Gilbert: Fletcher’s offseason additions improve Flyers in all areas
The Philadelphia Flyers are going to have a different roster, look, and feel to them this coming season. After a season full of blowout losses, embarrassing defeats, and too-little-too-late “comebacks,” Chuck Fletcher shook things up this offseason.
Fletcher addressed the Flyers’ biggest needs on the blue line, traded away one of the longest-tenured Flyers, and gave the team a new identity. The Flyers aren’t going to be easy to play against and they won’t be easy to score against either. Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, Cam Atkinson, Keith Yandle, Nate Thompson, and Martin Jones bring several new faces to Philadelphia. They’re hard-nosed players that will help the Flyers in all aspects of the game.
Ellis and Ristolainen transform Flyers’ blue line
The Flyers’ first addition also happens to be their most important. Ryan Ellis transforms the Flyers’ blue line as a legitimate top-pair right defenseman. After Matt Niskanen retired, the Flyers cycled through various partners with Ivan Provorov on the top pair last season. None of them really worked, however, which led Chuck Fletcher to go out and get Ellis.
Ellis will help the Flyers in every aspect of the game. He is a great puck-moving defenseman but gets into the dirty areas as well. He should help Provorov get back to a top-pair level while also helping the team in all situations.
Last season, Ellis averaged 17:49 at 5-on-5 play, 2:31 on the penalty kill, and 2:14 on the power play per game. He’ll eat minutes no matter the situation. Ellis will play against the opponent’s top lines at even strength, kill off penalties, and help quarterback the power play as well. For reference, Provorov played 18:23 at 5-on-5, 2:52 on the penalty kill, and 2:24 on the power play per game last season. Adding another Provorov-type player that will raise the level of play is going to do wonders for the Flyers.
Rasmus Ristolainen, as polarizing as he may be, can also be another contributor in all situations for the Flyers. He played over 17 minutes per game (17:12) at 5-on-5, 2:16 on the penalty kill, and 1:47 on the power play last season for Buffalo. He’ll be able to shave a few minutes off in total as a second-pair defenseman, which will hopefully improve his overall play and the team’s performance as a whole.
Experienced penalty killers put players in the right roles
Both Ellis and Ristolainen bring years of penalty-killing experience to the Flyers. That’s something they were severely lacking last season.
The Flyers’ main penalty-killing defensemen last season were Ivan Provorov (2:49 per game), Justin Braun (2:26), Travis Sanheim (2:04), Robert Hagg (1:40), and Philippe Myers (1:28). The last two names on that list are no longer on the Flyers, with Ellis and Ristolainen essentially replacing them.
Swapping out two of their lesser (in terms of skill and experience) penalty killers for two right-handed defensemen that have been playing top-pair minutes for years is going to drastically improve the unit as a whole. Provorov will still be up over 2:30 per game I’m sure, but the aging Braun will be able to slide into the fourth or even fifth PK defenseman role.
In terms of usage, replacing Braun with Ellis, Sanheim with Ristolainen, Hagg with Sanheim, and Myers with Braun improves the penalty kill a ton. It also gives the Flyers five experienced penalty killers on the blue line. If Provorov takes the penalty, they’ll still have Ellis, Ristolainen, Sanheim, and Braun to kill it off. And the same goes for if one of those four takes the penalty. They shouldn’t have to throw a defenseman into a situation he hasn’t played much of before.
Atkinson addition will help in all situations
It’s not just on the defensemen, however. After adding Ellis and Ristolainen, Fletcher was focused on adding forwards that can help the penalty kill as well. He traded long-time Flyers winger Jakub Voracek, a playmaking winger with some power-play prowess, for Cam Atkinson, a grittier type of winger that brings a shoot-first mentality and –– perhaps most importantly –– can play on both the power play and penalty kill.
Last season, Atkinson played 13:47 per game at 5-on-5, 2:10 on the power play, and 1:48 on the penalty kill. He led Blue Jackets forwards in total penalty killing time (101:07 in 56 games) and was behind only Boone Jenner (1:58 per game in 41 games) in PK time per game. That’s nothing new for him, either. Atkinson played over 1:24 per game on the penalty kill in each of the last six seasons.
