Chuck Fletcher hired a veteran head coach with impressive credentials. Now it’s the general manager’s turn to give that coach, Alain Vigneault, the players he needs to make the Flyers a serious Stanley Cup contender — and not just a team that huffs and puffs to try to qualify for the playoffs.
Remember back to a time when it was a given that the Flyers would be in the playoffs and challenge for a Cup?
Remember when it wasn’t considered an honor just to reach the postseason — as more than 50 percent of the teams do?
Well, Fletcher, who has cap space and some chips he can trade, needs to assemble a roster that can return to those days. He also needs to change the mind-set of a team that thinks it’s an accomplishment just to be playing beyond the regular season.
Hiring Vigneault, the 12th-winningest coach in NHL history and a man who can help the Flyers play with more consistency and urgency, was a good first step.
More steps are needed.
“We know we have the players to be a playoff team,” captain Claude Giroux said late in the season.
That attitude, perhaps created because the Flyers have too many missing pieces, needs to change. The players, from their captain to their fourth-liners, need to believe they have the ability to win a Cup, not just sneak into the playoffs.
Which brings us back to Fletcher.
With his current roster, the Flyers are far from a Cup contender. The Flyers simply aren’t good enough to play against the big boys. They won just one of 10 games against division champions Tampa Bay, Washington, Nashville, and Calgary, allowing an average of 4.7 goals in the nine losses.
That speaks volumes. It means Fletcher needs to be bold this summer. And creative. He has the cap space to do it — probably around $15 million, depending on how much he spends to sign his restricted free agents — and should be able to add a No. 2 center and a winger or defenseman through free agency.
Artemi Panarin and Jeff Skinner are the top wingers who will be unrestricted free agents.
Panarin will probably go to Florida and be reunited with his former Chicago coach, Joel Quenneville. Skinner, a 40-goal scorer despite a late-season slump, isn’t a bad Plan B. Anders Lee (28 goals), Gustav Nyquist (22), and Jordan Eberle (19) are other free-agent winger options.
From here, the most important position Fletcher needs to fill is the No. 2 center spot. A Stanley Cup contender can’t have a second-line center who scores 13 goals, as Nolan Patrick did this season.
The list of unrestricted free-agent centers includes Kevin Hayes, who played for Vigneault with the Rangers; Brock Nelson; and Matt Duchene. Or maybe Fletcher will add a free-agent defenseman such as Tyler Myers and trade for a center. A better option: sign an offer sheet for Winnipeg restricted free agent Jacob Trouba, a top-pair defenseman who shoots right-handed and is a six-year veteran despite being just 25.
Or maybe Fletcher will decide to deal for a player such as Trouba, provided he agrees to sign a long-term deal. Another option: Acquiring a player Fletcher drafted while with Minnesota, right-handed defenseman Jared Spurgeon. Spurgeon, 29, an unrestricted free agent after 2019-20, would have to tear up his no-trade clause.
Fletcher has a big chip he could trade: defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. But unless he is overwhelmed by an offer, that seems too risky. Based on his track record, Gostisbehere will bounce back and have an elite season — and he is signed to a contract hat has four more years left and has a reasonable $4.5 million annual cap hit.
Keeping Gostisbehere makes the most sense. That means it might be a year to make the anti-Ron Hextall move: trade their No. 1 pick, 11th overall, to get a high-quality player in a package that could include Robert Hagg or Samuel Morin.
Yes, the Flyers would get a very good prospect at No. 11, perhaps a little dynamo named Cole Caufield, a high-scoring right winger. But the farm system, thanks to the work of their former draft gurus, Hextall and his assistant, Chris Pryor, is in good shape, and a better option might be to acquire a quality player who will fit into Vigneault’s system now.