The honeymoon stage of a relationship between Philadelphia sports teams and their fans doesn't last long.
Just ask Chuck Fletcher and Alain Vigneault.
The general manager and head coach both came from outside of the organization and won over many fans with impressive work in 2019-20, their first full season holding the Flyers' reins.
They shook the Flyers' stagnancy and expedited the club's path toward contention in one year. Fletcher showed the desired bias for action in retooling the roster and Vigneault showed his first-year savviness by molding it into a team that won the franchise's first playoff series since 2012. The Flyers fell one win short of the Eastern Conference Final.
As a result, expectations were raised for Year 2 and the Flyers haven't met them 31 games into the shortened 56-game 2020-21 season. Following a relatively quiet offseason, the Flyers have regressed in many areas and are hearing it. Just like that, Fletcher and Vigneault have gone from a pedestal to under the microscope with the fan base.
Such is life in pro sports. Such is life in a market like Philadelphia.
Not new to pressure-filled markets, Fletcher and Vigneault know the reality of a results-driven business. A day after Vigneault said the Flyers "haven't been good enough" and he hasn't found "the right buttons to push," Fletcher took onus as he held his annual midseason media availability.
Let's look at five overarching takeaways from Fletcher's press conference Wednesday as he addressed the state of the 15-12-4 Flyers.
1. 'It starts with me'
In the 2019-20 regular season, the Flyers finished as a top-six club and allowed 2.77 goals per game, tied for the NHL's seventh fewest. Thirty-one games into last season, the Flyers were holding the opposition to 2.68 goals per game.
Currently, the Flyers are yielding 3.52 goals per game; only the Senators are giving up more at 3.74. The club's defensive woes have spiked in a disconcerting 4-8-1 March. Vigneault's hard-on-the-attack, possession-based system, which was a staple for the Flyers down the stretch last season, has been missing most of 2020-21. Stylistically, the Flyers have resembled a different team. From a goal-prevention standpoint, the drastic contrast from last season to this season has been perplexing and worrisome.
"Well, it starts with me," Fletcher said. "I’m responsible for the overall direction of the team, from hiring the coaches to bringing in the players. At this point in time, everyone’s accountable — we’re all accountable for where we're at in the standings. Having said that, we’re still in the middle of a playoff battle here, we’re pushing to get back in. Certainly we've lacked consistency this year; that’s been frustrating. Our goals against has been frustrating. But I also look on the positive side, two of our best games have been in the last week (here and here). I think as a group, we know the recipe for success. We just have to find it a little bit more consistently."
2. Fixing the makeup
Fletcher took blame from pretty much the onset of his press conference. Good general managers can admit when they haven't pulled the right strings. It's a positive that Fletcher isn't holding on tight to all of his offseason decisions and acting as if the Flyers are flawlessly constructed.
The GM was far more active in his first offseason, when he went the trade route and acquired Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun, Kevin Hayes and Tyler Pitlick in June deals (he traded for Hayes' contractual rights, then signed him in that same month). It's fair to say Fletcher nailed all of those trades; all four players were important to the Flyers' league-best turnaround.
In his second offseason, it's also fair to say Fletcher was not close to as successful or aggressive. The free agency period was unlike past offseasons in the NHL. The salary cap floor remained flat because of the economic impact on the league from the coronavirus pandemic. Prior to it, the Flyers lost the stabilizing, top-pair, Stanley Cup champion defenseman Niskanen when the veteran decided he was ready to retire. The Flyers did not re-sign the role forward Pitlick, who went to the Coyotes.
With Niskanen's retirement, re-signing Braun became a necessity, while Fletcher also added defenseman Erik Gustafsson (one-year deal worth $3 million), a player with a similar offensive-minded game to Shayne Gostisbehere. At the time of the signing, Fletcher expressed confidence in the defensive abilities of both blueliners and felt the two could coexist in the same lineup. But Gostisbehere was recently benched three games for defensive struggles, while Gustafsson has been in and out of the lineup for the same reasons.
"I think the makeup of our group probably is not right, I think that’s a fair comment," Fletcher said. "I think we do need to address that going forward to get the right mix. Certainly some of our young players need to continue to take steps. I think our back end, like the rest of our team, needs to get better. But overall our team defense has been a collective effort; we just haven’t been good enough in any aspect of the game yet."
That says a lot. It also says Fletcher understands he didn't supplement the Flyers particularly well this offseason; he recognizes it and knows they need help when the April 12 trade deadline rolls around. General managers do not have the benefit of hindsight; they have to make calculated decisions and hope they pay off.
The Flyers got substantially better after Fletcher's first offseason. In need of taking another step, they have not improved after his last offseason. Instead, they've taken a step back and Fletcher will have to address it.
