By Dan Gelston
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Cam Atkinson was a Philadelphia Flyer for all of about 30 minutes when he popped on a video call wearing a Gritty T-shirt. At the pace general manager Chuck Fletcher has flipped the roster this month, the googly-eyed mascot is suddenly about the longest-tenured – uh, thing? – wearing a Flyers jersey for the start of the season.
Jake Voracek, 10 years, fifth on the franchise list in points, peace out.
Nolan Patrick, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2017 draft, see ya.
Shayne Gostisbehere, once a franchise cornerstone, was literally ghosted by the Flyers. Traded for no one.
Phil Myers and Robert Hagg hit the trail, too. Carsen Twarynski was lost in the expansion draft. Fletcher even traded last weekend’s first-round draft pick as part of a series of moves designed to give the Flyers cap relief, bust up a staid leadership group, and move out players who haven’t sniffed a Stanley Cup in Philly.
Oh, and NHL free agency starts Wednesday.
More moves are ahead for a franchise that plummeted from a conference-contending hopeful to one that missed the playoffs and made Fletcher realize the core group was no longer getting it done.
“It was time for us to bring in different players and get going in a different direction It’s as simple as that,” Fletcher said. “Last year wasn’t good for any of us. (It) just felt like there was a malaise around the team all year. There was no energy, no juice. Nobody smiled. We didn’t play well. Look, we’ve got to get back to being a team. We got to get some energy here.”
The Flyers’ home arena recently resumed its $300 million renovation, but there’s need for little more than a dusting where the Flyers hang their banners – there’s been no need to make space for any championship ones – and the ones from 1974 and 1975 seem forever frozen in place. The Flyers aren’t close to contending this season, but trading for both a top-tier defenseman in Ryan Ellis and an undersized winger with scoring pop in Atkinson should at least make them a playoff team for coach Alain Vigneault. They also acquired veteran defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen in a trade with Buffalo.
“They finally feel like last year’s in the past and that it’s going to be a different world, a different camp, a different and, in my opinion, a better team,” Fletcher said.
The promises of new, better, this time, we mean it, have been sworn by coaches and management that churned through the city for decades, and thoughts of a prospect-heavy rebuild petered out when general manager Ron Hextall was fired in 2018.
Fletcher had reason to stick with what worked after the Flyers earned the No. 1 seed in the 2020 restart after round-robin play and won their first playoff series since 2012. The Flyers have alternated making the playoffs every year since 2012, and 2021 was a big miss. The Flyers went 25-23-8 for 58 points last season and Fletcher realized the core – anchored by Voracek, Sean Couturier and captain Claude Giroux – could not continue. The Flyers now have $11.7 million of cap space under the ceiling; the salary cap will remain flat at $81.5 million for this season.
“The primary focus certainly going into next year will be on reducing our goals against,” Fletcher said. “Part of that will be certainly looking to the outside to acquire additional help, whether that’s goaltending, defenseman or forwards. Wherever we can upgrade, we will.”
Fletcher and the Flyers aren’t finished. The Flyers need a backup goaltender behind sophomore slumper Carter Hart. The most baffling setback this season came with the 22-year-old Hart struggles as the No. 1 goalie. He went 9-11-5 this season with a 3.67 goals-against average, a big dropoff from his sensational rookie year.
The Flyers also need a playmaking forward – ideally a third center. Couturier will likely center Giroux and Atkinson on the top line and Kevin Hayes is the man in the middle with Joel Farabee and Travis Konecny.
The Flyers on Monday made qualifying offers for Hart and defenseman Travis Sanheim. The Flyers also signed 26-year-old Sam Morin to a $750,000, one-year contract. The 2013 first-round pick has been dogged by injuries throughout his career, but is valuable depth on defense for Philadelphia.
“Adding another goalie will be paramount, and we’ll look to see if we can add a little bit more depth,” Fletcher said. “Still want to look at potentially adding some players that can help with the penalty kill up front.”