There is no denying that the 2019 offseason will be a crucial test for Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher. He faces a host of decisions that will shape not only next season but the team's future for years to come. Here's a look at four pivotal upcoming decisions he has to make, and why each is so vital.
1. BEHIND THE BENCH
Fletcher has said that Scott Gordon, the team's interim head coach from late December until the end of the 2018-19 season, is among the candidates he is considering for the post for next season. While Fletcher does not want the decision to linger too far into the offseason, he has also pledged to take the time he needs to determine the best fit.
The decision on assistant coaches who are retained or replaced will be made after Fletcher selects a head coach. The GM said he'd like to move quickly on that phase of the process once there's a head coach identified.
Why it's crucial:
The importance of this decision almost goes without saying. The next head coach, whether it's "Gordo" or someone else, will be responsible not only for fully installing a system but also for motivating players to buy in the "new mindset" that Fletcher mandated as an overriding goal in his recent end-of-season press conference.
Specifically, Fletcher's goal is for the team to transform into a hockey smart but relentless puck possession club. The GM aims to see the club defend its own zone and the neutral zone well as needed but is primed to spend more time attacking than defending. To truly becoming a harder team to play against, it's absolute for the Flyers to establish a team identity that walks the walk.
It's easier said than done because, as Fletcher said, it's not just a question of systems or personnel. It's also about buy-in. Playing a true 200-foot game requires playing with pace and is rather grueling. If some players are on board, and other are not, it will not work on a consistent basis. Everyone needs to be on the same page.
2. SHOPPING LIST
On Monday, Fletcher identified three roster needs of primary interest: adding an upper-lineup forward (preferably a center), a veteran defenseman capable of playing on the upper end of the blueline and a goaltending partner to play in tandem with Carter Hart. How will these needs be filled? Fletcher said he will consider trade possibilities as well as the free agent market.
"We're not good enough right now," Fletcher said. "We do have a lot of cap space, but we also have some players we have to sign. Once we sign our RFAs [restricted free agents], we're not going to have quite as much cap space. We have the ability to go out and add some pieces, but I wouldn't call it unlimited cap space once you bring back some of the young guys that we hope to bring back."
Why it's crucial: The team entered last offseason with the same three primary needs -- two-way center, stabilizing the goaltending picture in the event of injuries and/or slumps, and supplementing a mostly young defense corps -- along with trying to add a proven goal scorer on the wing. The latter was accomplished (James van Riemsdyk). The other three issues, for various reasons, were unresolved and ended up being costly.
Getting stronger down the middle would enable the Flyers to get Nolan Patrick into some favorable matchups while also enabling Claude Giroux to remain at wing. Adding to the defense corps with a productive vet would enable more ideal slotting of players within the three pairs, especially if there can be one lefthanded shooter and one righthanded shooter on each pair. Lastly, while Carter Hart is a huge part of the Flyers immediate and long-range future plans, the team also needs a reliable (and healthy) veteran to share the load in net.
3. REGARDING THE RFA's
The Flyers have numerous restricted free agents whom they are certain to tender qualifying offers in order to retain their rights. That's the easy decision. Every player among Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Travis Konecny, Scott Laughton and Ryan Hartman is a lock to receive a qualifying offer.
The harder part is the negotiations with the players' agents in how to slot each player in terms of salary cap hit and contract term. With some players, it should be fairly straightforward to come to agreement on both areas. With others, there could be negotiating-point discrepancies that take longer to resolve. Provorov and Konecny's negotiations are especially vital ones.
Why it's crucial: Collectively, these negotiations will be important facets of the Flyers' long-term salary cap planning and management. Will the players get long-term extensions at bigger raises but that are potentially cap management friendlier in the bigger picture or "bridge contracts" that are shorter term and lower-cost up front but which could result in less long-term cost certainty the next time they come up as RFAs and their unrestricted free agency eligibility draws closer?
4. DRAFT STRATEGY
The Flyers hold the 11th pick of the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft and 10 picks in all over the seven-round Draft. This year's Draft is considered deeper than average. The Flyers should get a good player at 11th, but players in that range usually need a little longer to be ready for the NHL than the ones atop of the pre-Draft board.
While many teams discuss trading up or down in the Draft, most end up standing pat and using their existing picks. However, depending on what is presented to them on the trade front, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Flyers could move to a different selection spot in the first round or trade out if they could land a desired NHL roster piece.
Why it's crucial: This will be the first Draft for Philadelphia with Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr at the helm. One of the biggest accomplishments of the Ron Hextall/Chris Pryor era was the restocking of the Flyers farm system.
Building from within remains the single most preferable way to keep talent flowing into the NHL level while also having the depth of assets and prospects to potentially withstand trading a few for immediate help.