By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
When you’re having the kind of month the Flyers are having, an appearance from the GM becomes a much-anticipated event. Chuck Fletcher met the media on Wednesday afternoon, in a spot where he needed to address the current state of the team, the upcoming trade deadline and his approach, and a variety of other topics.
For most of the press conference, Fletcher delivered the usual dignified answers you expect to hear – things about needing to be better, defending the youth of the team, and notably, not committing to selling at the trade deadline. But he didn’t shy away from acknowledging the flaws the Flyers currently have.
Fletcher didn’t gloss over the cold hard facts of where the Flyers rank in various categories. He called out the puck management problems. But his most telling response came when he was answering a question regarding Erik Gustafsson that ultimately transferred over into the defense as a whole.
“We’ve had a lot of inconsistent performances from a lot of our players,” Fletcher said. “I think Erik has played probably as advertised, and I think the makeup of our group probably is not right, I think that’s a fair comment. I think we do need to address that going forward to get the right mix.
“Certainly some of our young players need to continue to take steps. I think our back end like the rest of our team needs to get better. But overall our team defense has been a collective effort, and we just haven’t been good enough in any aspect of the game yet.”
Those are pretty telling words, stating that the team doesn’t have the right makeup and needs a different mix of players. That doesn’t indicate when, but it sure indicates what could be coming. And it’s not going to be pretty.
Of course, Fletcher also didn’t throw the players under the bus. He defended the youth of the team and kept the focus on the playoff picture, despite a 4-8-1 stretch in March so far.
“Well it starts with me. I’m responsible for the overall direction of the team from hiring the coaches to bringing in the players. At this point in time, everyone’s accountable. We’re all accountable for where we are at in the standings. Having said that, we’re still in the middle of a playoff battle here. We’re pushing to get back in. Certainly we lack consistency this year. That’s been frustrating. Our goals against has been frustrating. I also look on the positive side. Two of our best games have been in the last week. I think as a group, we know the recipe for success. We just have to find it a little more consistently.”
Here are a few of the other highlights from Fletcher.
On being buyers or sellers: “We’re certainly not looking at selling right now. I would say to you, in my calls with managers around the league, first of all, I have received very few calls. It’s been really quiet in terms of receiving calls. I’ve made many. I’ve been much more aggressive, I think, than a lot of people just looking at different options. There doesn’t seem to be many teams out there willing to take on dollars or term at this point in time. There seem to be more teams that are looking to move some pieces and take on pieces just for various reasons. We’ll take a look. Anything we do, we want to make sure it makes sense. If we can fill a box for the long-term right now, we can potentially explore that. Certainly, if we can upgrade our team, we’ll do that.”
Pretty much an expected answer here. Fletcher has been trying for some time to upgrade the team. It’s a difficult market right now. It’s nice to see him acknowledge his own aggressive nature on the market. It means he’s trying. There’s just not a lot out there at this time. There is a key phrase at the end though, discussing filling the “long-term” box when it comes to making a move.
On who deserves blame for the regression for the performance this season: “Well it starts with me. I’m responsible for the overall direction of the team from hiring the coaches to bringing in the players. At this point in time, everyone’s accountable. We’re all accountable for where we are at in the standings. Having said that, we’re still in the middle of a playoff battle here. We’re pushing to get back in. Certainly we lack consistency this year. That’s been frustrating. Our goals against has been frustrating. I also look on the positive side. Two of our best games have been in the last week. I think as a group, we know the recipe for success. We just have to find it a little more consistently.”
The key phrase is where Fletcher notes that, at this point, everyone’s accountable. Of course, it doesn’t mean there’s going to be any action immediately. Fletcher does finish with the diplomatic answer that the team is still in a playoff battle and pushing to get back in. It probably becomes a bit of a stretch to focus on two of “our best games” from the last week and just gloss over the 9-0 and 6-1 losses that clearly weren’t, but at least Fletcher also noted the goals against and lack of consistency.
On the concern within the organization of overestimating the talent of young players: “With young players, there’s going to be ups and downs. I think we recognize that. Certainly some of our young players haven’t played to the same level that they played last year. I think long term, a lot of these players are going to be good players in this league for a long time. There’s been a lot of challenges this year. Certainly, we haven’t played as well as we wanted. I think it’s a year that you have to be a little bit careful though in over-analyzing the results. Clearly they matter for making the playoffs and that’s our goal. Long-term, there’s been different challenges this year that you normally don’t face. Some players have handled it better than others. Some teams have handled it better than others. I think you want to be careful over-analyzing the results of the season.”
Another expected answer here. Fletcher wasn’t going to throw players under the bus. He expressed belief in the players here, especially the young guys. It was very predictable for him to reference the challenges of this unique season and make clear the need to not over-analyze the season.
On improving the defense: “We are always looking to improve. I think long-term, there’s certainly some holes that we need to fill to get to where we want to get to. For this year, I think we have a good hockey team. We’ve had a really tough month. I think at the end of February, we were 11-4-3 after consecutive shutout wins in Buffalo. I think our play had been a bit uneven but we’d had great results. This month has not been good. We’re 4-8-1. We’ve just gone through a challenging stretch of 13 games in 21 days and the results haven’t been good. I do think we can rebound from this. I think we’ll get a chance to catch our breath a little bit here. We don’t have as many back-to-backs in the next little stretch here. We’ll actually get a chance to have a practice or two and have a chance to reset a bit here. We have good players. We need to play better. Again, in the last week, we’ve had two of our best efforts. The way we played in those games showed me that we can be a good competitive team. That’s what we’re going to focus on – how do we get to that level on a more consistent basis?”
To this point, Fletcher continues with the diplomatic answers about focusing on the need to play better, the hope that a turnaround can come soon, and that the team they have is good, just a rough month.
