Flyers need to escape the mushy middle

Travis Konecny. Photo by Mark Zimmaro.

It seems that the Flyers have reached a tipping point.

Two brutal losses to two New York-based teams last week have signaled the distress call from Flyers fans, who are none too happy seeing their favorite team struggle badly during a season that they expected to see the Flyers take a step forward. 

Through the weekend, and past the midway point of this shortened season, the Flyers were sitting in fifth place in a division that will qualify only four teams for the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs. They do have a few games in hand on the division-leading Washington Capitals and New York Islanders as well as a few on the third-place Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Flyers are falling dangerously distant from those teams with their recent subpar play. More bad news follows, as Boston is in fourth place but still has seven games remaining against the lowly Buffalo Sabres. 

Even if they squeak into the playoffs, the season probably won’t be considered a success unless the Flyers manage to get hot and win a couple of rounds. Missing the playoffs completely would be disastrous, considering the Flyers haven’t made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 2012.

Pressure is mounting, and there comes a time when fans have had enough of living in the mushy middle. The short-term problems suggest a lack of offensive star power, below-average goaltending and large enough holes on defense to drive a Zamboni through. A deadline addition of a veteran defenseman probably isn’t going to fix this thing. 

So if they aren’t buyers, are the Flyers sellers? Sort of — unfortunately, just not to the point of roster shakeup that many fans would like to see.

Moving a big-ticket player will be incredibly difficult in a flat cap world, as nobody has room to take on a large contract. And you can forget about the expansion Seattle Kraken taking one off your hands without having to package several high draft picks for them to do so.

The frustrating part about the Flyers’ makeup is the franchise hasn’t proved that its veteran core can get the job done after several kicks at the can. It’s also concerning that several prospects haven’t made the necessary progress to fuel any hope that a title run can be accomplished internally.

In a way, the Flyers have drafted perfectly good NHL players who can contribute on a nightly basis. But they haven’t been able to produce a game-changing elite talent since Claude Giroux was in his prime. Three times in his career, Giroux was in the top-five voting for the league’s Most Valuable Player. Now on the wrong side of 30, it’s unlikely Giroux will regain that status.

The harsh reality is you rarely win Stanley Cups without those types of players. Maybe the St. Louis Blues are an example but they still had high-level guys like Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Pietrangelo firing on all cylinders. All other recent Cup winners had a Sidney Crosby, an Alex Ovechkin, a Nikita Kucherov or a Patrick Kane leading the way.

The Flyers aren’t going to get one of these types of players by standing pat and drafting somewhere in the mid-teens year after year. And it certainly won’t be easy to lure a big free agent in. Guys like Artemi Panarin don’t hit the unrestricted free agent market often, and you have to have the cap space to sign them when they do.

That puts the onus on general manager Chuck Fletcher to make something happen. Make a trade. Make several trades. 

This year’s Stanley Cup seems wide open, with plenty of teams looking to upgrade. If one should come knocking on the Flyers’ door, it should be answered both immediately and enthusiastically to at least get the ball rolling for even bigger moves in the offseason.

Free up enough cap space, maybe trading for Jack Eichel becomes a possibility. Shed enough salary and pitch a huge number at soon-to-be UFA Dougie Hamilton. 

Flyers need to start thinking big. Or remain in the mushy middle.