Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher: ‘We’re a Tough Out Right Now’
With everything going on in the world it was certainly understandable why the sports world had to push pause on everything. For the Flyers though, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Just two days before the NHL joined other major sports leagues in halting play, the Flyers had a nine-game winning streak snapped in a 2-0 loss to the Bruins. Since the start of January, they had a 19-8-2 record, among the top in the league in that timeframe. They had not lost back-to-back games since the end of a West coast road trip that concluded at the start of January.
With everything going their way, pushing pause had to be difficult. Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher joined Mike Gill on The Sports Bash on 97.3 ESPN on Monday afternoon and offered his thoughts.
“It’s been a little bit frustrating to have the season paused when it did, but when you look at things and the entirety of what’s going on right now, it’s crazy,” Fletcher said. “The number of people being affected and losing their jobs or getting sick and a lot of people are dying...I guess our problems are few and far between. It’s different for everybody. I’m working from home, trying to stay in touch with scouts and our coaches and our front office staff and obviously not knowing when we’ll restart and what the rules will be or whether we’ll have a regular season or playoffs or whether we won’t. There’s only so much you can control, but we’re trying to do some of the work we can right now and just stay out of the way and stay safe.”
While the Flyers were playing well, the fact that every team will have to start over puts all of the teams on an even playing field. Fletcher feels like the Flyers have a group that has the depth to return to form quickly whenever the break is over, and credited the former Flyers GM for having the team so well-stocked with prospects.
“What I like about our group, and I give a lot of credit to Ron Hextall, who did a great job of drafting and stocking the cupboards full of players,” Fletcher said. “When you look at the number of young players we have or quality veteran players, we have depth in goal, we have depth on defense, we have depth up front. I think we’re a team that certainly is competitive right now, and was competitive at the pause, but when we do get going again, we’re a team that should be a pretty good team for a few years here. We’re set up well for both short and long-term success.
It’s certainly a far cry from where the Flyers were a season ago. One of their biggest challenges in improving from last season was cutting down on goals against. With the addition of Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to the back end, as well as the emergence of some prospects, it’s been one of the Flyers largest areas of improvement.
“I think the biggest area that I saw for where we improved a lot was just with our defense core,” Fletcher said. “Ivan Provorov really bounced back and not only played as well as he did two years ago, but exceeded it and looks like he’s emerging as a top-flight defenseman in the National Hockey League. Travis Sanheim really improved as the year went on. Phil Myers took another big step. Robert Hagg had a tremendous season. I think our young defensemen in particular really took a step.
“We’re one of the bottom three teams in the league in terms of age, being one of the youngest defense cores in the league, yet we really far exceeded that in terms of how we’ve played. A lot of credit obviously goes to our coaching staff and I think as well to a couple of our veteran defensemen in Niskanen and Braun who came in and I thought really played well but also were terrific mentors and leaders for that group.”
Another big area of improvement has been goaltending. When Carter Hart was called up last season, he was the seventh goaltender to suit up and start a game for the Flyers. This season, the Flyers have only needed three goalies over the entire season and the tandem of Hart and Brian Elliott has become a successful duo that can be trusted. Fletcher explained the reasons why Hart has been able to achieve success and why the decision to give him the reigns from the beginning of the season was so easy.
“Well the first thing obviously is his talent. He’s a high-end skill goaltender. He’s got terrific hockey sense, he moves very well, he’s technically sound and he’s strong mentally,” Fletcher said. “It just came down to honestly it’s pretty tough to put the genie back in the bottle. Once we unveiled him last year and he played the way he did, it wasn’t realistic to put him back in the American Hockey League and let him continue to develop. We were going to sink or swim with Carter this year. He’s not only our goalie of the future, but our goalie of the present.
“As talented as he is, he’s a 21-year-old kid and it’s a tough league. There’s a lot of ups and downs and we did see it this year with Carter, particularly in the beginning of the season. He struggled a little bit on the road, had a hard time getting wins on the road and Brian Elliott actually played well on the road and won some games for us. Brian was able to pick him up and as the year went on, Carter got much better on the road. I thought it was just a great tandem and how they supported each other and how they both played well, but Carter not only has a bright future, but his present is pretty darn good too.”
Of course, the biggest change for the Flyers came behind the bench. It was just over a year ago that Alain Vigneault was hired as the head coach of the Flyers and the move has paid immediate dividends. Fletcher offered a look inside at the hiring process and how easy it was to hire Vigneault, especially given the rarity that a track record like his is available.