On breaking the trend of playoff appearances every other season since 2013: “Obviously this year hasn’t been anywhere near like last year in large part because we are 30th in league in goals against and 31st in save percentage. We’re giving up way too many goals. Last year, we defended well as a five-man unit and we had strong goaltending. This year, we’re not defending well as a five-man unit and our goaltending has not been at the same level. That’s what I see really from last year to this year.
“Our goal now is to get back and defend better. Just going back to the game on Monday night, I thought we did a great job. I thought our forwards managed the puck way better. I thought we had a very good F3. I thought we didn’t give up many odd-man rushes. I think we gave up one the whole game and that allowed our D to have better gaps. We had some saves.
“The formula, I wouldn’t say it’s simple, if it’s simple, you would do it every night. It’s just getting that consistency of playing the right way up the ice and allowing our D to defend better and hold the line better and allowing our goalies not to face so many odd-man rushes. We’ve given up 27 goals off the rush this year. That’s the most in the league by far. One of the hallmarks of our team last year is we defended well and we did not give up those types of chances. It starts up the ice. We put a lot of pressure on our D and goaltenders by the way we play up the ice. It’s something that we feel we can fix. We’re going to have to do it quickly, but we feel we can fix that.”
Ok, now Fletcher is starting to deliver the hard-hitting facts here. The Flyers are 30th in goals against, 31st in save percentage, and leading the league in goals allowed off the rush with 27. This starts to show recognition of the issues the team has. Yes, they play aggressive. Yes, it puts even more pressure on the defense and goaltending. There’s also the recognition that any turnaround has to happen fast in this area.
On Matt Niskanen: Matt was a great player for us and clearly, we didn’t fill the void. That type of player is difficult to find. As good as Matt was for us last year, it’s a pretty massive variance in the goals against. It’s a team level effort right now. Again, we’ve had nights where we’ve defended really well. That’s what we have to get back to.”
Now this is an honest and straight-forward answer. No, the Flyers did not fill the void Matt Niskanen left. It shouldn’t have this kind of impact on the team that they are bottom-dwellers in the previously mentioned categories, but it was almost immediately shown how his absence left a void. At least Fletcher didn’t make an excuse for that one.
On if the best games they have are two in the last week, how can fans be confident if that’s the best: “I think you just look at the scoring chances that we gave up in both, even in the third period of that game last Thursday, we really didn’t give up much. They scored on their first shot halfway through the period and got a scrambly one at the end after they tied it. We weren’t giving up a lot of grade-A chances. We really didn’t give up much against the Islanders on Monday. It’s more than just process. Process is part of it, but it’s just the raw number of chances that you are giving up. It’s the raw number of off-man rushes that you are giving up. It’s giving yourself the chance to play the game the right way and having the puck a little bit. We did that well in both games.”
Kind of a mixed answer here. Fletcher chooses to focus on the positives from a game that he considered one of their best of late, but does acknowledge that process is only part of the problem and that the Flyers are simply giving up too many raw chances and odd-man rushes.
On calling up players from Lehigh Valley: “The Lehigh Valley team is fun to watch. They play hard. They play well. I think they’ve won five games in overtime. There’s a lot of talent down there. It’s been a little frustrating in the sense that a lot of those kids have dealt with injuries, COVID, or both, in a few cases. I don’t think some of them have the game reps that we hoped they would have at this time to maybe factor into a call-up role right now. They are gaining experience. They are gaining games. They’re getting some of that now. Maybe in the next week or two, some of those kids will get a chance to play up here.”
This might be your first sign of more immediate change. Who knows who or how many calls the Flyers will make to the minor-league team, but with Wade Allison, Tanner Laczynski and Linus Sandin starting to turn the corner at the pro level and Egor Zamula waiting in the wings defensively, they could all come into play for the Flyers in the near future.
On Carter Hart’s play: “Confidence is a funny thing. It’s a results business. Sometimes you are not getting the results, it’s hard to feel you are on top of your game. Carter is a young guy. He had some success last year. This year, he hasn’t played at the same level. There’s no question that he’s struggled, particularly this month. I think our goals against and our goaltending for the first two months was pretty good and they’ve won us some games. This month, both goaltenders have struggled in my opinion. You look back at a young Carey Price at the age of 22, Connor Hellebuyck, Marc-Andre Fleury, just going through some names. All of those great goaltenders had some ups and downs early in their career and had some tough seasons. It’s a hard position. I believe in Carter. I believe in his talent and I believe he will be a very good goalie for this franchise for a very long time. Clearly right now, he’s not on top of his game.”
Kind of the elephant in the room: what’s wrong with Carter Hart. Fletcher notes that confidence comes into play before giving a similar answer to Alain Vigneault from a few weeks back. Fletcher also makes sure to give the young goalie a vote of confidence on his potential to be a great goalie in this league, but can’t hide from reality, noting he’s not on his game.
On any regret for not addressing the top four defensemen in the offseason: “We aggressively looked at a lot of options this offseason. Certainly our cap situation was not helpful for adding significant dollars without moving significant dollars. We looked at a lot of different things, and this is what we ended up with. I think I said to somebody earlier, I don’t think I ever spent more time on the phone than I did this offseason. For various reasons, things didn’t break our way, the way we had hoped. It’s a flat-cap era, and most teams are not looking to take on any money or any term right now. To add a player with dollars, you have to subtract the same amount. Those types of trades are a little more difficult to make.”
This summarizes the complications of the trade market this season. The flat cap and expansion draft have certainly created a lot of hell for general managers around the league, especially the ones dealing with limited cap. In his own way, this was Fletcher kind of admitting defeat for trying to improve the team. Using words like “this is what we ended up with” and “things didn’t break our way” indicates that there was more to be desired from what resulted in very limited action on the trade market.