The Philadelphia Flyers are a cautionary tale

Despite their recent turnaround, Philly is an example of the perils of a half-committed rebuild.

Rebuilds are simple in concept, but difficult to execute. Often GMs are reluctant to go all-in on a rebuild when ownership expects a competent team that sells tickets and merchandise, but as our very own Kate R has illustrated with the case of the Buffalo Sabres, going scorched earth can have its drawbacks as well. As the Pekka Rinne era comes to a close in Nashville, some fans still cling to the hope that the Predators will claw their way back to the postseason in the next year or two. As a longtime Philadelphia Flyers fan who suffered through seven miserable years of a rebuild disguised as a “reload,” I’m here to illustrate why holding on to vestiges of past glory might hamper the franchises’s future chances at a championship.

Reloading requires impeccable drafting

The chief reason that one could consider the Flyers a successful “reload” is that Ron Hextall was an absolutely brilliant talent evaluator. In his time overseeing the organization’s overhaul of the pipeline, the Philly GM boasted a strong success rate in the early rounds (Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, Carter Hart, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost, Travis Konecny), the late rounds (Oskar Lindblom, Noah Cates, Samuel Ersson, Wyatt Kalynuk) and in UDFA signings (Phil Myers, Yegor Zamula). This kind of success is almost unheard of when a team is consistently picking in the middle of the first round, but Hextall added valuable pieces to the team’s future with shrewd picks rather than high-end selections (only Provorov was a top ten pick).

The reason I’m presenting this is that David Poile lacks the same recent track record of intelligent picks in the mid/late first round of the draft. The Predators have made a number of questionable picks in the past five years, especially in last year’s draft where many of their decisions baffled the scouting community. Poile’s poor acumen with cultivating and identifying forward talent along with his trigger-happy approach to free agency exacerbates my concerns about his fit for a team that needs a lot of new blood.

Wasting prime years of great players for nothing is unacceptable

The reason I feel the Hextall-era Flyers are a good cautionary tale is the insistence on the team having just enough talent to be a bubble team, but not enough talent to seriously contend. The Flyers had a solid nucleus of players in place with Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Jake Voracek at the beginning of Hextall’s tenure, but the lack of anything aside from that group ultimately wasted a lot of value that could have been obtained from them. While I love Wayne Simmonds, the franchise essentially wasted all of his best years and had nothing to show for it, getting back a measly return from Nashville at the trade deadline.

The reluctance to sell and accelerate the rebuild, for better or worse, prevented the Flyers from being in the conversation for elite talents like Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews. Instead, fans were rewarded with alternating years of missing the playoffs and first round exits. Entering the 2020 postseason, the Flyers hadn’t won a playoff series since 2012, yet they never added a superstar talent that the team could build around when Claude Giroux slowed down. The Flyers hampered their own vision with these futile bids for meaningless postseason appearances, something that Nashville has a very real possibility of replicating.

The mantra in Predators country has long been “make the playoffs and hope the team gets hot.” While the Stanley Cup playoffs are indeed chaotic and full of parity, the reality is that praying your goalie can carry your lackluster offense to a championship appearance isn’t the best method for winning the whole thing. The teams that have won the Cup in the past decade (the Lightning, Blues, Capitals, Penguins, Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins) all had drafted cores of at least three elite players that they built around. The key to winning a Cup in the cap era is drafting franchise cornerstones with your top picks, supplementing them with depth free agent signings, and refreshing the team with smart late-round draft picks to keep the window open. David Poile’s haphazard method of roster assembly via free agent signings and trades hasn’t worked for over 20 years, so there’s little reason to believe it will now.

What’s my point here? If you’re gonna blow it up, blow it up. Poile has no legitimate reason to keep Ryan Ellis or Matt Duchene in hopes of making the playoffs when in reality all that will do is prolong the team’s gradual slide to the bottom of the league. It’s time to bite the bullet and make some hard decisions rather than just shifting deck chairs, and with the exception of maybe Filip Forsberg there’s nobody on this team that should be labeled “not for sale.” Barring Sabres-level incompetence in the front office and amongst ownership (something unlikely) the team will be able to manage a teardown just fine.

A reload results in a worse on-ice product for longer

The most agonizing part of the post-2012 Flyers was the contrast between the top of the roster and the rest of it. Claude Giroux would be skating with a defensive pair of Andrew MacDonald and Brandon Manning behind him; Sean Couturier’s best lineman for around five years was Matt Read; nobody outside of the top line could score, and the best goalie of that entire stretch was Steve Mason, who regularly bailed out the atrocious defenders. Names like Valterri Filppula, Jori Lehtera, Chris Vandevelde and Nick Grossman are seared into my memory for all the wrong reasons. This is what a reload can be at its worst: agonizing mediocrity. The Predators need to commit to embracing a full-scale revamp of their pipeline for the next two or three years if they really want to fix things. It’s better to rip the band-aid off now rather than slowly peeling it. I speak from experience.