Flyers Four-Pack: Midseason Edition

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Flyers' Owen Tippett
Philadelphia Flyers’ Owen Tippett (74) returns to the bench after scoring during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

This season has been compelling for the Philadelphia Flyers (25-16-6).

We’re just past the midway point, and at the start of the weekend, they sat two points (now four) behind the New York Rangers for the top spot in the NHL Metropolitan Division. Who would’ve predicted that when the season began in October?

Morgan Frost was scratched often at the beginning of this season, and Bobby Brink is on assignment with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The penalty kill was about as effective at goal-scoring as the powerplay. The Flyers even traded their second-best prospect to the Anaheim Ducks while playing their state rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Let’s crack open a four-pack of thoughts about hockey in Philadelphia.

Good Problems to Have

In a trade that shook up the hockey world earlier this month, the Flyers acquired a top-pair, right-handed defenseman, creating a logjam on defense.

Jamie Drysdale partners with Travis Sanheim on the top pair. The middle pair is mostly up to Nick Seeler and Sean Walker. At the bottom, Cam York, Rasmus Ristolainen, Yegor Zamula, and Marc Staal rotate on defense or act as the seventh defenseman in an 11/7 lineup format. They’re deep along the blue line, leaving one defenseman scratched nightly.

Drysdale, Sanheim, York, and Ristolainen play each night. York and Drysdale are young, talented players growing and achieving their potential. Sanheim and Ristolainen are veterans locked into a long-term deal. Seeler and Walker, both favorites of John Tortorella, bring grit and physicality to the blue line. Zamula is an enthralling entity, regarded similarly to Drysdale and York in that he is a young player with powerplay promise.

Staal is a wildcard. The veteran mentor shows the younger defenders tricks to the trade. He won’t be a part of the long-term rebuild with two points (1G, 1A) in 17 games. The defense is strong, but eight defensemen for six or seven spots means there is room for an odd-man-out at the NHL Trade Deadline.

NHL Trade Deadline

All signs point toward trading a defenseman at the NHL Trade Deadline. Trading Staal to the highest bidder, a textbook rebuilding move to sign a defenseman to a team-friendly contract to flip for assets is the easiest decision. To put a bow on it, Philadelphia could receive a mid-to-late round pick at best.

Who says that is the move the Flyers make? Seeler and Walker are on expiring deals, too. Without getting too deep in the weeds, they would draw a better return, and if the ultimate goal for the team was to rebuild, it makes sense to off-load veterans who might night fit long-term. Seeler, Walker, and Staal likely won’t be here when Philadelphia becomes legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. It makes sense to get something for at least one or even two of them instead of letting them walk for nothing.

But, to play Devil’s Advocate, the Flyers find themselves in a unique position in their rebuild. They’re very competitive on most nights, and as the NHL Trade Deadline approaches, they are in a position to make a postseason push. If that is the philosophy, standing pat with Seeler and Walker makes sense. It still makes sense to trade Staal.

The line is hard to walk, but based on how Daniel Briere, Keith Jones, and Dan Hilferty handled the Cutter Gauthier situation, there’s likely something brewing ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline.

Midseason Surprises

The surprise of the season is the play from Sam Ersson. In 22 games, Ersson is 12-6-3 with three shutouts, a 2.36GAA, and 90.9%SV. In his short career, he became not just a viable option to spell Carter Hart, but Ersson might have what it takes to be a bonafide starter in the league.

Hart is a restricted free agent at the end of the season.

Ersson is 24 years old and has played 34 games for the Flyers. It would be a gamble to anoint him as the starter, or 1A, for the foreseeable future without a backup plan, but he’s shown Tortorella that he can handle the crease.

Switching gears and the word ‘surprise,’ could be a stretch, but the emergence of Owen Tippett as a hefty scoring threat shows that he was the player we hoped for when he arrived after Claude Giroux went to the Florida Panthers. In back-to-back nights, he scored two highlight reel or goal-of-the-year caliber goals:

Tippett, also 24 years old, is a restricted free agent at the end of the season. This season, he tallied 30 points (18G, 12A), proving to be the building block required. A change of scenery is doing Tippett well, and his play, while not the most ‘surprising,’ is fantastic. Philadelphia has an additional scorer on their committee.

Next Captain Thoughts

A parody account on X, @DrEvilGritty, put out a parody tweet with a fake quote that gained some steam:

The age-old question after Giroux is, ‘Who will be the next captain of the Flyers?’

Still, the leading answer is Scott Laughton. He’s the only skater with a letter on his sweater. Last season, a popular name stirring this topic was Sean Couturier after he returned from back surgery. He’s back, but Laughton still exclusively wears a letter.

While that tweet and quote is a parody, there’s some truth. A case could be made for Travis Konecny to become the next captain. He would be one of the longest-tenured in Philadelphia, and he’s played very well, earning his second NHL All-Star Game bid.

Tortorella is not thinking about captaincy, but the top candidates seem to be Laughton, Couturier, or Konecny when that time comes.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)