The NHL offseason is far from over. But the active portion of it — the days surrounding the draft and the first day of free agency — are now solidly in the rearview mirror.
And there’s a non-zero chance that the Philadelphia Flyers are basically finished.
“We’re out on all the remaining free agents with the reality of our cap situation right now,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said last week.
The promised “aggressive retool” proved to be anything but, as only Tony DeAngelo truly qualified as a big name. Otherwise, Fletcher and the Flyers have largely decided to run it back with their 2021-22 roster, hoping that the impact of new head coach John Tortorella and better health in the lineup and organization as a whole will produce a far superior outcome to the NHL’s fourth-worst record.
With a little under three months to go before the start of the 2022-23 season, how does their roster look? If Fletcher is truly finished, can the Flyers be cap compliant? Which players would be favored to make the big club out of camp? And what roster weaknesses still remain?
Let’s take a look at where the Flyers stand.
A look at a projected roster and available cap space
The Flyers’ cap situation in the wake of their offseason moves is… precarious to say the least.
That said, it’s at least plausible that they could enter Day 1 of the season without tapping into long-term injured reserve. Here’s a stab at their current projected roster and cap picture, with the yet-to-be-signed restricted free agents Owen Tippett and Zack MacEwen highlighted in yellow.
Now, is it a guarantee that Fletcher can get Tippett and MacEwen signed to lesser than a combined $1.86 million worth of cap? Absolutely not. MacEwen elected for salary arbitration, which will be resolved in the coming weeks, and Evolving-Hockey’s contract project model has him ultimately receiving a one-year deal worth $921,400. But that’s less than what it sees Tippett ultimately getting — a $2.117 million cap hit over two years. If the projection model proves correct — and it’s usually in the ballpark — the two would combine for $3.038 million, well over the $1.86 million that the Flyers project to have remaining. In other words, Fletcher is going to have to “win” these negotiations if he wants this particular plausible roster to fit under the $82.5 million cap ceiling.
That said, there’s an easy way for the Flyers to get cap compliant — via LTIR allowance. At this point, it seems a near-certainty that Ryan Ellis won’t be ready for the start of the season, and perhaps far longer than that. The DeAngelo trade and Justin Braun signing made it abundantly clear that Fletcher isn’t exactly banking on a rapid Ellis return to action. Placing him on a long-term injured reserve would allow the Flyers to exceed the cap ceiling significantly, and provide more than enough space to fit Tippett and MacEwen.
But cap compliance is only part of the issue facing this roster. In short, it’s a pretty limited one from a talent standpoint. By Fletcher’s own admission, the Flyers will be banking on DeAngelo picking up the slack at first-pair RD with Ellis likely out, and Rasmus Ristolainen isn’t exactly an ideal 2RD, at least in terms of his even strength performance by analytics. And then there are the forwards, which include just one clear-cut no-doubt-about-it first-liner in Sean Couturier, along with players who would likely be on the second line at best of a true contender filling out the rest of the top-six. There’s Scott Laughton at 3LW (perfectly fine), but the double question marks of Morgan Frost and Tippett filling out line 3. And then with the signing of Nicolas Deslauriers and the likely return of MacEwen, they have a fourth line high on truculence but very low on skill and play-driving ability. Add in the fact that the odds-on favorite to be the team’s backup netminder has just five NHL games to his credit, and yeah, this isn’t exactly looking like a formidable roster.
The likely roster battles
But Charlie, you might be thinking, what about (insert player name here)? Why isn’t he projected to be on the final roster? Isn’t he NHL-ready by this point and better than some of the players penciled in?
Well, possibly. And that’s what camp battles will decide.
Granted, it’s difficult for me to imagine that Deslauriers, after being handed a four-year contract with no-trade protection on the first day of free agency, will find himself off the roster — or even out of the lineup — for Game 1. But there are other players whose spots are not nearly as secure. Let’s do a quick rundown of the likely roster battles — assuming Fletcher is essentially finished with his offseason work, as he strongly implied he was.
Well, say this for the Flyers — they won’t be lacking for training camp competition.
There’s a reason why Frost, MacEwen, Tippett and Patrick Brown were tagged as favorites to make the Flyers out of camp, and not just because they all played a significant number of games for the team in 2022-23. It’s because the Flyers risk losing them for nothing if they try to send any of them down via waivers, which naturally gives them a leg up on the competition.
