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How a third-line center is battle testing the Flyers’ new front office

Nov 15, 2023; Philadelphia Flyers left wing Noah Cates (27) skates with the puck against Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dmitry Orlov (7). Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

This week’s news that Noah Cates will miss several weeks with a broken foot has a number of unfortunate ramifications for the Flyers, who will have to play without a young contributor who deservedly received Selke and Calder Trophy votes last season. But Cates’s extended absence does raise the stakes somewhat on a storyline that’s become one of the defining questions of the season:

What’s the deal with Morgan Frost?

The Frost saga has gone from an oddity to an unavoidable recurring feature of this early Flyers season. Initially scratched due to poor play (in the coach’s eyes) after the first couple of games of the season, which led to an extended absence from the lineup as the team kept winning (or at least playing well in) games without him, Frost looked like he’d found his way back into the lineup early in November. That, of course, did not end up being a permanent adjustment, as Frost has had two other stretches of multiple games this season as a healthy scratch before we reached the end of November.

Frost played on Thursday night against New Jersey, his third consecutive game in the lineup, and had some ups (a nice power-play goal) and downs (an offensive zone tripping penalty to negate another Flyers power play). We love this for him. And right now, between a) the loss of a top-9 player whose absence should theoretically make scratching someone like Frost (who has in John Tortorella’s eyes become a top-9-or-press-box player) more difficult, and b) the lack of forwards on the team to replace him period (the Flyers only have 12 healthy forwards on the roster), Frost’s spot in the lineup should feel pretty secure.

… it doesn’t, who are we kidding. Per our pal Charlie O’Connor over at PHLY, following Tuesday’s loss to the Hurricanes:

“We’re not going to wait around as far as if things aren’t working out, because we got 12 forwards here now, right?” Tortorella said. “If we’re not happy about certain things, we’ll dip (into the AHL) and give other people opportunities. That’s where we’re at.”


“Not trying to threaten anybody, but we’ve got to get more out of some people, and they’re gonna get the opportunity,” he noted. “But we’re not going to live with (poor production) the whole time that Catesy’s out. So we’ll see where it all goes.”

In other words: nah. If you don’t give us a good reason to scratch you independent of what everyone else does, we can still scratch you. And while it should be noted that Frost isn’t the only top-9 player that’s had to watch the game in a suit — Bobby Brink, Tyson Foerster, and Ryan Poehling have all been sent to the press box for at least one game — it should also be noted that of that group, Frost is a) the only one who’s been with this organization at the NHL level for an extended time before (and as such seemingly should have a better grasp on a spot) and b) the one who’s spent by far the most time out of the lineup.

So why are they doing this? Why is a 24 year old who was one of the only forwards on the team to actually produce offensively last season and who is unquestionably, no matter what you may think of him or the rest of this team, one of their 12 best forwards getting strung around like this?

The easy answer seems to be “because the coach doesn’t like him”. Even during his career-best-so-far 2022-23 season, during which he showed marked improvement over the course of the year, Tortorella’s intermittent praise of Frost felt obliged and begrudging. And whether that’s all fair or not, there are valid questions about whether Frost — a slower-paced, somewhat deliberate, less physical player than Tortorella may prefer — fits with the kind of team that the head coach wants to see on the ice.

The counter-argument to that, though, is that the Flyers — a rebuilding team that just more than anything needs to find talent that could be productive for them down the road — don’t seem like a team that should be sitting young players who are productive and still have theoretical untapped upside because those players may not quite be the coach’s preferred flavor of hockey player. This is typically the part of the story where you would expect the front office, led by the general manager who just got into the job and has both the patience and job security to think in the long-term (and who, just as a kicker, used to be a smallish, offensively-oriented, not-so-physical center who wore the number 48 in Philadelphia) to possibly step in and tell the coach that he’s really got to figure out a way to try to make things work.

The problem there is that the Flyers have made it clear that the GM/front office/coach lines here are not drawn the same way they typically are in most franchises, and now in an instance where you would generally expect the GM and the coach to butt heads a bit over the treatment of a young player, we can’t really tell where everyone involved stands and who really has the power to do something about it.

Look, it’s entirely possible that the three men that make up the Flyers’ self-described Leadership Triumvirate — Tortorella, Danny Briere, and Keith Jones — are all in step in their evaluation of Frost. Maybe there’s a collective agreement that he’s probably just not anything close to the guy that Briere’s predecessor’s predecessor thought he was when he took him 27th overall in 2017. The closest statement we’ve received from either of them on it is this fairly unrevealing answer from Jones in an interview with The Inquirer’s Jackie Spiegel from earlier this week, in which he gives some general support for Frost while also not suggesting he has much of an issue with Tortorella’s handling of the situation:

We think [Frost is] a big part of our future. And you know, Morgan, really came in and did some outstanding things. And some of his recent performances, which were huge. That’s not easy. I’ve been there. Danny’s been there. That’s not an easy part to be in as a player. So he’s handled it extremely well. I’m really proud of the way that he’s dealt with it. And there’s going to be other players that come in and out [of the lineup]. We have right now, touch wood, a lot of options but things will change, and we just want to make sure that Morgan continues to feel like he’s a big part of our future because we believe that he is.

