Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher, who never got a suitable replacement for the retired Matt Niskanen, acknowledged Wednesday that the defense’s makeup is “not right,” and that he is trying to address the situation and find the “right mix.”
He also said the Flyers’ subpar season “starts with me,” and that he was working the phones and attempting to improve his sagging team.
In a wide-ranging virtual interview with the media Wednesday, Fletcher said he did not consider himself to be a seller – at least at the moment – before the April 12 trade deadline and still believed the Flyers would make a playoff run.
“We’re certainly not looking at selling right now,” Fletcher said, adding that he has received “very few calls” from inquiring general managers, and that he has “made many.”
“I’ve been much more aggressive than a lot of people, just looking at different options,” Fletcher continued. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of teams willing to take on dollars and term at this point in time.”
Fletcher said there were more teams “looking to move pieces than take on pieces.”
Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm and Columbus’s David Savard are defensemen who could help the Flyers, who are 30th in the league in goals allowed per game and 31st in save percentage. The Flyers are also reportedly interested in Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis, who is sidelined because of recent shoulder surgery but could help them down the road.
“We’ll take a look, and anything we do, we want to make sure it makes sense,” said Fletcher, who was not talking about any specific players. “If we can fill a box for the long-term right now, we can potentially explore that. But certainly, if we can upgrade our team, we’ll do that.”
Asked how much blame for the Flyers’ season – they are 4-8-1 in March and have fallen to 15-12-4 overall – he placed on the coaches, Fletcher pointed a finger at himself.
“It starts with me,” he 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 is accountable. We’re all accountable for where we’re at in the standings. Having said that, we’re still in the middle of the playoff battle here. We’re pushing to get back in.”
The Flyers have lacked consistency and defensive structure, and they have rarely played a solid 60-minute game.
“It’s been frustrating. Our goals-against has been frustrating,” Fletcher said. “But on the positive side, two of our best games have been in the last week. I think as a group we know the recipe for success; we just have to find it a little more consistently.”
The two games Fletcher referenced were against the Islanders, a 4-3 road win and a 2-1 overtime loss at the Wells Fargo Center. “The way we played in those games showed me we can be a good, competitive team,” Fletcher said.
The 4-3 win was sandwiched by a 9-0 loss to the Rangers and a 6-1 defeat to the Isles.
Several of the Flyers’ young players have had poor seasons, including defensemen Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim, and goalie Carter Hart. They are not alone.
“Look, with young players, there’s going to be ups and downs. I think we all recognize that,” Fletcher said. “Certainly, some of our young players haven’t played to the same level they played last year. I think long-term, a lot of these players are going to be good players in this league for a long time.
“You have to be careful not to overanalyze some of these young players who have shown to be good players in the past. My expectation is that they’ll find that path again.”
Fletcher said Hart was going through growing pains and that other goaltenders -- he mentioned Carey Price, Connor Hellebuyck, and Marc-Andre Fleury -- bounced back after some difficult times.
“All of those great goaltenders had some ups and downs early in their career and had some tough seasons,” he said. “It’s a hard position. I believe in Carter. I believe in his talent, and I believe he will be a very good goalie for this franchise for a very long time.”
Fletcher said it’s a “year you have to be a little careful with in overanalyzing the [team’s] results. Clearly, they matter for making the playoffs, and that’s our goal. But long-term, there have been different challenges that you normally don’t face. Some players have handled it better than others; some teams have handled it better than others.”
Among the challenges: A condensed schedule that has teams playing games at a rapid rate (with very few practices), and the fact that six Flyers regulars were on the COVID-19 list at one point. They are all now healthy.
As for Niskanen and finding his replacement in the offseason with a flat salary cap, Fletcher said, “Matt was a great player for us and clearly we didn’t fill the void. 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.”
The Flyers are allowing 3.52 goals per game; they allowed 2.77 last year.
Fletcher said the defense’s makeup “probably is not right. I think that’s a fair comment. I think we do need to address that going forward to get the right mix.”
Now in his second full season with the Flyers, Fletcher said there were “some holes we need to fill to get to where you want to get to” in the long term. “For this year, I think we have a good hockey team. We’ve had a really tough month. … I do think we can rebound from this. I think we’ll have a chance to catch our breath a little bit here. We don’t have as many back-to-backs in the next little stretch and we’ll actually have a chance to have a practice or two.”