Chuck Fletcher

Shayne Gostisbehere, trade candidate again? 3 questions that could incentivize Flyers

Shayne Gostisbehere, trade candidate again? 3 questions that could incentivize Flyers

At this point, Shayne Gostisbehere is probably completely unfazed whenever he hears his name coincide with the word "trade."

He has seen himself pop up in rumors over the past two NHL trade deadlines and last offseason.

Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher made a crack about it after the trading period had passed in February.

"That’s been the interesting one," Fletcher said. "I’ve been here a year. I can’t say I'm always on social media but I’m amazed at how often I’m trading him."

By now, everyone knows why Gostisbehere has been such a popularly debated trade chip. He has sought-after qualities with an offensive-minded skill set, a prime age of 27 years old and an attractive contract (under team control for the next three seasons at a $4.5 million cap hit). So it is not surprising why Sportsnet's Rory Boylen highlighted Gostisbehere in an article identifying one offseason trade candidate for each NHL club.

Following the deadline, Fletcher said the Flyers were not looking to move Gostisbehere but teams did inquire about the blueliner.

"Nothing really makes sense right now to me to move one of our seven D unless we’re getting a really great impact player back in some area," Fletcher said. "Those types of trades usually don’t happen right now."

Could it happen during the offseason or next season? Possibly. The Flyers, of course, still like Gostisbehere despite his difficult season as he's not far removed from a career 65-point campaign in 2017-18. But they're relatively deep on defense — and appear to be getting deeper — so they won't close the door on anything.

The outlook for 2020-21 could give the Flyers more incentive to listen on offers. Let's break down three questions that should factor into Gostisbehere's status with the club.

1. How fast can Zamula advance?

Egor Zamula, who has become one of the Flyers' top defensive prospects, is turning pro in 2020-21 and will garner many eyes.

The 20-year-old is smooth and skilled at 6-foot-4 with offensive upside. He'll have to get stronger (170 pounds) and he's coming off back surgery in late January, but Zamula looked impressively comfortable alongside Philippe Myers during an NHL preseason game last September. He then backed himself up with a strong 2019-20 WHL season and 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship performance.

Zamula drew praise from Fletcher during rookie camp and head coach Alain Vigneault liked what he saw after the one exhibition contest.

If he shows a quick transition at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley, he'll put pressure on the Flyers' decision-makers. Suddenly, the Flyers would have another defenseman knocking on the door, which would make the trade deadline next season much more interesting, depending on the club's needs in other areas.

2. Will Braun be re-signed?

When the Flyers traded for Justin Braun last June, they acquired a veteran stay-at-home blueliner with a $3.8 million cap hit on the final year of a five-year, $19 million contract. The hope was Braun's experience and goal-prevention track record would help stabilize the Flyers on the back end. If the move didn't pan out, they could let Braun walk in the offseason as an unrestricted free agent.

The acquisition has worked out pretty nicely. Braun had a rough start and missed time in January because of a groin injury, but from just before Christmas up until the stoppage, he was one of the Flyers' best defensemen (14 points and plus-11 rating in 26 games). His active stick and ability to quickly kill plays in the defensive zone have helped improve the Flyers' goal differential.

The chances of the Flyers re-signing Braun feel like 50-50. He's 33 years old and the Flyers will be cognizant of how many years they commit to a defenseman climbing in age when they have kids on the blue line climbing in the system. Braun has been a positive, though, and if the Flyers bring him back for one year (maybe two) on a cost-effective deal, playing opportunity will tighten at the position.

As a result, the Flyers would have more flexibility to dangle a chip out there on the trade market, especially if their prospects prove ready to offer more depth.

3. When will York turn pro?

Keep an eye on Cam York and his sophomore year for the Wolverines. The Flyers' 2019 first-round pick is a mobile and modern defenseman with offensive strengths.

York is not expected to be a four-year guy in college. With better health and an even larger role, the 19-year-old is poised for a path-altering second season in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The 2020-21 campaign has the potential to be his last with the Wolverines.

"He looks at home in the college game and displays the same offensive characteristics," John Wroblewski, York's USNTDP under-18 head coach, said in March. "A kid that truly appreciates keeping the puck out of his net first and then letting the offense come to him — those are characteristics that should prove worthy of him making a quick climb to the NHL.”

York's timeline for when he signs his entry-level contract to join the pro ranks will have a big say in the Flyers' plans. The quicker he rises, the more reason the Flyers have to listen on Gostisbehere and others. The situation is similar with prospect Wyatt Kalynuk, who is creeping into the Flyers' pro picture.

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Amid coronavirus outbreak, Chuck Fletcher, Flyers push forward in 'different times'

Amid coronavirus outbreak, Chuck Fletcher, Flyers push forward in 'different times'

It was Monday morning, a day after the Flyers were originally scheduled for a huge showdown against the Penguins in Game 79 of their 2019-20 season.

