Improvements in Ristolainen’s and York’s Games Coincides With Provorov Rumours and DeAngelo’s Defensive Gaffes
I’m not entirely sure if the front office of the Philadelphia Flyers actually believes half of the things they say or claim because sometimes it just sounds so wrong but they always try to double down and fight tooth and nail until the bitter end.
When the Flyers traded for and signed Tony DeAngelo on the second day of the 2022 NHL Draft, they paid a pretty penny to not only acquire his negotiating rights but then to also sign him for 2 seasons. General manager Chuck Fletcher has been on the record time and time again claiming that he won’t trade his picks unless the right trade presents itself. He believed that sending another second round pick alongside a third and fourth for DeAngelo and a late pick was well worth the cost. He sat down at his press conference and told the media members and fans alike that he likened DeAngelo to Ryan Ellis after his successful one-stop campaign in Carolina. Ignoring the reasons why his numbers were so engrossing.
First off, the Carolina Hurricanes were a well-oiled machine in 2021-22 as they finished first in the Metropolitan Division with a 54-20-8 record. They were also the second best team in the Eastern Conference, only 6 points back of the Presidents’ Trophy winning Florida Panthers, and third best in the league with the eventual Stanley Cup champs just slightly ahead of them. The Hurricanes were 9th in goals and first in the league in goals against with only 200 allowed through 82 games. They possessed a top-half power play (13th) and also employed the league’s best penalty kill at 88.04%. All this led to the third-best team save percentage at .913%, behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (.914%) and the New York Rangers (.919%).
DeAngelo was on pace for record numbers as he had 10 goals and 51 points in only 64 games, which was 5 goals and 2 points back from his career-year in 2019-20. He averaged a then-career-best 19:49 TOI and finished the season with a +30 rating. He was partnered up with one of the most criminally underrated defensemen in the NHL in Jaccob Slavin and Flyers fans quickly realized that last year’s spike in everything had to do with the team around him – unfortunately I don’t think the front office still has a clue. DeAngelo is a great offensive defenseman but the Flyers always have to ruin players by making them play in situations they can’t handle. DeAngelo started the season on the top pair with Ivan Provorov and – as is the case with almost every single defenseman that has worn the Winged P in recent years – they look good for a short stretch before the wheels fall off.
His season can be split right down the middle between playing top-line minutes with Provorov and then playing second pair minutes with Travis Sanheim. In the first 20 games, DeAngelo averaged a gaudy 25:11 TOI, had 3 goals and 10 points, was a -10, and had 5 power play points. In his last 20, mostly paired up with Sanheim, he has averaged 21:36 TOI but has 4 goals and 16 points with a +2 rating. His turnovers are ever-present but playing less minutes and against lesser opponents/lines fits DeAngelo’s game style – unless he has a ridiculously good team and partner like the Hurricanes and Slavin.
Heading into another season of busy trade rumours, it seems like it’s more of a foregone conclusion that Ivan Provorov gets dealt. This will be the third straight season of heavy rumours, the Flyers were very close to dealing him in years past but never felt like the other team’s asking price met their demands, and last year they realized that everyone was low balling them so they had to stand pat. With Elliotte Friedman adding more fuel to the fire by saying that both sides are reaching a breaking point it’s very believable, considering the report that came out at the end of last season about his attitude in the locker room.
The rumours have only intensified this year and we know Chuck Fletcher is always trying to make a big move or two. Provorov has been a key cog to the Flyers defence since his rookie season and he will remain the anchor until the very end. Whether that means a trade now, at the deadline, during the summer, or not at all remains to be seen. There is a market for Provorov and he would fit in perfectly into almost every team’s top-4 right now. He has had his issues with teammates based on some reports, he had his media tirade at the end of the season last year, and maybe refusing to wear the Pride jersey took some of his trade value down – he had every right to refuse but hockey is a business first and foremost and they’re always looking to protect and get ahead of their image. It just seems that both sides are willing to move on and look for greener pastures.
If we err on the side of a trade – either at the deadline or over the summer – the Flyers seemingly feel content and comfortable based on the language that they’ve used, that DeAngelo, Sanheim, and Cam York are their “guys”. DeAngelo, as we’ve already covered, is likened as a top pair defenseman by his general manager and his head coach keeps rolling him out despite the turnovers. The turnovers keep increasing by the game and Tortorella has even mentioned that he loves his offensive game but he needs to do a much better job at protecting the puck. At least this time there seems to be a mutual understanding of players vs role. We witnessed the downfall of Shayne Gostisbehere who the Flyers desperately tried turning into a two-way defenseman. It didn’t work and in doing so he lost all confidence, his offensive game took a hit, and then found a team that was willing to overlook his flaws and has returned to form.
