Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher is entering his first offseason at the helm, and it couldn’t be a bigger summer for the orange and black.
After the patient, wait-and-see Ron Hextall was let go in November — and his hand-picked coach shortly thereafter — and the Flyers finished out another frustrating season under an interim head coach and fresh-on-the-job GM, it’s go time. Fletcher is faced with the task of making moves this offseason that will get this team to where they are supposed to be, and where they were supposed to be this past season.
Fletcher and the Flyers enter the offseason with a projected cap space of over $31 million, according to cap friendly, which could increase by a few million with the salary cap expected to be raised from $79.5 million to around $83 million.
That gives Fletcher nearly $35 million to work with. Unfortunately, that won’t be able to be spent solely on free agents, as the Flyers have some players of their own to extend, but a decent chunk of it can.
The Flyers enter this offseason with bigger question marks than most. Let’s take a look at five things on Fletcher’s offseason to-do list.
Hire a head coach
With hiring a head coach being checked off the list, there has since been a bonus item added to the end of the to-do list.
The top item on Fletcher’s to-do list is the position that faces the most questions and criticisms throughout the season: the head coach.
It is also the item that will likely be addressed first, and the most obvious one. While Fletcher hasn’t dug deep into the search just yet, he does want to have someone hired by the draft.
Dave Hakstol is gone, and while the team had a better record under Scott Gordon, that isn’t enough to remove the “interim” tag and simply make him the next head coach. However, with Joel Quenneville off the market, there is no obvious choice for the Flyers to seek out.
Gordon could be the man for the job — his systems took hold after a full year in Lehigh Valley, and he has a strong record of putting the young guys in positions to succeed — but this team could need a more experienced head honcho. The Flyers don’t need a coach to just grow with the young guys, they need a coach that can win, and win now. Because of that, a veteran head coach with a winning pedigree is the more likely solution.
Alain Vigneault is one of the names floating around out there, as is Todd McLellan, though the latter has been linked to other teams. Guy Boucher, Dan Bylsma and Dave Tippett are among the other options for the Flyers. They could also be looking at a coach whose team is still in the playoffs.
The personnel decisions that Fletcher makes with the roster this offseason will have a lot of pull in how this offseason is ultimately viewed, but who they grab at head coach has the ability to make a good offseason a great one, or a mediocre offseason a bad one.
Hiring AV is a fine move for Fletcher and the Flyers. He isn’t Quenneville, so any coach they hired this offseason would be a slight disappointment, but he gets the job done and the success of the team will weigh more heavily on the rest of the offseason to-do list.
Lock up the restricted free agents
Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim, Scott Laughton, Ryan Hartman and Justin Bailey are the Flyers’ NHL roster players that hit restricted free agency this summer, Nicolas Aube-Kubel is an RFA as well.
It will be important for Fletcher to lock up those guys — particularly the first three, who are not arbitration eligible — to contracts that are not going to cause too many waves. Ron Hextall was able to negotiate great contracts for Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere in offseasons past, and now it’s Fletcher’s turn.
Provorov will be looking for a deal similar to Gostisbehere’s, or likely more, as will Konecny to Couturier’s. Those are the key pieces of the future that have shown promise in the NHL for more than one season. Sanheim is nearly right there with them, but just a step behind after being kept down in the AHL a bit longer.
Locking up the restricted free agents will help set the tone. Getting those guys signed to good contracts is a must for Fletcher in his first offseason as Flyers GM. If he can negotiate team-friendly contracts, that leaves even more room for a big splash.
Speaking of a big splash…
Add a top-four defenseman
There is one name that should be on Fletcher’s mind this summer when he looks to improve the blue line, and that name is Erik Karlsson. Karlsson went through an injury-riddled regular season with the Sharks, but he is healthy for the playoffs and showing no signs of slowing down.
The Flyers likely could’ve targeted Karlsson at the deadline last year, before Ottawa traded him to San Jose, and they need to be all-in on him this offseason.
Karlsson is the cream of the defensive crop in this free-agent class, and it’s not really close. Behind him are Alexander Edler, Tyler Myers and Jake Gardiner. A top-pair right-handed defenseman is what the Flyers have been searching for these past few years, and now one is available on the market.
If Karlsson decides to re-sign in San Jose, which would be understandable, the secondary options would provide a boost to the middle pair and overall defensive depth.
Adding Karlsson to any team would instantly improve them significantly, but that impact would be even larger on the Flyers. It would give Ivan Provorov a great defensive partner, allow Shayne Gostisbehere to drift into the background as he settles back in, and gives a great mentor for the aforementioned blueliners as well as Travis Sanheim and another right-handed up-and-coming stud in Philippe Myers.
Karlsson, or even Myers, would also even out the handedness on the blue line. The free-agent addition, Radko Gudas and Myers would be the righthanders, with Provorov, Gostisbehere and Sanheim as the lefthanders.
Here’s an early look at what the defensive pairings could be if Karlsson was signed. The bottom two pairs would be flexible, but it’s a pretty good looking group.
Provorov – Karlsson
Sanheim – Gudas
Gostisbehere – Myers
The Flyers need to add at least two players this offseason. One will be a key addition on the blue line, while one will help up front.
