Gilbert: Chuck Fletcher’s fingerprints finally on Flyers after statement offseason
When Chuck Fletcher took over as General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, the team was in disarray. Ron Hextall‘s patient plan failed –– or was cut short, depending who you ask –– and Fletcher was tasked with getting the Flyers to that next level.
It wasn’t an easy task, however, as Fletcher had to tear down a bit before building back up. It wasn’t a “tear down” in a rebuild or retool way, but rather getting rid of some of the dead weight and making critical decisions on some players.
Chuck Fletcher assesses and ditches dead weight
Within a few months of becoming Flyers GM, Fletcher traded away Jordan Weal, Taylor Leier, Dale Weise, Christian Folin, and Anthony Stolarz. Weal was given a long leash and couldn’t cut it. Leier was a Hextall guy that Fletcher flipped for Justin Bailey. Weise and Folin fall into that “dead weight” category and the Flyers acquired two equally forgetful players for them. Stolarz was swapped for Cam Talbot with the Flyers wanting a veteran goalie.
None of those trades are very memorable –– hell, you probably barely remember them ––, but they were the types of moves that Fletcher had to make to start his mission.
Fletcher’s earliest tough decision came at his first trade deadline with the Flyers. Fan-favorite Wayne Simmonds was set to hit free agency and the Flyers weren’t in the playoff hunt. Fletcher and the Flyers gave Simmonds a chance to chase the Cup with Nashville, getting Ryan Hartman and a conditional fourth-round pick in return.
That was the end of the early stages of the facelift. Some of the dead weight was gone, so was a fan favorite, and Fletcher had a lot on his plate for the offseason.
Chuck Fletcher active early in first offseason
Chuck Fletcher made three quick trades in June of 2019 to start the transition. He acquired Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, and Justin Braun for Radko Gudas and a few draft picks. Those three players were key pieces in the Flyers’ strong push in the 2019-20 season.
The trades for Hayes, Niskanen, and Braun were the first taste of Fletcher putting his stamp on the Flyers. They needed defensive improvements and got some before free agency was even close to opening. On top of that, Andrew MacDonald was finally bought out by the Flyers, gaining Fletcher some goodwill from the fanbase. It was also another move to get rid of some dead weight and help the Flyers take the next step.
Fletcher decided on Alain Vigneault as his head coach for the Flyers. He stacked his staff with other experienced coaches in Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo. After Hextall took a chance on Dave Hakstol, Fletcher played it a bit safer with what is essentially a trio of experienced head coaches.
Those were the only big acquisitions by Fletcher in the 2019 offseason, however. The Flyers’ 2019-20 team had many of the same pieces as the year prior, which failed miserably. But those few tweaks were enough to get the Flyers (temporarily) to that next step.
Flyers roll into 2020
After a few weeks to get rolling, the Flyers were one of the best teams in the league from November 1st onward. Everyone remembers the hot stretch in January and February, but only the Boston Bruins had more points than the Flyers from November 1st until the end of the season.
In a position to be serious buyers at the trade deadline for the first time in several years, Fletcher opted for a few minor moves. He added veteran forwards Derek Grant and Nate Thompson to shore up the bottom six. The two fit in, but after COVID shortened the season, the Flyers couldn’t find their game again in the playoff bubble. They got past the Montreal Canadiens in six games but fell to the New York Islanders in seven.
But fret not, right? The Flyers had almost the entire roster returning for the following season with a few key young players only getting better.
Inactivity leads to disappointing season
Unfortunately, veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen unexpectedly retired which started a domino effect for the Flyers.
Mind you, I’m not saying that Niskanen would’ve made the Flyers a playoff team last year, but it opened a big gap on the blue line. And that was a gap that Fletcher failed to fill. He re-signed Justin Braun and expected Philippe Myers to improve with another season under his belt.
The only defenseman that Fletcher and the Flyers signed last offseason was Erik Gustafsson. Gustafsson didn’t quite work out in Philadelphia and was flipped at the trade deadline for a seventh-round pick.
Last season was an unmitigated disaster for the Flyers. Their young franchise goalie had the worst season of his career, the young defense in front of him didn’t do him any favors, and the Flyers spiraled out of control. Many were questioning if this was finally the end for this era of the Flyers. And in a way, it was.