You essentially have to take the good with the bad with #77 as he will drive the offence, look for the outlet passes, man the top power play unit, and jump start the offence from the back-end. However his turnovers are egregious at times, he gets caught flat-footed several times a game – as we witnessed against Chicago, Winnipeg, and Los Angeles – and sometimes he gets a little too “cute” with his passes and turns it over in his own zone.
After DeAngelo you then have Sanheim whose 8 year extension kicks in next year and Cam York who is definitely tabbed as the defenseman of the future. You’re also stuck with Rasmus Ristolainen who has a near immovable contract with 4 years remaining at $5.1 million. Your options are either: 1) trade him with retention, 2) buy him out, 3) keep him and hope he turns things around. The first two options are out because they have bigger fish to fry right now if rumours are to be believed in regards to Kevin Hayes and Provorov. A buyout would be great for the short term because you save from anywhere between 3-5 million in the first 4 years of the buy-out but then incur a loss of $1.7 million from 2027 to 2031. A beacon of hope is how he has changed his game under John Tortorella.
After misusing so many of their defensemen, Tortorella is finally using his players in the right situation and doesn’t care about contract, salary, or stature. The Flyers tried recreating the glory days of 2014-2018 when Ristolainen was a 40+ point scorer. They tried to ignore the 2019-2021 Ristolainen who succumbed to a steep drop-off in production and overall game play. Tortorella has changed his role as he is no longer that puck-moving defenseman of yesteryears past. He is now a stay-at-home third pairing, body-checking, shot blocking, penalty killing, menace, there to protect the team and be on the patrol in front of his goaltenders.
Now, it hasn’t been smooth sailing either as he makes still makes ill-advised plays here and there but what defenseman wearing the Orange and Black doesn’t? There’s not one star amongst the bunch and their supposed-top rearguard has been on a decline since 2019-20. However what we have seen in the last 20-25 games is the structure reaping its rewards. Cam York has looked like a completely different defenseman since his call-up, Ristolainen is actually playing good hockey, and Seeler is generally in the right place at the right time but leaps and bounds better than last season.
2021-22 (30 games):
GF% (goals for percentage ): 41.73%
xGF% (expected goals): 47.66%
GAR (goals above replacement): 2
WAR (wins above replacement): 0.4
SPAR (standing points above replacement): 0.7
xGAR (expected goals above replacement): 4.1
xWAR (expected wins above replacement): 0.7
xSPAR (expected standing points above replacement): 1.4
2022-23 (23 games):
GF% (goals for percentage): 61.65%
xGF% (expected goals for percentage): 53.36%
GAR (goals above replacement): 3.1
WAR (wins above replacement): 0.5
SPAR (standing points above replacement): 1.0
xGAR (expected goals above replacement): 3.4
xWAR (expected wins above replacement): 0.6
xSPAR (expected standing points above replacement): 1.1
damn Cam York ok https://t.co/XCZGdizSZu pic.twitter.com/AcyjWlgrKj
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) January 23, 2023
Just by skimming through the numbers you can already see a difference on the offensive side of the puck with his goals for and expected goals for percentages sky rocketing. The number of games played is also an important facet considering it’s a small sample size, however a number above 50% for xGF% gives us an idea that Philadelphia is expected to outscore opponents when he is on the ice.
He has been a standout since his call-up and has taken the words of his head coach to heart. After being demoted earlier than expected during training camp, York understood he wasn’t playing at the level that was expected of him. Tortorella made that very clear and by sending him down that was a clear and concise way of motivating the former first round pick.
Upon his recall, York has immediately impacted the team offensively as he went through a 10-game stretch where he scored 1 goal and 8 points while averaging 18:02 TOI. He has seen a spike in his ice time since the new year as he has averaged 20:37 a game, is playing with Provorov on the top unit, mans the second unit of the power play, and has also improved defensively. He has the capabilities of becoming a two-way defenseman and doesn’t have to be relied upon as a singular offensive piece.
York will always be remembered as the player taken instead of Cole Caufield and has taken a lot longer to develop, but that is generally the trajectory for defensemen. The 22-year-old has the backing of his head coach to finish the season strong and show everyone that is evaluating him that he is a bonafide top pair defenseman moving forward.
