Bold summer makeover should revive Flyers | Sam Carchidi
After being passive in last year's offseason, Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher turned into Mr. Bold this summer.
For better or worse, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher last week threw away draft picks like people tossing rice at newlyweds as they leave the church.
Here a first-rounder, there a second-rounder.
Here a second-rounder, there a seventh-rounder.
Some of the draft picks may turn out to be solid NHL players, or better. Others may never make it to the Big Show, or never make much of an impact.
Fletcher, in a departure from his predecessor -- Ron Hextall loved to stockpile extra drafts picks -- had his own bold plan, one that included the following principles:
1. Win now, baby.
2. Change the team’s culture.
3. Get some new leaders into a locker room that had grown stale.
And, so, he became the NHL’s most active general manger over the last week, acquiring a scorer with an in-your-face mentality in Cam Atkinson, and defensemen Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen, veterans who play with an edge.
Good for Fletcher.
After a disappointing season in which they failed to make the playoffs, the Flyers had no identity, and finished last in the league in goals allowed, Fletcher knew a makeover was necessary. He thus went from being passive the previous offseason to Mr. Bold this summer.
And after a flurry of deals, Fletcher’s team looks very different and improved. The Flyers should be much better this season, but are they better off in the long run?
That depends on a lot of variables -- like Carter Hart showing last season was an anomaly; like Fletcher working out an extension with team MVP Sean Couturier, whose contract expires after the 2021-22 season; like young (or relatively young) players such as Joel Farabee, Oskar Lindblom, Travis Sanheim, Cam York, Morgan Frost, and Wade Allison, among others, blossoming into consistent, high-quality contributors.
Their development will be watched closely. For the here and now, the Flyers have at least put themselves in a position to contend for a playoff spot, primarily because the defense bears little resemblance to last season’s.
Half of the defense will look new. In: Ellis, Ristolainen, and, most likely, York. Out: Phil Myers, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Robert Hagg.
That’s not an indictment on the three former Flyers defensemen. The Flyers’ defensive collapse – which saw them go from seventh to 31st in the league in a one-year span that coincided with Matt Niskanen’s retirement -- was truly a team effort.
That includes the defense, the forwards, and of course, the goaltenders.
“We were brutal defensively,” Fletcher said Saturday on the NHL Network. “There’s no other way of putting it.”
Fletcher started the makeover with a solid trade for Ellis, a top-pairing right-handed defenseman who should stabilize the back end. The price was two players (Nolan Patrick and Myers) with potential, but it was a risk worth taking because you know what you are getting from the physical, steady Ellis. And, besides, he’s locked up for six more years at the going rate ($6.25 million per season) for someone of his caliber.
Fletcher then began dealing draft picks at an alarming rate, including a No. 1 pick and two second-round selections. (One of the second-rounders went to Arizona to entice the Coyotes to take Gostisbehere and his $4.5 million cap hit for two years.)
A risk that the draft picks will come back to haunt him?
Certainly, especially since there was no negotiated extension with Ristolainen (like Chicago did with Seth Jones) before the trade was made. If Ristolainen walks after he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season, this trade -- first- and second-round picks and the underrated Hagg -- could be a disaster.
For this season, however, Fletcher has given fans a renewed sense of optimism -- not easy to accomplish in a flat-cap era. Despite cap woes around the league, he somehow added three key players and increased the Flyers’ available cap space.
Assuming Allison, Frost, York, and Tanner Laczynski make the team, the Flyers have about $11.7 million in cap space. They must still re-sign restricted free agents Hart and Travis Sanheim, and they are close to re-signing Samuel Morin, an unrestricted free agent.
Let’s estimate those three players have a combined $7 million cap hit. That would leave the Flyers with about $4.7 million of cap room.
The Flyers gained $2.375 million -- for each of the next three years -- in cap space when they dealt Jake Voracek for Atkinson. That money will come in handy as they try to add a backup goalie who is durable enough to play at least 30 games.
Jonathan Bernier and Linus Ullmark are among the UFA goalies who would be a good complement to Hart. Free agency starts Wednesday.
“We’re looking for a guy to push Carter and be a good teammate,” Fletcher said.
Thanks to his flurry of moves -- some good, some questionable -- he now has the cap room to improve the goaltending, which should be better with a much stronger defense in front.
“As our team improves, Carter will improve,” Fletcher said. “And as Carter improves, our team will get better, too. This is a young man with high-end talent, high-end hockey skills. He’s going to bounce back; he’ll make the adjustments he needs to make, and we expect him to be a very good goalie next year.”
If he is, the Flyers should return to the playoffs.
If he isn’t, well, the bold summer moves won’t mean nearly as much.