Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has his work cut out for him this offseason.
Fletcher and the rest of the Flyers brass had their end-of-season press conferences on Tuesday morning. The temporary high point of ending the season on a win was no longer. It was finally time to look back at the season as a whole and get some answers.
While Fletcher didn’t provide all the answers that were desired, he did give some.
Chuck Fletcher touched on his priorities this offseason, the Flyers’ most glaring hole, the development (or lack thereof) of the younger players, and more.
“We could upgrade everywhere”
Chuck Fletcher was first asked about his priorities this offseason. The Flyers had quite a few holes this season and Fletcher will need to address those this summer. He plans on doing just that.
“I think we have quite a few priorities,” Fletcher said. “Looking outside the organization certainly, we could upgrade everywhere; up front, defense. Certainly, we’re going to have to take a look at our situation in goal, which has kind of been a constant struggle here for years. We have different areas we have to look at.”
Basically, Fletcher wants to upgrade the roster in every single spot that he can. He’ll be looking to make upgrades to the roster via trades and free agency this summer. But that’s not all.
Fletcher also pointed to the regression of all of the Flyers’ younger players, with the exception of one 20-goal scorer.
“We also need a lot of our young players to be better. I would say with the exception of Joel Farabee that the majority of our players plateaued or took a step back this year,” Fletcher said. “That’s a big concern for me. Since 2014, this franchise has put a lot of time and effort into drafting and developing young players. Frankly, for us to take a step forward, we’re going to need that group of players to take on a bigger role, play better, and help us win games.”
Fletcher didn’t single any one player out, which would’ve been unfair given how mostly everyone struggled this season, but that’s a fairly eye-opening quote. And Fletcher is absolutely right. Ron Hextall started a rebuild (or transition period) and the Flyers have had a cupboard full of prospects waiting in the wings. They’re no longer waiting in the wings; they’re in the NHL. However, they’re not playing up to their expectations.
Young players can bounce back with experienced coaching staff
The Flyers are absolutely going to need their internal options to improve next season. Plateauing or taking another step back isn’t acceptable.
“We’re going to have to look outside the organization, but certainly it’s difficult to replace the whole team,” Fletcher continued. “You’re going to need your young players to take a step and be better. They have a big summer ahead of them. Hopefully, as things normalize, this offseason hopefully it’s easier for many of these young players to skate, train, and prepare more normally than maybe they were able to do last offseason. We’re hopeful that we’ll see an energized group of players come training camp.”
Chuck Fletcher commented on the coaching staff as well. Despite most of the team taking a step back, he’s happy to have the staff that he does.
“I’m happy we have this experienced coaching staff. AV, Mike Therrien, Mike Yeo, and Ian Laperriere, they’ve seen a lot of different scenarios during their time in the league. I’m fully confident that they’ll have the best approach on how to bring these players back. Some of it has to fall on the players. It’s up to the players to be prepared to come into camp next year,” Fletcher said.
There is still some accountability for the coaching staff, though.
“Certainly, there’s some personal responsibility for every one of us in terms of how we perform and how we do our job. Having a veteran coaching staff gives me comfort that we’re going to find the right solutions to get these players back to where we need to get them to.”
Need to fix the glaring hole on defense
Later in the press conference, Fletcher addressed the most glaring hole on the roster. It should be no surprise that he focused on the Flyers’ league-worst goals against.
“Look, we finished 31st in the league in goals against. I’d say the last 15, 16 years for this franchise, we’ve had a tough time keeping the puck out of our net consistently. Since I’ve been here, we were 27th in the league defensively, I believe, my first year. Last year, we climbed to 7th, and this year we fell to 31st,” he said.
That’s not just on the goaltending, although the Flyers’ netminders had a horrid year. It may end with them, but it starts with the five-man unit in front of them, particularly in the defensive zone.
“It’s clear that when you give up the number of chances and the number of goals we did this year, you’re going to have a tough time winning hockey games,” Fletcher continued. “We need to improve our ability to keep the puck out of the net and everything that goes with that is what we’ll look to do this offseason.”
The Flyers are in a similar position as they were heading into the 2019 offseason. The major difference, however, is that this is Chuck Fletcher’s own mess to clean up.
In June 2019, Fletcher fixed the Flyers’ defensive issues by trading for two veteran defensemen in Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun. He also added a two-way center in Kevin Hayes. Then, in a normal regular season, the Flyers were one of the best defensive teams in the league.
This past season, that wasn’t the case. Fletcher doesn’t have the cap room this summer to make significant additions, however. We’ve heard about how aggressive Fletcher was in the offseason and throughout the season to try to make a move but things fell through. This offseason, Fletcher can’t afford to make the same mistake.
Flyers “going to have to be creative” this offseason
It’s fair to be skeptical of Fletcher and the front office after last offseason. Niskanen retired and they attempted to replace him with Erik Gustafsson and in-house options. Niskanen isn’t the reason the Flyers were dead last in goals against, but it started the domino effect. Fletcher not putting a stop to that by adding a better defenseman than Gustafsson allowed it to happen.
