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How Do the Flyers Move Forward and Not Backwards?

(Heather Barry Images, LLC)

Not many general managers around the NHL, let alone professional sports, would have survived the last two seasons the Philadelphia Flyers have had and be given another chance at re-tooling and re-shaping their roster.

The Flyers are one of only a handful of teams in sports that are very late to the show in the sense that they miss the boat on the most opportune time to dismiss a member of their staff and start over with a new voice or system in place. Paul Holmgren mentioned after dismissing Peter Laviolette that he probably should have done it before the season started as he saw the cracks in the previous year, once again in the preseason, and then to start the year.

Three games into the season isn’t the worst case scenario, but they also convinced Vincent Lecavalier that summer to sign with them because of Laviolette’s offensive system. They did the same with Alain Vigneault, you can make the argument they were too late on both Ron Hextall and Dave Hakstol, and definitely a little late to the show when it came to Paul Holmgren. They are a team that loves to give the benefit of the doubt, that believes in the “plan” that is in place, and won’t alter anything until their arms are being twisted out of their sockets.

Chuck Fletcher has been at the helm for almost four years and he has had several opportunities to make Philadelphia hockey relevant again – only to fall short almost every time. He joined the team in December of 2018 after Hextall was dismissed, waited patiently for the season to come to a close, got his hands on nearly $35 million in projected cap space, spent it all on necessary improvements, saw those improvements pay dividends before and after the COVID interruptions, and then everything fell apart from there.

He has gone through three re-tools in that time span, and has made brash and rash moves every summer looking to finally patch the holes only to have to restart all over again because something didn’t go his way. The last calendar year alone is enough to show that the Flyers need to stop doing what they were doing, get a new plan in motion, and stick to it till the bitter end.

The initial problem was that the Flyers didn’t have the right coaching staff and that was always a thinly veiled shot at Ron Hextall’s decision in hiring Dave Hakstol right out of college hockey. They went from zero experience to way too much experience when they hired Alain Vigneault as the head coach and then added Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo as his assistants. At the time it made a lot of sense, as three very experienced coaches with a lot of playoff experience were going to help shape the young players and the core of the team.

Instead, what seemingly ended up happening was that the experiment rubbed the players and the locker room the wrong way. Severals players took steps back, several players clashed with the coaches, and ultimately it led to a fire sale of player personnel instead of the members of staff.

Not to say that players like Jakub Voracek, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Nolan Patrick were completely in the right to complain about their usage and ice time, but their play regressed so much so that they were essentially run out of town. Unsurprisingly Voracek and Gostisbehere “re-found” their footing on their new teams and had very productive seasons away from Philadelphia. With all the moves that the Flyers made that summer, with all that was being said about leadership and accountability, you would think that finding a new coaching staff would’ve been just as important as getting rid of the negative players.

Instead, Fletcher doubled down on his coaches, saw his acquired players either get injured or not perform, witnessed an embarrassingly long losing streak and decided it was time for a change in December.

Last season as a whole was a disaster. The Flyers finished fourth-last in the NHL, injuries piled up to key players, and everything that seemingly could have gone wrong went wrong. By January, the Flyers decided to announce to their fanbase that this season was essentially over and that they would be going back to the drawing board with a plan – another re-tool. It wasn’t just your average run of the mill re-tool either, it was going to be an aggressive one, one that put shame to all their other attempts and luckily for them they had heavy pockets and several marquee free agents to target that would vastly improve their debacle.

The trade deadline was also not a success but it’s tough to completely fault him on the Claude Giroux front. Whether the rumours were true or not remains to be seen, but allegedly Giroux wanted reassurance that would be returning in the summer after being dealt at the trade deadline. Due to his demands not being met, he kept his shortlist to just one team and that was the Florida Panthers. There were rumours leading up to his eventual departure that teams like Boston, St. Louis, Washington, and Colorado were interested as well, but ultimately the Panthers were the only team that Giroux would waive his no-movement clause for.

All the leverage flew out the window and one of the biggest names on the market wasn’t able to bring back the haul everyone wanted or imagined. The main pieces of that deal included Owen Tippett and a 2024 first round pick, with the Flyers giving up some picks as well, which seems oddly too low of value for the former captain.

Knowing the Flyers were in a tailspin, it was a perfect moment for the team to unload all the expiring contracts and get something of value in return. They ended up trading Giroux, as well as Justin Braun for a third round pick from the New York Rangers and Derick Brassard to the Edmonton Oilers for a fourth round pick.

