When deposed Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher inked Travis Sanheim to an 8-year, $50 million extension, he bizarrely committed to a bang-average defensive group for the long haul. Fletcher had already signed Ivan Provorov and Rasmus Ristolainen to long-term deals of their own, and Tony DeAngelo and Nick Seeler were each locked into two-season commitments.
Fletcher is mercifully gone, but with those five veterans under contract for next season and youngsters Cam York, Ronnie Attard, Egor Zamula, and Emil Andrae in the fold, he left quite the blueline logjam in his wake. Interim GM Daniel Briere and his as-of-yet unannounced superiors will need to set about clearing out bad contracts and analyzing young assets throughout the offseason.
The aforementioned young players have various levels of skill and experience but have in common a need for NHL game time. They have all succeeded in the pro ranks; York was excellent in 54 games for the Flyers in 2022-2023, Attard was an AHL All-Star for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms that same season, Zamula has swung in between the Phantoms and Flyers since 2020, and Andrae played 133 senior games in Sweden before joining the Phantoms for their playoff push. All that’s left is to get the foursome enough NHL exposure to see just what their respective ceilings are. Briere and coach John Tortorella will be confident in York’s future as a top-four defenseman, but how can they cycle in fresh faces with so many question marks in the prospect pool?
As for the veterans, staying might mean being untradeable and more than deserving. Fletcher threw serious money into the Flyers’ blueline and most of his investments far overestimated players’ value on the open market.
Sanheim’s deal runs through his age 35 season at $6.25 AAV. It is too costly a contract for other teams to bite at full price and too long for the Flyers to have any interest in retaining salary in a trade. Sanheim was extended in the hope he would build off of a promising 2021-2022 campaign, but he took a step back in his first season under Tortorella. Sanheim is a great skater who knows when to pinch and flies through the neutral zone, but his lack of physicality (13th on the team in hits) and scoring (7G, 23P, 81GP) make it difficult to determine just what his function on the team is. The best Briere can hope for is that Tortorella can find the next level to Sanheim’s game that has evaded him through his first six seasons. In the meantime, the big Manitoban isn’t going anywhere.
Ristolainen and Seeler are also safe bets to stay. Like Sanheim, the former is overpaid at $5.1 million AAV but bounced back from being vocally disliked by Tortorella to being one of his most relied-upon defensemen. “Risto’s” physical, stay-at-home style is not eye-popping but serves an important purpose on a team that has increasingly relied on commitment and nastiness. Seeler played in a similar fashion and blossomed into a reliable penalty-killer and shot-blocker in just his second season as a full-time NHLer. The 29-year-old comes dirt cheap and brings heart and dependability to the Flyers’ bottom pair on a nightly basis. Seeler could be a trade target for playoff teams at the deadline but has earned his place on the opening night roster.
The Flyers need to address their top pair in the worst way. Tortorella was content to rely on his makeshift top unit of DeAngelo and Provorov for big minutes in a role neither man seemed prepared for. DeAngelo is a power-play quarterback who can be a valuable asset when his exposure at even strength is limited. His scoring (11G, 42P, in 70GP) was an asset for the Flyers, but DeAngelo’s defense was so poor that he became a frequent scratch in the home stretch of the season, and it was clear that he was miscast as a top guy. As for Provorov, the Russian has never reached the potential his stellar sophomore season in 2017-2018 suggested and is often only as effective as his partner is reliable. Alongside DeAngelo, that was an issue. Provorov is still a solid top-four option in the NHL, but the longer the Flyers pretend he can lead their defense, the more disappointing his giveaways and lack of development become.
DeAngelo should be a relatively painless summer departure. Aside from a spearing suspension, it was another year of keeping his nose clean and avoiding the character concerns that once plagued him. If he is not scaring off teams with his personality, DeAngelo’s scoring should make him a target for contending teams that lack a power play punch. Because he is in a contract year and the Flyers could halve his $5 cap hit in a trade, there are no significant financial hurdles preventing a move.
As for Provorov, teams would have to believe in his potential to commit to his $6.75 AAV contract through 2025. That term is not exactly intimidating in today’s NHL, and some team with defensive struggles should, despite his faults, be intrigued by Provorov’s obvious natural ability and nonexistent injury record: he has only ever missed 3 regular season contests. His departure will not be a desperate priority of Briere’s. Still, the explosion of defensemen’s trade value at the 2023 trade deadline suggests a Provorov deal could net an impressive haul as well as provide cap relief.
Should the Flyers pull the plug on both DeAngelo and Provorov, Ronnie Attard would immediately step into one of the newly-opened roster spots. Attard sports a blend of physicality and offense (12G, 32P in 68 AHL GP) that suggests a promising future as a two-way NHL defenseman. The former collegiate standout is already 24, though, so the time for the Flyers to find that out is now. 15 minutes a night alongside Seeler should be a good starting point.
The pair of Ristolainen and Sanheim will step directly into the top spot as the only (relatively) proven duo with Provorov gone. Their partnership has never been a world-beating one, but someone has to log the big minutes for Tortorella, and, despite their unnecessarily hefty combined cap hit, a rebuilding team could do much worse. The slow-moving Seeler and green Attard will serve as the third pair, leaving a spot open alongside York in the top four.
If the front office does move on from DeAngelo and Provorov, they will need outside help to fill out their blueline. Justin Braun looked out of gas in 2022-2023 and announced his retirement, while Andrae and Zamula are both unlikely to step into an NHL role in 2023-2024. Andrae could use a full AHL season to adjust to the North American game, while Zamula has not yet distinguished himself over 26 forgettable games with the Flyers.
Matt Dumba and John Klingberg of the Minnesota Wild are UFAs that would bring veteran leadership to the Flyers and fill an important role as either big-hitter or power-play quarterback, respectively, but neither has a reason to pick the Flyers to rebuild project over potential Stanley Cup contenders. If they did, it would be for the sort of money that exacerbates Flyers’cap issues. The harsh truth is that York’s partner is likely to be a stopgap for a season or two until Zamula or, more likely, the offensively-gifted Andrae is ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Whether that player is a trade return or low-ceiling, high-floor free agency acquisition (perhaps a returning Robert Hagg), the fact is that the Flyers will not have the talent on defense that they did in 2022-2023. That is okay; a backslide from 20th best defensive corps to 25th will be worth the cleared cap of Provorov, the discontinued mismanagement of DeAngelo, and the greater responsibility afforded to York and Attard. The Flyers had just as bad a chance of Stanley Cup glory under Fletcher as they will during the Briere era’s growing pains.
By shedding salary and emphasizing youth, the Orange and Black can at least turn their eyes towards the future.