Philadelphia Flyers season preview 2022-23: Playoff chances, point projections, roster rankings

Welcome to The Athletic’s 2022-23 edition of the team season previews. Check out all the previews as they’re released right here.

It’ll be cold comfort for Flyers center Sean Couturier, who could miss the season with a herniated disc in his back, but he did us a favor. News of his injury broke just before our Philly prediction would’ve been set in stone.

It’s not that their outlook was going to be “good” without Couturier. It’s not even that it was going to be “OK.” You don’t come off of seasons as ugly as theirs, or offseasons as baffling as the one they just finished up, pencil yourselves in for 95 points and go about your business. This was always going to be a team trailed by huge, existential questions.

What is the goal here? Why is that the goal? How is this team ever going to get better? Below them are the obvious tank jobs. Not too far above are teams that, with luck, can sneak into the playoffs. The wild thing about the Flyers? They’re trying to be good. And after a summer’s worth of, charitably, mixed results on that front, they’ve already been hit by the same crummy luck they hoped to have left in the rearview.

This team was going to be bad. Now, it’s going to be worse.


The projection

For Flyers fans, the biggest problem here is that the team doesn’t rank any lower. Philadelphia finished fourth to last with just 61 points in 2021-22 and a 77-point season would suggest a massive, and perhaps undeserved improvement — especially with their two best players on the shelf, potentially for the whole season.

Couturier’s status obviously looms large here, as does Ryan Ellis’ — the returns for both players are shrouded in mystery for now making it a little difficult to project what the Flyers can do this season. The model is projecting both to return at some point … but not play much. Call it 40 games or so between the two. If they play more, Philadelphia’s projection shoots up into the 79-to-80 point range.

Either way, it’s higher than expected. What it represents is in line with the qualms many fans have with the franchise though — a half-baked vision where the team isn’t quite bad enough to tank and is far from good enough to be competitive. The tides shift further towards one side over the other without Couturier and Ellis — but not by enough.

The model uses three years of data to craft its projections, which means there’s still some leftover data from the 2020-21 season where the Flyers finished with the sixth-best points percentage. Many believed the 2020-21 season was a writeoff and that the team would return to form in 2021-22, but that obviously didn’t come to be as the team completely fell off a cliff.

As it turns out, the 2020-21 season was probably the closest to reality with the team’s point pace over the last three seasons being 84 points, right in line with that shortened year. Consider the last three seasons as the Flyers version of Goldilocks and three bears: too high, too low, just right. Take away some key pieces from the team and that “just right” drops the team below 80 points to their projected 76.5 points.

For those hoping to tank, that’s probably not good enough and the Flyers have just a 55 percent chance to land in the league’s bottom five. It’s a decent shot, but not ideal for a team that has almost no hope of making the playoffs. It would’ve been even worse with Couturier, but even being the league’s fifth-worst team isn’t enough to guarantee a top-five draft pick.

For the Flyers, there’s still some talent throughout the roster that makes it difficult to be one of the league’s worst teams. Not a lot. But some. A hard-nosed coach who has a track record of getting a lot out of his players — in the early stages of his tenure anyways — might make that worse.

John Tortorella’s presence, along with some offseason moves made, suggest the team’s goal was to be competitive this year. Without a top-line center that dream is over, but what’s left is unfortunately still not “league’s worst” caliber. They’ll need some bad luck on their side to earn that title.


The big question

What do the injuries to Sean Couturier and Ryan Ellis mean for Philadelphia’s season?

That’s a more complicated question than you’d probably think, with a two-tiered answer. We’ll start with the on-ice portion of the proceedings: “Bad things.” It means very bad things for the Flyers. Couturier has always seemed a bit older than he actually is — that’s often the case with players who are in the league as teenagers. The problem for the Flyers is that he’s now on track to miss significant time in consecutive seasons due to back problems. That rarely bodes well for a player’s longevity, especially for one about to turn 30. Couturier is still a young man, but he’s logged city miles — and we know firsthand what his absence means for the Flyers.