This summer, however, Fletcher has no choice. He might already be feeling the heat after missing the playoffs, and missing the playoffs next season would likely cost him his job.
Chuck Fletcher might not have the cap room this summer, but the expansion draft should open things up a bit more. The market was quiet this season and even last offseason with the unusual circumstances.
“We’ll have to look at a few different areas to improve, but I anticipate there being some players available,” Fletcher said. “We’ll have to go out and see if we can add the right player. Certainly last offseason, we looked at a lot of different options. Some cases didn’t break the way we’d hoped and in some cases, it wasn’t the perfect fit for the type of player we were looking for.”
Whether it be Dougie Hamilton –– the big-name free-agent defenseman –– or someone else, Fletcher appears to have his eyes on a few different players this offseason.
“We’re going to have to be creative and find a way to improve where we can,” Fletcher concluded.
Being creative could mean any number of things. There have been talks that the Flyers could make a major shakeup this offseason. A trade to shake up the core of this team and become more defensively sound could be in the cards.
Giroux, Couturier, and Voracek the three constants
Switching gears a bit here and looking back at the season, Chuck Fletcher believes that the Flyers will bounce back after their poor performance.
The month of March is what really sunk the Flyers with 17 games on the slate. They spiraled and no one stepped up to try to salvage the season. However, Fletcher isn’t blaming any of the leaders in the locker room.
“I don’t know that I’m sitting here questioning our leadership. I thought our leaders played hard this year,” Fletcher said. “If you look at the last couple months, nobody played harder than Claude Giroux. Sean Couturier played really hard on his line, carried our team early in the season. Jake Voracek led our team in scoring again, or tied for the lead.”
“Hockey’s a team sport. Twenty players on the ice. I don’t know that one guy giving a speech in a dressing room or doing something can turn a season around.”
Giroux and Voracek tied for the team lead with 43 points, and the captain, in particular, had several games where he put the team on his back. Couturier was right behind them with 41 points in just 45 games. Those three were the constants in the latter half of the season.
“To me, I’m not sure leadership is the first thing I’m looking in this group, but we’ll take some time over the next few weeks here to look at every angle. Find a way to plug the holes we need to plug.”
Chuck Fletcher: “Some teams handled it better than we did”
The Flyers got ravaged by COVID this season. They were one of the teams hit hard and it sent them off the rails in a miserable March. Every team dealt with the same issues this season regarding scheduling and protocols, but the Flyers were one of the teams that didn’t handle those issues well.
It’s not just an excuse, though. Playing through a global pandemic is going to be handled differently by different individuals. Even for regular, everyday people, everyone has had a different experience over the past year-plus. The Flyers are no different.
“It was really challenging,” Fletcher said of this unique season. “Maybe some teams handled it better than we did.”
It goes without saying that, given the Flyers are not in the playoffs and completely missed expectations, that’s a definite, not just a maybe.
“I think of the 28, 29 players that were around our team this year, counting the players on the taxi squad, 20 players over the course of the last five or six months had COVID,” Fletcher said.
Okay, when you step back and look at it, over two-thirds of the roster contracting COVID could be a pretty good reason for the team’s struggles this season. It’s not an excuse, it’s a reason.
“We got hit pretty hard at various times. Some players seemed to come back stronger. I give Giroux a lot of credit, Voracek. Some of these guys came back and seemed to get better. Other players seemed to struggle. Other players got hit in November and December right before camp, which wasn’t ideal for coming into a shortened camp in top shape. Every team had to deal with it. We did the best we could,” he continued.
“On a personal level, I will not be tired of living the protocols every day. They were necessary but it seemed like we spent an awful lot of time making sure that we were following protocols and doing things right, trying to keep people safe and healthy versus managing your team. It was necessary,” Fletcher concluded. “It was so important that we played hockey this year. It was great from a league standpoint that we were able to play hockey. There were definitely a lot of challenges.”
Dealing with COVID and the circumstances it brought to the season was one of the reasons that the Flyers struggled this season. Younger players took a step back and didn’t have time to rest because of the condensed schedule. The team went downhill quickly in March and had to bounce right back without a chance to reset.
Looking back on it, maybe the Flyers should’ve punted a game or two and rested more than a few players for a game here or there. Give them a chance to reset and treat morning skate like a practice. It appeared to work for Carter Hart –– who took a week or so off to reset –– before he got injured.
Nevertheless, the 2020-21 Flyers season is now over. It was a season full of ups and downs, but mostly downs. The Flyers came in with huge expectations after winning a playoff series and fell flat.
Chuck Fletcher has a few long months to sit back and address what went wrong. He acknowledged that the team could use upgrades everywhere, and he’s looking both internally and externally. Changes are going to need to be made for the Flyers to take that next step rather than regressing again next season.