Chuck Fletcher didn’t want to make any rash decisions upon his appointment as GM of the Philadelphia Flyers. He said as much at his introductory press conference, telling reporters he would instead look to his own roster before exploring outside options. And while the patient approach was commendable and almost undoubtedly the right decision given how infrequently impulsive actions pay off for team builders, it became abundantly clear on Thursday — after the Flyers dropped their fifth consecutive contest, sixth in the past seven and 11th in 15 since Fletcher took the helm — that the time for patience has come and gone.
True as it may be that Philadelphia finds themselves in no worse a position in the standings waking up Friday than they did on Dec. 3, when Fletcher was officially hired by the organization, there’s a stark contrast between sitting second-last in the Eastern Conference some 20-odd games into the campaign and staring up at all but one team in the conference with half the campaign in the books. When Fletcher was hired, the Flyers were only five points out of a wild-card berth. As of Friday, the gap has grown into a chasm as Philadelphia trails the Montreal Canadiens, second in the Eastern wild card, by 14 points.
Now, in fairness, Fletcher hasn’t been entirely inactive since taking over for deposed GM Ron Hextall. The one move the Flyers’ new architect has made, though, has done little to spur on anything that even remotely resembles success in Philadelphia. Since Fletcher’s move to relieve coach Dave Hakstol on Dec. 17, the Flyers have won three games. Two of those victories came on the heels of the coaching change. The third came by way of a shootout on the eve of the holiday break. Philadelphia hasn’t won a game in the nearly two weeks since.
So, if ever there was a time for Fletcher to alter course, even if only slightly, it’s now.
Any discussion of immediate action in Philadelphia almost begins and ends in goal, too, and with all apologies to Mike McKenna, a career .892 save percentage goaltender who was claimed off of waivers Friday, his acquisition doesn’t equate to truly addressing the problem. That’s particularly true when, in the 15 games Fletcher has overseen as Philadelphia’s GM, the Flyers have allowed more goals against and more goals against per game than any team in the NHL. Thursday’s performance against an offensively inept Hurricanes club was an indication of how sour the goaltending situation has become for the Flyers, too, as Carolina powered five past Michal Neuvirth in a 5-3 Philadelphia loss. It marked the ninth time in their past 15 games that the Flyers have allowed four or more goals against.
For a brief moment, it appeared Philadelphia had found their quick fix in projected future crease savior Carter Hart, but the rookie goaltender’s moment of glory was short-lived. While he still possesses absolutely outsized potential, Hart’s past three games after a two-win start to his NHL career have seen him allow nine goals on 65 shots, good for an .862 save percentage. Remarkably, however, that three-game output is better than Neuvirth’s performance this season — he has an .859 SP in seven appearances. That’s slightly worse than Anthony Stolarz’s performance, too, but he remains sidelined with an injury.
One of the only arguments that can be made against the Flyers seeking a goaltending upgrade with any haste is that on-the-mend keeper Brian Elliott has been serviceable in his 14 games this season. His .911 SP is 24th among the 53 goaltenders with a dozen appearances this season. But the issue is Elliott hasn’t played since mid-November and isn’t due back until mid- to late-January at the earliest. By that point, a season that is already on the brink of slipping away — if it hasn’t already done so — could be a complete wash, and that should expedite Fletcher’s search for a keeper.
Of course, in the cutthroat world of the NHL, it’s unlikely any team is going to come about to gift the Flyers a No. 1 keeper able to propel them to back up the standings, but Fletcher has more than enough pieces at his disposal to fashion some sort of deal. In no way does that mean Philadelphia should sell off the pieces that have set them up for a brighter future for a shot at making something — anything — of this season, though. Short of trying to swing a blockbuster deal to land legitimate Vezina Trophy-calibre goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Fletcher shouldn’t have to touch the stockpile of picks and prospects that he was left by Hextall.
Among the capable keepers that may exist on the market are free agents-to-be such as Jimmy Howard and Semyon Varlamov, and one has to imagine that either could be had for the right price. The Avalanche, who would turn to Philipp Grubauer if Varlamov was sent packing, could use secondary scoring, and maybe Wayne Simmonds could be a piece sent the other way in a deal of expiring contracts. Detroit might have some interest in a pick or prospect for Howard’s expiring contract. Other netminders available for acquisition could include Aaron Dell, Craig Anderson, Anton Khudobin and Darcy Kuemper, each of whom may be able to be had if the Flyers meet the varying price tags.
And realistically, the season isn’t yet so far gone that the Flyers can’t come back from the brink to steal a wild-card spot if they can find a goaltender that provides them with anything resembling league-average performance. Would Philadelphia need some help? A considerable amount, to be sure. But one will recall that the 2016-17 New York Islanders went on a second-half run that saw them fall a point short of a post-season berth despite being dead-last in the Eastern Conference on Jan. 17 of that season. Improbable as it may be, climbing the standings in the back half of the season is not impossible.
To suggest that Fletcher and Co. should act swiftly, however, is to believe that the Flyers have interest in making what they can of the remainder of this campaign. In house, Philadelphia may have settled to end the season as a struggling team, one willing to sell of its free agent pieces at the deadline with the mindset of tackling their problems in the off-season, including conducting a search for a permanent and experienced coach. And that’s fine if that’s their plan. It’s not the worst option. But if the Flyers do have any designs on even sniffing a post-season berth, that pursuit is going to have to begin in earnest in the coming days, not the coming weeks. And it will have to start with some action after a month-long period of standing pat.