Free agency, trades, Patrick and more as Fletcher talks Flyers' future originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
On Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, general manager Chuck Fletcher addressed the media from a press conference room at Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, New Jersey.
No media members were present and Fletcher was not discussing an upcoming 2020-21 training camp.
Instead, in these adjusted times, the discussion via Webex revolved around the still-fresh conclusion of the Flyers' 2019-20 season and the looming offseason. After the lengthy stoppage stemming back to March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak, the Flyers' 2019-20 turnaround season was restarted in August.
The club earned the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed with a round-robin sweep at the opening of the NHL's return-to-play 24-team tournament but was knocked out of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Islanders five days ago in a seven-game second-round series.
Here are five overarching takeaways from Fletcher's end-of-the-season press conference, which spanned about 36 minutes and covered various topics:
1. How can the Flyers add?
There's one theory that true Stanley Cup contention is still far in the distance from the Flyers. There's another theory that the the club took huge strides and is now right there on the doorstep to playing for the grand prize.
Both theories are arguable but fair.
After changing their expectations, the Flyers were one win away from the Eastern Conference Final. However, some defensive issues and a failure to consistently produce offense — two areas that were significantly improved upon during the regular season — finished the team off in the second round.
It's easy to claim the Flyers need another top-end playmaker or goal-scoring sniper on the wing. The problem is those players are not easy to find or attain, especially in the current climate of the league and its revenue.
The salary cap floor, which typically climbs each year, will remain flat at $81.5 million in 2020-21 and potentially stay flat for seasons to follow. The Flyers have around $9 million in cap space, per CapFriendly.com, and have nine players set to hit free agency — Brian Elliott (unrestricted), Justin Braun (unrestricted), Tyler Pitlick (unrestricted), Derek Grant (unrestricted), Nate Thompson (unrestricted), Robert Hagg (restricted), Philippe Myers (restricted), Nicolas Aube-Kubel (restricted) and Nolan Patrick (restricted).
Not all of those UFAs will be re-signed but a few could be brought back, while the RFAs are due for new contracts. Fletcher mentioned staying true to drafting and developing. It's also not as if the Flyers or the current state of the NHL are ripe for free-agent splashes.
"We have a lot of young players that are either on the team or trying to push their way onto the team," Fletcher said. "I don’t think it makes sense to do a 180 and change philosophy at this point in time. If you look at it just practically, we have a flat salary cap here for the next two or three years, more than likely. Over the next three years, we have a lot of players currently on our team that are good players that are going to require new contracts.
"So everything we do, we’re going to have to do with looking at a two-to-three-year window versus just a 12-month window. We’re going to have to make sure that we manage the cap properly and we have the resources that we need to keep the good young players that are here.
"Having said that, you’re always looking to add pieces if you can to help your team. We will do that, but I don’t expect us to be a major player in free agency over the next couple years. I do expect us to aggressively try to keep our own players and obviously we’ll be working the phones to see what we can find on the trade front. We have a lot of good young players who still have their best days ahead of them."
The trade market could become more and more enticing because it's a broader way to acquire a specific need while potentially shedding larger salaries. But don't expect Fletcher to be constantly eyeing to gut a part of the roster or exponentially swing the complexion of it with a loud trade. There's nothing wrong if the Flyers like their outlook and trajectory.
2. What do the Flyers need?
The Flyers' group of forwards was built on balance and depth. The team did not have a top-40 goal scorer or top-30 point producer in the regular season, but it managed to score the NHL's seventh-most goals per game at 3.29 and drastically improved its troubling goal-prevention problem from 2018-19.
The idea of balance and relying on everyone consistently chipping in eventually fell short for the Flyers during the playoffs, when it becomes so much more difficult to score.
Fletcher said he and his whole staff will collaboratively evaluate the entire picture and then pinpoint specific areas of need in order for the Flyers to take the next step.
After putting up 11 markers in their three-game round-robin sweep, the Flyers scored 2.08 goals per game in 13 contests over the first and second rounds.
Fletcher mentioned how the club's bottom-six scoring — which was a regular-season strength — dried up in the playoffs, noting that it produced two goals in 13 games (some players scored more but did so while dressing higher in the lineup).
The availability and performance levels of Oskar Lindblom and Patrick for 2020-21 could go a long way in the Flyers' internal efforts to improve their playmaking, but obviously depth scoring is an area Fletcher has his eye on.
The GM also mentioned depth on the blue line, which organizations value highly.
"Wyatt Kalynuk chose to sign with a different team rather than sign with us," Fletcher said. "He was a young man we were kind of counting on coming into the organization this year and pushing, giving us a little bit more depth. We have Cam York coming down the road, [Egor] Zamula's turning pro, but I think defensive depth is another area that we're going to have to be mindful of as we go forward."
Braun's situation will also play a factor.
3. Bad matchup, bad time?
When asked if the Flyers needed to add greater speed to combat the opposition's strengths, Fletcher felt his club fell into old mistakes at a costly time.