The matchup at the Wells Fargo Center likely would have held considerable playoff implications and a rowdy atmosphere.

Chuck Fletcher was talking about neither as he began a conference call.

"I want to acknowledge the obvious that we’re in different times right now," the Flyers' general manager said.

Indeed.

The Wells Fargo Center was quiet Sunday afternoon. Over 20 days and counting, the Flyers have not played a game. With the NHL out of commission since March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak, the Flyers' 2019-20 fate is completely up in the air.

When Fletcher said "different times," he meant much more than the simplicity of games being played, won and lost.

I just want to certainly mention that our entire organization, and certainly my family and I, we thank all the people working on the front lines of this pandemic — the doctors, nurses, hospital workers, our first responders and everyone working hard to keep all of our essential services operating for the benefit of all of us. I just wanted to mention that before we started talking about the small piece of the world that I work in which is ice hockey.

As the coronavirus outbreak has had a global impact, the Flyers are like many organizations — they must prepare to move forward as best they can in ways that are allowable.

In regards to the current roster and preparing for the NHL's potential resumption, the players are tasked with staying ready on their own time. These are professional athletes and the Flyers trust them.

“With respect to our players, we haven’t given them any sort of specific direction," Fletcher said. "Most of them have returned to their offseason homes. A lot of them have the ability to work out there. I don’t think anybody is skating obviously at this point, but I think guys are doing the best they can to say in shape and they’re all hopeful at some point in time, we’ll get to a better place in this world and we’ll be able to come back and play hockey."

When the Flyers returned to Philadelphia on March 13 following the postponement of their game the day prior against the Lightning in Tampa Bay, Florida, the focus was on the health and safety of everyone. During the stoppage, Fletcher has communicated with many players, including the Flyers' NHLPA representative James van Riemsdyk and team captain Claude Giroux.

“I think all of us are concerned about everyone’s health and wellbeing and trying to take all the precautions we can," Fletcher said. "I’m not aware of anybody that we had to take any particular precautions with other than once we got back from Tampa Bay, everybody has tried to heed the advice of the NHL, self isolate and do what we can to keep ourselves and our families safe and be smart members of the community and try to stay out of everyone’s way. Everyone is doing the best they can to self isolate and be home with their families.

"At this point, to me the biggest thing is just making sure everybody is safe and their families are safe. If there is anything they need from us to get through this time and stage of where we’re all at, we want to help out any way we can."

On the hockey operations and upper management side, communication remains vital. 

Fletcher is in daily contact with assistant general managers Brent Flahr and Barry Hanrahan. With 2019-20 at a standstill, the Flyers continue to strategize for this summer's NHL draft and offseason in preparation for 2020-21.

The Flyers have seven picks in the draft and 10 players slated 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), Nolan Patrick (restricted) and Oskar Lindblom (restricted).

Fletcher said the Flyers have not started negotiations with the team's UFAs or RFAs, as it's still early and much can change prior to the offseason.

"Certainly, whether we start the negotiations or just prepare for them," Fletcher said, "typically this time of the year is when you’re building your files for the summer negotiations and this year isn’t any different.

“I speak to Brent and Barry every day, we have a group text that we keep pretty active in terms of different things that each of us may be doing.

"Brent is working, first and foremost, with our scouting staff, our amateur scouts and they’re working hard on getting their lists ready for the draft, watching video, reviewing reports, having discussions on players — doing things they would typically do at this time of the year with the obvious exception that we’re not able to watch games live right now.

“Barry is working on contracts and cap-related issues going forward. We’ve been able to sign a couple of our unsigned draft choices Tanner Laczynski and Wade Allison recently. Barry has been on the forefront of those conversations.”

As for head coach Alain Vigneault, you can bet he's staying busy.

“He had been working on his golf swing for a while," Fletcher said. "But right now, I think he’s like the rest of us, going through notes and trying to stay safe.

"I speak to A.V. every week, just once a week. I’ve reached out to quite a few of the coaching staff and scouting staff and support staff, try to stay in regular contact with them whether it’s by a phone call or a text or an email.

"We’re all trying to stay in touch and do what we can, but for obvious reasons, a lot of our business has been shut down right now. Most of the things we can focus on are matters going forward, whether that’s the draft or signing some of our players and planning some things in the future.”

Fletcher and the Flyers, of course, would love to finish off their 2019-20 work. If they get a chance to, it would be doubly special.

“When you have time, use it," Fletcher said of the NHL's current spot. "To me, there’s no sense in making any decisions until you have to make them. If we’re able to come back and play, that means that the world is in a much better spot than what it is right now, and I think that would be a tremendous sign."

