A season starts with hope and optimism and the Philadelphia Flyers stumble out of the gate, seemingly dead in the water as the calendar hits December. Suddenly, the points start accumulating and the team goes on a second half run to either squeak into the playoffs or just miss. Sound familiar?
This has basically been the Flyers story every year since 2014. While Ron Hextall was in the midst of his efforts to correct the Flyers cap situation and restock the prospect pool, it was understandable. Teams that are rebuilding and not actively upgrading their NHL rosters are going to struggle, especially with consistency in execution. This season, however the Flyers are in a lot more flux as the second half kicks off.
First, Hextall is gone. His timetable and plan differed from Flyers ownership and now Chuck Fletcher is sitting in the GM chair. Fletcher was brought in with a mandate to speed things up. He was reportedly being aggressive leading up to the Christmas trade freeze, despite not completing a deal, and fired head coach Dave Hakstol. Interim coach Scott Gordon came up from the AHL’s Lehigh valley Phantoms to take over and has made some tweaks, increasing the roles of several youngsters — Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom most obviously — and has placed an emphasis on better communication. Carter Hart came in and provided strong goaltending and the confidence increased team wide, and the Flyers look like the team most of us expected in October.
And that is exactly why this second half surge may be different from years past. Fletcher has no ties to anyone. His investment in this group of players is not the same as Hextall, who had a hand in drafting or trading for, the bulk of the roster. Fletcher not only brings a new set of eyes to the roster and system, but lacks the disconnect with team president Paul Holmgren and Chairman Dave Scott that had developed with Hextall. This means that, outside of Claude Giroux, pretty much everyone has to prove themselves to the new boss.
In Fletcher’s post All-Star break press conference he said as much, praising Giroux as one of the best players in the NHL and calling him the team’s lone untouchable. Fletcher was blunt in his other assessments and it’s becoming more and more clear that we will see the “bias for action” that Holmgren and Scott talked about when Hextall was fired. The expectation is for Fletcher to be among the more active GMs in the NHL from now through the trade deadline and into the summer, with the draft and free agency. Fletcher has a lot of assets to work with and with Giroux being acknowledged as the centerpiece of the roster, he’s going to want to enact a quick turn around.
The Flyers should basically be selling on all their pending UFAs. Wayne Simmonds should be one of the biggest deadline trade chips. Michael Raffl could be a valuable piece to a contending team that needs more depth. Christian Folin is a righty shot defenseman that can provide depth and handle a third pair role. If they can show they are healthy, both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth could be insurance policies for teams with goalie questions. Jori Lehtera is...also a guy that plays hockey.
As far as returns, Fletcher won’t shy away from adding veterans, so long as he feels they can help the Flyers in the future. He could also stockpile assets and use them this summer to add pieces to the NHL roster and set the Flyers up to be a much deeper and skilled team next fall.
One other difference from this season to past seasons, even if the Flyers do manage to overcome a double digit point deficit to challenge for a playoff berth, they seem prepared to do it while allowing their young players to play bigger roles. Hart is likely to remain the starting goalie, and over the next 32 games the Flyers can give Anthony Stolarz a decent look in an audition for the back up job next season (even though I would prefer the Flyers add a good, reliable veteran to be Hart’s mentor and caddy). While it may hurt their lottery chances, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for young players like Nolan Patrick, Travis Konecny, Lindblom and Sanheim to have success for the rest of this season and build up confidence.
The key for the Flyers is to use that strong finish and an aggressive summer to get off to a good start next season. Fletcher’s job is to use the assets he inherited from Hextall to give the team the tools to do so.