In the offseason, Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher was determined to make significant changes after the team underachieved significantly the prior season. Some of the Flyers’ 2018-19 major issues were poor penalty killing, subpar defensive play in general, absence of secondary scoring, and overall lack of depth.
Fletcher brought in a few players in June and July to help mitigate these issues. At the time, nearly all of his moves were much maligned. Fans and talking heads in the media were heavily critical of his acquisitions. The newest Flyers were labeled as overpaid, past their prime, and possessed low upside. However, these new players have been anything but those characteristics. As the calendar year comes to a close, the 2019-20 Flyers sit comfortably in a playoff spot and have been one of the NHL’s most improved teams thanks to the contributions of their newest players.
Before the ink even had a chance to dry on Kevin Hayes’ seven-year, $50 million contract, the deal was met with plenty of criticism from local and national media. Additionally, Flyers fans expressed their discontent all over various channels of social media for several months. Nearly everyone thought Fletcher was out of his mind for paying over $7 million per year for a player who had topped 50 points just once in his career.
While Hayes has not been leading the team in scoring by any means, his impact has been immense and he has lived up to that sizable contract thus far. He has scored at a decent clip, potting 20 points through 36 games, though his greatest impact has been felt on the defensive side of the game, especially on the massively improved penalty kill.
The Flyers of the past were famous for blowing leads on a regular basis. This season has been a pleasant change, largely thanks to Hayes’ stellar defensive play in the 18:03 of ice time he averages on a nightly basis. Most importantly, he has been a steadying presence on the team’s penalty-killing (PK) unit. Thanks to him, the Flyers’ PK, typically among the league’s worst, has skyrocketed to the top 10 this season.
When the Flyers shipped longtime defenseman and fan-favorite Radko Gudas to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Matt Niskanen, the move drew significant ire from the fans. Fletcher caught quite a bit of heat from the fans and media for sending out a cost-controlled blueliner and retaining some of his salary for a player who was supposedly past his prime and making much more than the player he was traded for. Nearly everyone thought Niskanen was on the downswing of his career after a below-average season following a shortened offseason thanks to the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run.
The perception of Niskanen among media and fans has taken a complete 180 after the season’s first few months. He has shown that he is still every bit the talented and reliable all-around defenseman who played a significant role on many elite Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins teams.
Throughout the first third of the season, Niskanen has stabilized the Flyers’ top defensive pairing and elevated the play of his partner, Ivan Provorov, who was also coming off a down season. The seasoned veteran has been a vital player on both sides of the puck and has been a horse on the Flyers’ blue line, contributing on the power play, penalty kill, and at even strength during his 21:50 average time on ice. The Minnesota native has recorded 16 points in 35 games and has helped fuel the Flyers’ massive defensive improvement.
The Justin Braun trade originally drew mass amounts of negative criticism after it was completed in June. Many fans and media members were quick to say the Flyers gave up too much for an aging player on an expiring contract, sending a second and third-round pick to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for their long-time blueliner. Braun was seen by many as past his prime and an offensive black hole, due to his mediocre play-driving metrics.
While Braun has not produced much offense and did not get off to a great start, his play has improved as the season has progressed. He has been a valuable addition to the Flyers’ defensive depth and has shown effectiveness in a more sheltered role. He has played major minutes on the penalty kill and has been very competent, especially on a pairing with young stud Travis Sanheim. While Braun will not blow anyone away, he is a very solid defenseman and a huge improvement from underwhelming Flyers’ blueliners of the past, such as Andrew MacDonald and Brandon Manning.
One offseason acquisition who has flown under the radar has been speedy, tenacious winger Tyler Pitlick. The Flyers were essentially gifted Pitlick for free by the Dallas Stars, as they shipped out pending restricted free agent Ryan Hartman who was not issued a qualifying offer by Dallas and then signed with the Minnesota Wild shortly thereafter.
Pitlick was largely known as an oft-injured player who rarely maintained health for an entire season, thus he largely became an afterthought among Flyers fans. However, he has been an incredibly effective bottom sixer when able to stay healthy. Two years ago in Dallas, he potted 14 goals in 80 games, showing his potential to provide secondary scoring.
Pitlick has maintained his health during the season’s first few months, contributing eight points in 30 games while mainly playing on the fourth line. Due to recent injuries, head coach Alain Vigneault has elevated the winger in the lineup, and he has produced, scoring three points in his last five games. As long as he can stay healthy, this will prove to be a shrewd acquisition by Fletcher. Pitlick has helped solve the Flyers’ secondary scoring woes and has stabilized the Flyers’ strong fourth line when the team is at full health.
Although none of these additions were thought to be impactful, all four have done an excellent job of proving their critics wrong. With Braun and Niskanen, the blue line has been stabilized, while Hayes and Pitlick have impacted the team with their defensive play, in Hayes’ case, or depth offense, in Pitlick’s. If these four can continue to contribute, the Flyers should continue being in a playoff spot.
Columbia University student, Philadelphia native, passionate hockey fan. Philadelphia Flyers writer for THW. I also cover the NHL for Puck Prose.