He won the first Selke of his career in the pandemic-shortened season of 2019-20 — and deserved it, with boxes checked all over the place — then was at nearly a point per game in 2020-21. That’s the player Philadelphia was banking on returning for a full season; a 20-minute, no-doubt, first-line center with elite across-the-board impacts and more than enough production to back it all up. It was the single biggest reason for optimism about them, really: “Yeah, things fell apart last season, but our best player had back surgery after 29 games.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Flyers’ offseason approach — trading a raft of assets for Tony DeAngelo, holding on to a bunch of win-now players, spending to the cap — hinged, in large part, on Couturier coming back at full strength. And even in the best-case scenario, that’s not going to happen. “Week-to-week,” for a 29-year-old who just added to a history of disc issues, does not bode well. Hope is a dangerous thing for a front office to have.

For the time Couturier misses — however much that may be — Kevin Hayes will slot in as the Flyers’ No. 1 center. Hayes is coming off an extremely difficult (and tragic) season of his own. His brother Jimmy died in August, and then abdominal surgery and a blood infection limited him to 48 games and 31 points. The end result was tough value from a contract worth $7.14 million annually. It’d be a lot easier to imagine Hayes getting back on track for his 30-year-old season — his value was always going to hinge on point production — if he could slot in as a second-line center with Couturier eating up most of the tough minutes. The domino effect is real.

Ellis’ return, on the other hand, was a little more theoretical than Couturier’s. Part of that is because he only played four games for the Flyers after the team acquired him from Nashville in July 2021. Then, in August, Tortorella himself said he didn’t expect Ellis to be ready for the start of the season due to a “multilayered” issue involving the “complex of the whole pelvic region.” Ominous, indeed. Either way, the Flyers wanted Ellis because he was a smooth-skating, right-shot defenseman capable of playing huge minutes to great effect on a top pair. They’ve seen none of that, and it’s fair to wonder whether they ever will.

So yes, this is all bad for the Flyers, if you view them as a hockey team trying to win as many games as possible in 2022-23. That’s clearly how their general manager Chuck Fletcher sees it. He wouldn’t have hired Tortorella or spent most of his team’s cap space (along with all those draft picks) on DeAngelo if he felt otherwise. Those aren’t future-focused moves. They’re decisions made by a front office that figured, “We’ll get our big guys back, then see what happens.” Quibble with that if you want. It’d be easy and, probably, correct. Now, though, it’s also pointless. The big guys, in all likelihood, aren’t going to be back in any meaningful way — and whatever happens, as it relates to the Flyers’ caliber of hockey, will be bad.

The bright side for Philly fans, though, is that they won’t have a full season of Couturier and Ellis wringing a few extra points out of the rest of the roster. Why finish in 24th place when 29th, let’s say, is right there? The possibility of an accidental tank — and the high-end draft pick it’d bring — is getting more real by the day. Given the alternative? That’s not bad.


Sean Couturier. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

The wildcard

Does Carter Hart still have superstar potential?

The one thing that can always change a team’s projection is goaltending. Goalies are always the most difficult thing to predict as the position is extremely volatile. Look at the biggest misses from past projections and goaltending is usually the biggest culprit.

That was part of the case for this very team in 2021 when Carter Hart was expected to take the next step towards superstar status. Hart had a promising sophomore season where he posted a .914 save percentage and saved 5.1 goals above expected over 43 games. The hype reached a fever pitch in the playoffs where he was even better.

Many expected the next Carey Price. What they got instead was one of the worst goalie seasons in 2020-21 where Hart had a disastrous .877 and allowed 23.8 goals above expected in just 27 games.

There were outside circumstances that caused that and a bounce-back felt inevitable. While Hart’s play did improve — there was no way it could get worse — he was still in the bottom half of goalies last season. With his last two seasons being so weak — he’s third to last in goals saved above expected — there’s a good reason he’s projected to be a bottom-five starter next season.

Hart’s talent is undeniable and goalies are voodoo. Never say never — but at this rate, it’s getting more and more difficult to see him reach his potential as an elite goalie. The window is starting to close. Just being a capable starter would be nice.


The core

Travis Konecny, Cam Atkinson, Kevin Hayes, Joel Farabee, Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, Carter Hart

The Flyers core isn’t what it could have been due to injuries. But even at its best, with Couturier and Ellis in the fold, it’s not near the caliber of a playoff team. After a rough 2021-22 that was shortened due to injury, Couturier’s dropped to about a two-win center which isn’t contender material for a team’s top-line center. Still, his replacement Hayes has big shoes to fill.

