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Chuck Fletcher’s moves in June paved the Flyers’ road to success

Fletcher was fast on the trigger in the offseason and it paved the way for the Flyers.

Washington Capitals v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

There were more questions than answers for the Philadelphia Flyers heading into last offseason. They fell flat in a season that they were poised to take the next step, resulting in changes in the front office. Chuck Fletcher was brought in during the season and this was now his team to bring to the next level.

Fletcher made a few minor moves during the season, but all of the focus was on the 2020 offseason. The Flyers had the salary cap room to make some moves, and a roster primed to actually take that next step.

It didn’t take long for Fletcher to spring into action. Before free agency began – hell, even before the NHL draft – he made multiple moves to get the Flyers in a much better position heading into the 2019-20 season.

Let’s take a look at his moves leading up to the draft in June and the impact they’ve had on the Flyers.

June 3rd: Keyed in on Kevin

(Signed on June 16th)

Trading for Kevin Hayes’ rights, and subsequently signing him to a seven-year, $50-million contract, was the first and arguably the biggest move by Fletcher last offseason. It definitely was the most notable move when the Flyers’ offseason gets looked at from the national perspective.

Going into the offseason, adding a top-six forward, preferably a center, was one of the Flyers’ main priorities, and Hayes was one of the top centers in the free agent class. In fact, he was one of the very few centers that were better than a strict bottom-six forward in the class.

Matt Duchene, who was interested in going to Nashville, was above him on the totem pole in terms of potential long-term additions, with the older Joe Pavelski as an option on a shorter deal. Then there was Hayes ... and not much else. Joe Thornton could be an OK depth addition, but he wouldn’t provide the same impact as the other three – the impact that the Flyers needed and wanted.

So far, the Hayes signing is a good one. He has become a fan favorite, great in the locker room, and, most importantly, an effective second-line center at 5-on-5 play as well as on both special teams units.

The main concern with Hayes is his contract. To a certain extent it’s fair to say that the Flyers overpaid for Hayes and/or gave him a year or two too many on his deal. However, that is the price you have to pay for a forward like Hayes. Otherwise, the Flyers likely would’ve needed to trade assets for a center that is already under contract. With Hayes, the Flyers may have paid a bit more than his worth or given him an extra year, but they did not have to give up any of their assets, outside of the fifth-round pick for his rights. Furthermore, they built up some salary cap room over the years for a move like this.

Hayes isn’t quite at the level of his career year last season in terms of points, but he’s been locked in as a top-six center for the Flyers. He’s been good enough, and compared to the other free-agent options at center, he’s been the most cost-effective.

Hayes vs. Free agent centers

Matt Duchene 28 7 $8.0 66 13 29 42 0.636 5.25
Kevin Hayes 27 7 $7.1 69 23 18 41 0.594 5.77
Joe Pavelski 34 3 $7.0 67 14 17 31 0.463 4.43

Mind you, Hayes has played with multiple different wingers this season. His most common linemate this season has been Joel Farabee (309 minutes), with Travis Konecny (278), Scott Laughton (275) and James van Riemsdyk (223) right behind him.

Farabee has had strong stretches of play, but also struggled at times. The same goes for van Riemsdyk, and Laughton is ideally a third-line player. Only recently did Hayes and Konecny find a connection, which has given him a scoring talent on his line.

Duchene has played with the talented Filip Forsberg and Mikael Granlund, both of whom have put up 60-point seasons in recent years.

It’s only Year 1 of the contract, but Hayes hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He has consistently averaged 49 points per 82 games in his career and was on pace for that through 69 games this season.

It’ll likely be a few years before Hayes declines – and when we can truly judge him and his contract – which is just fine for the Flyers. If Hayes can keep up this pace for the next season or two as a second-line center, that’s perfect for the Flyers’ timeline. As he declines into a third-line center, the Flyers will hopefully see their younger players (Nolan Patrick, Morgan Frost, German Rubtsov, etc.) step into that role.

On the whole, while this may turn into something different in several years, this has been a great addition by Fletcher and the Flyers. Hayes is doing what he was brought in to do and has found a home in Philadelphia. He should be able to provide middle-six minutes for the length of his contract.

June 14th: A risky trade for Nisky?

While second-line center was one of the club’s top priorities, the other one of equal importance was adding a top-pair defenseman. That type of defenseman is hard to find, yet Fletcher was able to trade for one without giving up too much.

After trading for Hayes’ rights, but before signing him, Fletcher made his next move in trading Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen. The deal was one-for-one.

Some people had concerns about the deal as the Flyers were giving up a known quantity in Gudas for an apparently declining Niskanen. However, the known quantity was that Gudas is a third-pair defenseman (which the Capitals are now seeing), while Niskanen’s apparent decline was greatly exaggerated.

