By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
On Monday night, as the Stanley Cup Playoffs were just getting underway, the first piece of Flyers news for the offseason dropped. It wasn’t a surprise decision, but ultimately one that opens up an offseason that involves many big decisions for the Flyers.
GM Chuck Fletcher confirmed what was reported on Monday night to start his Tuesday press conference. Mike Yeo was no longer going to be the head coach of the Flyers moving forward, having carried the interim role since Alain Vigneault was fired on Dec. 6.
“I met with Mike yesterday and advised him that he won’t be our head coach for next season. I want to start off with saying that we dealt Mike a really tough hand,” Fletcher said. “He is a good coach and I thought he did a really good job under the circumstances. He kept our players competing and going hard until the end. Made a few adjustments that we started to see some progress in, in particular holding onto the puck a little bit more, zone entries, and scoring a little bit better by the end of the year. It was a tough hand we dealt him all things considered. He is a good hockey man. We will continue to talk and see how things go over the next five, six weeks. He is the kind of guy we would love to keep in the organization moving forward.”
As for the next head coach of the Flyers, Fletcher said there is no timeline on the search. The team does not have a deadline to have made a coaching decision by one of the offseason’s big moments, such as the NHL Draft, and will begin to meet tomorrow to construct a plan based on the ideal candidate.
“We are going to get together tomorrow, our hockey operations group. The first thing we are going to do is put together an ideal candidate profile,” Fletcher said. “We are going to go through a very thorough discussion on what we are trying to achieve and what we are looking at. At this stage, all options are open. We are just starting the process and once we start that ideal candidate profile, we will start to reach out to candidates who we want to interview.
“I think we are aware of the calendar, but the important thing is to get the right coach. Get the right fit and the right chemistry. As long as it takes is what we will take.”
As for the team on the ice, Fletcher seemed to lay out similar issues from the prior season as reasons why the Flyers finished at the bottom of the standings. Everything from injuries to key players to struggles in the defensive zone played a factor.
“Clearly injuries were a significant part of things, but I think it goes a little bit deeper than that. We just really struggled this year,” Fletcher said. “We were defending all the time and that is something we have to look at. We were not exiting D-zone well enough. There are certainly things we have to look at in terms of our structure and our details. We didn't have the puck enough and when you defend all the time, bad things happen. Specialty teams were clearly a big issue.”
Back in January, with the 2021-22 season clearly getting away from the team already, Fletcher and Dave Scott both met with the media and the discussion shifted to a focus on an “aggressive retool.” On Tuesday, Fletcher provided a few more details into what an “aggressive retool” means to him.
“An aggressive re-tool to me is being aggressive in every area,” Fletcher said. “It is being aggressive in all phases. Certainly, part of it is we need to get younger; we have to get more talented. We have to get faster. We have to aggressively look at trades, free agency and can we add a couple players to supplement what we have here and make this team better.
“Another element will obviously be the return to health of certain players. Sean Couturier and Ryan Ellis are players that would be hard to acquire in the offseason. It is hard to acquire a top defenseman with a $6 million cap and it is hard to acquire a number one centerman. We are going to be hopeful that those players can return and play well.
“This is slightly different circumstances, but this offseason could be a lot like offseason in 2019. If you look at that year, we traded back in the first round, got an extra pick, traded picks for players, and acquired picks at the deadlines. You are constantly doing what you can to improve your team. That is what I guess I call a retool.”
So what’s the plan moving forward? Is the team actively trying to win now or planning more for the future?
“A little bit of both,” Fletcher said. “Young players are going to be a big part of it. If you look at last offseason for example, at that point Morgan Frost was coming off of surgery and we weren't expecting him to be able to make the club. Cam York had, I think, five NHL games. [Tanner] Laczynski was injured. Wade Allison quickly became injured. Tyson Foerster got injured early. A lot of our younger players were not really in the position to compete.
