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NHL on NBCSN: Should Chuck Fletcher blow up or retool Flyers?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

SEAN: This season is long gone, so Chuck Fletcher will need to make some big decisions between now and the Feb. 25 trade deadline. By the end of February he’ll have been Flyers GM for nearly three months, more than enough time to get a feel for the organization and have an idea the best way forward to turn around their fortunes.

Flyers brass wanted someone with a “bias for action” to replace the patient Ron Hextall. You can be sure the team will be aggressive in trying to become a playoff team in 2020, but at what cost?

Wayne Simmonds will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, so he’ll have some suitors. He’s 30 and his offensive output has diminished this season. He’s an easy one to cut bait on and bring back a return full of futures. After that, do you rip up the core that’s been together for years like Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jake Voracek? At their ages, they still have good years left, you’d hope. And with the development of Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick up front and Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere on the backend, plus the future in Morgan Frost, Philippe Myers, Joel Farabee, there’s no reason to blow it up. Factor in Carter Hart getting an extended run due to the numerous injuries that have hit the position and you can still see some bright spots ahead.

A number of Flyers are having down years, which will happen given their current state of mess. But players like Giroux, Voracek and Gostisbehere still have lots of term left on their contract, making them difficult to deal away.

The Flyers have never been shy about spending money to improve, so it’s realistic that with a smart off-season (No 13-year contracts, Chuck!) that may include hiring a replacement for interim head coach Scott Gordon they can be back in the playoff mix in 2019-20.

JAMES: During almost a decade with the Wild, Fletcher took some massive swings for the fence. He was able to make contact here and there, but that franchise will need to deal with his whiffs for ages.

With that in mind, there might be some hesitation in Philly, but let’s be honest: Hextall’s firing came, in large part, because management was already getting patient with the slow-burn approach. The “microwave” solution will have to do, which means smaller (but still unpleasant) moves like trading away Simmonds, rather than really hitting the reset button in parting ways with Giroux or Voracek.
Besides, it would take multiple drafts to compile many of the assets Philly already has. Beyond Giroux and Voracek, the Flyers have to fantastic young defensemen in Provorov and Gostisbehere. Couturier is the sort of two-way beast teams crave for playoff battles. Konecny and Patrick are both the types of forwards who could theoretically make leaps forward under the right coach.

Of course, there’s a lot of arduous work to be done, including answering the age-old question of finding a competent goalie. This dismal 2018-19 season might obscure this notion, but people (myself included) were intrigued by what this group could accomplish if they took the next step. Maybe Fletcher can push steer them in that positive direction? Taking that risk makes a lot more sense than starting from square one all over again.

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JOEY: I really don’t think the Flyers have to blow this thing up right now. I realize that Giroux, Simmonds and Voracek are older players, but this team has a lot of youth on the roster and in the pipeline. There’s no need to sell off veterans or make sweeping changes. This team has what it takes to get back on track in the near future. If it doesn’t happen this year, it should happen fairly soon.

Patrick, Konecny, Gostisbehere, Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Couturier are all 26 or younger. Most teams in the NHL would kill to have a young core made up of players that are that talented. Add guys like Hart, Frost, Myers and Isaac Ratcliffe, and you’ve got another group of youngsters that are close to making it to the NHL.

I feel like the Flyers were a victim of the success they had last year. No one really expected them to make the playoffs in 2018, but they did. So now that they’re struggling this season, it’s a much bigger deal. Look, I realize that they should be better than they’ve been, but some key players have had down years.
The organization has fired a GM and a head coach this year, so they just have to give Fletcher the opportunity to make a few small tweaks to see if they can salvage this situation. Don’t blow it up.

SCOTT: The time is now, isn’t it?

New coach, new GM — a fresh start in upper management and a fresh set of eyes at some big problems. Sure, Fletcher has made some interesting moves, but he also made a playoff contender, too.

They’ve lost seven straight and are in the basement of the Metropolitan Division and are a couple flights of stairs away from the bottom of the entire league. You’re already setting yourself up for a good draft pick, and there are some juicy prospects lining up for this coming draft in late June.
You have guys like Simmonds who will command a nice return at the trade deadline from a team looking to break the bank as they take a run at the Stanley Cup. Cash in now. Perhaps it’s time to shop Giroux, too. Look, nobody wants to fire it all into the Sun, but at what point do you have no other choice. Have they not been trying to re-tool on the go already?
There are some good players to build around still, but it’s not going to take some re-tooling on the fly to get it done this time. Look where that sort of thing got St. Louis — last place in the Central Division.
And they simply can’t let Hart go to waste and add another tombstone in that goalie graveyard.

Do it right.

ADAM: When Fletcher took over my opinion was that he shouldn’t do anything drastic or potentially detrimental to the long-term outlook of the team to try and salvage this lost season. He needed to take the rest of the year, let it play out, see what the team needs, find a permanent coach (whether it is Joel Quenneville or somebody else), and go from there. I still think that has to be the case when it comes to the bigger moves. But for as awful and dysfunctional as this season has been, I am still not sure if this is a “blow-it-up” type of situation.

I came into this season thinking the Flyers were a boom or bust team that could either make the playoffs and do fairly well, or totally fall flat on their face.

The X-factor for which path they would follow was the goaltending.

And, well, obviously the goaltending has sent them on the wrong path.