3. The Niskanen void
In conjunction with the tight offseason, the Flyers tried to replace Niskanen by committee and it hasn't gone well.
"Matt was a great player for us and clearly we didn’t fill the void," Fletcher said. "That type of player is really difficult to find. But as good as Matt was for us last year, it’s a pretty massive variance in the goals against. It’s a team-level effort right now. We’ve had nights where we’ve defended really well. That’s what we have to get back to.
"We aggressively looked at a lot of options this offseason. Certainly our cap situation was not helpful for adding significant dollars without moving significant dollars. We looked at a lot of different things and this is what we ended up with. I think I said to somebody earlier, I don’t think I ever spent more time on the phone than I did this offseason. For various reasons, things didn’t break our way, the way we had hoped. It’s a flat-cap era and most teams are not looking to take on any money or any term right now. To add a player with dollars, you have to subtract the same amount. Those types of trades are a little bit more difficult to make."
In Fletcher's defense, for a long time, many have clamored for the Flyers to play their kids — to give them a shot at meaningful minutes and roles rather than blocking them with too many past-their-prime veterans. Joel Farabee has jumped on the opportunity, but other younger pieces have experienced growing pains as the Flyers have put more on their plates.
Philippe Myers and Travis Sanheim have been very up and down on the back end, while Nicolas Aube-Kubel has been inconsistent on the wing. The Flyers were also preparing around the returns of Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick, two younger players that can make the club tougher to play against at 200 feet. Everyone was abuzz at the start of the season about those two having the chance to bolster the Flyers' depth at forward. But understandably, both have required time and patience, as Vigneault has noted.
And that's not even mentioning the struggles of Carter Hart, a 22-year-old the Flyers rely on at the game's toughest and most important position. Hart has a 3.85 goals-against average; nobody foresaw that coming after watching his success last season.
"I believe in Carter," Fletcher said. "I believe in his talent and I believe he'll be a very good goalie for this franchise for a long time. But clearly right now, he’s not on top of his game."
4. Buyers or sellers? Stay in between
Expect Fletcher to be proactive but also prudent at the trade deadline. Right now, the Flyers don't look like a team on the doorstep of a Stanley Cup run. At the beginning of the season, there was hope of that, but the Flyers haven't played like a legitimate contender. They're past the halfway mark of the season and not in a playoff position.
Making an acquisition could help them get to the postseason and give them a chance, but the Flyers have a lot more proving to do to management if they want a top-tier addition. And they're running out of time to prove it.
Acquiring a big-time piece seems very unlikely. The Flyers should not make a move that might jeopardize their future, especially with a (cross your fingers) more normal 2021-22 season ahead. That will be a huge year for the Flyers as Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux will be on the final year of their respective contracts.
"We’re certainly not looking at selling right now," Fletcher said. "I would say to you, in my calls with managers around the league, first of all, I've received very few calls. It’s been really quiet in terms of receiving calls. I’ve made many; I’ve been much more aggressive I think than a lot of people just looking at different options. There doesn’t seem to be many teams out there willing to take on dollars and term at this point in time. There seem to be more teams maybe looking to move some pieces than take on pieces for various reasons, so we’ll take a look. Anything we do, we want to make sure it makes sense. If we can fill a box for the long term right now, we can potentially explore that. Certainly if we can upgrade our team, we’ll do that."
5. 'A massive mental and emotional challenge'
The 2020-21 NHL season is unique, strange and unprecedented because of the coronavirus pandemic. The schedule is crammed and players have had to make adjustments from all ends of the spectrum.
Fletcher acknowledged all of that Wednesday. He wasn't making an excuse; maybe some will see it as that. But it's more understanding the reality of the toll this pandemic has taken on society.
Every team is dealing with it. You have to tip your cap to the teams that get better and the team that eventually wins the Stanley Cup when this season is all said and done. But as an NHL general manager that is tasked with always having to value and project the long game, it would be careless to not take into account the circumstances of this season when evaluating.
"There have been a lot of challenges this year," Fletcher said. "We haven’t played as well as we wanted. I think it’s a year that you've got to be a little bit careful, though, in overanalyzing the results. Clearly they matter for making the playoffs and that’s our goal. But long term, there have been different challenges this year that you normally don’t face. Some players have handled it better than others, some teams have handled it better than others. But I think you want to be a little bit careful overanalyzing the results of this season.
"I think there's a massive mental and emotional challenge this year. In life, probably even among all of us, some people have handled it better than others, some people have faced different challenges. There are certainly some players that are not at the level they need to be at and are not in a good place in some different ways. There’s probably a little bit more to their play than what everybody realizes and I think we’ve just got to be a little bit careful overanalyzing some of these young players that have shown to be good players in the past. My expectation is that they’ll find that path again."
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