Little more than seven months after he was let go by the Minnesota Wild, Chuck Fletcher is back at the helm of an NHL club.
On Monday, the Flyers announced Fletcher will step into the void left by Ron Hextall, who was in his fifth season as Philadelphia’s GM when he was fired one week ago. Fletcher, 51, comes aboard after having spent the past several months as a senior advisor with the New Jersey Devils. Prior to joining to the Devils, and before his nearly decade-long tenure with the Wild, Fletcher served as an assistant GM with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks and Florida Panthers, with whom he also had a brief turn as GM.
The mandate for Fletcher is clear: with the Flyers’ season more than one-quarter complete, and with only one team sitting between Philadelphia and the Eastern Conference basement and five points separating the Flyers from the second wild-card spot, he will be tasked with sparking an in-season turnaround of significant proportion and guiding this team to the post-season.
So, where does he start?
Undoubtedly, the first question on the minds of anyone who has watched a single second of Philadelphia’s tumultuous season is the status of coach Dave Hakstol. Sporting an 11-12-2 record through 25 games and in danger of falling short of a post-season berth for the second time in three seasons, Hakstol’s job has seemingly been in danger since early in the campaign, with some surprised it was Hextall, not Hakstol, that was given his walking papers. Fletcher doesn’t appear to have much interest in coming in and cleaning house, however, telling reporters Monday that he wants to understand the situation before making changes.
“I certainly have no intention of making a coaching change tomorrow,” Fletcher said, according to Philly.com. “I’m going to meet with Dave and we’re going to try to work together and push. Our goal is to make the playoffs this year. We have work to do and it’ll be a challenge.”
In order for Philadelphia to even entertain the idea of a post-season appearance, though, Fletcher’s first order of business can’t be the coaching staff. Rather, it has to be addressing the sorry state of affairs in the Flyers’ crease.
Entering Tuesday’s action, Philadelphia has the fourth-worst goals-against per game total, 3.52, and there has been an almost unfathomable level of inconsistency in goal. Veteran Brian Elliott has been the Flyers’ most reliable keeper, posting a modest .911 save percentage and 2.59 goals-against average, but the rotating cast of Anthony Stolarz, Michal Neuvirth, Alex Lyon and Calvin Pickard, who was waived and subsequently claimed by the Arizona Coyotes, has left Philadelphia’s goaltenders with a combined .887 SP and 3.32 GAA.
Fletcher has some history with acquiring goaltending talent, however. It was during the 2014-15 campaign he orchestrated a season-saving trade for the Wild, acquiring Devan Dubnyk from the Coyotes for a third-round pick. Dubnyk went on to post a 27-9-2 record, .936 SP and 1.78 GAA across 39 games, finish third in Vezina Trophy voting and fourth in Hart Trophy voting as Minnesota earned a playoff berth and finished the campaign as one of a dozen teams with 100 points. Dubnyk has remained a steady starter since, again finishing top-five in Vezina voting during the 2016-17 season.
Of course, acquiring a high-quality goaltender is much easier said than done. The options are limited, to be sure, and Fletcher won’t be likely to land any top-tier netminder without paying a hefty price. And if there should be any worry in the immediate for Flyers’ faithful, it’s that Fletcher’s trade record isn’t exactly dazzling.
Yes, he acquired Dubnyk, a two-time Vezina contender, for a song, and he was able to execute the Nino Niederreiter-Cal Clutterbuck swap with the New York Islanders. Fletcher was also behind the swap of a third- and fourth-round picks for a second-round pick at the 2010 draft that resulted in the drafting of Jason Zucker. But the rest of Fletcher’s trade history is spotty, filled with nothingburger exchanges of low-level players with a few notable lowlights sprinkled in. That includes the Cam Barker-Nick Leddy deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Dany Heatley-Martin Havlat trade with the San Jose Sharks and, more recently, the Martin Hanzal trade deadline acquisition from the Coyotes — for which the Wild paid dearly — and the Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno-for-Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville deal with the Buffalo Sabres that Fletcher was pressured into by the then-impending expansion draft.
Philadelphians might breathe easier knowing that Fletcher doesn’t seem intent on sacrificing the future to win now, though. According to Philly.com, Fletcher said he would be “respectful” of what has been built, no doubt good news given a panel of scouts ranked the Flyers’ prospect pool the second-best in the entire NHL in The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2018. Top young talents such as Philippe Myers, Morgan Frost, German Rubtsov, as well as current NHLers Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov, Nolan Patrick and Travis Sanheim, all make up the next wave in Philadelphia. And that’s not to mention goaltender Carter Hart, currently playing his debut pro campaign with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in Lehigh Valley, who is considered the answer to the franchise’s long-standing goaltending woes.
There are, indeed, pieces Fletcher can move about without touching his top prospects. Pending unrestricted free agent Wayne Simmonds seems a prime candidate to be moved, and it almost goes without saying that the Flyers would be willing to part ways with (the currently injured) Elliott or Neuvirth at a moment’s notice if a quality keeper was coming the other way. Both goaltenders see their contracts expire at season’s end. It’s not beyond reason, either, that a team with a prospect pool as stacked as the Flyers’ would consider moving along draft choices. They have all of their picks for the next three years, according to CapFriendly.
Fletcher will only be able to be so patient if the goal is to make the playoffs this season, however, and he may be forced to act even faster — and make moves even bolder — than he desires if the Flyers don’t show signs of progression in the coming days and weeks. He has been given the wheel in Philadelphia and it's no secret that the Flyers' front office wants to see success in the near future, not in three-to-five years as was projected under Hextall. It's up to Fletcher to deliver, which means steering this ship in the right direction before it runs aground.