The Flyers' roster proved Chuck Fletcher was too comfortable. Now the general manager finds himself in an uncomfortable spot that is screaming for fixes and repairs.
Back on Oct. 10, before he signed Erik Gustafsson in the NHL's flat-cap offseason, Fletcher said he liked the Flyers' makeup.
"We’re comfortable with our group, we like our team, we already have a lot of players signed and a lot of kids that we feel can push for ice time and opportunity," he said then. "Cap space is a very valuable commodity and if we’re going to use it, we want to use it wisely. Otherwise, we’re very content moving forward with cap space and let things play out."
As everyone can see, things have not played out prettily. And Fletcher is aware. Three weeks ago, he admitted fault with his roster construction and said "the makeup of our group probably is not right." Gustafsson, his lone offseason acquisition to play with the big club, was shipped out at Monday's trade deadline. The underachieving Flyers are 8-13-3 since the start of March and their playoff hopes are all but squelched.
"We certainly have much higher expectations for our club than how we've played this year," Fletcher said Monday after the deadline. "My goal in the offseason is to make this team the best we can make it. We fully expect to be a quality hockey team next year that is in much different position this time next year.
"As we move forward here, obviously we'll have a lot of decisions to make in the offseason, but the way I look at our group is we have enough talent to win more games than what we've won and to play better than how we've played. There's certainly an opportunity for this group to finish strong and leave a positive impression on all of us."
What has made the 2020-21 season so poignantly disappointing is that it started with great expectations, possibly the Flyers' greatest expectations in 10 years. But the Flyers broke a seven-year run of stagnancy and returned to the business of high expectations in large part because of Fletcher's work in his first offseason. By bringing in a coach and two assistants with vast experience from outside the organization. By retooling the club and supplementing the blend of veterans and youth with four trades for impactful players.
In a span of 22 days in his first offseason, Fletcher acquired Kevin Hayes (he traded for Hayes' contractual rights, then signed him in that same month), Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun and Tyler Pitlick in June deals before the July 1 free agency period even began. The Flyers ended up having the NHL's biggest turnaround in 2019-20, had the league's fourth-best goal differential at plus-36 and came one win away from the Eastern Conference Final.
Fletcher had a good offseason ahead of 2019-20. With how troublingly 2020-21 has transpired, his offseason record is now 1 for 2. He's on deck for his third offseason and he needs to hit on it. The Flyers are in a predicament again, like what he took over in December 2018.
Fletcher is going to have to swing much bigger this offseason and the trade route could be his best opportunity because of the flat-cap limitations. The Flyers' severe shortcomings have led to tough decisions ahead. The club is in need of a top-pair defenseman after not getting the services of Niskanen for one more year following his retirement. Subtracting from an area of depth like the forward position could be a way to fortify the back end.
"That type of player is pretty hard to find," Fletcher said of defensemen like Niskanen. "There are different types of defenseman — there are puck-moving, offensive defensemen, there are defensive defensemen and there are a few I guess that combine both. We'll just have to see what the opportunities are in the summer and we'll also have to continue to see how some of our defensemen play here for the rest of the season.
"Even going back to last offseason, I've had numerous conversations with essentially every general manager. There are a few teams in our division that we're not talking trade every day, but with most of the teams in this league, I've had numerous conversations and I think I have a pretty good feel for where they're at and what they're looking to do. So that work continues all year long. I think there are a lot of teams looking to make changes this summer and at that time we'll certainly be in a position to know what teams are looking at."
Fletcher is looking to go 2 for 3. In the what-have-you-done-for-me-now world of pro sports, it's easy to forget the GM got a big hit before he struck out looking.
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