Add a second-line center
The Flyers need another center. Sean Couturier has become a bonafide top-line center, but with that, Claude Giroux has shifted to the wing. It makes sense because Giroux provides more value on the wing, but that hole at second-line center remains. Nolan Patrick isn’t progressing as quickly as desired, so allowing him to play on the third line while signing a second-line pivot would be crucial for the Flyers.
Unfortunately, much like the defense market, the center market isn’t very deep. There is one name at the top — Matt Duchene — with others slightly behind him. Joe Pavelski (who will likely stay in SJ), Ryan Dzingel and Kevin Hayes are among the other options that could slot in at 2C for the Flyers.
Like Karlsson, Duchene was also on the trade market in recent years with fans clamoring for the Flyers to acquire him. They didn’t, which seemed to be a safe move as he struggled a bit, but he has since shown what he can do this season.
Duchene had 58 points in 50 games with the lowly Ottawa Senators this season, then added 12 points in 23 games after being traded to the Blue Jackets. He has five points so far this postseason with Columbus out to a 3-0 lead against Tampa Bay.
He would be the center to go after in free agency. That would give the Flyers a trio of Couturier, Duchene and Patrick down the middle, with Giroux, Voracek, Konecny and James van Riemsdyk rounding out the top-six wingers. On paper, that’s a pretty good group.
If a second-line center isn’t in the cards, then a winger would be the next best thing. Artemi Panarin would be ideal, but he may want to reunite with Joel Quenneville in Florida. Jeff Skinner and Gustav Nyquist would be decent options to add to this team’s top-six as well.
The Flyers added JVR last offseason, but with the departure of Wayne Simmonds (who they could bring back on a friendly deal to play on the third line), they need to load up again going into 2019-20. Duchene would be the perfect fit, if the price is right.
Stabilize the crease
Goaltending problems have been synonymous with the Flyers for what seems like forever. Last season they used an NHL record eight goalies in a season, which pretty much sums up the situation in the crease over the past several years and beyond.
However, all of that should come to an end now.
Enter Carter Hart.
Hart has been the goalie of the future since being drafted in 2016, and now he’s the goalie of the present. The only question is making sure there is a backup plan if things go awry. Hell, the Flyers should have a strong backup goalie anyway since no netminder should be tasked with playing too many games, let alone a 21-year old.
The Flyers traded for Hart’s mentor, Cam Talbot, in February, and it seems like Talbot could return next season. Talbot thrived as the backup in New York behind a franchise goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, so he could potentially do the same behind Hart.
Talbot posted a .931 save percentage in 57 games with the Rangers from 2013-15, but more recently compiled a .912 save percentage with the Oilers from 2015 to 2019, primarily as their starter. That’s quite respectable for an Edmonton goalie, although that save percentage was just .908 in 67 games two seasons ago.
Last year, he posted an .893 save percentage in 31 games with the Oilers, and an .881 save percentage in just four games with the Flyers. If you take out his one bad game, where he allowed six goals on 30 shots in Dallas, he made 72 saves on 79 shots for a .911 save percentage, which is perfectly fine for a backup, and even desirable for a Flyers backup.
His last contract carried a $4,166,666 cap hit, but I would imagine he’d take a just over half of that after a rough last two seasons. That would be right around where the Flyers signed Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth for on their last contracts.
If Talbot decides to walk, the Flyers could set their sights on a starter to give Hart more time, like Sergei Bobrovsky or Robin Lehner, or another backup-type like Cam Ward or Anders Nilsson, among other options.
Bonus: Buy out Andrew MacDonald
The time has come. It has to. Andrew MacDonald was out of the lineup late in the season for the Flyers, and it’s time for him to go on his way to his next team.
While a buyout has been alluring in the past, this year it really makes sense for the club given the free-agent class and the need for the Flyers to make a splash.
MacDonald has one year remaining at $5 million, which could be easy enough to swallow, but buying him out saves the Flyers $3,833,333 in 2019-20 while costing them $1,916,667 in 2020-21.
Unfortunately, Fletcher has said that he is not a fan of buyouts. However, that could change given the situation on the blue line.
The main reason to not buy out MacDonald would be to bite the bullet for one season, bury his contract in the AHL, and get ready for the 2020-21 season without AMac. However, that extra (nearly) $4 million in savings for the upcoming season could be the difference between signing a top-tier free agent and settling for a middle-of-the-pack option. It also opens up a spot on the blue line and roster.
Buying out MacDonald will not only garner Fletcher some favor with the fanbase heading into free agency, but also free up some cap space to go make a big splash.
This is a huge offseason for Fletcher and the Flyers. Fortunately, Fletcher isn’t afraid to make some big moves.
On July 4, 2012, he signed top free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Minnesota Wild. Those didn’t work out for him, but two additions like that would make this Flyers team a real contender.
At the time, that put the Wild into the conversation as a top team in the West, and they made the playoffs in the next six years. However, they only won one round in each of the 2014 and 2015 playoffs, while losing in the first round the other four years.
The current Flyers roster is different — at least it should be. With this core in place of Giroux, Voracek, Couturier and JVR up front, as well as the up-and-coming pieces of Konecny, Provorov, Patrick and Lindblom, two free agent signings — say, Karlsson and Duchene — would, on paper, immediately make the Flyers Cup contenders next season.
Chuck Fletcher doesn’t need to hit a home run with every item on the to-do list, but completing all of them adequately, with an A-plus move on a few of them would be a successful offseason for the Flyers.