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Jones: Flyers were a playoff team with Walker, didn't forget rebuild

Jones: Flyers were a playoff team with Walker, didn't forget rebuild originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The word "collapse" was frequently used to describe the Flyers' finish to the 2023-24 season.

And that word was fair. Had the Flyers stayed afloat down the stretch, they would have punched a playoff ticket.

With 11 games to go, they had an 83.4 percent chance to make the postseason, according to Hockey-Reference.com's probabilities report. They had held down third place in the Metropolitan Division for over two months before losing eight straight and being outscored 42-18 through that skid. They went 2-7-2 in those final 11 games and were eliminated from the race on the final day of their regular season.

What's also fair is acknowledging that the Flyers' decision-makers didn't get caught up in one playoff run when the March 8 trade deadline neared. From the start, the organization vowed to focus on the future and try to build a sustainable contender. The Flyers stayed true to that promise by moving one of their best defensemen in Sean Walker two days before the deadline. The deal with the Avalanche netted the Flyers a conditional 2025 first-round pick.

But it did hurt the Flyers at an area in which they were already hurting. With Nick Seeler hitting injured reserve the same day of the Walker trade, the Flyers lost arguably their most effective defensive pair. They were also missing Rasmus Ristolainen and Jamie Drysdale to injuries, making the club awfully thin on the back end as it tried to nail down a playoff berth.

The Flyers went 6-10-3, surrendered 3.95 goals per game and had a minus-30 goal differential after trading Walker. His absence didn't completely break the Flyers, but it absolutely factored into their nosedive.

"I don't think the messaging should be lost in the fact that we did trade a player for a first-round pick next year in a very important draft," president of hockey operations Keith Jones said Wednesday. "Had Sean Walker stayed with the team, is there three points in there for us? Yes, then we're in the playoffs, we would have battled hard, we would have been a difficult opponent for everyone.

"And that's kind of what we established last year. I don't think there were many teams that came in and felt like they could get an easy two points playing the Flyers. If you look at our record against the final four teams or even the two teams that are playing in the Stanley Cup Final, it was respectable to say the least. So I do think there's been some incredible growth in that regard."

More: Hilferty 'thrilled' with Flyers' direction, Jones opens up on rebuild timeline

The Flyers picked up 13 wins over top-10 teams. They went a combined 5-4-2 against the clubs that made the East and West Final (Panthers, Rangers, Oilers and Stars) and 3-2-0 against the teams in the Cup Final (Panthers and Oilers).

However, the Flyers also had 13 losses to bottom-10 teams. Half of their losses in that costly eight-game skid came against teams in the bottom five of the NHL standings.

"I think some of the disappointment and the losses at the end of the season is going to be something that our players carry with them," Jones said. "I think it's going to be valuable for them. We didn't lose to the best teams in the league. We lost to some of the worst teams in the league. It wasn't playoff teams ramping up their play and taking advantage of us. It was us overlooking the opponents that we were playing. So there are valuable lessons in that."

The finish to the season has the Flyers making the 12th overall selection — their first of two first-round picks — in the June 28-29 NHL draft.

"Does it diminish what our guys accomplished throughout the year? I don't think it does," Jones said. "Does having the 12th pick overall help us in this draft? It does. Is it something that we were hoping for as our guys were battling for the playoffs? No, but we have to make good on it now."

After the season, head coach John Tortorella was adamant that the Flyers made the right decisions at the trade deadline. On Wednesday, Comcast Spectacor chairman and CEO and Flyers governor Dan Hilferty backed the front office, as well.

"We never lost sight of the goal, [which] was the longer-term positioning of the team," Hilferty said. "As an observer, I appreciated that, it was really encouraging to watch. This is the plan and we're sticking with it. You're right, we were all sad to see Sean go. But the truth is, there's a pick that came from that and there's an opportunity to build towards the future."

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