Tear It Down? Free Agency Failings Shows Why Flyers Need a Front Office Rebuild

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By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor 

There are many schools of thought for how the Flyers should go about reconstructing a franchise that has seldom been a contender in the last decade back to its previous form. On one hand, there’s the contingent of fans that only know one way for the Flyers: spend, spend, spend to get the big name. On the other, there are those that want the whole thing torn down. In some cases, the best of both worlds is desired.

On Wednesday, as free agency opened around the NHL, the once-thought aggressive Flyers were essentially non-existent. As the rest of the league wheeled and dealed and signed away, the Flyers were nowhere to be found. That’s hardly aggressive.

It made very little sense given the previous moves of the offseason. Prior to the 2021-22 season ending, the Flyers made the typical selling trades involving Claude Giroux, Justin Braun, and Derick Brassard. At the same time, they re-signed Rasmus Ristolainen to a five-year deal. 

They continued by hiring John Tortorella this offseason to be the next head coach, then shipped out three draft picks, two in future drafts, to acquire and sign Tony DeAngelo. They bought out the final year of Oskar Lindblom’s contract on Tuesday, seeming poised to make a big move. The one thing that separated them from the prize of free agency that everybody anticipated them getting was a trade of James van Riemsdyk’s contract. It would require a first-round pick to do it.

Rather than the aggressive approach, GM Chuck Fletcher decided against it, valuing the first-round picks the team has in 2023 and 2024 the same way he did with the fifth overall pick last weekend. It was a rather abrupt about-face on what the franchise had preached for the better part of six months. Instead of opening up the blank checkbook and aggressively retooling, the Flyers were suddenly being conservative.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach given the state of the franchise. This isn’t about Johnny Gaudreau and missing out on him or any other big-name free agent that likely isn’t a fit at this time. This is about asset management, cap management, and preparation.

Fletcher had plenty of time for the Flyers to be in the right position for Wednesday to be a big day. He had the money to sign Gaudreau or any other free agent too. It just wasn’t available when Wednesday rolled around.

Instead, Fletcher’s long line of offseason overcorrections led the Flyers to this day.

Fletcher was in charge of trying to change the talent level and culture of the team last offseason after a dismal 2021 campaign. What he did in theory was solid. 

He started by acquiring Ryan Ellis, the right type of defenseman to play alongside Ivan Provorov. He traded Shayne Gostisbehere with two draft picks for cap space, promptly spending it on Ristolainen at the cost of Robert Hagg and two more draft picks. 

The next day, he added Cam Atkinson in exchange for Jake Voracek. To round out the offseason, he signed a bunch of low-risk, one-year deals for names like Brassard, Keith Yandle, and Martin Jones and started his work for next offseason with contract extensions for Sean Couturier and Joel Farabee.

As polarizing a move as Ristolainen was, there was only one year remaining on his contract. The move didn’t come without risk, but also had an easy out at the end of the season, or even at the trade deadline.

All of that could have worked out in the Flyers favor, but Ellis got hurt, so did Couturier and Kevin Hayes for much of the season, and by December, the Flyers’ fate for the 2021-22 season had pretty much been determined.

On the December day that the Flyers fired Alain Vigneault, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Fletcher went out the door with him. He had his chance, did the best he could, appeared to make solid moves on paper, and it didn’t work out. Instead, injuries became the focus and Fletcher stayed in the role, allowing him to be tasked with the inevitable decision to trade away a franchise star in Giroux. Fletcher got an underwhelming return and that set the tone for what was to come in the upcoming offseason.

In addition to the trade of Giroux, Ristolainen was re-signed rather than moved for assets. When the draft rolled around last weekend, three more draft picks were sent to Carolina for DeAngelo. In both cases, the signing had to do with the unknown health status of Ellis and whether he will play to start the 2022-23 season, if at all. 

Those two decisions, not only cost the Flyers multiple assets toward the rebuild they need on the ice, it priced them out of any free agent on the market with the combined $10.1 million cap hit. What they came away with on Wednesday was bringing back Braun and adding fourth-line forward Nicolas Deslauriers, both at $1.75 million cap hits. They didn’t come away with Gaudreau, who wanted to play in Philadelphia, was hoping Fletcher could make it happen, and had him drop the ball. Gaudreau instead signed in Columbus for seven years with a $9.8 million AAV.

It was another sign of the lack of direction the Flyers have at the moment. The hiring of Tortorella and trade for DeAngelo seemed like a sign that, right or wrong, the Flyers were going to be as aggressive as they could. It created an expectation that a player of Gaudreau’s caliber was on the radar. 

But if that was somehow not possible, like it ended up being given their cap situation, what was the backup plan? Was there even such a thing? It doesn’t appear so.

So after putting faith in Fletcher company to try to make the Flyers competitive last season with an active and certainly aggressive offseason, ownership did the same this offseason. They allowed him the chance to get it right when his job should have been on the line this season.

Which leads to what the Flyers really need. The crowd that screams to blow it up may just have a point.

In a rebuild, no team removes every player from the roster. There are still a few carryovers, some that may even make it out on the other side when the team gets competitive again. But in the case of the Flyers’ front office, it’s time to tear it down and start over from scratch.

Chuck Fletcher showed with this offseason agenda of promoting the aggressive and business-friendly and doing the passive and polarizing that his time should be up. The same goes for his longtime assistant Brent Flahr

But the same also needs to be for the senior advisors, who help guide the direction of a hockey operations department in conjunction with the general manager and serve as a soundboard for ideas and honest assessors of his work. For Bobby Clarke, Paul Holmgren, and Dean Lombardi, it’s time to ride off into the sunset. They can be ambassadors for the game and can shake hands all night with fans, but being involved and having any input in hockey decisions continues to set the franchise back. 

Furthermore, if their assessment is that Fletcher is doing right by the organization, they aren’t seeing the reality that. That reality is that the Flyers operated as the worst-run hockey operations department as free agency hit. Even with Chicago cleaning house, Buffalo having a decade-long drought in emerging from a rebuild, and Arizona being the laughing stock of the league from a business perspective, they all took steps that made their message clear. The Flyers operated with no such plan, no such vision, no such direction.

Perhaps the only person who should survive is the newest member, Danny Briere. Is he ready for a greater role? Probably not, but it’s unfair to tie him completely to a regime that has been so active in the last two offseasons, and the last decade for that matter, and place it solely on his shoulders. 

If the Flyers want to bury the past and dig back out of the grave they have made for themselves, they need to first admit they have a problem. Ultimately, the Flyers found themselves buried beneath albatross after albatross in cap hell and couldn’t move a contract that would have made them more active in free agency without a sweetener. Maybe instead of trying to cover that up with a band-aid, the Flyers could just enter the intensive care unit instead. 

It means years of building, years of accruing assets and taking chances on proper development. Maybe along the way, the right trade comes along or a player signs to speed things up a bit. But the foundation remains the same. 

On Wednesday, you saw that the current regime is incapable of completing such a task. They insisted upon an aggressive retool for a fast fix, not the necessary rebuild needed. Now it’s time to start that rebuild anyway, but focus on the front office that has so clearly set the organization back.