After a season in which the Flyers gave up 3.52 goals per game, more than any other NHL team, coach Alain Vigneault and general manager Chuck Fletcher knew things had to change.
The two gave themselves some time to cool down from the emotions of the disappointing past season, when the Flyers finished barely above .500 (25-23), failed to live up to expectations, and missed the playoffs for the fifth time in nine years. Then Vigneault met with Fletcher’s staff and came up with a wish list for the offseason.
One of the top bullet points on that list read “more stability in the back core,” Vigneault said.
Vigneault thought highly of the defensemen he had last year as individuals, but as a group they never clicked into a cohesive unit. The Flyers had to keep shifting pairs as they sought to create better chemistry and the players’ production suffered as a result.
Seeking stability, the Flyers revamped their defense, adding Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Keith Yandle via free agency. The team also parted with Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hägg, and Philippe Myers. The moves were all made through trades or free agency, which marks a shift in the program’s standard strategy for building its defense.
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For the last nine years, the Flyers have tried to build an elite defense primarily through the NHL draft. Starting in 2012, when they used a third- round pick on Gostisbehere (and ended up taking four defensemen in that draft), the Flyers drafted defensemen in the first round for three straight years, adding Samuel Morin 11th overall in 2013, Travis Sanheim 17th overall in 2014, and Ivan Provorov seventh overall in 2015.
While the Flyers didn’t use another first-round pick on a defenseman after that until they selected Cam York in 2019, overall since 2012, they have drafted 10 blue-liners in the fourth round or earlier.
They still believe in the young players they’ve drafted, Vigneault said, but a combination of injuries and the pandemic means that they just don’t know what stage of performance readiness many of these players are at.
“Unfortunately, because of the circumstances, a lot of the younger players’ development has been slowed down a little bit,” Vigneault said. “Maybe they are ready. Maybe they’re not. I don’t know. … But the older players, they have played.”
The coaches have a better idea of what a player like Yandle offers than they do with a young guy like York. The three new veteran defensemen also add something York hasn’t had the time to acquire yet — life and NHL experience.
Adding Ellis (30), Ristolainen (26), and Yandle (35) has raised the average age of the Flyers defense from 26.8 to 29 years old. Even more significantly, the NHL experience average of the group has increased from 5.33 to 8.80 years. The youngest, least experienced player the Flyers gained, Ristolainen, has more years at the NHL level than the most experienced player the Flyers lost, Gostisbehere, at seven vs. six.
“They’re just great guys,” said goalie Carter Hart, who’s been working out around the newcomers for a few weeks. “Fun to be around in the locker room, joking around and stuff. They bring some good pace on the ice, that veteran leadership. It will be good for our group.”
Both Ellis and Ristolainen also add top-pair experience. Vigneault and Fletcher knew they needed players who were solidly top-four defensemen to play with Provorov and Sanheim. In the past, the Flyers have brought in players who didn’t quite meet that criteria, but this year Vigneault feels strongly that the team has found the players it needs.
“I really believe that’s going to change the dynamic with Provy and Travis,” Vigneault said.
Yandle may not be in his prime anymore, but Vigneault believes he’s a solid third-pair defenseman. The years that may have slowed Yandle down, however, still add value to the team through knowledge and leadership.
“Where I think he is going to be real good for our group is Yan is one of the best team guys I’ve ever coached,” Vigneault said. “And anybody that’s been associated with him would say the same thing.”
In addition to experience, the new blue-liners bring a variety of skill sets. Ellis is a versatile veteran, proven in offensive and defensive zones. He adds value to the power play and penalty kill units, as well as five-on-five, Vigneault said.
Ristolainen is not as proven, but he has also lacked stability with the Buffalo Sabres. Vigneault believes the Flyers’ veteran roster of players and coaches will help bring out his talent. Ristolainen, at 6-4, 220 pounds, also adds a new level of physicality.
Yandle helps enormously on the power play. He has a skill set Vigneault is very familiar with, having coached him with the New York Rangers.
These strengths project to work well with players already on the Flyers. For one thing, it evens out right-handed and left-handed defensemen. The Flyers retained two lefties in Sanheim and Provorov, and one right-handed shooter in Justin Braun. Both Ellis and Ristolainen are righties, while Yandle shoots left.
“I’ve always been a big believer in right-handed, left-handed defensemen,” Vigneault said. “It’s easier on puck recovery. It’s easier on quick counters. And now, by having Risto on the right side, Ryan [Ellis], Rasmus, and Braun, you have three right-handed D’s, and we’ve got a lot of possibilities on the left side there. I think that’s going to make our puck possession way better and make us a team that can play a faster, higher tempo with the puck.”
Vigneault plans to start out by putting Ellis with Provorov, currently the best defenseman the Flyers have. They’re both good all-around players, and the offensive-minded Ellis will be able to take some of the pressure to contribute offensively off Provorov, who had to shoulder it all last season.
“I’m going to see how that chemistry goes,” Vigneault said. “But I’m not saying at some point it’s not Risto, or it’s not whoever.”
While Ellis is paired with Provorov, Ristolainen would then play with Sanheim, adding size and physicality to the pair. That would leave Yandle to pair with Braun, unless a younger player like York impresses and claims the spot. Yandle has put up good offensive numbers in the past, so he would naturally complement the more defensive-minded Braun.
The retooled Flyers defense has yet to prove itself, but Vigneault believes the offseason has the squad in a better place, one far less likely to produce a 2021-2022 season in which the team gives up the most goals in the league.
“We’ve changed the dynamics of the chemistry in our dressing room, and I really believe that these changes moving forward will be good for our group,” Vigneault said.
“Obviously in a season, there’s stuff that happens. But with the group that we have right now, I feel real strongly about them.”