“He’s definitely the leader of the ship, in terms of running the dressing room and delivering the message and getting the players to buy in and play. Culture can be an overused term in sports, but yet it’s still relevant and he created the culture,” Fletcher said. “To be honest with you, I interviewed him and we had one interview and I came back and spoke to Dave Scott and said we have to hire him.
“I’ve spent a lot of years working in this business and I was in Minnesota for many years when Alain Vigneault was in Vancouver and obviously watched as he transitioned to the Rangers. There just aren’t many coaches with that track record. He’s a very bright man, knows X’s and O’s very well, strong communicator, but just his track record when you look at the number of players he’s developed, when you look at his wins and losses, when you look at his playoff success. He hasn’t won a Cup, but he’s taken two teams to the Stanley Cup Final. Guys like that aren’t available every year, in fact, they might only be available every three or four years and when one of them arrives, sometimes you just don’t overthink it. You just make the decision and hire him.”
While many of these changes were made to get the Flyers back on track to being a playoff contender, the thought that they could compete for a division title was far from anyone’s mind this season. Is it a surprise to Fletcher that they are where they are this season?
“I know we had to change the way we played, we had to change our mindset, we had to become a team that gave up significantly fewer shots and chances against and we had to tighten up on our goals against. We were 28th in the league last year in goals against and usually if you’re not in the top half of the league, it’s pretty hard to make the playoffs. So we had no chance of making the playoffs the way we played and the way we were going,” Fletcher said. “So I felt that with Alain Vigneault and adding the veteran defensemen that we had a chance to dramatically improve in that area and that would give us a chance to make the playoffs. Certainly the second half, things were clicking and I believe we were tied for the second-best record in the league from Jan. 1 on and we’ve become a very good hockey team.
“I don’t know if I expected that right away, but certainly the second-half improvement was something that we hoped for and believed would happen. That’s just a credit again not only to the coaches but to the veteran players on our team and how they bought in and with the goaltending we had, the way Brian Elliott played in the second half and the way Carter Hart continues to emerge. We’re a tough out right now. We’re in every game.”
Of course, it remains to be seen just how good the Flyers would have been down the stretch in the season and how tough of an out they really would have been in the playoffs, but all signs were pointing to this team making a significant run.
Back when Fletcher was hired in early December of 2018, there were some thoughts that the Flyers were simply reverting back to their old ways. Fletcher had been willing to dish out some sizable contracts in Minnesota to make the team better and become more of a contender. Many pointed out similarities to the Paul Holmgren era and had fears that Fletcher would abandon the patient approach that Hextall had started.
Instead, Fletcher has shown a willingness to let young prospects make the jump and to use the pieces that Hextall left behind. One of the biggest lessons he’s learned over the years, especially leading up to the opportunity with the Flyers, is that sometimes the best decision is to do nothing.
“It was a different team at a different time. I was really fortunate here, again I mentioned Ron Hextall and the job he did. There were some good players in Minnesota, don’t get me wrong, but nothing like there is here,” Fletcher said. “You don’t have to be a hero every day when you’re a general manager. Make the decisions you have to make and sometimes just leave well enough alone and be patient and let the young players develop and just try to stay out of the way. Sometimes you’ve got to make decisions and hire a coach and we brought in veteran D and we made a big decision on Kevin Hayes, but there’s a lot of decisions that we didn’t make that we felt we didn’t have to make. Just get out of the way. I think you learn that as you gain experience. You don’t have to make every decision. Sometimes the best decision is to say no and show a little patience and let these young players develop.”
For now, Fletcher is like anyone else. He’s trying to stay in touch with everyone in the inner circle of Flyers operations from scouts to coaches to front office staff to make sure that everyone is prepared for when things do start back up. Whenever that may be, Fletcher certainly hopes it is able to happen soon enough.
“Oh God, I hope so. I really do believe there will be hockey at some point,” Fletcher said. “How that transpires, if we’re able to have fans or maybe a limit on how many fans to continue to observe social distancing. I mean, we’re all guessing, but I just believe there are so many smart people in this world, we’re going to come up with some ideas here soon and things will get better. It may take a little time and we obviously won’t play until the public officials and health officials say we can in some shape or form, but I’d love it because that means we’re in a better place. I’m an optimist and I think we’re going to get there.”
You can listen to the interview with Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher on 97.3 ESPN below.
Kevin Durso is Flyers insider for 97.3 ESPN and Flyers editor for SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Durso.
More from 97.3 ESPN:
South Jersey Athletes Who Played/Coached in NBA and MLB