Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher entered the offseason with a long to-do list after his team failed to qualify for the postseason in 2020-21 for the fifth time in nine seasons. His acquisitions indicate the organization’s intention to contend for a Stanley Cup in the short term. Teams with as many holes as the Flyers had a season ago wouldn’t typically expect to make such a drastic jump. However, the expectation is apparent based on the age and experience of acquired players like Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson, the career trajectory of captain Claude Giroux, and the vote of confidence placed in young players like goaltender Carter Hart to rebound from down efforts a year ago.
Fletcher Adds Veterans to the Flyers
The Flyers will likely have seven new players in uniform for their Oct. 15 opener against the Vancouver Canucks. Teams with such significant offseason roster overhauls often reshape their rosters to start anew and patiently give young players additional opportunities to develop in hopes of the franchise’s success down the road.
Fletcher showed no intentions of constructing a team with only long-term contention in mind. Six of the seven previously mentioned acquisitions are 30 years of age or older. Ellis, 30, and Atkinson, 32, are considered to be in the prime years of their careers. Keith Yandle, Derrick Brassard, Nate Thompson, and Martin Jones all signed one-year contracts, and Fletcher hopes that they bring the type of immediate experience that the Flyers didn’t have last season. Trade acquisition Rasmus Ristolainen, currently 26, will also play the final year of his contract in 2021-22.
Flyers Can’t Let the Clock Keep Ticking
Former GM Ron Hextall led the organization down the path of a patient rebuild for the majority of his tenure from 2014-2018. Fletcher replaced him in December 2018 with the hopes of expediting the climb back into contention. He inherited strong organizational currency, including former first-round picks poised to begin their NHL careers and a relatively flexible salary cap situation.
The success of the 2019-20 Flyers seemed like a strong statement that the rebuilding period was over. They won their first playoff series since 2012. The success was certainly not something to hang their hats on, but the opportunity for continued progress looked promising. Then, many of the crown jewel players from Hextall’s rebuild, including former second overall pick Nolan Patrick, played major factors in the Flyers’ collapse in 2020-21. Ramifications of the pandemic didn’t play in their favor, but the rest of the NHL certainly dealt with their fair share of similar obstacles.
Fletcher took accountability and decided that asking the fan base for a pandemic-related mulligan wouldn’t suffice. He used the organizational currency left over from the Hextall era by flipping Patrick and defenseman Philippe Myers for Ellis to fill the immediate, glaring need for a top-pair defenseman. He also refused to allow the flat salary cap to handcuff the Flyers for a second consecutive offseason and delay their timeline of contention once again.
Fletcher changed the mix of a group looking to contend immediately rather than taking a step backward. His creativity mirrored the successful maneuvering of former GM Paul Holmgren in 2007, which brought the Flyers to two Eastern Conference Final appearances and one Stanley Cup Final appearance in the ensuing three seasons.
Last Chance for Giroux
Giroux began his career in Philadelphia in 2008 and took over the captaincy at the beginning of the 2012-13 season. The organization leaned too heavily on him as their centerpiece throughout the prime years of his career, and they never competed for a Stanley Cup despite his excellent offensive production. The 2019-20 season finally lifted some of the weight. He still produced at a solid rate for a player considered past the prime years of his career with 53 points in 69 games. However, he finished fourth on the team in total points, the first time he didn’t finish either first or second since the 2009-10 season.
However, the collective failure of the organization again placed a heavy load on Giroux in 2020-21, when he was still arguably their most effective player at age 33. He will enter the final season of his eight-year, $66.2 million contract in 2021-22. Fletcher also announced that Giroux’s contract will not be negotiated during the season. While there is no indication that he wishes to leave in free agency in the summer of 2022, it is fair to wonder how much longer the franchise’s third all-time leading scorer will be a key contributor in Philadelphia.
The clock continues to tick for an organization that hasn’t lifted the Stanley Cup since 1975. They need to reestablish themselves among the NHL’s elite teams in 2020-21 if they want to avoid wasting the window of opportunity for one of the best players in franchise history and the benefits of a lengthy rebuild. Their offseason strategy indicates the admission of that reality, and Flyers fans will find out quickly if the short-term timeline will go according to plan.
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the Legion of Doom and Claude Giroux to no-namers like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. Colin is also the co-host of “THW’s Focus on the Flyers” podcast and an author of fictional sports stories.