General manager Chuck Fletcher said he won’t make any knee-jerk decisions based on such a small sample size: 13 playoff games in which the Flyers offense was mostly stagnant and their power play was consistently awful.
Sounding a lot like his predecessor, Ron Hextall, Fletcher said that he wants the team’s improvement next season to come from the farm system, and that he doesn’t expect to make many offseason moves in the trade or free-agent markets.
He’s betting, apparently, that his big guns' poor playoff showing was an anomaly, betting that some of his young players and/or prospects -- guys like Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost, Wade Allison, Connor Bunnaman, and Linus Sandin, among others -- will blossom.
So while some in Flyers Nation clamor for Patrik Laine or Nikolaj Ehlers in the trade market, or perhaps Mike Hoffman, Tyler Toffoli, or Evgenii Dadonov in free agency, Fletcher is downplaying those ideas.
Maybe he’s playing poker and just doesn’t want to show his hand and drive up the price in both markets.
Maybe he doesn’t want to get fans too excited and then disappoint them if he’s not able to make moves because of the flat salary cap.
Or maybe he thinks that if the Flyers have Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick back next season they will be the missing pieces the offense lacked in the playoffs, during which they scored only 27 goals in 13 games.
That’s just 2.1 goals per game. Worse yet, they scored a total of three goals in their four losses to the Islanders and were blanked in Games 1 and 7.
“Losing a Game 7 is tough,” Fletcher said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “We go into that Game 7 and we were one of five teams left playing in the NHL. Twenty-six teams are already done. You’re one win away from getting to the final four, which is tough to do in any year.”
The offense-challenged playoffs aside, the Flyers (41-21-7) made great strides. They were on pace to finish with 106 points before the coronavirus outbreak ended the regular season after 69 games. That’s a significant improvement over their 82 points (37-37-8) from the previous year.
“When I look back to where we were 17 months ago when we had a press conference in the same room I’m in now, you guys were all here in person and we talked about the things we had to do,” Fletcher said. “We fast-forward 17 months and I think we’ve come a long way. I think the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit. I think we were on pace to reduce our goals- against by 60 in one season, which is incredible. Offensively, we were better. Our special teams were on a net basis fifth-best in the league. We showed a lot of progress.”
The Flyers, thanks to better defensive play up and down the lineup and goalie Carter Hart’s development, went from 29th in the NHL (3.41 goals-against per game) last year to tied for seventh with Tampa Bay (2.77 per game) this season.
On offense, they climbed from 18th (2.94 goals per game) to seventh (3.29 per game) in one year.
“We had a lot of young player get better. Our goaltending situation stabilized. Our defensive structure was better,” Fletcher said. “We played the right way. We’ve made a lot of strides, yet having said that, when you get in the playoffs and lose in the second round, it shows you have more work to do. The goal for us is to continue to improve and hopefully make as many strides in the next 12 months as we did in the past year and see where that takes us.”
Fletcher, whose offseason moves last summer paved the way for the improvement, believes the Flyers' young players gained valuable playoff experience.
“The playoffs are a different level of physicality. There’s not as much time and space. You hope that some of the lessons they learned will help us down the road,” he said.
Next on the agenda is the Oct. 6 and 7 draft (the Flyers pick No. 23 overall), and free agency starts Oct. 9. Fletcher and his staff will have to decide which unrestricted free agents they will try to keep. Brian Elliott is expected to return, and Tyler Pitlick might also be back. UFAs Justin Braun, Derek Grant, and Nate Thompson probably won’t return.
“There will be a lot going on the next month. We’ll look at every angle we can to improve our team without being too emotional, making sure we’re making the proper decisions,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher said he was disappointed in the performance of his third and fourth liners in the playoffs.
“When they were dressed as bottom-six forwards, they scored two goals in 13 games,” he said. “I thought during the last couple months before the pause, that was one of our strengths. It dried up a bit during the post-season. That’s an area we have to look at.”
But it was the big guns who should get the scrutiny. In 16 postseason games, including the round-robin tournament, Claude Giroux had one goal. Travis Konecny had none. Sean Couturier had two goals in 15 games. In the seven-game series against the Isles, Giroux, Konecny, and Jake Voracek combined for one goal. One.
After allowing just one goal in each of the three round-robin games, the Flyers spent too much time in their defensive zone against Montreal and the Isles.
Fletcher said his “biggest disappointment” in the playoffs was that “our defensive detail slipped. The way we played the game prior to the pause, I don’t think we brought that game to the playoffs. Part of it may be that guys struggled to score, and when you struggle to score sometimes you tend to cheat, tend to force plays.
"We turned the puck over a lot more in the playoffs than we did prior to the pause. I can’t tell you how many times it seemed like our F3 [last forward] got caught in the offensive zone.”
He praised the Islanders and Canadiens for the pressure they applied.
“But my point is that when you turn pucks over and you don’t have the puck, it’s hard to generate speed,” he said, “and it’s hard to play fast and it’s hard to score goals, because you’re defending all the time.”
Get offensive. Add a key forward. That offensive weapon might not be the end-all solution, but it would be a good start.