Is Chuck Fletcher’s “Aggressive Retool” Already A Failure?
When Chuck Fletcher and Dave Scott sat down in front of the assembled media on Jan. 26, 2022, the Philadelphia Flyers organization was reeling. The team had just lost its 13th consecutive game, a franchise record. It was also their second double-digit losing streak through just 43 games of the 2021-22 season. It doesn’t take much knowledge of hockey to know that the Flyers’ playoff hopes were all but shot at that point. The team was firmly looking toward the future — the only question was just how far into the future the team would set their sights. And given the chance to set that bar, the two laid it awfully high.
“I don’t really see this as being a 3, 4, 5-year rebuild at all,” said Scott, the CEO of Comcast Spectacor and governor of the team, that day. “We should be in it next year.” Fletcher himself said, “We’re gonna try to aggressively retool here.” Later, he said, “Bottoming out, I don’t think that’s what we feel we need to do.”
The Flyers had laid their hand out there for all to see. And it’s not like it was one Fletcher had never played before. The Flyers charted a very similar course in the 2019 offseason. And it did result in a significantly better product in 2019-20. Even going back to his days in Minnesota, Fletcher’s track record isn’t a passive one. Perhaps the biggest reason the Flyers hired Fletcher in Dec. 2018 was his “bias for action,” which was seen as a necessity to turn the team around.
Yet that past only makes the team that’s currently structured with the dust settled on the busiest part of the NHL offseason that much stranger. Just three years ago, a Flyers team that missed the playoffs by 16 points but wanted to return there the next year hired a new, veteran coach and added a second-line center (Kevin Hayes), two top-four defensemen (Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun), a bottom-six winger (Tyler Pitlick).
This summer, a Flyers team that missed the playoffs by 39 points but seemingly wants to return to the playoffs hired a new, veteran coach and added a borderline top-four defenseman with major on and off-ice question marks (Tony DeAngelo), a bottom-six winger (Nicolas Deslauriers), and a third-pair defenseman (Braun, who now is ticketed for a lesser role at 35 years old). So, a Flyers team that was much worse than they were three years ago yet still aiming to make the same leap added quite a bit less to their roster. They even surrendered more draft capital this time around to do so. How does that add up?
The answer would seem to be that it doesn’t, at least not for the formula the Flyers initially laid out. That in itself isn’t the end of the world, though. A team changing its course is hardly unprecedented. And there’s no sense trying to a square peg into a round hole if you don’t have to. But given the chance to backpedal, Fletcher didn’t back off the initial plan. “We’re retooling,” Fletcher bluntly stated on the team’s free-agency opening day presser. “We’ve been very aggressive in trying to fix some of our holes,” Fletcher also stated.
Of course, trying to do something, even aggressively, isn’t the same as doing something. The Flyers know they have a top-end talent deficiency. But it doesn’t appear they know how to fix it. Sure, maybe Gaudreau didn’t perfectly fit their timeline, which has become the popular reason to explain why the Flyers didn’t pursue the South Jersey native. But there’s no guarantee the next big name free agent star who might fit the organization’s long-term plans better will be as willing to come to Philadelphia as Gaudreau reportedly was. And Philadelphia’s cap situation, even with James van Riemsdyk’s $7 million cap hit coming off the books next year (which was one of the main roadblocks to pursuing Gaudreau), is one of the league’s worst.
The only other option for the Flyers to fix that deficiency would be through the draft; either by bottoming out to rack up top picks or/and using those picks and the players drafted with them to make a trade. But again, the Flyers don’t seem particularly interested in that. Other than 2022 No. 5 pick Cutter Gauthier and 2019 No. 14 pick Cam York, the Flyers don’t have much high-end talent in their system. Nor do they really have the depth to feel comfortable trading someone like 2018 1st round pick Joel Farabee, who has already established himself as a bonafide NHLer. Sure, the Flyers have other valuable prospects in their system. But so does every team. And what ranked as the NHL’s No. 1 system just five years ago isn’t just not that anymore. It crucially hasn’t produced nearly enough NHL talent to make up for its declining status.
What happens in sports when a team has a problem but no clear solution to fix it? It’s the same as in any other facet of life: bad things, for the most part. Sometimes patience can be a virtue, of course. The last thing the Flyers can afford to do right now is to make another big-money commitment that doesn’t pan out. That’s how bad teams stay bad.
But bad teams also generally don’t become good magically overnight. And the Flyers don’t have enough magic beans in their system to expect they’ll be an exception. Perhaps the biggest thing that determines the health of a franchise is the amount of pressure it’s facing. Bad teams are often forced or feel forced into change. That can lead to mistakes that just further set them back. Good teams often get to change at their own pace, since “running it back” can be a legitimately viable option for them in most cases.
The Flyers, despite recording the second worst regular season in team history, made very few changes to their roster. They just changed behind the bench. And if Fletcher can’t figure out a way to change the direction of the Flyers franchise from the total nosedive it’s currently taking, it may not be long until change continues to spread.