Shortly after the passage of the 2021 NHL trade deadline, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher held a press conference to discuss the three moves the team made: signing forward Scott Laughton to a five-year contract extension ($3 million average annual value), trading veteran forward Michael Raffl to the Washington Capitals for a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft (previously acquired by the Capitals from the Vegas Golden Knights) with the Flyers retaining 25% of the remaining salary on the impending unrestricted free agent, and trading defenseman Erik Gustafsson to the Montreal Canadiens for a seventh round pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft (previously acquired by the Canadiens from the St. Louis Blues) with the Flyers retaining 50% of the remaining salary on his expiring one-year contract.
Here are five takeaways from the post-deadline press conference:
1. Trading Laughton would have added to the Flyers' NHL-level needs.
Fletcher admitted that the Flyers' significant slippage in team goals against average (ranked 7th in the NHL last season at 2.77, ranked 30th this season at 3.51) and penalty killing (ranked 11th last season at 81.8 percent, ranked 28th this year at 75.0 percent) have made clear that there flaws in the roster mix that need to be addressed in the offseason regardless of how the remaining 15 games of the current regular season go.
The general manager said that woke up on Monday unsure whether he'd be able to sign Laughton, a potential unrestricted agent, to an extension or if he'd be compelled to trade the player. Fletcher was prepared for either scenario, but strongly preferred to keep Laughton in-house if they could finalize a deal.
"The thought of creating an additional hole. to me, wasn't very appealing. He's part of the solution going forward," Fletcher said.
"If we subtracted him from our lineup, that would be a big hole, not just for this year but going forward. So we thought it was important to address that. As we move forward, obviously we'll have a lot of decisions to make in the offseason. But the way I look at our group is, we have enough talent to win more games than what we've won and play better than how we've played."
Given Laughton's age (he turns 27 later this month), role on the team (a versatile left winger/ center with two-way ability, regular penalty killer), agitating playing style and the respect he's earned from coaches and teammates alike, Fletcher said he felt comfortable agreeing to a five-year term for the player. There is not a comparable prospect currently ready to step immediately into Laughton's role.
Moreover, the player himself made clear that his own preference was to remain with the Flyers. He has built a life in the city, enjoys his teammates, and has spent his entire career since the 2012 NHL Draft in the organization.
2. Standings Drove Raffl Trade
Speaking to Jason Myrtetus and Bill Meltzer on the post-deadline edition of Flyers Daily on the Flyers Broadcast Network, Fletcher said the team's deadline day decisions were based on a "reality check" of the club's inability to gain ground on earning the final playoff spot in the East Division since the team's 11-4-3 start was spoiled by a 6-10-1 month of March. To date in April, the team is 2-2-2. While mathematically alive in the playoff race, the team faces daunting odds of reaching the postseason,
The 32-year-old has dealt with nagging injuries all season, including a hand injury that caused him to miss several games, and has been less effective than his typical standards of winning puck battles, killing penalties and chipping in periodic goals. Raffl is currently out with another injury, per Fletcher, and will likely miss about half the remaining games in the regular season.
Had the Flyers been a little better situated in the playoff race, according to Fletcher, he'd have been more inclined to ride out the season with Raffl rather than trading him. Washington can also better afford to wait for Raffl to get back to full strength and he can be a useful supporting cast piece in the postseason.
Prior to Monday's trade, the well-liked Austrian forward had spent his entire NHL career in Philadelphia after he joined the Flyers as a free agent signing before the 2013-14 season. The Flyers have received previous pre-deadline trade offers for Raffl when he was in the final season of a contract, but the organization always opted to keep (and re-sign) him.
"Just can't thank him enough for his eight years of service to this organization. He's a player that played very well for us for many years. Played hurt a lot this year. Almost refused to be taken out of the lineup. Hopefully, Michael gets a chance to have a big role on the Capitals," Fletcher said.
Raffl's departure opens up an opportunity for rookie center/winger Tanner Laczynski to see more playing time at the NHL level. Fletcher said that Laczynski will remain on the NHL roster for the rest of this season.
3. No Lineup Spot for Gustafsson
Entering the season, free agent addition Gustafsson had an opportunity to earn a regular spot in the Flyers' starting six on defense and on the power play. Shayne Gostisbehere was coming off back-to-back injury-marred down seasons in which he was not nearly as effective as he'd been either in his rookie 2015-16 campaign or in 2017-28 . Gostisbehere also got a belated start to the 2020-21 season due to a bout with COVID-19.
Unfortunately for Gustafsson, defensive-play issues and turnovers superseded his ability to make pretty outlet passes and contribute to the power play. He was outplayed by Gostisbehere after the latter returned to the lineup. With the two players having similar roles, situational strengths and drawbacks, it proved hard for Gustafsson to hold down a spot in the starting lineup as Gostisbehere put together a largely resurgent season (although not without some hiccups on his own). Gostisbehere has also seemed to work well in tandem with Samuel Morin in recent weeks.
"With respect to a player like Erik Gustafsson, clearly it didn't work," Fletcher said. "Erik wasn't playing. I thought it was very important, not just from our perspective but from Erik's perspective to give him a chance to play. By moving him to Montreal hopefully we give him that opportunity … and help his career along."
4. Rest-of-season and Offseason Direction
From the get-go, the deck was stacked against the possibility of teams making major "hockey trades": the lion's share of deals involved expiring contracts being dealt, with the team unloading the player taking on up to the maximum 50 percent of contractual retention allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In return, the "buyers" send back a draft-pick asset or two. This was not a good year for player-for-player deals. There should be more room to try to make larger-impact moves in the offseason.
"We're certainly in the fight right now and we're going to continue to fight but we may need some assets here over the next few months to address some of the needs that we have going forward," Fletcher said.
"That may be a better use of some of our assets. This gives some of our other players an opportunity to play. There's certainly some other players either on our Taxi Squad or Lehigh Valley that in my opinion deserve a chance to play and may be able to come up and provide us a spark."
5. Coaching Staff Will Remain in Place
Fletcher was asked if he's mulling the possibility of making any changes in the offseason to the current coaching staff: either head coach Alain Vigneault or his assistants. The general manager gave an immediate, succinct and emphatic answer.
"No," Fletcher said.