Chuck Fletcher has been a general manager for 11 years, including the last two with the Flyers. No offseason has been more challenging than this one, a situation caused by uncertainty about teams' revenue in a coronavirus environment, along with a stagnant salary cap.
Signings and trades have been more difficult than usual.
“This is the most different offseason that I’ve ever seen,” Fletcher said in a conference call with reporters Friday. “There are a high number of high-salary players available. We’re entering a fascinating time: The Flat Cap Era. As crazy as it is right now out there, I think next summer could be even worse in terms of having some paralysis in the market, and just having too many teams having to move money."
Fletcher made two recent moves, signing free-agent defensemen Erik Gustafsson and Derrick Pouliot. Gustafsson is versatile and could play on any Flyers pairing, while Pouliot is expected to play for the AHL’s Phantoms.
“Everything we’ve done has certainly been to try to improve our team in the present but also with an eye toward the future,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher knows Carter Hart and Travis Sanheim can become restricted free agents after next season, and that Scott Laughton can become an unrestricted free agent. In two years, star center Sean Couturier ($4.33 million cap hit) can become an unrestricted free agent and should have a big payday.
So Fletcher is being conservative in the offseason. Long-term deals, he knows, can be crippling in a salary-cap world.
Gustafsson, an offensive-minded defenseman, was given a one-year, $3 million deal.
Surprisingly, Fletcher said next year’s expansion draft for Seattle wasn’t a big factor in signing a defenseman to a one-year contract, which means he doesn’t have to be protected and can be exposed in the draft.
“I don’t think it has a big impact at all,” he said. “The most important thing is to improve your team for this season, and maybe as important, making sure you maintain salary-cap flexibility for the offseason to 2021-22. … As an organization, there’s only so many multi-year contacts you can either acquire via a trade or sign in free agency."
Fletcher was asked if he considered Gustafsson to be the final piece of the Flyers' defense.
“We’re still actively talking to teams to see what may be out there,” he said, mindful that defensemen Sami Vatanen and Travis Hamonic are among the free agents still on the market. “We do have a little cap space left. We’re focusing on trying to re-sign Phil Myers and Nolan Patrick. We can certainly start the year the way we are now, but if there’s a way to improve our team, we’ll continue to work that way.” (Patrick signed later in the day.)
Fletcher said the coaches need to decide where Gustafsson, who can play either side, fits in the lineup. “We think his skill set matches really well with what we need,” Fletcher said. “I think we have a lot of strong defenders on our team, and we’re very structured defensively as a group. And his skill set, his ability to go back for pucks and make good decisions, and transition the puck up the ice was a very important element to add to our group.”
The GM reiterated that the retired Matt Niskanen would be difficult to replace. He said Alex Pietrangelo, who signed a seven-year, $61.6 million deal with Vegas, was the only defenseman on the market who was “anywhere near as complete a player as Matt Niskanen.”
Fletcher acknowledged that Gustafsson brings a different skill set than Niskanen but raved about the Sweden native’s “tremendous deception with the puck,” his poise, and his offensive ability. “We don’t have a defenseman who sees the ice like he does,” Fletcher said.
Some interesting forwards are still available in free agency, including Mike Hoffman, Anthony Duclair, Mikael Granlund, and Andreas Athanasious. It is not known if Fletcher will try to sign them, but he said he is high on prospects Linus Sandin, Wade Allison, and Tanner Laczynski.
“We have an awful lot of forwards in our system that can compete for spots,” Fletcher said, adding he “hasn’t closed the door” on signing a player but feels the Flyers are “very deep” on the wing.