Hiring a general manager during the season is not common in the NHL. But that’s the situation in which Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher found himself when he was introduced as the newest front office hire on Dec. 3, 2018. It’s not his first stint, he was interim GM for the Florida Panthers from 2001-02 and then led the Minnesota Wild to six consecutive playoff appearances from the 2012-13 season to the 2017-18 season.
The Flyers finished the 2018-19 season with 82 points, sixth in the Metropolitan Division, and Fletcher needed to get to work in the offseason to build the team he believes will win games. His goals for the summer were to: hire a new coach; beef up the defense; acquire a second-line center; and figure out long-term plans for the team’s restricted free agents.
Hiring a New Coach
Hiring Fletcher wasn’t the only management change the Flyers made last season. They also fired head coach Dave Hakstol just two weeks later and promoted AHL Lehigh Valley Phantoms coach Scott Gordon to interim head coach. However, there were many questions regarding the position heading into the off-season: Would Fletcher stick with Gordon? The answer came fairly quickly after the end of the season, as Fletcher hired former New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault.
Vigneault not only brings 16 years of experience as an NHL head coach to the Flyers, but also success: He’s made two appearances in the Stanley Cup Final (with the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 and the New York Rangers in 2014); he won the Jack Adams Award in 2007; was named co-coach for the 2011 NHL All-Star Game, and has amassed 648 wins. The expectations for Vigneault will be high, but Fletcher is confident in his ability to lead the Flyers to a playoff spot.
“We are extremely excited to have Alain join this franchise and lead our team behind the bench for many years to come,” Fletcher said in a statement released by the team. “He brings a tremendous amount of success over an extended period of time that will prove valuable to our team to take the next steps in returning the winning culture to the Philadelphia Flyers organization.”
Chuck Fletcher, NBC Sports Philadelphia
Beef Up the Defense
When a team is in the top three for highest goals-against average (Flyers had 3.41), defense is going to be a top priority in the off-season. If management is looking for defensemen, why not look to teams that recently made it to the Stanley Cup Final? That’s what Fletcher did when he traded two draft picks (2019 NHL Draft second-rounder and 2020 third-rounder) to the San Jose Sharks for defenseman Justin Braun and sent Radko Gudas to the Washington Capitals for Matt Niskanen.
Although the Flyers took on Niskanen’s and Braun’s contracts which were causing salary-cap problems for the Capitals and Sharks, our own Ryan Hodge argues that these moves were made to establish veteran leadership on the blue line. Who better for young players to learn from than two players with championship experience?
Acquire a Second-Line Center
Sean Couturier will be the first line center when the Flyers open the 2019-20 season against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 4 in Prague, Czech Republic. What hasn’t been established, and likely won’t be until the end of the preseason, is who will center the second line. The Hockey Writers’ Herbert Byam says there are plenty of options.
Nolan Patrick, the Flyers’ second-overall pick in 2017, is one, but he struggled last season on the second line and only broke out when playing on the first line. Scott Laughton plays a defensive style at center, so he’s more suited to play on the fourth line.
Fletcher also decided to add another name to the roster: Kevin Hayes. He was acquired in a June trade that sent the Flyers’ fifth-round 2019 NHL Draft pick to the Winnipeg Jets. He then signed a seven-year, $50 million deal ($7.14 million AAV). Hayes played more than four and a half seasons with the New York Rangers before being sent to Winnipeg for Brendan Lemieux, the Jets’ first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and a conditional pick in 2022.
Despite totaling 40-plus points in four of his first five seasons, including a career-best 55 points in 2018-19, most of Hayes’ points have come from his ability to set up his teammates. He’s only scored more than 20 goals once with 25 in 2017-18. Still, not every center is expected to be a sniper, and Hayes does have several positives going for him.
He’s familiar with Vigneault’s coaching style. From 2014 to 2018, Hayes played under Vigneault with the Rangers which should give him an advantage over the competition. The downside is Hayes had several incidents with his former coach, including one in December of 2015 when Vigneault benched him before their matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning and told reporters he didn’t believe Hayes was working hard enough. I’m sure Hayes and Vigneault worked out their differences at some point and have moved on. His contract is a little high but if he plays up to expectations, the amount is easy to overlook.
Sign Restricted Free Agents
Most restricted free agents are playing the waiting game right now and it’s dragging on. The Flyers’ Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny are no exception. They have not signed, and that could be a major problem moving forward. They’re still under team control for this season, but if the Flyers intend on building their young roster into a future powerhouse, it has to start with these two players. Konecny has steadily improved in his first three NHL seasons, recording 40-plus points in back-to-back seasons. He is expected to sign a bridge deal for two or three years and still be a restricted free agent when that deal expires.
Provorov’s situation is more difficult. Recently acquired defensemen have added depth to the blue line, but having your top young defenseman not locked up long-term is concerning. The Flyers believe Provorov is someone they can build their defense around, so why haven’t they signed him for multiple years? There aren’t many restricted free agent defensemen who have signed contracts this offseason, and Provorov, like the others, doesn’t want to be the player that signs for less money than the rest. It’s tough to judge a young player’s worth, but if the Flyers really value Provorov, then they should pay a little more now instead of having to pay a lot more at the end of the season. Fletcher remains confident all deals will be signed within the next few weeks, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
Overall, Fletcher’s offseason moves put the Flyers in a position to make the playoffs, and he deserves a lot of credit. Maybe they won’t go very far, but making the playoffs is a step in the right direction. Fletcher hired a coach that he not only likes but one who’s achieved success at the top level.
He also bolstered the Flyers’ blue line with two defensemen who played in the Stanley Cup Final. He signed a center who should fit in on the second line, albeit he overpaid for Hayes. As soon as Konecny and Provorov sign their deals, the Flyers will be ready to make a push for the playoffs. But if you can’t take my word for it, hear it from NHL Network’s Dave Reid.