Alain Vigneault has created a club with balance, talent, and chemistry. But when you looked around the locker room, it was clear: The team needed a little more grit.
Chuck Fletcher got his coach some grit.
The Flyers general manager made a pair of deadline deals Monday that landed a pair of physical forwards who will help carry the load in the last 20 games: 6-foot-3, 206-pound Derek Grant and 6-1, 207-pound Nate Thompson.
They add significant mass to a Flyers club that needs heft on the front end, although they’ve amassed just 128 points in 1,017 games. So what. They ain’t here to play pretty.
Fletcher rewarded the team’s 13-5-2 surge with infantry reinforcements — strong finishing pieces from what Fletcher called a weak rental market. These moves make it clear that the 2019-20 season isn’t just about development. It’s about winning as much springtime hockey as possible — with the principal players still playing their principal parts.
“Our players have earned the right not only to have some additions at the trade deadline, but also for the most part to keep their roles,” Fletcher explained Monday afternoon.
That message should invigorate a team that might otherwise have lost its momentum had the front office stayed quiet. The Flyers occupy a nebulous position: five points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division but just three points from not being in the playoffs at all.
But they’re in for the moment, and with second-year goalie Carter Hart back from injury and playing great — he’s 4-1-0 with a .929 save percentage since a nine-game absence — they have coalesced in time for the brass to go all-in.
“Our players have done everything we have asked of them. I think they are excited at where we are at,” Fletcher said. “There are so many teams right behind us and right in front of us. I think we have given ourselves a chance. If we play our game, we are going to be in a good spot.”
Fletcher doesn’t mean the Flyers are in a good spot to make the playoffs. They’re in a good spot to make a deep run.
They have notched big wins over Boston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Columbus (tour times). The captain, Claude Giroux, finally has heated up, with four goals and 12 points in his last eight games.
This is about Philadelphia, not the rest of the Eastern Conference. The moves should be more an indicator that the Flyers think they can play deep into the postseason and less an indicator that they saw their competition reinforcing itself and reacted.
Asked if he made the moves to offset splashier acquisitions by the Penguins, Islanders, and Hurricanes, Fletcher said: “No. Not really. We just stuck to our plan.”
The plan shipped a fifth-round pick to Montreal for Thompson, and the plan sent a fourth-round pick plus a minor-leaguer to Anaheim for Grant.
In return, the Flyers stabilized their penalty kill — both newcomers kill penalties, and Fletcher called Grant an “elite” killer — while it adds two more solid faceoff mechanics.
And yes, Thompson will run the fourth line, and Grant will work in at wing, but neither is an offensive negative.
Thompson is a plus-2 over his last seven seasons. He’s also winning 55.1% of his faceoffs, which might mean less of a workload for Giroux. His 59.0% win rate in 1,059 chances leads all players who have at least 830 draws.
“That gives us another element where maybe we can spell G a little bit on the PKs, on some of those faceoffs,” Fletcher said. Then, he delivered the money line: “He is a gritty player.”
(He does not get bonuses for using the mascot’s name.)
Grant is gritty, too, and more talented than he’s been given credit for. He has a career-high 14 goals this season, two more than Flyers winger Jake Voracek. He has three shorthanded goals, tied for fourth in the league. He was cast as a stopper most of his career, but his increased scoring is as much a product of opportunity as development.
“When you get a chance to put the puck in the net,” Grant said, “everybody likes doing that.”
They arrive with plenty of incentive. Both Thompson, 35, and Grant, 29, will be free agents this summer. They’re playing for their next contracts.
“The two guys that we brought in I think are guys that are really hungry and really excited,” Fletcher said. “They are both in their last year of their contract. They are both coming from a situation where the team wasn’t as high in the standings as we are.”
Combined, Thompson and Grant have been involved in 12 playoff series. Voracek and Sean Couturier have combined for 11.
Fletcher expects those numbers to increase by at least two or three.