The Flyers, who put up a plus-36 goal differential in the regular season, had a minus-10 goal differential over the first and second rounds as the Canadiens and Islanders combined to outscore them 37-27 to go along with three shutouts.
Undoubtedly the Flyers shot themselves in the foot from time to time. Part of that is the opposition, part of it's on them.
"I guess the biggest disappointment for me in the playoffs was I thought our defensive detail slipped," Fletcher said. "The way we played the game prior to the pause, I don’t think we brought that game to the playoffs. Part of it may have been guys were struggling to score, and when you struggle to score, sometimes you tend to cheat, tend to force plays. We turned the puck over a lot more in the playoffs than we did prior to the pause. I can’t tell you how many times it seemed like our [third forward] got caught in the offensive zone.
"You certainly have to give a lot of credit to the Islanders and the Canadiens, they pressured us, but my point is when you turn pucks over and you don’t have the puck, it’s hard to generate speed and it’s hard to play fast and it’s hard to score goals because you’re defending all the time."
While the Flyers were able to force a Game 7 against the Islanders, New York still seemed like a bad matchup stylistically for Alain Vigneault's group. Did the Flyers run into a bad matchup or were they not good enough to go further regardless of the matchup? It's a tough question.
Including the regular season, the Flyers lost seven of 10 games to the Islanders. All three of their victories came in overtime. Fletcher noted two losses to New York in the preseason, as well.
"The Islanders, if you go back to preseason and the regular season and the seven games we played in the bubble, we played them 12 times this year — they beat us nine times and all 12 games they scored three or more goals," Fletcher said. "We didn’t play them well this year. Why? We’ll have to dig into it. They’re a heavy team, but it’s hard to generate speed and look fast when you’re defending and having your defensemen get run through the end boards."
Part of what the Flyers must decipher in looking to improve their group is not overanalyzing the Islanders series but also not ignoring the issues from it, as well. New York exposed them and it sure sounds like the Flyers are going to delve into why.
4. One big scorer away?
Fletcher did not sound overly concerned by the lack of goal production from his top players. The general manager isn't going to publicly bash his leaders anyway, especially after the group delivered productive regular-season bodies of work. That wouldn't be very loyal to the core of your team that led the 2019-20 turnaround.
In the playoffs, everything is magnified. It's not like the regular season when you can weather a dry spell and then have time to bounce back. If a team struggles for a stretch, its season is over.
The Flyers' top five goal scorers from the regular season — Travis Konecny (24 goals), Kevin Hayes (23), Sean Couturier (22), Claude Giroux (21) and James van Riemsdyk (19) — had a combined nine markers in the tournament. Hayes finished with four, van Riemsdyk and Couturier had two apiece, Giroux scored one and Konecny went goalless.
"We’d all love another goal scorer," Fletcher said. "I look at the top line and they didn’t produce [in the playoffs], but I can just tell you from what I guess we call it the eye test, from watching the games, I thought they had a lot of zone time and generated a lot of chances. I know their shot share and expected goal numbers were really quite good. I think we did a lot of good things, we had a lot of zone time when they were on the ice, but for whatever reason, the goals didn’t go in.
"It’s 13 games, those are critical 13 games, but I think you’ve got to be careful sometimes of putting too much into any 13-game sample size.
"You’re always looking for top-end skill, so if we can find something, we’ll continue to take a look."
5. The progress of Patrick
Fletcher had an overall positive update on Patrick, who missed the 2019-20 season because of a migraine disorder.
"Nolan’s feeling better," Fletcher said. "He’s skating, he’s working out, he’s golfing, he’s living mostly a normal life. I think he’s made a lot of progress since March. Until we get him back and get him into a contact situation, it’s probably going to be hard to know exactly when he’ll be ready to go, but he continues to improve. I’m counting on him playing at some point in '20-21. We don’t even know when we’re going to start the '20-21 season; time is certainly on his side in that regard, but he continues to make progress and I continue to be optimistic."
The Flyers have and will continue to stay optimistic with Patrick, who is a restricted free agent (we'll get more into that later on NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com). The 2017 No. 2 overall pick is an exciting option internally to boost the club's depth down the middle without the Flyers having to add or subtract anything.
"I think as we saw in the playoffs, the ability to have three quality centermen that can play 200 feet and produce offensively is incredibly important," Fletcher said. "He’s a big part of that future for us."
The general health news was good to hear about Patrick, a kid who turns 22 years old this month and was dealing with an issue that can seriously impact daily living. As for his playing, of course there are still significant steps to go. Contact practices and the progression from each will be the next big step toward his potential return. Patrick is one of the Flyers' young pieces that the club is hopeful for to play a role moving forward.
Morgan Frost is another one. Fletcher said this is a great opportunity for Frost to add strength. Vigneault's system is huge on 200-foot play, and the 21-year-old playmaking center is still evolving in that regard.