Niskanen vs. Gudas

Player CF% (Relative) xGF% (Relative) O-zone start% TOI/GP TOI at 5v5/GP
Player CF% (Relative) xGF% (Relative) O-zone start% TOI/GP TOI at 5v5/GP
Matt Niskanen 52.2% (+1.92) 53.93% (+5.09) 43.23% 21:54 16:15
Radko Gudas 51.43% (-0.37) 49.44% (-2.42) 49.05% 16:43 13:33

Niskanen has been one of the Flyers’ best defensemen, while Gudas was a healthy scratch multiple times this season.

Niskanen outperforming Gudas is not totally unexpected, however.

The one thing that Gudas has on Niskanen is his contract. Gudas’ contract carries a cap hit of $3.35 million ($1 million of which the Flyers retained) and expires after this season. On the other hand, Niskanen is signed through next season at a $5.75 million cap hit.

But if you look at some of the contracts handed out to defensemen in the past year, particularly right-handed defensemen, it doesn’t look that bad. Tyler Myers got the reverse A-Mac special with a five-year, $30 million contract from the Canucks, Anton Stralman signed for three years at $5.5 million per season, and Jacob Trouba got a seven-year, $8 million AAV contract from the Rangers.

Trouba, who was one of the Rangers’ big offseason acquisitions, actually has less goals (seven) and points (27) than Niskanen’s eight goals and 33 points, but that’s none of my business. The underlying stats also favor Niskanen, in case you were wondering.

Niskanen has been a legitimate top-pair defenseman with Ivan Provorov. They didn’t start the season together, but once that duo was put together they stayed together. The Provorov-Niskanen pair has been the second-most used pair in the entire league at 5-on-5 play with 933 minutes, behind only Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear of the Oilers, who played 1,158 minutes together. They were also an effective pair, with the Flyers outscoring the opposition 43-38 with Provorov-Niskanen on the ice.

The aforementioned pair that Niskanen was on to start the season was with Travis Sanheim, which was also pretty darn good. In 100 minutes together at 5-on-5 play, the pair had a 62.89 Expected Goals-For percent with the Flyers outscoring the opposition 7-4.

He has been strong for the Flyers in all situations. He leads Flyers defenseman with an xGF of 53.93%, and is second among defenseman with a 52.50 Corsi-For percentage.

He has also been a constant on both the power play and penalty kill. Niskanen has scored four power-play goals, which is somehow tied for fourth most (with four others) on the team. On the Flyers’ much-improved penalty kill, he averages over 2:30 per game and has allowed just 6.03 goals per 60 minutes. That is 26th best in the league among 104 defensemen with 100+ minutes on the penalty kill.

Niskanen has brought a positive light to the term “veteran presence” after years of it making us shudder at the likes of Andrew MacDonald and Nick Schultz. Not only has Niskanen himself improved the Flyers defense, he has helped Provorov take the next step in his career. That’s not to say that Provorov wouldn’t have done that anyway, but having a defensive partner like Niskanen definitely helps.

June 18th: Adding another Just-in case

Just four days after acquiring Niskanen, Fletcher beefed up the defense again with a trade for Justin Braun. This time, he gave up two draft picks (second-round in 2019, third-round in 2020) instead of a roster player.

It seemed like perhaps too high of a price at the time, but Braun has been nearly as important to the defense as Niskanen, in a way.

Braun has done everything asked of him. He has played over 100 minutes with four different partners, including time on both the second and third pair. He doesn’t get the recognition he deserves sometimes, but he has brought a stability to the defense.

Braun has a Corsi-For percentage of 50.71 CF and Expected Goals-For percentage of 50.34 xGF this season. His shot attempt suppression on the penalty kill is top notch as well. Braun has a league-best 67.25 shot attempts against per 60 minutes among 104 defensemen with at least 100 penalty kill minutes. He’s been a great bottom-four defenseman for this team.

Fletcher knew that the Flyers had question marks on defense and he wanted to provide some answers to those questions. Niskanen and Braun did just that.

While it ramped up the competition among young defensemen for a roster spot, and probably took a spot away from another prospect, it’s been good for the defense. Travis Sanheim has come into his own, Philippe Myers was able to go back down to the AHL when he was struggling, and Braun was consistently on the right side of the blue line.

With Niskanen and Braun in the fold, the rest of the defensemen were able to play in their roles. They had three right-handed defensemen with those two and Myers, and three left-handed defensemen with Provorov, Sanheim, and Shayne Gostisbehere – and Robert Hagg as the seventh defenseman at the time.

Signing Hayes and trading for Niskanen and Braun – all in the span of five days – shaped the Flyers roster for the 2019-20 season. Fletcher knew what he wanted to do heading into the offseason and made sure to check off his to-do list before free agency even began. He added a top-six center and shored up the defense with two experienced veterans.

Fletcher made his mark on the offseason before the draft – he even traded for Hayes’ rights before the Stanley Cup Final was over. Those three quick moves set the foundation for the Flyers heading into the rest of the summer and the 2019-20 season.