Again, pretty unrevealing. Projecting optimism about a young player while suggesting he’s just going through some rough patches. Not a statement that tells you a lot about what Jonesy really thinks of this, certainly not in the vein of what Tortorella’s done.

But that’s sort of the thing: a GM and a POHO would rarely come out and make statements like the one Tortorella is making (stated and implied) about Frost. And while the coach and the front office aren’t really expected to always have the same incentives — one of them is doing everything he can do win his team the game that night, and the other is focused on the long-term health of the team and roster — the Flyers have made it very clear that they see Tortorella as effectively a member of the front office, first by declaring him a part of that leadership triumvirate and then by jettisoning players over the summer who he had made clear he was done with, particularly one in Kevin Hayes who on the surface seemed to be both productive on the ice and popular in the locker room.

If the coach is an extension of the front office, either he’s got to at least partly think like a member of the front office or the front office has to be able to dictate some control over his actions. Sorry. Them’s the rules.

And from a front office perspective, the team’s handling of Frost has been pretty brutal. Tossing it back to Charlie at PHLY, he wrote a good piece about the Flyers’ poor management of this situation a few weeks back, pointing out the issues with Frost’s scratchings from both a player evaluation, player development, and asset management perspective. That was written during Frost’s second stint as a healthy scratch; predictably, the points made in it still hold up pretty well knowing that Frost has now taken a third go-round on the Scratch-A-Whirl.

And maybe it doesn’t matter. Again, maybe Frost just isn’t that dude. But if you’re Briere, you have to be at least a little bit displeased with how this situation is playing out.

Which gets to the other question at hand: what if Briere and Tortorella do disagree on Frost, or even just on how Tortorella is handling him?

In a normal situation, one could say that the GM should largely stay out of the coach’s business and let him do his job coaching. But again, in this situation, that shouldn’t be a real option. The Flyers are rebuilding, and they’ve done everything in their power to tell us Tortorella is another member of the front office. Long-term development, projection, and player value has to be considered, lest you want to tank a guy’s value.

And then there’s the more dispiriting possibility: what if Briere (or Jones) has made it clear he wants Tortorella to handle the Frost situation differently, and Tortorella just doesn’t care? This was always the inherent risk in creating a power nucleus made up of a first-time GM, a POHO who’s never been in a front office role, and a headstrong, opinionated head coach with decades of experience to point to in order to back up his opinions. Do the other guys in the front office have the cachet — or, failing that, the fortitude — to tell him that they think he’s wrong?

To stress this once again: I don’t really know how Briere and Jones feel about Frost. How they felt coming into the season, if they’re disappointed with what he’s done, if they think Tortorella needs to manage him better, any of that. But that’s because they haven’t made it clear, and as such the only opinion we’re seeing from the team is “this guy isn’t good enough to be a lineup fixture,” and now we’re seeing national insiders do things like mention that teams are calling the Flyers about Frost’s status and put Frost in the top-10 of their trade deadline target boards.

So we’re left with a couple of possibilities (two of them, specifically). The first is that everyone — the whole Triumvirate — agrees that Frost isn’t a part of the future. Fine. Personally, I’d have loved to see him get a bit more of a look this year than he has, but if everyone thinks he ain’t it, then it’s over. In that case, you should either be looking to move him as soon as possible, or keep him in the lineup to build up his trade value more than you currently have. Taking him in and out of the lineup as the wind blows is just giving up on him as a player with any sort of value, and that’s just not something you can do with a recent first-round pick in a rebuild.

The second is that there’s disagreement, that one or more of the guys upstairs thinks that a guy who had 46 points last year should be getting a little more respect and that the coach of the team should be a bit more flexible with him, and the coach doesn’t want to play ball. All of which, again, is leading to a frustrated player who loses value every time he’s up in the press box.

There’s no rule saying the Triumvirate has to agree on everything. That’s not realistic. But they’ve got to find solutions that don’t create situations like this. Because this doesn’t feel like it’ll be the last time the coach might have a player he clearly doesn’t hold in super-high esteem, and if the GM and President can’t find a solution beyond yo-yoing the guy in and out of the lineup, they’re doing a disservice to everybody involved in the rebuild.