Hayes hasn’t been at his best since joining the Flyers, though 2021-22 was obviously out of his control. His peak years at the NHL level were with the Rangers. There, he hit his stride as a defensive center before being deployed in a more offensive role in his last year with there. That allowed him to blend his strengths together for a more complete game.

At his best, Hayes can pressure for turnovers, buy his teammates time and space with his ability to slow down the game, and set them up with dangerous passes. But since signing a major contract in Philadelphia, his play has trended in the wrong direction. And with the team declining around him these last couple of seasons, the chances of Hayes bouncing back have dwindled. That isn’t to say he can’t be effective — the center showed in New York that he can manage a tougher workload when asked and he should have more defensive structure around him instilled by Tortorella. Still, expectations can only be so high at this point. The fact that he doesn’t have elite wingers around him to elevate his game only gives him a steeper hill to climb.

Cam Atkinson, who knows all too well about playing for Tortorella, fits that bill – a decent, but far from elite winger at the top of the lineup. The winger played some of his best hockey under the coach in Columbus, and could add some spark to the Flyers. In 73 games last year, Atkinson scored at a rate of 2.25 per 60 which ranked second among mainstays, behind only Claude Giroux pre-trade deadline. The winger has scored at (at least) a 20-goal pace every single year since his first complete NHL season in 2013-14.

That may be what makes him a fit alongside a playmaker like Hayes. Some age-related decline should be expected from the 33-year-old. That may already be showing in his five-on-five play, unless his first year with the Flyers was more of a fluke considering everything that went wrong with that team. Even if his offensive impact of finishing dwindles, he’s still a speedy disruptor who can be a prime power killer for his team. The problem is, he’s likely going to be slotted in a top-line role and probably can’t match the caliber that position calls.

Two more top-six wingers fill out the Flyers’ forward core in Joel Farabee and Travis Konecny. The former is coming off disk replacement surgery, and is working his way back towards the 2022-23 season. Granted he can get back to full strength, he projects to have a GSVA of 1.5 that ranks second among the team’s forwards. Farabee falls below that ideal range for a team’s second-best winger, and there’s no certainty on how he’ll return to play immediately, anyway.

Without Couturier, the highest-rated forward is Konecny, whose value has shifted after these last two years. Interestingly enough, his name actually slipped into some trade rumors last year, which only sparked questions regarding the Flyers’ trajectory. There is some concern that he can’t match his peak years and is starting to trend in the wrong direction. In 2019-20 he was a bonafide top-line talent who played at a 2.6-win pace, but has been closer to 1.5 wins since.

It’s possible that with the team disintegrating around him, he’s overcomplicated his game to try to make up for lost production which has only burned him. Still, Konecny was a positive influence on the team’s offensive generation last year at five-on-five, and is coming off a career low in shooting percentage — both of which point to the chance of an incoming rebound year. However, the team around him isn’t going to make things any easier, so it’s going to take a strong individual effort to get there. If the rest of the forward core was slotted more appropriately for their caliber of play, this wouldn’t be emphasized as much. But that’s just where this team is, and would be even with a healthy lineup.

Konecny’s not the only player to have his name featured in trade rumors. Defender Ivan Provorov’s name swirled in trade talks as well, showing just how much the former No. 7 pick’s stock has dropped. A GSVA of 0.5 is a far cry from what a team should be hoping for from their number one defenseman, and far from the value Provorov once carried. Provorov isn’t a true driver and has shown time and time again that he struggles without a capable partner next to him. The last two years have not been kind to him as a result, with the overall quality of the team around him and systematic decisions exacerbating the issue.

As a result, he’s become more of a high-risk defenseman. The coaching change is a potential gamechanger that could be what revitalizes his game, adding more structure and security back into it. That’s what the Flyers need, especially with some of the defensive liabilities on this roster. But it’s asking for a lot to expect a coaching change to suddenly transform a very flawed roster, and overall blue line.

If Provorov’s game can bounce back and Sanheim’s defensive impact is (at least) consistent with the last two years, there can be some top-four balance in Philadelphia to try and counter the bigger liabilities on this roster. Sanheim has had a positive impact on his team’s expected goal suppression these last two years, and that quietly effective play can be the stabilizing force this team is missing in the top four. That’s why it’s no surprise he’s one of the higher-ranking defenders on this team. But if the Flyers opt to move him mid year, before he hits unrestricted free agency, this defense likely gets a lot more chaotic. And that only hurts the chances of their final core player, Hart, getting back to the level this team needs.


