The Philadelphia Flyers are once again looking for another voice behind the bench, and whoever it is will be the fourth full-time head coaching hire since 2013.
Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher will be making his second coaching hire since coming to town, and it’ll be one that holds much of the fate of the head hockey decision maker as well.
Safe to say it’s one that Fletcher badly needs to get right in order to save his job — one that is on far from firm footing after two empty seasons that culminated with the bottoming out of the Flyers as the NHL’s fourth-worst team this past season.
Included in the Flyers’ dumpster fire of 2021-22 was the dismissal of then-head coach Alain Vigneault after just 22 games. The veteran coach was Fletcher’s pick to succeed Dave Haksol, who was quickly dispatched when the former Minnesota Wild general manager took over the Flyers’ reigns in December of 2018.
But Vigneault couldn’t recreate the magic of his days with the Vancouver Canucks and rival New York Rangers after the Flyers’ bizarre run to within a game of the COVID-19 world Conference Finals in 2019-20 proved to be mirage in the years to follow.
Now Fletcher is desperate to find a proven NHL head coach that can get the most out of a roster that has a mix of veterans and young talent, but also one that doesn’t look nearly as attractive as it did even a few mere months ago.
For starters, Fletcher dealt his best player — Claude Giroux — to the Florida Panthers at the trade deadline for a package including Owen Tippett and a couple 2044 draft picks. His next best player, Sean Couturier, headed to the injured list with a dreaded back injury and was shut down in a lost season. No. 2 pivot Kevin Hayes was injured to start the season and endured a couple surgeries before getting healthy and finishing the season strong with 22 points in his last 28 games. Ivan Provorov regressed — again — on the blue line and sorely missed de-facto partner Ryan Ellis, who played just four games due to ongoing injury issues and is a total question mark heading into the offseason and 2022-23.
That’s a slew of core talent — top two centers and top pair defender — who missed large portions of seasons at or near the age of 30, which is never a great sign in the grand scheme of things…especially when those players make up a massive chuck of salary cap and also happen to be essential to any subsequent team success.
Then there’s Carter Hart, who took his lumps behind a bad defensive team to the tune of a goals-against average over 3.1 and a save percentage just a shade over .900. Though nobody can directly blame Hart for average numbers, taking consistent beatings behind a dreadful team certainly didn’t edge the young netminder towards returning to the form he showed in posting a .914 save percentage and 2.42 goals-against average two years ago as a 21-year-old.
And are those other young players once considered to be jewels of the Flyers and viewed as prime assists around the league still held in that same regard?
Travis Konecny led the Flyers in scoring with 52 points in 79 games, but that wouldn’t have likely been the case had Couturier — or Giroux or Cam Atkinson — played a full complement of games. He failed to top the 20-goal mark again after notching at least 24 in three-straight campaigns before that and has seen a precipitous decline in his even strength scoring overall. Fletcher handed Joel Farabee a big contract extension and was rewarded with an uneven season that produced 34 points in 63 games though injuries — and a bizarre experiment at center from the Flyers coaching staff — contributed.
On defense there’s Travis Sanheim, who was by far the Flyers’ best defender — albeit in a dumb class — but could be questioned if it was merely a product of the rest of the defenseman playing so poorly and that the reality is that he’s the same inconsistent player he’s been since breaking into the league.
Some of the Flyers’ coveted prospects broke into the lineup thanks to injury and generally overall poor play, but the likes of Cam York, Morgan Frost, Bobby Brink, Ronnie Attard, and Yegor Zamula failed to move the needle much and provide immediate impact. A bright spot was Team USA Olympian Noah Cates, who produced nine points in 16 games and generally looked like he knew how to do that hockey — hard on the puck along the walls and active in all three zones.
Fully healthy on paper the Flyers aren’t the least appetizing team in the league, but there’s much less appeal without Giroux and counting on absolutely everyone staying healthy in order to look like a playoff contender. While they’d be able to ice four solid forward lines but the defense still featuring a regressing Provorov, a question mark in Ellis, the enigmatic Sanheim, the mitigated disaster that is Rasmus Ristolainen, the unproven and young York, and (insert name here). Even if Fletcher is able to work some magic and add another proven veteran defender — he was rumored to be looking into Montreal’s Jeff Petry at the trade deadline — that’s not exactly an imposing group in the uber-crowded Metropolitan Division.
Surely that powerhouse division would factor into any potential coaches’ decision — Mike Sullivan is a perennial Jack Adams candidate who gets 20-goal seasons out of rocks and cardboard, Rod Brind’Amour might be one of the NHL’s best, Gerard Gallant has the Rangers right back into contention, and Peter Laviolette and Barry Trotz are proven Stanley Cup winners all with better rosters than the Flyers.
Say you’re Bruce Boudreau and just finished up nearly dragging the Canucks to the playoffs, are the Flyers — even with the Fletcher connection from Minnesota — a better destination than where he’s at now?
Fletcher sold the Flyers ownership that he’s still the right man after consecutive empty postseason trips, and now he needs to drum up a sales pitch to lure a proven bench boss to town to get back into the Stanley Cup playoffs — and more than likely save his job in the process.