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Franchise pillar Bob Clarke excited by Alain Vigneault, Chuck Fletcher and competitive Flyers

Franchise pillar Bob Clarke excited by Alain Vigneault, Chuck Fletcher and competitive Flyers

Bob Clarke didn't know Alain Vigneault personally before the bench boss arrived to Philadelphia.

He was cognizant of the head coach's previous stops, but that was the extent of his Vigneault knowledge.

"When he was working for other teams, I wasn’t paying attention to what he did," Clarke said. "I know he had lots of success."

Vigneault, a Jack Adams Award winner with two Stanley Cup Final appearances, meet Clarke, winner of two Cups, a Hall of Famer and the all-time greatest Flyer.

Oh to be a fly on the wall for those conversations.

Clarke, now a senior advisor for the Flyers, is not one to pump up his own value or insight. His interactions with Vigneault don't involve much earnestness or strategy.

He has watched the work of Vigneault and assistant coaches Michel Therrien, Mike Yeo, Ian Laperriere and Kim Dillabaugh.

“They don’t need me," Clarke said Friday in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "They’re really good, I get to sit down and bulls--t with them and talk hockey and stuff, ask questions. Not for any of their pleasure, but for mine. I’m lucky that I’m able to do that, I really enjoy it. But I’m not pretending that I’m any benefit to them.”

Amid the NHL's suspension of the 2019-20 regular season because of the coronavirus outbreak, the Flyers are sixth in the NHL at 41-21-7 and 89 points through 69 games, a point behind the first-place Capitals. Last season, the Flyers went 37-37-8 with 82 points, their fewest in a full season since 2006-07.

To begin his first offseason as Flyers general manager, Chuck Fletcher brought in Vigneault. Together, they hired Therrien and Yeo. The GM then got to work on the roster with the summer acquisitions of Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun and Tyler Pitlick, while adding Derek Grant and Nate Thompson at the Feb. 24 trade deadline.

Clarke, a mentor of Fletcher's, has been impressed by more than just his protégé's moves.

He’s done an incredible job. Equally as important, he’s included everybody in being part of the team. He talks to everybody and he asks questions and he listens. He’s the man making the decisions, but he allows everybody to express their own opinions, all those kind of things, and he listens.

In the end, the decisions he has made have been terrific. They’ve obviously strengthened [the team]. It’s gone from a club that would have struggled to make the playoffs to a team that’s fighting for top place — because of his additions, his biggest of course being Vigneault.

The 58-year-old head coach has incorporated a system that has cleaned up the Flyers' defensive issues while simultaneously making them the aggressor. The Flyers have a Metropolitan Division-best plus-36 goal differential, are allowing an NHL-low 28.7 shots per game and surrender 2.77 goals per game, down from 3.41 in 2018-19.

A byproduct of Vigneault's stylistic preference is a balanced group — not overly reliant on one or two players.

"I think he and his whole staff have done just an incredible job with making this into a team — and the players have benefitted," Clarke said.

"[Sean] Couturier has gotten better, [Ivan] Provorov, everybody has gotten better. [Jakub] Voracek, a top-end player, is a better player now than he was last year when he scored more points. I think [Claude] Giroux plays both ends of the rink now terrifically. He may not score as much, but I think he’s a better all-around player.

"It’s fun watching those guys, all these guys, getting better. The young players are developing. We’re in a position that we could be a good team for a long time.”

(Zack Hill, Philadelphia Flyers/USA Today Images)

Clarke, in his 48th season as a member of the organization, downplays his impact on the Flyers.

Much of that has to do with his faith in Fletcher's guidance of the team.

"I don’t think I’m a resource," Clarke said. "I talk with Chuck a lot and we talk hockey and everything else, but he’s been a general manager for a long time. I’m allowed to express my opinions and stuff like that, but I would never want to do anything to overstep my boundaries. 

"Everybody tries to win but they use different methods. Chuck’s method is one that includes everybody. He talks with everybody and he listens to everybody. He has to make his own decisions, he’s held responsible for the decisions he’s made, but he should also be given credit for the decisions, the coaching staff, the additions he’s made to our club on defense and then up front, at the trade deadline."

During the NHL's hiatus, the Flyers own a 99.7 percent chance to make the postseason and 30.5 percent chance to win the division, according to Hockey-Reference.com.

If/when the Stanley Cup Playoffs are held and if the Flyers earn a berth, could they go on a run?

“That’ll depend on the coaches and the players, that’s not for me to make any predictions," Clarke said. "But I don’t think we’re a team that anybody looks forward to playing against. [In the playoffs], if you’ve got to find somebody to play against, I don’t think that we’re the first choice anymore. We might’ve been at one time, but now I don’t think teams want to play us.”

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