott’s eventual departure, Elliott is needed as that alternative option.
This brings us to the complicated case of Nolan Patrick. An extremely promising second overall pick in 2017, Patrick put up respectable back-to-back seasons with the Flyers, and was going into the 2019-20 season with high expectations. In an extremely unfortunate turn of events, Patrick was sidelined for the entire season with a migraine disorder, and there is still no set timeline for his return to full participation with the team.
While there was some cautious optimism throughout the season, including Patrick being able to partake in scrimmages with other players, it became clear that Patrick would not be declared fit enough to return to the team last season.
Even when Patrick does return to the Flyers, he faces stiff competition with a team full of outstanding centers. Sean Couturier is one of the best centers in the entire league, with Hayes also being a top-six option at the position. This means that Patrick would likely be relegated to the third line at the very least, and even then would have to jockey for a center spot with bottom-six staples like Laughton or Morgan Frost, who Alain Vigneault intends on giving more ice time as well.
Patrick has accepted a one-year qualifying offer from the Flyers, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that his future as a hockey player, not just a Flyers player, is questionable. It would be irresponsible to try and rush a young player with a head injury back to full fitness, but it would also be an injustice to restrict a player with Patrick’s potential to the third or fourth line.
If he can return to full fitness and show some semblance of the player he was expected to be when he was drafted, Patrick could maintain his spot in the Flyers’ impressive group of young players. Until then, his career will be marred with a giant question mark.
While it can be argued that the Flyers shouldn’t let any of these players go following the upcoming season, it might be necessary to do so in the pursuit of a deep playoff run and a long-awaited Stanley Cup win. A championship team can often involve the right combination of relentless and reliable players, and while each of these players have played their part, there is a time to move on and open the door for younger talent to come in.
The Flyers may get that from this group of players in the 2020-21 season, but there are always weak links that can become lost in the shuffle and become expendable. The goal is victory and to achieve that, it is not viable to hold on to any weak links.