The support

With Couturier out for a while, any internal misconception regarding how competitive the Flyers can be this season is likely over. That means focusing on the future rather than some misguided attempt at making an ill-intentioned run to just outside the playoffs.

Headlining the team’s youth movement is Bobby Brink, a diminutive playmaker selected 34th in 2019. Brink had an excellent year with the University of Denver scoring 57 points in 43 games, flashing tons of offensive upside. No guarantee he makes the team, but the Flyers could use some of his potential scoring punch. He looked decent in a 10-game showcase last season scoring 1.55 points-per-60 at five-on-five while earning a 51 percent expected goals rate. It’s a small sample, but based off that he looks like he can be a decent middle-six contributor.

The Flyers have a trio of other up-and-comers that might make some noise, though they don’t come with Brink’s pedigree. Morgan Frost and Owen Tippett look likely to land on the third line while Cam York starts on the third pair. The two forwards could be serviceable in a bottom-six role, but so far haven’t shown the offensive flash to be more. Both scored at a bottom six rate last year. It would be a big plus if either player unexpectedly hit, but it doesn’t seem likely. As for York, his play-driving ability was impressive last season thanks to his puck-moving skill — but that was in a sheltered role. He’ll need to prove he can do it higher in the lineup.

The rest of the supporting cast is a tough sell and a major reason why the Flyers rank so low. The team’s fourth line alone is expected to make the team two wins worse and is rated as the league’s worst. They’re a great asset for a tanking team, but that seems purely accidental for a team that had delusions of grandeur prior to losing Couturier for an extended period of time. Without him, the Flyers have the league’s worst center group — but with Hayes and Scott Laughton as the team’s one-two punch, you didn’t need to hear that from us.

On defence, the right side is anchored by two flawed defenders — neither of whom belong in a top-four role. DeAngelo was the team’s big get this offseason and while he’s strong offensively, his defense remains highly suspect, making him incapable of handling top-pair minutes. His best asset is his ability to quarterback a power play, and though he could potentially jolt the league’s worst unit, there’s a big difference between the skill level available to him on Phialdelphia’s top power play compared to Carolina’s. DeAngelo’s projected GSVA here is wildly overstated from playing for Carolina and it very likely drops with the Flyers.

Rasmus Ristolainen is a much bigger issue though. While he’s probably better than analytical models give him credit for, it’s not by much. Last year was arguably his best season at driving play, and he still got out-chanced heavily thanks to being weak at defending the blue line and exiting the zone. Being stapled to Sanheim likely boosted his value too.


Tony DeAngelo. (Brad Penner / USA Today)

The best case

Couturier and Ellis are out long term. Tortorella has the desired effect on players like Farabee and Brink, and Hart’s performance stabilizes. However, the team is bad enough to sell pieces like van Riemsdyk at the deadline and realizes the necessity of cutting bait elsewhere. They finish tied for 29th place and win the draft lottery. Couturier and Ellis return at full strength to a Connor Bedard-led roster.

The worst case

They lose 10 of their first 12 games, but eventually start playing at an 82-point pace. No player takes a step forward, but none take a step back, either. Couturier and Ellis return. They win eight of their last 14 to finish with the seventh pick. Fletcher blames injuries for this season, too, and decides to run it back.


The bottom line

Philadelphia was already going to be one of the worst teams in the Metropolitan Divisions, and really the entire Eastern Conference. As much as Tortorella (and assistant coach Brad Shaw) can add structure and teach some of the fundamentals to being more disciplined, this roster’s ceiling is only so high — and it just dropped even lower with the Couturier injury. An already bad team just got worse, but may not be bad enough to luck into a top-three pick, either. It’s not a good place to be. Ideally, it puts pressure on management to pick a direction and stick to it,  whether it’s actually trying to build around this core or kicking off a legitimate retool. The Flyers’ problems are deeper than just a few key injuries, but their current trajectory just got even more concerning.

References

How these projections work

How these projections performed last season

Understanding projection uncertainty 

Resources

Evolving Hockey

Natural Stat Trick

Hockey Reference

NHL

All Three Zones Tracking by Corey Sznajder

Read the other 2022-23 season previews here.

(Top photo: Eric Hartline / USA Today)