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Meltzer: Pushing for this year, building for next

Flyers contributor breakdown GM Chuck Fletcher's trade deadline ideology

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

The Flyers have won five games in a row and six of their last seven. They have beaten some high-end opponents along the way, including the Boston Bruins and Winnipeg Jets.

It's an encouraging sign, marked by strong recent goaltending from Carter Hart, young players stepping up (Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny) stepping up in key situations and greatly heightened confidence in closing out games with the lead. 

Nevertheless, it's general manager Chuck Fletcher's mission to look beyond the short term and position the team to better avoid the streakiness that has become all-too-familiar in recent years. The former Minnesota Wild GM has had nearly two months to assess his new organization at all levels: the NHL roster, the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and prospects in the CHL, NCAA and Europe, with the most urgent focus, understandably, being the current NHL roster. 

"We have to get better. We have good players, we haven't been a good team," Fletcher said on Monday.

Video: Chuck Fletcher on upcoming trade deadline

He later added, "The coaches are working hard on how we defend and giving up fewer goals, cleaning up our specialty teams. You can't just flip a switch every training camp. You have to start building the right habits and playing the right way. Scott [Gordon] is working hard, and I think we're making progress. We still have a long way to go, but I think we are defending better. I think our specialty teams are getting better. Carter Hart has given us some stability in goal, so we're getting better in the areas we need to get better at, but it's going be on me to try to find some more players to help this group."

On the positive side, apart from the current 6-1-0 stretch, there was a 5-0-1 run from Oct. 30 to Nov. 10 and 3-1-0 in their first four games with Scott Gordon at the helm as interim head coach. Nevertheless, despite the combined 14-2-1 record from those streaks, the team finds itself two games below statistical .500 on the season (21-23-6) and 10 points plus a steep tiebreaker disadvantage (25-19 ROW) behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wildcard playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

This is because, as Fletcher noted in his press conference, the team has also had long droughts marked by goaltending instability, a tendency toward ill-timed defensive breakdowns, excessive feast-or-famine patterns on the offensive side of the puck and overall special teams numbers near the bottom of the NHL (despite dramatic penalty killing improvement since Thanksgiving).  

"Our specialty teams have been atrocious, at least in terms of what the numbers say. ...Going forward, whether it's defensive zone play, our specialty teams, our goaltending, we have things we can do to improve this team pretty quickly. But clearly we've dug ourselves a big hole for this year, so what I'm trying to do is talk to every team in the league and looking for opportunities. Whether it's now, the summer, we need to find some pieces to improve our team," Fletcher said.

Struggles in multiple facets of the game have played into stretches of 2-5-0 (Oct. 16-27), 1-5-1 (Nov. 13-27, during which time Ron Hextall was dismissed as general manager on Nov. 26), 1-3-1 (Dave Hakstol's final five games as head coach) and then 0-6-2 immediately after the league-wide December holiday break. The Flyers' combined 4-18-2 record during these stretches of the season sunk the team to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and created a very steep climb and longs odds for making the playoffs.

Unfortunately, excessive streakiness has been a too-frequent characteristic of the club in recent years. Last season, the Flyers overcame a 10-game winless streak (0-5-5) with a 12-4-1 run immediately thereafter and carried that through to a 98-point season and a playoff berth. However, in 2016-17, it went the opposite way. The team had a 10-game winning streak to improve to 19-10-3 on the season through 32 games but went 20-23-7 the rest of the way to miss the playoffs. Going back even one season further, the Flyers took a hot streak into the December holiday break and then stumbled to fall to 15-15-7 through 37 games before rallying later to finish strong with 96 points (41-27-14) and reach the playoffs. 

Fletcher aims to put the roller coaster ride to an end: have the team play well the rest of this season (whether a near-miraculous recovery to make the playoffs is in the cards or not) as a first step toward being a more consistently successful club moving forward; not just in the regular season but also capable of winning in the postseason. That is going to involve personnel changes, at least to some degree. 

A pair of roster moves involving veteran players have taken place in January. Center Jordan Weal was traded to the Arizona Coyotes, while veteran right wing Dale Weise was waived and assigned to the Phantoms. Fletcher said he is attempted to trade Weise.

"We just need to get better, and it's not all Dale Weise, or Jordan Weal, or anything like that. We just can't keep putting the same players out there and expect different results. At some point, you have to make some changes," Fletcher said.

In the meantime, bigger decisions lie ahead prior to the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 25 and then in the off-season. Will the Flyers be buyers, in an effort to add pieces at the NHL level? Or will the team be sellers, making one or more significant trades involving tenured veterans? 