Of Flyers forwards, only Sean Couturier (2:01) averaged more time on the penalty kill per game than Atkinson. Scott Laughton played 1:48 per game, the same as Atkinson, with Oskar Lindblom (1:30), Joel Farabee (1:27), and Kevin Hayes (1:18) not too far behind. Atkinson won’t really change the roles of centers Couturier, Laughton, and Hayes on the penalty kill, but he’ll be one of their first wingers over the boards.
Atkinson also has 16 shorthanded goals in his career, all since the 2013-14 season. Only Brad Marchand (23) has more in that span. Atkinson set a career-high with four shorties in the 2018-19 season and scored four again last season.
The two-way winger will help on the power play as well. He led Blue Jackets forwards in total power-play time (121:58) and PP time per game (2:10) last season. He’s played at least two minutes per game on the power play since the 2013-14 season.
Thompson brings PK center depth
Going back a bit, a player that may help the Flyers’ penalty-killing centers is Nate Thompson. The former Flyers signed a one-year deal and will likely be the fourth-line center or 13th forward for the Orange and Black. When he’s in the lineup, he’ll likely be on the penalty kill. He was one of four Winnipeg Jets forwards to play a minute or more on the PK per game at 1:22. Thompson played over two minutes per game on the PK in his six regular-season games with the Flyers at the end of the 2019-20 season.
Thompson is a defensive-minded center who can win faceoffs and grind out shifts. He’s the much lesser of the two forward additions this summer, which should go without saying.
A much-needed makeover for the power play
The Flyers’ power-play forwards may look good on paper, but they couldn’t figure things out last season. James van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny, and Joel Farabee all played two minutes or more per game on the man advantage last year. Atkinson will likely slot right in for Voracek in terms of usage, although Farabee could see a bump in ice time after a stellar sophomore season.
A consistent power-play quarterback is something that the Flyers were missing at times last season. Provorov and Gostisbehere both saw time with the top unit. Gostisbehere may be gone, but the Flyers have a few options to replace him.
The one that jumps out at you is Keith Yandle. He led all players in power-play time last season with 247:57 (4:25 per game). Yandle picked up 18 power-play points (one goal, 17 assists) for his efforts.
Yandle has been a power-play presence at every stop in his NHL career –– including for Alain Vigneault in New York –– and the Flyers should be no different. He played over three minutes per game on the PP in 13 of his last 14 seasons, including four seasons averaging over four minutes.
Yandle is the main candidate, but Ellis and Ristolainen are power-play options, too. Ellis played over two minutes per game on the power play in the past seven seasons. I’d pencil him in on the second power-play unit.
Ristolainen played over three minutes per game from 2015 to 2018, but has fallen off a bit from 2:59 to 2:21 and finally to 1:49 last season. Still, he’s a big right-handed shot that could be a weapon on the power play.
Fletcher has improved Flyers in all areas
Chuck Fletcher had a mission this offseason to improve the Flyers in every way possible. His main offseason additions can play big minutes in all situations, allowing the rest of the lineup to fall into place.
The Flyers had a good lineup on paper last season but fell flat for various reasons. Some players took a step back. Some players had nagging injuries. But a big aspect of it is asking players to do too much or, rather, having too many players playing outside of their optimal roles within the same lineup.
Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen give the Flyers two right-shot defensemen for their top four. Cam Atkinson is a top-six winger that likes to shoot and can kill penalties with the best of them. Keith Yandle is a power-play specialist to replace Gostisbehere. Not only is he on a much cheaper contract, but he also has tons of experience on the man advantage. Even Nate Thompson helps out the penalty kill.
Individually, the moves all grade out differently. Together, it’s easy to see that Fletcher has improved the Flyers in all areas. We’ll just have to wait and see if it pans out on the ice.
All stats via Natural Stat Trick
Flyers Offseason Trade Grades:
- Chuck Fletcher fills biggest need with Ryan Ellis acquisition
- Rasmus Ristolainen a high-priced gamble by Chuck Fletcher
- Fletcher gets shoot-first penalty-killing winger in Cam Atkinson