The 2022-23 outlook for the Flyers isn’t good on paper, as the Flyers return almost an identical lineup to last season’s and are hoping for dramatically different results.
Even if new coach John Tortorella pulls all the right strings, the injury misfortune evens out, and the hockey gods shine on the Flyers, this team still is nowhere near competing for the Stanley Cup. If the Flyers are going to be bad, and need to accumulate “top-end talent,” as general manager Chuck Fletcher has said, then why not go all the way and be really bad?
Tanking is not a new or even an admirable concept, but examples across sports from the 2000s — baseball’s Houston Astros and hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks being prime examples — show that if done right, it can work and produce championships and an extended period of considerable success.
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Not an exact science and far from a guarantee — see Sam Hinkie’s “The Process” 76ers — tanking at least represents a plan and provides an organization an opportunity or opportunities to accumulate highly talented young players in succession. The Flyers did that with 2022 No. 5 overall pick Cutter Gauthier, but more bites at the talent apple that is the draft are needed.
NHL teams will be more incentivized to tank than ever ahead of the 2023 draft, as projected No. 1 overall pick Connor Bedard is viewed as a generational talent and the best prospect since Connor McDavid. Bedard, who is starring for Team Canada at the World Juniors, looks to be every bit as good as the hype, which raises the question: Why aren’t the Flyers, who finished with the league’s fourth-worst record last season, going all in to try to get this guy?
The Bedard hype is nothing new. In 2018, The Hockey News billed the then-13-year-old as “the future of hockey,” but the comparisons to McDavid and Sidney Crosby began before then. So did the calls from agents looking to have Bedard and his family move from their home in Vancouver to Toronto for bantam hockey and the rumors he would apply for exceptional status in the Western Hockey League.
Bedard never did move east, but the buzz around his potential has only increased. In 2020, he became the first 15-year-old to be granted exceptional player status to play in the WHL. Exceptional player status is granted to a player whose qualities not only on the ice, but as a person, deem the player deserving of the rare privilege of participating in the Canadian Hockey League at an age younger than 16. Bedard became only the seventh player to be granted the status in Canadian junior hockey, following John Tavares (2005), Aaron Ekblad (2011), McDavid (2012), Sean Day (2013), Joe Veleno (2015), and Shane Wright (2019). Tavares, Ekblad, and McDavid were selected No. 1 overall and have gone on to become NHL All-Stars.
The 5-foot-9, 181-pound center has lived up to that “exceptional” label so far and might just be on his way to fulfilling the “future of hockey” prophecy as well. In his first full season in the WHL, Bedard, who turned 17 in July, racked up 51 goals and 100 points in just 62 games for the Regina Pats. His 51 goals ranked second in the WHL and his 100 points were good enough for fourth in a league that features players up to 20 years old.
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How special is Bedard? His 1.67 points per game this season for Regina dwarfed McDavid’s 1.05 ppg from his age-16 year with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League. The WHL is also traditionally considered a tougher and more defensive-minded league than the OHL.
He is the total package offensively, as he has the best hands in his draft year, possesses a truly elite shot that is dangerous from anywhere, and has terrific quickness. NHL Central Scouting’s Patrick Sullivan believes it is this quickness that separates Bedard.
“Skill-wise, he’s not only quick but has two or three gears, and it’s legit,” Sullivan said to NHL.com in April. “I mean, the most famous player that had five or six gears was Bobby Orr, and this is what [Bedard] has. He’s got a gear that can go from 1 to 60 in two seconds; he’s that special a player.”
Bedard has been compared to McDavid, Crosby, Orr, Marcel Dionne, Patrick Kane, Nikita Kucherov, and countless others. He is a game-breaker, something the Flyers sorely lack at the moment.
“He probably could be generational, but let’s not rush it right now,” Sullivan said. “Let’s wait until next year when he winds up with 70 or 80 goals, then we can say he’s generational.
“But I know this: He can dominate a game like I haven’t seen guys do in a long time. I saw Connor McDavid in junior, and I don’t see any difference. They can speed it up and slow it down, dictate everything. Connor Bedard has all those essentials.”
When you combine his puck skills, hockey IQ, and work ethic, there really seems to be no flaws to his game. There surely haven’t been any on display so far at the World Juniors in Edmonton, where Bedard, as a younger player, has two goals and four points in two games. The quality of the goals has been staggering, Bedard even showcasing his trademark drag shot, which scouts have compared to that of reigning MVP Auston Matthews.
While Bedard is the crown jewel of the 2023 class, he is not the only player tipped to develop into a star. That distinction also is given by many scouts to Russian winger Matvei Michkov, who last season at 17 averaged 1.72 points per game in Russia’s top junior league and next season will make the jump to the Kontinental Hockey League with SKA St. Petersburg. Michkov’s KHL contract (which runs through 2026) and the current political situation in Russia complicates his status, but from a talent perspective, he is not far behind Bedard.
Centers Adam Fantilli and Dalibor Dvorsky also are highly regarded at the top of the 2023 draft class.
Absolutely. After finishing with just 61 points and the league’s fourth-worst record last year, the Flyers are at least in the No. 1 pick conversation. That honor ultimately is decided by a lottery, but the Flyers, at least based on last season and their current roster, figure to finish among the bottom 10 or so teams in 2022-23.
Yes, the team has a new coach in Tortorella, who has made it clear he wants to win now and will not accept losing lightly. Yes, they hope to have better injury luck when it comes to key players such as centers Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes. But the fact of the matter is, even with those additions, and the arrival of offensive defenseman Tony DeAngelo, the Flyers simply lack the depth and high-end talent needed to contend for a Stanley Cup.
With apologies to Fletcher and his “aggressive retool” spiel, this is a Flyers roster that, for lack of a better word, is just “blah.” There aren’t many, if any, names that jump out at you, with Couturier being the team’s closest thing to a star and wingers Cam Atkinson and Travis Konecny the only players with All-Star experience. On paper, this is a bottom-10 team in the league, talent-wise, and it will be up to Tortorella and his defensive structure to make up for that and try to squeeze every bit out of a flawed roster.
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The likeliest scenario is that the Flyers are healthier and better defensively next season, which should equal to a slight uptick in wins and points. How much of an improvement? Still probably not enough to make the playoffs — they are unlikely to finish higher in the Metropolitan Division than the Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and now the Columbus Blue Jackets, who just signed Salem County’s Johnny Gaudreau.
There also is a scenario in which Tortorella’s message doesn’t resonate, and the team’s lack of depth and talent is exposed, as it was last season. This scenario, which definitely seems feasible, probably puts the Flyers in the bottom four or five teams in the league alongside the likes of the Arizona Coyotes, Seattle Kraken, Chicago Blackhawks, and San Jose Sharks. These are teams committed to building or rebuilding, and all of them will be aiming to be in play for Bedard.
The final outcome, albeit unlikely, is that Tortorella galvanizes an overlooked and motivated group and the Flyers contend for a wild-card spot, sneak into the playoffs, and lose in the first round.
Given Tortorella’s success in turning struggling teams around quickly and maximizing the talent at his disposal, this cannot entirely be ruled out. That said, he looks to have quite the challenge ahead of him with a team that finished second-to-last in goals (211) and sixth from the bottom defensively (298 goals against), and whose top scorer (Konecny) posted just 52 points. Tortorella is a heck of a coach, but is he Harry Houdini?
In summary, the Flyers, as they are currently constructed, are likely to miss the playoffs and be at best a middling team. And given their lack of firepower up front, if a few things go wrong they could find themselves near the bottom of the league. In a year when the draft possesses potentially two generational talents highlighted by Bedard, being bad might just be a good thing.