“We signed veteran players. We signed [Derrick] Brassard, [Keith] Yandle, Nate Thompson, and picked up Patrick Brown and [Zack] MacEwen on waivers. We simply didn't have the young depth to compete. A critical part of what we do going forward, whether it is for short-term or long-term success, will be to integrate more youth into our team. I think we are in a way better position this year, hopefully with Allison and Laczynski being healthy and ready to go. Cam York is now much more experienced. Morgan Frost played well down the stretch. We have added Owen Tippett, [Noah] Cates and [Bobby] Brink came in. Hayden Hodgson emerged out of nowhere. I didn't even know who he was until October. There are a lot of positive signs in terms of younger assets and that doesn't even include the Foersters, [Zayde] Wisdoms, Elliot Desnoyers, or Fedotov.
“The good thing is we will have a lot more depth in terms of young assets. Obviously not all of them can make our team, nor not all of them may be good enough to make our team, but some of them will. That is going to be a big difference next year when we hopefully will have a few more internal options to plug some holes.”
One of those young pieces may be in goal. The Flyers plan to sign prospect goaltender Ivan Fedotov soon and envision that they will be able to have him come to North America and compete for the backup job immediately.
Fletcher also was asked about what his message to the fans would be after missing the playoffs for a second straight year with such struggles.
“We are extremely disappointed with our season and we appreciate our fans sticking with us. It was a very tough season to stick with us,” Fletcher said. “We understand. I understand that the season was beyond unacceptable. We do have good pieces. In terms of patience, I don't think we are asking anyone to give us five, seven, 10 years here. I do believe we have the ability to be much more competitive quickly. The moves we make this summer will determine how quickly. We will have another top pick this year. Again, a pretty good influx of young talent coming in. I think there are reasons to be optimistic and yet there are still challenges we still face.”
Of course, the fans have made the message loud and clear their thoughts on the team. Attendance was down at Wells Fargo Center this season with some actual crowds – not announced paid attendance – coming in at less than half capacity.
“Of course, the revenue is a concern, but the bigger concern is getting the club to be more competitive,” Fletcher said. “Revenues will follow as we get better. Our focus is on getting the best hockey team possible, so fans do want to come back. The pressure is about winning and not necessarily on revenues.”
Back to the players, and Saturday’s exit day was significant in terms of Ryan Ellis’ appearance and confidence in the plan that is now in place for his recovery. Fletcher focused on Ellis’ injury among the many the team had this year. For one, Ellis was back in the lineup for one game in November before eventually being out for the rest of the season. Kevin Hayes had injuries at the start of the season that continued to surface and keep him out for extended periods. Fletcher said the medical staff and process is another area that will be under a close eye.
“I am going to sit down with our doctors, strength staff, and strength and conditioning coach in the next couple weeks,” Fletcher said. “Just a lot of questions: what we do well, not doing well, is there something we need to do more of, and things we can do from an injury prevention standpoint. We are going to look at our entire structure in terms of our medical side, analytics, amateur scouting, pro-scouting. We are certainly going to look into ways we can invest and improve that entire area. Questions have already been asked. We will get together and dig down. See what is preventable, what is bad luck and where do we need to add.”
As for Ellis’ injury, Fletcher expressed similar confidence.
“Actually this is the best I’ve felt about things in a while and I think he spoke to this the other day. I think he used the term multi-layered, is the term he used with me. It’s basically multiple injuries,” Fletcher said. “There’s no clean and easy one-step solution to the problem, but I think we have a great plan in place now. It’s a pretty aggressive plan and I like it because I think there’s pretty big upside if all goes as scheduled. The goal is to have him back at the beginning of next season.”
Finally, Fletcher’s press conference ended on a sour note. Sam Morin missed the entire season once again dealing with a significant knee injury. Where is he at in terms of health? Unfortunately, Fletcher confirmed that Morin’s playing career is officially over.
“He won’t be able to return to play unfortunately. He’s had too many knee injuries. He’s not going to be in a position to continue his career and this offseason, we’ll sit down with Sam and see if there’s something that he would like to do going forward,” Fletcher said. “Tremendous kid, huge heart, huge determination, and did everything he could to be a player. No one appreciated being a hockey player better than Sam Morin, but there’s just unfortunately too much damage to the knee to resurrect his career.”
Fletcher ultimately closed by discussing that he doesn’t feel more pressure now than in previous years. He stated there is always pressure to win because that’s the business. If you’re not winning, there’s pressure. He did add that the resources are in place to start to make the necessary improvements, but only time will tell just how far they can take the Flyers.