By Siobhan Nolan, Sports Talk Philly contributing writer
The NHL regular season still has over a month remaining and the season as a whole doesn't technically end until July, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that the Flyers season, in regards to making a playoff push, is nearly over. Yes, they’re sitting fifth in the East, three points out of a playoffs, still very much mathematically alive. But their defense is in shambles. Almost every core player that was expected to produce on the higher end offensively has shown struggles. The goaltending has been questioned.
To put it simply, the Flyers are a mess right now, and it’s become clear that the current system is just not working.
So that begs the question, what do they do to fix it?
Part of that answer may have come on Tuesday, as the Flyers placed Shayne Gostisbehere on waivers. If Gostisbehere were to clear, it creates some additional cap space, but not much. If Gostisbehere gets claimed, his $4.5 million cap hit comes off the books, albeit for nothing in return. That creates more options for the Flyers to make personnel decisions, but isn't necessarily a move that prompts change without another shoe dropping.
When it comes to change, naturally the first place to look is in the coaching staff. Alain Vigneault made a good impression on Flyers fans going into his second season with the team, and while it’s all too easy to say that replacing the head coach would solve many of the team’s problems, it wouldn’t. Vigneault is an intelligent, level-headed and honest coach. He's noted the Flyers’ recent missteps, and he has kept his ultimate vision as winning the Stanley Cup as soon as possible. Vigneault’s lineups and game plans are worthy of criticism, but his determination, experience and coaching style are not easily replaceable. He’s not going anywhere.
The coaches around Vigneault are where the changes can potentially be made. Assistant coach Mike Yeo has been able to put together a modest penalty kill at times, but the defensive structure this team has displayed has been terrible. Coming into the 2020-21 season, it seemed as though the defense was the area that needed the least attention. Ivan Provorov was becoming one of the best defenders in the league and the Phil Myers-Travis Sanheim pairing offered a lot of promise, but Matt Niskanen’s retirement loomed as a potential loss, though one player doesn't make an entire defense. The Flyers banked on getting similar results from mostly the same group of defensemen. Now, the team is lucky if they make it through the first 10 minutes of game play without giving up a goal. Yeo's seat should be hot.
Assistant Michel Therrien also needs to be on watch. When you have Claude Giroux, Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier, Jake Voracek and James van Riemsdyk, certainly formidable talent on paper, your power play cannot look this abysmal. Additionally, while not necessarily Therrien's choice, but Joel Farabee was benched in the third period of Monday's game...as the team's leading goal scorer. While it may be fair to look for the veterans to step up, it also shows how sporadic the offense can be, with 21-year-old Farabee leading the charge.
Aside from coaching changes, a season in a downward spiral always calls attention to which players should be put on the chopping block. One could argue that players who really had no business donning the orange and black cheated death because of how strong the Flyers looked coming into this season. There was undoubtedly fear surrounding the team that cutting anybody could negatively impact their run at the offseason. Now, however, it’s looking like they’re suffering because they’re holding on to dead weight.
It could be beneficial, and relatively easy in process, to part ways with Michael Raffl, Erik Gustafsson, and possibly even Brian Elliott, seeing as they’re all UFA’s this season. Even offloading players like Gostisbehere or Nicolas Aube-Kubel could improve the current situation. Chuck Fletcher said himself in last week’s presser that the mix “isn’t right” at the moment, which is a spot-on observation. If sentimental value is the main thing keeping a player on the roster, then you are accepting the wrong mix of players and the results you see.
Now, there are some players it would be relatively easy to part with. It’s doubtful that any tears would be shed by fans if the Flyers parted ways with Gustafsson, likely to happen in the offseason if not during the season. But not every underperforming player would warrant such a painless departure. For example, is Konecny doing well right now? No. But the Flyers only signed him to a long-term deal last year. We’re going to be hearing Konecny’s incessant chirping for the foreseeable future, whether or not he’s collecting points.
Is Carter Hart living up to that whole “new franchise goalie” title right now? No. But in no way does this mean that Hart is suddenly a bad goalie. He’s still only 22 years old, and he's not the type to let something shake his confidence for too long. He’s another player that should absolutely be sticking around for the long-term future.
Then there's the ever-present question mark over Nolan Patrick’s career. To be fair, this is his first season after coming back from a debilitating migraine disorder, so he realistically can’t be expected to be playing to the potential expected of a second overall pick right now. But there is a very valid argument that Patrick didn’t even play that way before the migraines sidelined him for nearly two years. Is he really worth holding on to during what will surely become another rebuild if the Flyers can’t get their act together? It’s divisive.
Then there are the veterans. Claude Giroux deserves a Stanley Cup, plain and simple. He would likely get much more respect if he had a Cup to his name, and with the career Giroux has had, he is long overdue for that kind of praise.
However, the past tense is key: the career Giroux has had is admirable. His most recent ones don’t reflect the level of ability Flyers fans know the captain possesses. It would be one of the most devastating blows to Philadelphia sports in recent memory to let go of the face of the franchise, but it might be necessary.
The same goes for Voracek, and even Couturier. Vigneault has made it clear that he will win a championship at all costs, and it’s become evident that some major sacrifices might need to be made to achieve that goal. Giroux and Couturier also have expiring contracts after next season, so decisions about their future with the Flyers are very much a part of this conversation, even if they are not easy players to move based on contract.
There’s still plenty of hockey to be played. Teams have overcome more impossible odds to see the postseason. And even if the season continues going downhill, it’s unlikely that the organization will actually make a series of dramatic changes all at once. Any rebuilding that takes place will surely happen over the course of several seasons, and likely won’t force a goodbye to the core group all at once. But however long it takes to find the right mix of players, and whoever might go in the process, the non-negotiable thing is that it needs to happen. Change needs to be made, or the Cup drought the Flyers are in will extend even farther beyond the 46 years fans have already been waiting.