Here we go again with the Philadelphia Flyers and injuries that seem to linger forever.
To everyone’s chagrin and nobody’s surprise, Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher recently confirmed that defenseman Ryan Ellis still has a long road ahead of him in his recovery from the mystery injury that limited him to four games last season, saying things like “continuing to progress” and “we’ll just have to see how everything responds”. It wasn’t exactly the worst news we could have heard, but it did next to nothing to provide any clarity.
And clarity is quite important in today’s salary-capped NHL, as teams do their best to know exactly where they stand financially at all times. If you get capped out, you will have to pay the piper at some point, but you don’t exactly want to leave money on the table if you are serious about icing a legitimate contender, as the Flyers say they are. So, yes, Ryan Ellis’ status could greatly affect the Flyers’ offseason plan, because they aren’t sure if they need to account for his $6.25 million cap hit or if it will be stashed away on long-term injured reserve (LTIR).
But aside from potentially altering the Flyers’ free agent pursuit this offseason, Ellis’ situation also may tie directly in to what the Flyers decide to do with their first round pick (5th overall) at the upcoming NHL draft. So let’s discuss.
The status of Ryan Ellis could greatly impact draft plans for the Philadelphia Flyers.
In all of the leadup to draft day, the two names most commonly linked to the Flyers’ top pick have been Simon Nemec and David Jiricek. Both are righthanded defensemen of European stock, with Nemec (the smaller of the two) being more of a playmaker with a high “hockey IQ” and Jiricek possessing the booming slapshot from the point that all teams love to have on the power play. Personally, I don’t feel that the Flyers could go wrong with either of these guys, and they will likely have the decision made for them with only one of these players being available by the time they pick.
Now, the Ellis angle of all this.
When the Flyers acquired Ryan Ellis last offseason, which seems like an eternity ago, they no doubt envisioned him as their No. 1 RHD for the next several years alongside Ivan Provorov on the top pairing, in a perfect world. Obviously, those plans have gone out the window. The Flyers need to make a hard decision right now if they truly think that Ellis can return to the level that they envisioned. If they have real doubt, which I feel is warranted, they probably need to draft either Nemec or Jiricek and not think twice about the other options.
Other options, you say?
Why, yes, because the Flyers have a number of ways they can pivot. They could decide that they feel confident enough in Ellis’ eventual return that it will buy them some more time on the blueline, allowing them to trade the fifth overall pick for more immediate help (Chuck Fletcher’s statement about “a player in a certain age group”). They could then worry more about getting a new infusion of defensemen into the system with later picks this year or some other time down the road. Granted, none of these D-men will likely be as good as Nemec or Jiricek, but it’s an option.
The other choice here is for the Flyers to select a forward with the fifth pick, with C/LW Cutter Gauthier being the name that keeps popping up recently. Again, the Flyers would have to feel reasonably confident about the shape of their defense in order to justify such a choice, but Gauthier could be worth it in the long run if he provides the kind of shooting and finishing ability that the Flyers have been missing for far too long.
Just about the only certainty concerning the Flyers’ pick is that Shane Wright and Juraj Slafkovsky will be off the board by the time they are on the clock. One or both of Nemec and Jiricek will probably be gone, and maybe some other team jumps on Gauthier and makes the Flyers’ decision for them. Perhaps they could even choose someone like Logan Cooley or Matthew Savoie. All of these would be welcome additions to the franchise at this time, but there are no sure things. See: Patrick, Nolan.
At any rate, expecting Nemec, Jiricek, or any of these other players to make the jump to the NHL this year and be as effective as a healthy Ryan Ellis would be folly. I am not suggesting that a newly drafted player can be an absolutely immediate replacement or upgrade over a good NHLer. But you also need to extract max value from young players, when they are at their most controllable financially. Anyone the Flyers draft with the fifth pick needs to be on this team and pulling their weight in the near future. And if that’s stepping into the role that the Flyers had earmarked for Ellis, so be it.
In the end, the job for Fletcher and his braintrust is twofold. First, evaluate what you have on the club now (and what is imminently on the way there) to figure out what areas must be addressed in short order. Then, decide if Ellis and other players are likely to be with you for the long haul and put a plan of succession in place so that the cupboard isn’t bare. When you have the fifth overall pick, you are seemingly dealing with both of these areas at once. And while the Ryan Ellis situation is making the decision much more difficult, the Flyers really need to nail it. Otherwise, it won’t be Chuck Fletcher’s problem for much longer, as the front office carousel could start spinning again in Philadelphia.