(Photo: Kate Frese)
By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
The 2018-19 season has concluded, and for the Flyers, the real work is about to begin.
It was another disappointing season for the Flyers. Another slow start through the first 25 games. Another season of chasing in the standings. Another season of chasing the game on a nightly basis.
Perhaps the biggest difference was all of the change being made within the management side of things. Ron Hextall was fired as GM in November. Dave Hakstol followed in December as the Flyers made a coaching change as well.
The Flyers have their new GM in Chuck Fletcher, and he has spent the better part of the last four months evaluating what the Flyers have and where they need to go over the next few months as the offseason progresses. One thing is obvious about this offseason for the Flyers: it won’t be boring. There will be action. There will be a lot of things happening. And there will be change.
It all sets up for an interesting offseason for the Flyers, one that begins now that the season is over and will carry over throughout the summer and as the 2019-20 season approaches.
So what gets addressed? Here are a few of the areas that the Flyers need to look into during the offseason.
When a new GM takes over, the thought is that he wants to bring in his own head coach. Chuck Fletcher took three weeks before making a decision regarding Dave Hakstol.
With little time to adjust to such a move, Scott Gordon took over as interim head coach and was going to be given every opportunity to take over on a full-time basis with a 51-game audition.
Make no mistake about it, Gordon did a good job in several areas. He got the special teams in some form of order, particularly the penalty kill. He handled the goaltending very well. He worked well with young players and helped bring the play of Oskar Lindblom and Travis Sanheim up to new levels.
But the coaching staff still had its flaws post-Hakstol. The defensive structure is really non-existent. Offensively, the team tries too hard for the perfect play, and that may not be a reflection of any system or coaching style — the Flyers did that long before Hakstol and Gordon — but it was never corrected either. The Flyers also still had an issue coming out prepared and ready to play nightly. This team fell behind 2-0 in 32 of the 82 games this season. That’s simply unacceptable.
Fletcher praised Gordon during the final week of the regular season, but also noted that a coaching search would still happen, so while Gordon may have improved his chances some, he’s probably still not at the top of the list, or else the job would already be his.
With three weeks left in the season, with the Flyers back to within three points of a playoff spot, it seemed like it was Gordon’s job to lose. That may not be the case anymore.
The way I see it, there are really only a handful of options out there that may work for the Flyers. Gordon is one, based solely on his familiarity with the players coming up through the system.
It’s obvious that the Flyers covet the services of Joel Quenneville and he would be a much different coach than the team has had in the last six seasons. That said, there are two big things with Quenneville. Does he really want to come to a team like this, one that has gone through extensive growing pains and given little reason to believe the end is near? You would think he wants to coach a winner. Secondly, Quenneville isn’t known as a developmental coach who handles a team full of prospects. His style is to bring out the best in players that are experienced and ready to win. The Flyers do not have that kind of roster, so would a project interest him?
Outside of Quenneville, there are a few other intriguing options. If the Flyers don’t land Quenneville and choose to move on from Gordon, Sheldon Keefe is an up-and-coming name that could be a good choice. Among free agents, Todd McLellan and Dave Tippett are discussed as well.
Either way, this has to be the Flyers first order of business. You certainly can’t address the roster without knowing who your coach will be in the upcoming season.
The Flyers desperately need to add a player who has a shoot-first mentality and makes scoring 25 goals a season look easy. With the amount of cap space the Flyers will have, this may be the shoot for the stars territory.
Think big free-agent names like Artemi Panarin and Jeff Skinner.
The Flyers need one of these players on the top line, an instantly exciting player with skill off the charts that is a threat every time he touches the ice. The Flyers have players who can score — Sean Couturier’s back-to-back 30 goals seasons are no fluke and James van Riemsdyk is still a capable scorer — but the Flyers need a guy who is the threat at all times. It will open up more opportunities for the guys who aren’t shoot-first and take the offense to another level.
It’s going to come at a cost, but the Flyers need to add some excitement to the lineup outside of the goalie.
The defensive structure of this team is all over the place, and before you can jump to the defensemen, you have to look at the centers on this team and make a decision on where you are going to play everyone and what role you will address. The team needs a middle-six center.
Couturier will obviously be your top-line center next season and Nolan Patrick is going to be in the other middle-six role. It may be best for Patrick to continue to grow as the third-line center, meaning acquiring a second-line center gets added to the to-do list.
Think players like Kevin Hayes and Brock Nelson for this role, guys who have scoring chops, but are better known for solid two-way play.
An obvious area to upgrade is the defensemen, and in order to add, you may have to subtract. It’s getting harder to find places to put all of the blue line prospects somewhere on the roster.
First things first, Andrew MacDonald served as the team’s No. 8 defenseman down the stretch. You can’t have a No. 8 defenseman making the money MacDonald does. He was serviceable in his time with the Flyers, but that should come to an end to free up the cap space and the roster spot.
Players like Robert Hagg are expendable and even a player like Shayne Gostisbehere could be on the move if the return is great enough and helps fill another need. With Travis Sanheim emerging as a solid defenseman and Sam Morin, Phil Myers and Mark Friedman all finding their way into the lineup this season, there are just too many cooks in the kitchen. Someone’s got to go.
In the meantime, the Flyers need to focus on adding a Top-4 defenseman who makes a bigger impact in the defensive zone than on the scoresheet. There are rumblings that Jacob Trouba may be available in a trade or that the Flyers could look into a free agent like Erik Karlsson. Another Winnipeg defenseman, Tyler Myers, is also available via free agency.
There aren’t many options, so this one may require going the trade route, but the Flyers need to try to sure up the play in front of their goalie.
The Flyers have six restricted free agents and six unrestricted free agents. The six UFAs are mostly not factors for next season’s NHL roster. Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott are likely not returning. Jori Lehtera is definitely not returning. Corban Knight and Phil Varone may be re-signed to be pieces for the Phantoms, but likely don’t have a place on the Flyers. The only UFA that really holds a lot of meaning is Cam Talbot, the goalie the Flyers acquired to presumably be re-signed as Carter Hart’s backup next season.
It’s the RFA’s that really matter here. Scott Laughton and Ryan Hartman are arbitration eligible. So is Justin Bailey, but again, he likely factors in as a minor-league piece more than an NHL piece.
The big three of the RFA group are Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim. All three will certainly be re-signed, but the big question is for how long and how much? Those answers need to be determined early in the offseason so the Flyers know what they have to work with in the trade market and free agency.
With all 12 of those players unsigned, the Flyers have about $31 million in cap space available for next season, not including what they could add if MacDonald is bought out or any increases to the salary cap by the NHL.
The other factor is trying to leave spots open for prospects to potentially make the lineup. The defensive group has to factor in that guys like Myers and Friedman are ready for full-time roles. The forward group may need to leave room for Morgan Frost or Joel Farabee if they prove to be ready. There’s a host of prospects that are making noise at the AHL or in juniors and turning pro next season.
While cap space doesn’t factor into those decisions, roster space certainly does, and the Flyers will need to be mindful that anyone they sign or trade for could be blocking a prospect that is a key part to the future.
It is sure to be an interesting four to five months from now until the end of August with all of the expected changes that could be happening. It all starts now with the 2018-19 season as a thing of the past.