Chuck Fletcher makes his mark on the Flyers
This is no longer Ron Hextall’s team. Nor does it resemble Ron Hextall’s team. It took three offseasons and a frustratingly disappointing season, but this is now Chuck Fletcher’s team. Fletcher dug his claws into the roster and now has his fingerprints all over the Flyers.
Sure, there are still several holdovers from Hextall’s tenure, but Fletcher (in most cases) made the decision to keep them.
Claude Giroux wasn’t going anywhere, but Fletcher had the chance to shop (or dump) any of James van Riemsdyk, Travis Konecny, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Ivan Provorov, or Travis Sanheim this offseason. Hell, Fletcher committed five years to Scott Laughton –– a Ron Hextall reclamation projected –– rather than trading him at the deadline. We can even throw in Samuel Morin onto the list, who the Flyers could’ve let walk this summer.
In an attempt to change the team both on and off the ice, Fletcher made a few big decisions to trade away longtime Flyer Jakub Voracek, promising young defenseman Philippe Myers, and former No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick. He also shipped out Shayne Gostisbehere –– for nothing in return –– and Robert Hagg.
Gilbert: Fletcher’s offseason additions improve Flyers in all areas
Voracek could’ve easily stayed on the roster as a top-six forward next season. However, Fletcher got a two-way, shoot-first winger in Cam Atkinson for him. Voracek may end up with more points on the season, but it’s a trade to fulfill Fletcher’s offseason wishlist.
The same goes for Myers and Patrick. Myers still may pan out to be a top-four defenseman, but Fletcher didn’t want to wait for that. He packaged Myers and Patrick –– another player that has plenty of time to find his game –– for Ryan Ellis. Ellis is as much of a sure thing as you can get in the NHL as a right-shot defenseman for the top pair.
Gostisbehere seemed to have worn out his welcome in Philadelphia. He was one of the best young defensemen in the game a handful of years ago, but injuries have taken a toll on him. He could’ve been a third-pair, power-play specialist for the Flyers, but Fletcher wanted to use that $4.5 million elsewhere –– and signed Keith Yandle for 20% of Gostisbehere’s salary.
Hagg settled in as a third-pair depth defenseman for the Flyers. He could’ve filled that role again with Braun on the second pair, but Fletcher wasn’t taking another chance on defense. He acquired Rasmus Ristolainen for Hagg and a few draft picks –– including the first-rounder this year. Ristolainen is a polarizing defenseman that was in over his head in Buffalo. Fletcher is hoping that Ristolainen can grade out better in a more optimal role for him.
Nevertheless, it was an offseason of change for the Flyers. And it’s not an offseason that many will soon forget. It’s destined to be the beginning of something. It could be the beginning of the Flyers becoming true contenders, or the beginning of the end for Fletcher and some of the Flyers’ key veterans with Giroux and Sean Couturier set to hit free agency next summer.
Usher in the Chuck Fletcher Era?
This is Chuck Fletcher’s team now, for better or for worse.
The Flyers’ key forwards in the top six were either directly acquired by Fletcher (Cam Atkinson, Kevin Hayes) or weren’t traded despite being in some rumors (Travis Konecny, Joel Farabee). In the bottom six, it’s going to be more of the same with Fletcher’s five-year contract to Scott Laughton, Aube-Kubel protected in the expansion draft, and a few youngsters and veterans (Nate Thompson) battling for roster spots.
On defense, Ivan Provorov and Ryan Ellis should make up the top pair. I’m not sure if the Flyers would’ve considered trading Provorov, but getting someone like Ellis to pair with him was a crucial decision by Fletcher. Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen should be the second pair. Ristolainen is obviously a Fletcher acquisition and there were some whispers that Sanheim could get moved. After that, Keith Yandle, Justin Braun, and Cameron York will be in the mix for the bottom pair.
It’s not just about the players individually, but the team as a whole. Fletcher brought in experienced veterans that have been leaders in locker rooms before. On top of that, all of the changes made the Flyers harder to play against and, most importantly, harder to score against.
Ron Hextall laid out his blueprint seven years ago. Three years ago, Fletcher examined the blueprint and made some changes in the coming months. He kept some of the same plans but tweaked things as he could.
Now, after the Flyers’ most active offseason in the past decade, this is Chuck Fletcher’s team. This season is going to go a long way in determining the future of the Flyers.