On Monday, we looked at the moves that Chuck Fletcher made in June to pave the road for the Philadelphia Flyers’ success this season. While those are the headliners, he has also made minor additions and subtle moves to help build upon that.
First and foremost, it didn’t take long for Fletcher to find a new head coach. Less than a week after the season ended, Alain Vigneault was under contract as the head coach of the Flyers.
AV has a track record of succeeding with teams like the Flyers, especially in his first year. He was able to take the next step with the Vancouver Canucks (2006-07) in his first season there, and did the same with the New York Rangers in the 2013-14 season.
The Rangers had made the playoffs in three straight seasons, but had failed to get past the Eastern Conference Final. With Vigneault at the helm, he took them to the Stanley Cup Final. In his first year in Vancouver, the Canucks went from missing the playoffs to a first place finish in the Northwest Division. The Flyers were well on their way to at least making the playoffs if not more.
With all of the hype surrounding Joel Quenneville last season and going into the offseason, Fletcher made the right move as AV has the Flyers on pace for the playoffs, while the Florida Panthers are floundering despite having Coach Q.
Vigneault has all the makings of a Jack Adams candidate – if not winner – this season, and Fletcher deserves some credit for bringing him on board.
Fletcher wasn’t satisfied with just one head coach, however. The Flyers also built a stable of head coaches with Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo as assistants on Vigneault’s staff.
Along with the offseason additions, the coaching staff and new system have been a big reason for the Flyers’ success this season.
That trio of coaches has put a system in place that the players have fully boughten into. They have seen upticks at 5-on-5 play, and perhaps even more-so on special teams. The penalty kill has been one of the Flyers’ biggest improvements this season, and the power play finally found more success in their new/old setup in February onward.
Last year vs. This year
The Flyers have improved across the board in terms of possession, shot quality, special teams play, and – the Stat That Matters – goals.
Through 69 games, the Flyers scored 227 goals. That is already more than they scored in three full seasons in the middle of the decade. They scored 211 in the 2015-16 season, and 212 in each of the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons.
This year’s team has also scored the most goals per game (3.29) since the lockout, and most since the 1996-97 team (3.34) that reached the Stanley Cup Final. Watch out, Legion of Doom.
Those team-wide improvements are due to a variety of things – players improving, a better roster, a new coach –, but it all comes back to Fletcher.
One of Fletcher’s other pre-free agency trades was acquiring Tyler Pitlick. I didn’t want to lump it in with the trades for Hayes, Niskanen, and Braun in Part 1, but it is worth mentioning.
Ryan Hartman, who Fletcher acquired in the Wayne Simmonds trade at last year’s deadline, was a restricted free agent and likely would’ve been a bit more costly than the Flyers liked. So, Fletcher got something for him while he could. It initially didn’t look like that great of a trade after Hartman fit in during the final two months of the 2018-19 season, but it’s looked pretty good this season.
Pitlick suffered an injury in August, which took him out of the mix in training camp. But that didn’t hold him back. At a cap hit of just $1 million, Pitlick has been exactly what you want out of a fourth-liner – or third-liner!
He has chipped in offensively with eight goals and 20 points, while also helping out on the penalty kill. He has been on the ice for the least amount of goals per 60 minutes (3.6) than any of the Flyers’ penalty killers with 65 or more minutes on the PK.
Pitlick was a big part of the Flyers’ strong month or so leading up to the season being paused as well with seven points in 13 games since February 8th.
It’s not a move that jumps out at you, nor is it one that tilted the scales for the Flyers, but it was an under-the-radar trade that is paying dividends.
What is likely to be Fletcher’s biggest hurdle for winning the GM of the Year is – as with anything – the competition.
The GM of the Year is decided by the 31 GMs, five other executives and five media members, so in-season polls aren’t an exact science, but the PHWA’s Midseason Awards has Joe Sakic (COL) in first, John Chayka (ARI) in second, and Doug Armstrong (STL) in third. Fletcher didn’t crack the top three. However, I would argue that Chayka should drop out due to the Coyotes falling out of playoff position, and Armstrong didn’t really do all that much to improve the reigning Stanley Cup champion’s roster.
The Sakic vs. Fletcher debate is a good one. Let’s first take a look at each team’s record compared to last season.
The Flyers are 41-21-7 for 89 points in 69 games this season, up from just 82 points (37-37-8) last season. They have more wins and points through the beginning of March than they did all of last season.
The Avalanche have followed that same path as well. Colorado snuck into the playoffs as the second Wild Card in the West with 90 points (38-30-14) last season, and have also surpassed that total through 70 games (42-20-8 for 92 points).
So, Sakic took a fringe playoff team to a top team in the Western Conference while Fletcher took a non-playoff team to a similar level. However, Sakic has had several years to build his team while this was Fletcher’s first full season at the helm. That should tip the scale in Fletcher’s favor, at least a little bit.
Sakic, like Fletcher, did his work during the offseason in the form of trades and signings. He has the Avalanche in prime position to make a run in the playoffs against a weak Western Conference.
The Avalanche added forward Andre Burakovsky for two draft picks, then made a “blockbuster” trade with Toronto centered around Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot for Nazem Kadri. Burakovsky impressed with a breakout season, but Kadri took a step back.
At the deadline, the Avalanche acquired Vladislav Namestnikov for a fourth-round pick. That’s probably a better trade than Fletcher’s as Namestnikov was playing on the top line for Colorado and put up six points in nine games.
It’s going to be interesting – especially depending on when or if the season resumes –, but back to Fletcher.
While Fletcher didn’t have a flashy move in-season or at the trade deadline, the Flyers didn’t really need it. He made two smart, depth additions at the deadline to give the Flyers a pair of veteran forwards. That allowed the Flyers some wiggle room in case of injury, and it also gave a guy like Joel Farabee a chance to breathe and be the 13th forward for all intents and purposes while he was with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Fletcher’s in-season maneuvering has been impressive as well.
The Flyers have had 31 different skaters play at least one game this season – eight of which were non-full-time players under the age of 24. Fletcher has not been hesitant to make a call-up from the Phantoms, or in turn, send someone down, when the team has needed it. He showed that multiple times with Farabee and Frost, as well as a handful of other young players.
The mixing and matching that Fletcher and Co. have done with the roster has given the Flyers the best chance at success this season.
Fletcher may not be the favorite to win the GM of the Year award, but he should at least receive some recognition as a finalist. He built a coaching staff and roster to take an underperforming team to the next level.