Fletcher opted to keep Martin Jones based on the idea that he didn’t want his young goalies to get peppered and shellacked in the final weeks of the season. Edmonton had been interested for months leading up to the trade deadline and even reportedly offered a fifth round pick for Jones, but the Flyers wanted nothing less than a fourth rounder; an odd thought process for a goaltender you no longer needed and knew wasn’t going to come back next season.

The other oddity – and most likely the biggest issue amongst the fan base at the time – was Rasmus Ristolainen. His initial acquisition of the hulking defenseman from the Buffalo Sabres didn’t go over too well after he traded away a first round pick, a second round pick, and Robert Hagg. Fletcher had joined a bidding war he was destined never to lose and offered up the more prestigious first round pick than his competitive counterparts. He was carrying a soon-to-be expiring contract as well and instead of trading him for a first round pick and then some at the trade deadline, the Flyers opted to extend him to a five-year deal.

The argument can be made that his services were required but that’s because Ryan Ellis’ future is bleak, Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim aren’t right-handed shooters, Cam York is awfully too young, and the rest of their depth was and still is a crapshoot of either over-the-hill veterans or raw prospects who still needed time to marinate.

He was kept around essentially to fit the bill of this upcoming aggressive re-tool as the Flyers were going into the summer with plans of another roster-altering year. Johnny Gaudreau rumours were attached to the Flyers like maple syrup on pancakes. It was all anybody was talking about, and the ironic part of it all was that it ended up being true. Gaudreau wanted to come to Philadelphia, he wanted to play for his boyhood team, he wanted to be as close to his family as possible, and he waited on Fletcher and company to alleviate cap space for his arrival.

In turn, the Flyers bought out Oskar Lindblom, traded for and then signed Tony DeAngelo, used the remaining money on Nicolas Deslauriers, Justin Braun, and Troy Grosenick, opted not to place Ellis on LTIR at the start of free agency because he was the only one who had hope that he would be ready at some point, and then told the world they had no interest in trying to bring Gaudreau “home”.

Once more, the argument can be had that the Flyers had no business in declaring for another re-tool, however they did and the operated from January to June with that mindset in place. Everything they were doing and everything that was being said was for this glorified aggressiveness that eventually never came to pass. From aggressiveness, they shifted to stabilization and they felt that was achieved with the depth signings previously mentioned. Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes were being likened as big summer moves because of how much time they ended up missing, and all of a sudden their biggest and brightest move was hiring the newly-minted coaching staff headed by John Tortorella.

Ellis’ future, Couturier’s re-injured back, and the injuries to Joel Farabee, Patrick Brown, and Bobby Brink mixed in with Ivan Fedotov’s misfortunes really puts the Flyers in a bind heading into the season. The Ellis trade as a whole has become very inconsequential in terms of each player involved, the Ristolainen trade hasn’t paid dividends yet, James van Riemsdyk could not be moved due to desperation, the Flyers were not able to maximize on the Claude Giroux trade, and all of those situations led to the Flyers shifting their focus from Gaudreau to DeAngelo and buying out Lindblom to make space for Deslauriers.

For a team that is tabbed to finish near the bottom of the standings once again, they have one of the highest payrolls in the NHL and they are surrounded by playoff teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vegas Golden Knights, and Tampa Bay Lightning to name a few in terms of limited cap space. Fletcher has mismanaged the cap again, the Flyers are in a worse position than when he initially joined the team, and they don’t necessarily have any top-end talent to justify their high payroll. For a team that desperately needs to rebuild and re-start, they are straying further and further away from that plan, didn’t have a second round pick this year and won’t for the next two years, and have a decent pipeline of young prospects who are good but nothing home run-like.

Dave Scott and company have endorsed Fletcher for another campaign even though the Flyers continue to free-fall year by year. The 2019-20 season seems to be the anomaly and when you go back to that season, they really only enjoyed a great 2-3 month stretch before looking oddly misplaced in the playoff bubble. It’s hard to watch, it’s tough to support, and it’s gotten to a point where this once-proud and prideful fanbase has stopped caring, has stopped feeling for the team, and has stopped showing up to support – and no one can blame them.

Fletcher should have been let go this summer at the very least, but now he’s making moves in anticipation of staying this year and maybe more. If Scott truly endorses him as his bad-lucked general manager with Paul Holmgren and Bobby Clarke behind the scenes giving him the thumbs up, then what are the odds he remains throughout the season and into the next? Is another slow start going to be the catalyst of a tired dismissal? We’ve seen it happen time and time again with all his predecessors and the coaching staff, or is this time going to be different?

A new leader is needed, a new plan is required, and for Philadelphia to be relevant in hockey circles again, they need to do it as soon as possible.

Music City Hockey Trip

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Flyers fan born in the heart of Leafs nation

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