"I don't expect us to trade a first-round pick for a rental. We could both buy and sell, but I guess my point is, every decision we make, if we're going to try to improve our team going forward and we can get that player now, great. There's always opportunities. So for me it's not the [time before the trade deadline] or even the rest of the year. From this point forward, we have to get better," Fletcher said.

"To be better next year, we may have to try to get better this year. That's what we're trying to do, whether it's the coaches on the ice or adding players, or whatever we have to do. I could see us buying and selling, I guess to use those terms. But the bigger focus is, we'd like to get some pieces in here that will be a part of this for a few years. That's really where my focus has been."

Video: Chuck Fletcher on current goalie situation

During Monday's press conference, Fletcher made a comment that has received much attention throughout the hockey world. 

"I'm not trading Claude Giroux, that's for sure. We have a lot of good players here but I would never say never to almost anybody besides Giroux. Giroux's got [a no-movement clause in his contract] and he's our captain and probably one of the best players in the history of the franchise. So I don't think that makes much sense. But there's a lot of guys that don't make much sense [to trade], either, but I can't say never," Fletcher said.

The entire statement has to be taken in context. Fletcher was not saying that he's looking to make wholesale changes or conduct a "fire sale". Rather, he was saying that there are some realistic possible trade candidates and others whom he has no plans to trade but would consider a theoretical offer that was too good to refuse. It's not all that different from statements that general managers league-wide make routinely this time of year, except that Flyers management and Fletcher himself have stated a goal of being aggressive in trying to improve.

With Wayne Simmonds an impending unrestricted free agent and drawing much interest as a rental acquisition from teams league-wide in playoff contention, his status draws the most attention. Fletcher has also not ruled out the possibility of continuing to try to agree to terms on a contract extension prior to the trade deadline.

"Everyone is going to have ups and downs, but Wayne's a good player. I don't think he needs to prove anything to us. There's different factors you have to consider when you're going to sign a player. We have lots of holes and a certain amount of money in which to do it with the salary cap. We're just trying to balance everything and make the right decision, but certainly, in a few weeks, I think it will be resolved one way or the other," Fletcher said.

The general manager also stated that a huge part of his assessment of team needs, both leading into the trade deadline and in planning over the offseason for next year and beyond, will be whether the team's group of young players that are now regulars at the NHL level are ready and capable of taking a bigger bite of the apple on playing key roles moving forward.

Many of these players, including Patrick, struggled for much of the first half of this season. Their recent surge in performance and ice time, along with the progression of Hart, significant improvements by Travis Sanheim over his second NHL season and recent hints of a bounceback from Ivan Provorov after a rough first half, are all encouraging signs that Fletcher plans to continue to monitor as he considers roster moves in the weeks and months to come.

"It's critical. It's not practical to go out and sign a bunch of $5 million players. If you look at how highly successful teams are constructed, a large portion of the core consists of talent that the organization drafted and developed... Consistency is always the key. At this level, you have to move your feet and make that second-effort, third-effort play. You can't make plays just with your hands and your head for the game. It's a harder game up here. It's not work ethic. It's the confidence to play with pace," Fletcher said.

In addition to the recent recall of center Mikhail Vorobyev from the Phantoms, Fletcher said he would like to see standout Phantoms second-year defenseman Phillipe Myers get some NHL games this season and also to look at Samuel Morin (AHL surgery rehab) at the NHL level once he is cleared to play and completes a two-week conditioning assignment on the Phantoms.

"You just want to make sure when you bring them in they've earned it, and the coach can play them and you don't have to protect them. You just let them play. Certainly anything we do between now and the end of the year will be guys that have earned it," Fletcher said.

"We think there will be players who can walk in that room and their teammates will look at them and know they've earned the right to be there. That's so important. You don't want this to be an open audition. We're playing in the NHL and you want the players in the room to know you're trying to win every night and everybody we bring up is a part of that."

Specific to the team's plan in goal moving forward, while Fletcher cannot help but be excited from what he's seen so far from Hart and by the stellar performance by Stolarz in Tuesday's 1-0 road shutout win over the Rangers, he is not yet ready to say Hart is the team's undisputed starter from now on or how the rest of the depth chart looks for this season and beyond. He's also not willing to rule out bringing in another veteran during the season to work in tandem with Hart. 

If the Flyers are eliminated from the playoff chase this spring, Fletcher said that he would have interest in assigning Hart back to the Phantoms in order to be available for the Calder Cup playoffs. In order to do so, the Flyers would have to make an on-paper move to send Hart to the Phantoms on the AHL playoff roster eligibility deadline -- which directly coincides with the NHL trade deadine -- and then immediately recall him to the NHL roster. 

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