Shortly after being hired as the Flyers’ general manager, Chuck Fletcher promised to be aggressive this offseason.
Many Flyers fans, having tired of Ron Hextall’s patient approach -- and of watching a mistake-prone defense, the struggles of several young forwards, and a perennial goalie carousel --applauded this approach.
Fletcher has been true to his word. Heading into the NHL draft Friday night in Vancouver, he has already added a pair of 32-year-old, 6-foot-2 defensemen and signed one of this offseason’s coveted free agents, 6-5 Kevin Hayes, to a seven-year, $50 million contract after trading a draft pick for his rights.
And Flyers fans? Many of those same fans who applauded back in December believe that Fletcher spent too much for too little -- that he was too aggressive. Two of the team’s 10 draft picks were sacrificed, including one in the second round.
The much-anticipated cap space has mostly evaporated, with little fizz.
Sometimes that’s not a bad thing. I think about being at the baseball winter meetings in 1993, when, amid big free-agent signings of players such as Barry Bonds and David Cone that required TV cameras and conference rooms, then-Phillies GM Lee Thomas needed only a hotel suite to announce the acquisitions of Jim Eisenreich, Pete Incaviglia, Danny Jackson, David West, and several others.
It turned out well.
Did the Flyers overpay for Hayes? We’re about to find out. He is coming off a 55-point season that suggests he is both in his prime and may even be able to build on that.
At 6-5, he also continues Fletcher’s offseason trend to add some mass to a smallish, easy-to-play- against team.
Phil Myers and Samuel Morin – both over 6-5 -- will certainly help in that regard on the blue line in the years to come. So the addition of Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun should not be looked at through metrics alone.
Certainly Fletcher didn’t. In signing the two veteran defensemen with loads of postseason experience, he hopes to influence and stabilize a young defense that struggled mightily as a unit last season.
That should be factored into determining Hayes’ worth as well. Despite reports he did not want to be a Flyer and would explore free agency, he signed here and cited the hiring of his former Rangers coach, Alain Vigneault, as a contributing factor.
``It’s always tough when you go to a new team,’’ said Hayes. ``You don’t know how you’re going to fit in with the coach. You don’t know how you’re going to fit in with the players. But playing under AV for four years, we had a great relationship on and off the ice. He demands hard work. If you play the correct way, he kind of lets you play freely offensively. That was a huge factor in the decision. Being comfortable with him made the decision a lot easier.’’
That relationship has not always been ``comfortable.'' In November 2015, when Hayes was 23 and in his second NHL season with the Rangers, Vigneault repeatedly benched him for egregious mistakes and uneven effort and preparation.
``In Kevin’s case, I think we made it clear our expectations about him and what we felt he could do were very high,” Vigneault said before one such benching in November 2015. “Obviously, he hasn’t lived up to that. Did we overestimate his possibilities? I don’t know, time will tell.
"But … for us to be at this stage right now, it’s obviously because we’re very unhappy with the way he’s played so far.”
Hayes’ ``possibilities’’ matured under Vigneault, a big reason he received this contract. And who is better to mentor the player he is expected to replace as second-line center, 20-year-old Nolan Patrick? The second pick overall in the 2017 draft, Patrick too has struggled with mistakes, effort, and preparation in his first two seasons as a pro.
``As important as anything, we’ve kept all our prospects,’’ Fletcher said. ``Our staff has worked hard the last few years to acquire some top picks, some top kids. We’ve been able to keep those assets. We’re still as deep as any franchise with respect to quantity and quality of prospects. We anticipate adding to that this next weekend.’’
So did they overpay? On the surface, probably. But the Flyers’ problems go below the surface, to playing, as Hayes said, ``the correct way.'' Fletcher bet most of his available money and two picks that all three players will help Vigneault accelerate the learning of those talented youngsters.