Since he was hired to replace Ron Hextall as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers in Dec. 2018, Chuck Fletcher has had his work cut out for him to make his team contenders again.
Hextall had a vision to restock the cupboard with quality prospects, but the on-ice product during his tenure left much to be desired. With the Flyers’ recent success, now poised for a playoff run, let’s look at how he has shaped the roster in his image.
3Hiring and Roster Clearing
When Fletcher came on board, the Flyers were in disarray. They had a paltry 11-12-2 record in front of a lame-duck coach in Dave Hakstol, who would be shown the door two weeks after Hextall. The team missed the playoffs for the third time in five years, but Fletcher took the opportunity to trim the roster’s fat and set the team up for a fruitful offseason.
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On Jan. 11, forward Jordan Weal was sent to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for ECHLer Jacob Graves and a sixth-round pick. On Jan. 17, Taylor Leier was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for forward Justin Bailey, a restricted free agent not tendered by the Flyers following the season. The flurry of moves continued on Feb. 9, when sparingly-used defenseman Christian Folin and maligned Dale Weise were shipped off to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for David Schlemko’s contract and career-AHLer Byron Froese.
Young goaltender Anthony Stolarz was flipped to the Edmonton Oilers for Cam Talbot and his expiring contract and the beloved Wayne Simmonds was sent to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Ryan Hartman and a fourth-round pick.
Notably, none of the players acquired in Fletcher’s first three months on the job really figured into the team’s plans for the next season. He identified the immense amount of young talent in the system who were knocking on the door to the NHL and wisely made room for them to duke it out in training camp ahead of the 2019-20 season.
A month before the 2019 NHL Draft, Fletcher tabbed Alain Vigneault to be the team’s new head coach. While many longed to see Joel Quenneville behind the bench, Vigneault has taken two different franchises to the Stanley Cup Final in the last 10 years and checks almost every box you could ask of a coach.
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At the draft, the team snagged blue-chip defensive prospect Cam York and sharpshooter Bobby Brink with their first two picks, further bolstering a deep farm system. A few weeks later, the Flyers struck a deal with the Winnipeg Jets for the negotiating rights to center Kevin Hayes in exchange for a fifth-round pick. While young contributors are essential for Cup contention, it is seldom wise to rely on rookies to shoulder heavy responsibilities on one of your top two lines.
Nolan Patrick is still considered a future cornerstone of the club but has yet to run away with the second-line center role behind Sean Couturier. Enter Hayes. He inked a seven-year, $50 million contract with the orange and black and immediately filled one of the team’s most glaring holes without boxing out any young players.
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Fletcher also swung deals for veteran, top-four defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun from the Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks, respectively. Throw in the shrewd trade of Hartman, a pending RFA, to the Dallas Stars for Tyler Pitlick and the table was set for training camp.
Training Camp and 2019-20 Season
With a roster now infused with fresh faces, there were still a few spots to be won coming into training camp ahead of the 2019-20 season. The third and fourth lines presented opportunities for Connor Bunnaman and Carsen Twarynski, with others on the American Hockey League’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms waiting for their shot. It wasn’t long before prized prospects Joel Farabee, Philippe Myers, and Morgan Frost got their chance with the big club; Farabee and Myers have more or less held onto their roster spots since earning them.
The injury bug reared its head with Oskar Lindblom’s cancer diagnosis and Patrick sidelined with a migraine disorder, but it provided extended looks for Nicholas Aube-Kubel, Andy Andreoff, and Misha Vorobyev, with varying degrees of success.
Early in the season, the bottom-six forward group was a soft spot in the lineup, despite their modest role. Only after the New Year did things start to fall into place. The Aube-Kubel experiment has been a resounding success, even earning time on the power play amid the team’s current six-game win streak; and Michael Raffl is outworking opposing fourth lines night in night out. The team’s depth has vastly improved. As the trade deadline approached, and with his team among the hottest in the NHL, Fletcher sought to add reinforcements to the bottom of his lineup rather than seek a blockbuster trade.
Derek Grant and Nate Thompson were added at the deadline to do exactly that. Coming at the cost of prospect Kyle Criscuolo and a fourth-round pick, Grant is already clicking with his new squad. Chipping in a shorthanded goal and an assist against the New York Rangers in a critical Metro Division clash on Saturday, Grant will add scoring punch to the third line and the penalty kill after scoring 14 goals this season with the Anaheim Ducks. Thompson is more of a 13th forward but will provide value come playoff time when space on the ice becomes scarce.
Fletcher’s Moves Leading to Success
After just over a year on the job, Fletcher has his team humming. The temptation to swing for the fences is always there for GMs but Fletcher has stuck to his plan and reaped the benefits so far. We’ll see how far the Flyers go in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup this season but their general manager’s calculated approach has the team primed for their deepest playoff run in a decade.