That said, none of them is locked into their projected places in the lineup. Frost could slide over to wing on Line 3, or serve as a healthy scratch to begin the year if he has a poor camp. Wade Allison could outplay Tippett and force him to the bench. Tanner Laczynski or Jackson Cates could beat out Brown for the 4C job. Maybe the recent emphasis on bulking up team size and being “tougher to play against” will inspire them to keep Hayden Hodgson rather than risk losing him to waivers — Fletcher does seem to be bringing up his name quite often this summer. There are quite a few possible ways the Flyers’ third and fourth lines could shape up for opening night, and that’s not even accounting for the possibility of Joel Farabee missing the start of the season, which complicates things even further.
In any case, the above players at least have a slim chance of battling their way onto the opening roster. The depth forward battle is pretty wide open, and expect it to continue into the regular season as well.
Based on the way the roster is shaping up, this looks to be a three-person battle between the youngsters: Cam York versus Ronnie Attard versus Egor Zamula, with York as the heavy favorite.
Assuming that Ellis is not ready for the start of the season, the Flyers’ top four in some form looks close to set in stone. Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, DeAngelo and Ristolainen will be the four heaviest minutes players. Braun, while not necessarily a lock for every-game duties anymore, is basically a lock to make the club out of camp. And I find it difficult to imagine that the Flyers would pair two rookies together on the third pair, or have a young defenseman make the team as the No. 7/healthy scratch. That should keep Nick Seeler safe.
Basically, there’s one spot available on the third pair for a kid. The smart money is on York, who more than held his own at the NHL level last season, was the first draft pick of the Fletcher regime and is pretty clearly physically ready for the highest level. It would be very easy to simply slot him in on the left side next to Braun on Pair 3, use Seeler as the No. 7, and call it a day. But the spot won’t be handed to him. If Attard, for example, outplays York in camp, the Flyers could always give him the job and pair him with Seeler (sitting Braun to start) if they’re intent on keeping left-/right-handedness balanced across all three pairs. And then there’s Zamula, who impressed in limited NHL minutes at the end of 2021-22 but is in the midst of a very important summer in terms of bulking up. He’s the wild card — if he can somehow transform his body in time for camp, he has the skill to be an NHL regular right now.
At this point, York is in the lead. But he’ll have to earn it.
Carter Hart is the team’s clear No. 1 goal. He has been since 2019-20, of course, but now it’s even more obvious, for a simple reason: the Flyers don’t plan to have an established backup behind him. Fletcher acknowledged last week that they had bowed out of the backup goalie UFA and trade market, and planned to hold an open competition for the spot at camp.
“(Troy) Grosenick and (Felix) Sandström will compete at camp, along with Sam Ersson,” Fletcher said. “In relation to Sam coming off the injury-plagued season that he did, we’re hoping to get him to full health and get him playing. We’ll have a competition in camp for the backup position.”
So who is Troy Grosenick? Signed by the Flyers on Day 1 of free agency, Grosenick is a 32-year-old journeyman netminder with four NHL games to his credit. Grosenick has long been a strong AHL netminder, posting save percentages of .919, .920 and .933 in his last three full seasons in the league, with that last mark leading the AHL in 2021-22. That said, his age and past inability to crack the NHL don’t speak highly of his upside, at least in terms of how it was evaluated by multiple other NHL organizations. According to Fletcher, Grosenick will get a chance to change that at camp in September.
His biggest competition? It’s pretty clearly Sandström, the 25-year-old Flyers prospect who impressed in five appearances with the big club in 2021-22. Sandström’s athleticism has long been undeniable, even if his on-ice results have long failed to match the talent. But Fletcher noted that in the second half of the AHL season in 2021-22, Sandström graded out especially well by advanced models in the minors, and that — in tandem with the fact that he held his own in limited time at the NHL level thus far — appears to have given Fletcher the confidence to hand him a real shot of earning the backup job behind Hart.
The long shot is Samuel Ersson, who is coming off a season spoiled by multiple groin injuries. But it’s worth remembering that in September 2021, Ersson had serious career momentum coming off a stellar season for a very limited Brynäs IF in the SHL. He stood out in a big way in camp, and appeared poised to jump Sandström on the depth chart — and then the injuries hit, and his North American career ground to a halt before it really ever had a chance to begin.
Now, Ersson is working his way back and participated in development camp. Most likely, he’ll need AHL time to regain regain form, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he steals the show — and the backup job — at camp in September and October.
Most likely, however, this is a battle between Sandström and Grosenick, with the former seemingly having the edge due to familiarity and that he was drafted and developed by the organization. But Fletcher signed Grosenick for a reason. He’ll be in the mix too.
(Photo of Ivan Provorov, Cam York and Carter Hart: Eric Hartline / USA Today)