Those fans deserve far better than a 25-46-11 season, the players and general manager Chuck Fletcher agreed. The players have vowed to put in the work in the offseason, and Fletcher said he’ll be aggressively retooling to get the team back into playoff contention for the first time in three years.
Both Fletcher and the players believe the Flyers can turn things around swiftly with the core group that they have. But a long list of things will have to go right, as well as things the Flyers will have to improve on to back up their words and return to the playoff mix next season. Here are the six biggest keys to a Flyers turnaround in 2022-23.
Breaking bad habits
Interim coach Mike Yeo preached about “bad habits” all season long. It wasn’t just a go-to explanation. The Flyers actually have lots of bad habits that they can’t seem to break.
On the forecheck, players often cheated or didn’t go in hard enough, which decreased the team’s chances of winning the puck back in the offensive zone. On defense, players tended to stray from the coverage spots they needed to occupy. In other areas of the game, they failed to make the simple decision, and the little details, like stick positioning or breaking the puck out of the zone, were often poor.
Yeo pointed these things out on several occasions, and some players certainly improved in these areas. But bad habits, especially ones that tend to creep in and fester during losing seasons, take a while to break. And the lack of reward in terms of wins for doing the right things makes it very tempting to cheat the details.
Getting healthy and staying healthy
Injuries are a viable excuse for many — but certainly not all — of the Flyers’ problems this season. With 501 man-games lost, the Flyers were the second-most-injured team in the league.
Significant players were injured, too. With the top two centermen, Sean Couturier (back) and Kevin Hayes (groin), out for much of the season and marquee acquisition Ryan Ellis (pelvis) out for basically all of it, there was a trickle-down effect on the whole lineup. While Hayes finished the season, Couturier and Ellis still will need to return to pre-injury form for the team to take a significant step forward. As Fletcher said Tuesday, it’s not so easy to replace a top two-way center and a No. 1 defenseman.
The Flyers need their depth players, from the bottom six on down to the Phantoms, to stay healthy as well. As this year proved, claiming guys off waivers won’t cut it. Given the experience many of the youth got this season, Fletcher believes one benefit will be a deeper pool of NHL-caliber players to call upon next season.
Injuries are bound to happen, so for those who do get hurt next season, as Fletcher pointed out, it’s important the Flyers and their medical staff do a better job ensuring that players are fully ready to return so they don’t keep aggravating injuries like multiple players — Hayes, Ellis, Derick Brassard — did this season. As the team learned the hard way in 2021-22, sometimes it’s better for all parties to err on the side of caution.
Better conditioning could also help both in preventing injuries and breaking bad habits. Bad habits tend to come out later in games and later in the season when players are tired. In many games throughout the season the Flyers came out with jump and then faded.
Many of the Flyers could stand to get stronger, as well. Cam Atkinson spoke of the need to play tougher, and adding and developing stronger bodies will help them do that.
Finding the finishing touch
Unless the Flyers find an elite, consistent goal-scorer in the offseason via trade or free agency, they will need more of their core players to figure out how to score. The Flyers shot plenty this season but that did not lead to goals. The Flyers finished middle of the pack (16th) in five-on-five shots on goal but were 27th in high-danger chances, according to Natural Stat Trick, and as a result were 31st out of 32 teams in scoring with 206 goals.
Frankly, the Flyers just don’t have offensive players who scare opponents, especially now that Claude Giroux is gone.
Newcomer Owen Tippett (four goals in 21 games with the Flyers) and winger Travis Konecny (16 goals) are two potential internal solutions. They both have pedigrees as goal scorers, but for all the opportunities they created, both had shooting percentages of only around 7% (top goal scorers usually shoot above 15%). Joel Farabee also struggled, going from 20 goals in 55 games last season to a quiet 17 in 63 this past campaign. Then there were Atkinson (23 goals) and James van Riemsdyk (24 goals), who were both frustratingly streaky.
Developing their youth
The Flyers have several young players who have potential but either haven’t quite hit their stride yet or developed into stars at the NHL level.
Both Konecny, 25, and defenseman Travis Sanheim, 26, have shown flashes of getting there and showed consistent improvement in the second half of season. However, neither has produced at that level over an entire season in recent years and both are unlikely to become top-of-the-line stars.
Farabee, 22, struggled with both injuries and confidence but has major upside, and with his offensive ability he could develop into a perennial 30-goal scorer. Goaltender Carter Hart, 23, rebounded somewhat in 2021-22 but he also needs to progress if he is to be the long-term answer between the pipes.
Tippett, Morgan Frost, and Cam York all had strong performances at the tail end of the season. However, the organization can’t keep saying they need more time. If the Flyers want to turn it around next season, like they say they do, they need these three to start producing now. Development will also be key with rookies such as Bobby Brink, Noah Cates, and Ronnie Attard, as well as with young down-the-road prospects like Tyson Foerster, Samu Tuomaala, and Elliot Desnoyers.
Finally, the depth players in the organization need to take strides so that if they’re called upon, they can do more than fill a spot on the roster. Otherwise, as soon as the Flyers suffer a few injuries, things will once again spiral like they did this season.
Hitting in the draft
Drafting is one of three ways to turn a franchise around, next to developing what you have and adding key pieces in free agency. As Bob Clarke infamously rehashed this season, the Flyers had the second-round overall pick in 2017 and chose Nolan Patrick. The three players selected after Patrick, Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar and Elias Pettersson, have all blossomed into NHL stars. Morgan Frost, the team’s other first-round pick that year (27th overall), has only just started to find some semblance of consistency in his game at the NHL level.
In 2018, they chose Farabee (14th overall), who has made an impact, as well as Jay O’Brien (19th). O’Brien, 22, has yet to join the Flyers organization and is looking more and more like a bust. Cam York, their 2019 first-round pick (14th overall), looks to have a bright future while German Rubtsov, the team’s 2016 first-rounder (22nd overall), is no longer with the organization and has played just four NHL games.
The Flyers have had some hits, a lot of misses, and a bunch of picks they’re still waiting on. With a guaranteed top-six pick in the 2022 NHL draft as well as a ton of picks accumulated over the next two years, the Flyers have a major opportunity to inject some much-needed high-end talent into their future. Now, they just have to pick the right guys.
Leading the way
As the longest-tenured captain in Flyers history, Claude Giroux left a huge leadership hole when he was traded to the Florida Panthers. The team did not name a captain after he left, but they will likely do so next season. Numerous players have stepped up in his absence, but it will be hard to step out of the shadow of his legacy.
Before that, the Flyers need a coach. They’ve officially moved on from Yeo and have to decide what direction to turn next. With their last two full-time hires they’ve tried the young, college coach route in Dave Hakstol, and they’ve gone with a well-known, veteran name in Alain Vigneault. Neither of them was able to get the team to perform up to its capability for an extended period.
Now, Fletcher will have to figure out just what type of coach the team will respond to and what kind of identity the Flyers should adopt. This is another decision this summer that the organization has to get right.