In the Flyers’ locker room late Monday, after they had charged back from a three-goal deficit to beat the Bruins, 6-5, after Travis Konecny had scored in a shootout and Brad Marchand … hadn’t, Connor Bunnaman — 21 years old, with at least two teeth missing from the front of his mouth, with a whole five games of NHL experience — gripped a puck in his left hand and posed for a photo.
Recalled from the AHL the day before, Bunnaman had scored his first NHL goal in the game, a fluky thing, a shot by another rookie, defenseman Mark Friedman, that caromed off Bunnaman, then off a Bruins player, then into the net. It had cut Boston’s lead to 5-4, had made the possibility of a Flyers comeback against one of the league’s best teams real, and Bunnaman, a center, was happy enough to have made such a significant contribution in such a significant victory.
So he posed by himself, then with Friedman, as a photographer working for the Flyers’ media-relations department snapped away.
“For me, it’s ‘Get in the lineup. Stay in the lineup. Do what I need to do,’ ” Bunnaman said.
The circumstances of his opportunity didn’t matter. Only the opportunity itself did.
That’s the perspective one would expect from a kid trying to find some staying power in the NHL, but for the Flyers, the reasons for Bunnaman’s presence matter a great deal. It’s not just that they’ve run through a lengthy list of players, veterans, and rookies alike, in trying to find consistent play at center on their third and fourth lines. It’s that they’re limited, by injuries and their salary-cap situation, in the measures they can take to shake up their lineup and find that consistency.
Nolan Patrick hasn’t played all season because of his migraine problem. Scott Laughton had a groin injury. Prospects whom people had been waiting a while to see — Morgan Frost, German Rubtsov — got shots and didn’t stick. Here was a team that, over the offseason, had made it clear it was planning to make a playoff push, and the Flyers have been cycling through call-ups and youngsters to fill out four lines.
Why? It’s all they can do. They made a push during the offseason and training camp, all right. They acquired Kevin Hayes and Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, and they handed Ivan Provorov a handsome contract extension and raise. Which means, according to the database CapFriendly.com, that they have less than $600,000 worth of salary-cap space to work with between now and the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
So unless general manager Chuck Fletcher has some earth-shaking trade in the works, unless he plans to reshape the roster of a team that, after Monday’s win, holds one of the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference, there’s no significant addition on the way from the outside.
The only help that’s coming will be from those youngsters and call-ups and from the vets already here. There hadn’t been much of it lately, not from those players with the greatest expectations and highest salaries. Hayes’ goal Monday was his second in seven games. Sean Couturier’s was his first in five. Claude Giroux has two goals in his last 12 games, and neither James van Riemsdyk nor Jake Voracek has scored in his last 10.
Those are some serious slumps, and they can’t last if the Flyers are to retain a realistic chance of qualifying for the postseason. That they rallied Monday night, especially after the Bruins so thoroughly dominated the first 30 minutes of regulation, was a credit to their spirit and effort — and perhaps a by-product of coach Alain Vigneault’s decision to shake up the alignment of the four forward lines, spreading out skill and size among them. Michael Raffl, for instance, played on the second line with Couturier and Voracek. Bunnaman centered Joel Farabee and Tyler Pitlick; each of those players is at least 6 feet tall.
“At home, I’ve got the last matchup, so I’m capable most of the time to put them in more favorable situations,” Vigneault said. “But at the end of the day, whoever’s on the ice has to play to your strength, whether you’re a 10- or 12-year veteran like Jake or whether you’re a two- or three-game veteran like Connor Bunnaman. You’ve got to play to your strengths, play the percentages, and play hard.”
Bunnaman has enough self-awareness to know what his strengths are, and they’re pretty basic.
“I chip and chase, go to the net,” he said. “I’m a big body. That’s kind of my role on the team. I’m just going to keep doing it.”