Playing to Win (Some Assembly Required)

Remember on October 30, 2002 when Herm Edwards, then head coach of the New York Jets and current head coach at Arizona State, said “You play to win the game”? I don’t because I was only four years old, but I’ve seen the clip hundreds of times. I’ve also seen countless players call any season that didn’t end in a championship ‘a failure’. So, why don’t front offices “play to win” when they assemble teams anymore. Ahh, the almighty dollar got in the way. This has never been more evident than watching the atrocity in the city of Brotherly Love known as the 2020-21 Philadelphia Flyers. I mean my goodness. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that this defense is bad. Carter Hart and Brian Elliott are hung out to dry multiple times on a nightly basis. Far too many shots are coming on odd man rushes or from just outside the crease. The Flyers cannot protect the puck nor can they protect the most valuable piece of real estate in their own defensive zone. The shocking retirement of Matt Niskanen in the offseason left a void that has yet to be filled both on the ice and in the locker room. On the ice, Nisky would once again pair great next to Ivan Provorov, allowing for some continuity on the top line. It would also allow the other young defensemen such as Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, and Phillippe Meyers to play roles that better suit them. No offense to Justin Braun, but when he is on the top defense pairing, you know there are issues. If the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, then put Check Fletcher and Alain Vigneult in the looney bin because that has been their modus operandi this season. While it takes two to tango in trade talks, it is very frustrating to see this team do nothing night in and night out and expect different results. It seems clear how needed an upgrade is to everyone, but worse yet is it was this obvious in the offseason too once Nisky announced his retirement. Why didn’t the Flyers do anything then? Probably for the same reason they won’t do anything this offseason: the upcoming expansion draft.

Likely preferring to protect seven forwards and three defensemen along with Carter Hart, the Flyers face some tough decisions. Claude Giroux and Kevin Hayes are locks to be protected due to their no movement clauses while Sean Couturier and Joel Farabee are locks considering their recent play. Beyond them, the Flyers could look to get out from either Jakub Voracek’s or James van Riemsdyk’s contracts, but that would mean exposing the season’s team leaders in assists (Voracek) and goals and points (JvR). From there, it would greatly hurt to lose any of Travis Konecny or Oskar Lindblom for nothing, but the Flyers would only be able to protect one of them. Moving to defensemen, it feels like a lock that the Flyers would protect Provy, Sanheim, and Myers. But that begs the question, are they worth it? Is it worth hanging onto those guys and watching Mattias Ekholm go to the Bruins (purely speculating based on the youth of their current d-core)? He would be under contract in his new home for next season where he could be a constant reminder of a missed opportunity by Chuck Fletcher and Co.

This may seem like a massive hit piece on the way the Flyers are handling this season, but the truth is, examples of this style of roster management are prevelant in all four of the major professional sports leagues. Let’s take the Rays for example. They made it to the World Series in 2008 that featured a young up and coming Evan Longoria, James Shields, Matt Garza, and others with top prospect David Price arriving as a late-season reinforcement. They responded by adding Pat Burrell in the offseason only to see some big regression from their pitching staff. Their core missed the playoffs in 2009, and never made it back to the World Series. In 2020, the franchise returned to the Fall Classic and was an ill-fated managerial decision to pull Blake Snell from forcing a Game 7. Instead, they shipped Snell to the San Diego Padres shortly after the confetti rained down on the Dodgers at Globe Life Park, despite being signed for three more seasons.

Nothing is guaranteed in sports due to regression, injuries, and a little bit of luck (or lack thereof). The Flyers, a top four team in the Eastern Conference last regular season brought a young and more experienced team into this season, but failed to add to a team that wasn’t good enough last year and lost it’s best defenseman. The Rays clearly didn’t learn from their long journey back to the World Series by shipping off their main catalyst. Lately, teams that have gone all-in with bold moves have been the ones left standing at season’s end. The Rays should learn a lesson from the team that beat them last year. The Los Angeles Dodgers, despite winning back-to-back NL pennants in 2017 and 2018 before losing in the NLDS in 2019 went out and traded for a premiere player in Mookie Betts and gave him a massive contract to boot. They won the World Series in 2020 as a result, but that didn’t stop them from signing 2020 NL CY Young Winner Trevor Bauer to fortify their rotation. In 2017, the Astros made a bold move to trade for former ace Justin Verlander. He returned to ace form and helped the Astros win a World Series (I know I know I know believe me as a Yankee fan I know). They responded by trading for another underperforming ace in Gerrit Cole and made him one of the best pitchers in baseball before he became the highest paid pitcher ever in pinstripes. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could also teach their hometown baseball team a thing or two. No team was as bold as they were last offseason, bring in a 42 year old Tom Brady off of a down year and someone who haters deemed a system quarterback who couldn’t thrive without Bill Belichick. Then, they lured injury prone tight end Rob Gronkowski out of retirement to reunite him with his QB. As if that wasn’t bold enough, the Bucs signed perceived trouble maker and locker room cancer Antonio Brown after his suspension was through. All they did was win the Super Bowl.

If you’re tired of seeing your General Manager try to build a team conservatively, then you’re not alone. General Managers need to watch what risks they take because taking the wrong risk could cost them their jobs. However, not taking a calculated risk could come back to cost them their jobs as well. "Next year is our year," they say, but next year is never guaranteed in sports. In short, don't expect to win if you don't play to win.