As the first round of the NHL Playoffs is being resolved, Flyers fans watching as neutrals could be forgiven for not recognizing the sport being played. After all, the back-and-forth action on display in series like Carolina vs. Boston or Dallas vs. Calgary is far beyond anything they saw from their home team this season. The Flyers of 2021-2022 were plagued by injury, lethargy, and general cluelessness. It was not a season to remember for the winningest Second Six Franchise, but warrants analysis all the same.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly- All in 22 Games

Philadelphia’s hockey fans probably entered 2021-2022 with a sense of optimism. The 2020-2021 season was a wash, with a bizarre regional format and league-worst defensive record precluding a playoff berth. With the 2021-2022 season to be contested free of pandemic-era inconvenience, and the backend additions of Rasmus Ristolainen, Ryan Ellis, and Keith Yandle, there was no reason that the new campaign should not have been a return to the success of the 2019-2020 season.  

Through a month or so, that optimism seemed well-founded. Yandle quickly collected 5 assists, Carter Hart rebounded somewhat from his dreadful 2020-2021, and new acquisition Cam Atkinson linked with Joel Farabee to create electricity in the offensive zone. The team played its most attractive hockey of Alain Vigneault’s tenure, including his successful first season in Philadelphia.  

It took all of 8 games for that honeymoon period to end, though. Ryan Ellis picked up a knock that would end his season having played just 4 games. Yandle quickly proved himself a defensive liability, and the Flyers’ attacking play fell off a cliff. In November, the Orange and Black began to show cracks, notching 2 goals or less in 9 straight games from 10/30 to 11/18. Postseason dreams quickly began circling the drain, forcing GM Chuck Fletcher’s hand as he tried to salvage his ambitious (and expensive) offseason.

On December 6, Fletcher cut bait on Vigneault in the midst of a 10-game skid.

The (Mercifully Brief) Mike Yeo Era

Mike Yeo followed Fletcher to Philadelphia from the Minnesota Wild and was promoted to interim head coach when Vigneault and equally maligned special teams coach Michelle Therien got the ax. To his credit, the team got a brief boost from the switch, bouncing back from an initial shutout defeat against the Devils to record a 7-game points streak. One-time prized prospect Travis Konecny found some scoring touch during the run and second-line center Kevin Hayes returned from an abdominal injury that had plagued him since the preseason. Nonetheless, the late-December stretch was the end of Yeo’s success on the bench.

In January, the franchise recorded an ignominious entry in their record books, losing 13-games in a row and being booed off the ice at home against the hated Islanders. The second double-digit losing slump of the year predictably ended any hopes of springtime hockey, and the Flyers’ injury woes continued as Derick Brassard struggled to stay on the ice and former Selke winner Sean Couturier saw his season shut down. The collective health crisis on South Broad extended to the fourth line and third pair, as forgetful Flyers like Patrick Brown, Kevin Connaughton, Gerry Mayhew, and Nick Seeler came in and out through a rotating door of faceless depth players.

As the trade deadline drew near, all eyes were on captain Claude Giroux, an upcoming UFA and the team’s second all-time leading scorer. Sure enough, the Flyers cashed in on Giroux, who was their top scorer for the season at the time of the trade, moving him to Florida for a 1st rounder and former lottery pick Owen Tippett. The March departure of Giroux, along with fellow veterans Brassard and defenseman Justin Braun, compounded the on-ice troubles for the Flyers, who limped to a shocking 5-15-0 post-trade deadline record. Yeo, who had been a lame duck since at least February, was officially dismissed on May 3 as the Flyers finished with a pitiful 61 points, good for 4th-worst in the NHL.

Takeaways

Where to begin? The Flyers suffered one of their worst ever finishes in 2021-2022, and were adjacent in the overall NHL standings with the likes of the expansion Kraken and lowly Coyotes. What is worse is that they had not committed to a rebuild in the summer, and considerably strengthening their roster on paper. Games are not played on paper though, and the health record of Ryan Ellis and earlier Fletcher acquisition Hayes, coupled with their gargantuan salaries, means that Fletcher might join Vigneault and Yeo in the breadline before long.  

On the ice, Owen Tippett rarely broke into the top-six forwards after he arrived from Florida. Oskar Lindblom has unfortunately looked more like a puck-possession forward than powerplay option since his inspiring return from illness. Travis Konecny led the team in total points, but the lack of prestige of that achievement (52P) and his inability to find twine (16G) continue an underwhelming followup to his 2019-2020 explosion (61P in 66GP). 

Cam Atkinson and waiver pickup Zack MacEwan were probably the only full-time Flyers who endeared themselves to the South Philadelphia crowds this season. Atkinson was incredibly streaky, though exhibited the trigger-happy mentality that Flyers fans have sought from their forwards for years. MacEwan will never be a game-winner, but did not shy away from a fighting major and played with admirable fire even after the season had officially become hopeless. The Flyers would be foolish to let him walk. Youngsters Cam York and Noah Cates did not look out of their depth in extended NHL cameos and can expect greater exposure with the club next year.

The Future

The Flyers should know by now that gathering scores of second-line forwards and second-pair defensemen is not a winning formula sans elite talent. With Giroux gone and Sean Couturier just having suffered his worst season in ages, that has never been more true. In 2022-2023, the team first needs to establish a leadership group. “Coots” should be a shoo-in as captain, and Atkinson, Ristolainen, and Hayes are veterans with presence who, for better or worse, are here for the long haul. Ellis will be difficult to move given his contract and still should have some juice on the ice.  

Outside of that core of players who either should not or cannot be traded, Carter Hart, and Joel Farabee, no one on this team is safe. That is especially true given rumors that Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim could be gone as early as this summer. The focus on the ice, therefore, needs to be on youth development. It would take Scotty Bowman, Steve Yzerman, and divine intervention for this group to succeed outright in 2022-2023, and so the best it can hope for is to unearth future contributors. 

York and Cates (9P in 16GP) are good candidates based on what they showed in a wretched lineup. Wade Allison has had trouble staying on the ice but scores goals wherever he goes and should get a look on the powerplay unit as a net-front presence next year. Centerman Bobby Brink was a plus passer on the NCAA champion Denver Pioneers; ice time with James van Riemsdyk and Atkinson could exhibit that skill at the next level. Tippett was not put in positions to succeed by Mike Yeo, who used him mainly to forecheck alongside fellow underwhelming first-round pick Morgan Frost. If the Flyers expect him to ever shed his bust label, they need to see him play alongside proven NHLers like Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes.

Whether turnaround specialist John Tortorella or another voice is on the bench next year, the Flyers need to afford their next coach ample patience to establish a winning culture. That attitude has been severely lacking since venerated owner Ed Snider died. The Flyers’ best hope of regaining it is to restart completely, not “run it back” once again with more overpaid veterans.

 

Photo: Flyers Staff

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