The Flyers did OK in free agency. Not great. But if you add the signings to the trades general manager Chuck Fletcher made earlier this summer, they look considerably better than last season.
Their defense, with the addition of veterans Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Keith Yandle, is clearly the most improved part of the team.
The offense still lacks speed and could use another sniper. But the forwards should be more difficult to play against because of the acquisition of Cam Atkinson, a (likely) full season with Wade Allison, and the signing of fourth-line center/penalty-killer Nate Thompson. Atkinson gives them a much-needed shoot-first mentality.
It would help, of course, if Travis Konecny returns to form, and Oskar Lindblom blossoms after a difficult year following his cancer battle.
Yandle, a free-agent signee who spurned many other offers, said Fletcher’s flurry of moves played a “huge” part in his decision to join the Flyers and his good buddy, Kevin Hayes.
“I think seeing what Chuck’s done even before free agency and making big moves and just helping the team get better,” he said. “I thought it was a no-brainer for me. ... It just seems like it’s a win-now situation, and that’s something that I’m all about.”
The Flyers’ special teams should be better — they would be hard-pressed to be worse — because they added many players who will play on the penalty kill, which was 30th in the NHL last season. The power play, which was 17th, also has some new pieces and may have Yandle as its quarterback.
Atkinson should help both units, and he will give them a scoring threat on the PK, where Ellis was their most important addition.
Questions need answering
But there are questions, big questions, about the most important position on the ice: goaltending.
Statistically, Carter Hart is coming off the worst season by a Flyers goalie (minimum: 25 games) since Tommy Soderstrom in 1993-94.
Hart has excelled on every level, including his previous season (and playoffs) with the Flyers, and has the pedigree to rebound, especially with a better defense in front of him. Most people, myself included, expect him to bounce back.
Still, until he does it, there are questions. Just like there are about Martin Jones, the somewhat-risky backup goalie they signed in free agency.
Jones, 31, who starred in San Jose early in his career and led the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, is coming off three straight seasons in which he struggled mightily. Will that trend continue?
Brian Boucher, an ESPN analyst who knows a little something about goaltending after playing the position for 13 NHL seasons, liked the Jones signing.
“It’s a natural progression for guys who were No. 1 goalies, and their game has slipped, for whatever reason,” Boucher said Friday. “Sometimes it’s age. Sometimes it’s the environment they’re in. You kind of transition to another chapter in your career, where you get into a share-the-load type of deal, or be a No. 2.
Boucher noted that Jones started his career as a backup with Los Angeles, “and when he played, there was a lot of quality there. I’m not surprised that this is where it goes. It’s an opportunity for him to take some pressure off him and kind of relax and enjoy being a mentor to Carter.”
Added Boucher: “And you don’t want to send a message to Hart, either, by signing a guy like Petr Mrazek or Frederik Andersen. You’re not going after those guys. They’re going after the next tier of goalie who is at the point in his career where it’s not about being the starter. It’s about transitioning into a 1B or a 2. That’s where he’s at.”
The Flyers haven’t missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 1992-93 and 1993-94. Fletcher made a lot of good moves to make sure it doesn’t happen. The players, embarrassed by a listless season that produced six more losses than wins, are determined to rebound.
Hayes told Yandle the group was not happy with a 25-23-8 showing, the fifth time in the last nine years the Flyers had missed the playoffs. He told him “how guys want to come in this year, have a huge year, and get back to where you should be. I think for me, that’s the biggest thing, to see the hunger in the group and talking to guys on the team and how excited they are for the season to start.”
No matter how much the Flyers have improved, it won’t be easy to get into the playoffs for teams from the Metropolitan Division. You remember the Metro, right? After an altered alignment in 2021 because of the pandemic, teams will go back to their old divisions next season. Only three of the top eight teams in the division are guaranteed playoff berths, though as many as two others could earn a wild-card spot.
Carolina, which will dearly miss defenseman Dougie Hamilton, the Islanders, Washington, and weakened Pittsburgh are the division’s Big Four. The Rangers also figure to be knocking on the playoff door, and, thanks to Fletcher’s productive offseason, so should the Flyers.