2021-22 (43 games):
GF% (goals for percentage): 41.95%
xGF% (expected goals): 39.05%
GAR (goals above replacement): -1.4
WAR (wins above replacement): 0.2
SPAR (standing points above replacement): -0.5
xGAR (expected goals above replacement): 0.9
xWAR (expected wins above replacement): 0.2
xSPAR (expected standing points above replacement): -0.3
2022-23 (47 games):
GF% (goals for percentage): 50.58%
xGF% (expected goals): 51.13%
GAR (goals above replacement): 9.5
WAR (wins above replacement): 1.6
SPAR (standing points above replacement): 3.0
xGAR (expected goals above replacement): 9.3
xWAR (expected wins above replacement): 1.5
xSPAR (expected standing points above replacement): 3.0
Nick Seeler’s numbers jump right off the page. In the same number of games his percentages and stats have increased more so than most players around the league. Some of that has to do with an improved game plan for Seeler, some of that has to do with not being paired up with Keith Yandle or Kevin Connauton, and some of that has to do with luck of being in the right place at the right time.
Even in prefacing all that, Tortorella really relies on Seeler and Ristolainen to be the defensive pair that blocks shots and crunches bodies to complement his top 4 who are all skating above 20 minutes a game. Some of these numbers are inflated and would indicate that Seeler is a top 15-20 defenseman around the NHL. We know that’s a stretch and sometimes being in the right place at the right time helps. However we can’t ignore how he has improved within a year especially when we wanted him run out of the city. It’s starting to feel like Yandle was an anchor for a lot of players last year.
2021-22 (66 games):
GF% (goals for percentage): 48.26%
xGF% (expected goals): 46.92%
GAR (goals above replacement): 2.8
WAR (wins above replacement): 0.5
SPAR (standing points above replacement): 0.9
xGAR (expected goals above replacement): -3.7
xWAR (expected wins above replacement): -0.7
xSPAR (expected standing points above replacement): -1.2
2022-23 (43 games):
GF% (goals for percentage): 45.5%
xGF% (expected goals): 49.78%
GAR (goals above replacement): 5.8
WAR (wins above replacement): 1.0
SPAR (standing points above replacement): 1.9
xGAR (expected goals above replacement): 1.9
xWAR (expected wins above replacement): 0.3
xSPAR (expected standing points above replacement): 0.6
Ristolainen will forever be polarizing because of his contract but the one thing Tortorella has done well regarding the hulking rearguard is that he is ignoring the contract, salary cap hit, and price of acquisition that it cost us to acquire and keep him. For better or worse he is a Flyer and will be for the foreseeable future and as disappointing as it is to have that much money and term tied around a third pairing defenseman, it’s where he needs to play to succeed.
He was truly abysmal last year and that was because of the role Alain Vigneault and Mike Yeo thrusted upon him. He is a third pairing, bone crunching, shot blocking menace who needs to be used as such. The silver lining is he still has some of the offensive capabilities that earned him the 40+ point seasons but the Flyers don’t need that with Provorov, Sanheim, DeAngelo, and York under their employ.
If he can remain consistent with the intangibles that I have just highlighted then he will become very useful and serviceable as long as Tortorella sticks to his plan. I have written many times over the last year and a half about the decline in his game and how it was a mistake to keep him beyond the 2021-22 season. I still stand by that but it would be truly ignorant to ignore his improvement and how he has excelled beyond the expectations that were exceedingly low heading into 2022-23.
He is also averaging 3:14 of TOI less a game compared to last year so his hits have dropped by almost 1 per game but he’s making up for that with his blocks. He has blocked 92 shots through 38 games for an average of 2.4 a game which is higher than last year’s total of 1.89 and if he can remain healthy, he is well on his way for a career high finish.
The Flyers need to go out and acquire a bonafide defenseman however they see fit. With Ryan Ellis’ future not even in the forefront anymore, Provorov’s future bleak as ever, and a bunch of mid-pairing defensemen on the team, they need to find someone who can take on the role of what Ellis would have brought or what Provorov was supposed to be. Sanheim, DeAngelo, York, and even Ristolainen with Seeler can be good complementary pieces to an actual superstar defenseman. Easier said than done because most teams don’t give up that easily on their star rearguards but that’s why the front office needs to figure things out, decide on a new general manager if that’s the way they want to roll, and start rebuilding their reputation that was lost over the last few seasons. It has to be their number one priority and they have to stop wasting future assets on mid players who have the potential to be something rather than focusing on players who are actually good and in their prime.