I don’t think this is a terrible team. They have a good mix of veteran stars (Giroux is still great. Voracek is good. Couturier is outstanding) some really good young players that can be part of something, and who knows, maybe even a shot at a top lottery pick. With better goaltending this season is probably going in a very different direction and we’re having a different conversation right now. Remember, this was a playoff team a year ago and I don’t think the forwards and defenders are playing that much worse this year. It’s the goaltending that has crushed them. Again. Fix that and maybe you have something decent here.

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Flyers-Capitals from Capital One Arena. Paul Burmeister, Keith Jones and Anson Carter will handle studio coverage.

NHL, players take collaborative approach in bid to resume

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Collaboration or bust.

Given the gravity of the new coronavirus pandemic and the abrupt decision to place the NHL season on pause in March, it didn’t take commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Don Fehr long to realize they were going to have to work together if play was to resume any time soon.

Nearly four months to the day since the last puck dropped, the two sides put aside past differences to have a return-to-play plan in place, and the assurance of labor peace through September 2026 to go with it.

”When we got to March 12 and decided to take the pause, that began a period of perhaps unprecedented collaboration and problem solving,” Bettman said during a Zoom conference call with reporters Saturday, a day after the league and players ratified a 24-team expanded playoff, set to begin Aug. 1, and a four-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement.

”It was a recognition by both sides that we were being confronted with an incredibly difficult, a novel, unprecedented situation. I believed we would get to this point because it was the right thing to do for the game and for everybody involved in the game.”

Fehr, the NHL Players’ Association executive director, not only agreed with Bettman, but went out of his way to credit the owners for the approach.

”I was persuaded well before the end of March that not only was this different, but it was being approached in a fundamentally different way. I always thought we would find a way to reach an agreement,” Fehr said.

The bond established between the two was apparent during the 55-minute session, with Fehr agreeing with Bettman and then acknowledging how unusual that was by by saying: ”I think that indicates something about the approach that was taken in these talks.”

Training camps are set to open Monday, which also represents the deadline for players to determine whether to opt out without penalty. If all goes as planned, teams will depart for their two respective hub cities, Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, on July 26 to open a two-month playoff leading to the awarding of the Stanley Cup.

Many uncertainties remain, with Bettman and Fehr unable to provide definitive answers.

While acknowledging the likelihood of players testing positive for COVID-19, deputy commissioner Bill Daly was unable to say how many players would have to do so for the league to postpone or cancel the playoffs altogether.

Though conference playoffs and Stanley Cup Final are scheduled to be held in Edmonton, a person with direct knowledge of the plans told The Associated Press the site might change if the pandemic spikes in Alberta’s capital. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is an alternate plan that’s not been discussed publicly.

Bettman and Daly, who are based in New York, weren’t even sure if or when they could cross the border to personally attend games because those entering Canada are required to self-isolate for a 14-day period.

The only certainty is the NHL became North America’s latest professional sport to forge a path back to playing, but minus the public hiccups experienced by its counterparts.

Major League Baseball’s season was nearly scuttled before the two sides agreed to a 60-game format. Less than three weeks before NFL training camps are set to open, the league is experiencing push-back from its players on whether to play preseason games next month. Major League Soccer has had two teams already withdrawing from competition because of the number of players testing positive for the coronavirus.

And not only is hockey on the verge of returning, the CBA extension assures 12 straight years of labor peace, the NHL’s longest stretch since Bettman took over in 1993. During that time, play has been halted three times by lockouts, the last in 2012-13, when the season was shortened to 48 games.

”I think Don and I both recognize labor peace was something we couldn’t even quantify how important it was,” Bettman said. ”But we both knew that for the business of the game to come back strong, there was enough disruption going on in the world that we didn’t have to add to it.”

Fehr said the months-long talks to reach a solution were a matter of perseverance.

”This is a very bad analogy, but you have to sort of navigate the kayak in a storm until the storm’s over, and then make sure the kayak isn’t full of holes so that you can go on and sail it in calmer seas,” Fehr said in a separate interview with The AP. ”Or to put it another way there was never any pretense that this was business as usual.”

Owners benefit because they can generate much-needed revenue through sponsorships and advertising, even though games will be played in empty arenas.

Though players will likely lose a portion of their salaries for seasons to come to make up for 50-50 split of revenue, they benefit from a CBA that includes the possibility of returning to the Olympics, after the NHL opted out from the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. The new labor agreement also addressed players’ demands to gain a post-career subsidy for health care.

Oilers’ Green joins list of players opting out of NHL return

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Roman Polak of the Stars and Mike Green of the Oilers are opting out of playing, and Lightning captain Steven Stamkos will try to play after recovering from injury.

In the aftermath of a deal being struck to resume the NHL season, Aug. 1, Green, Polak and three other players joined Calgary defenseman Travis Hamonic in choosing not to participate in the expanded 24-team playoffs.

”Due to the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 and after much consideration, I’ve decided for deeply personal family health reasons not to participate in the return to play,” Green said in a statement. After a trade from Detroit, the defenseman played two games for Edmonton before injuring his right knee.

Boston’s Steven Kampfer, Montreal’s Karl Alzner and Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi also decided to opt out. Kampfer, who played 10 games with the Bruins this season, said his wife and son have a congenital defect that could cause complications with the virus and called it ”one of the hardest decisions” he has had to make.

Polak is a pending free agent who last month agreed to a deal in his native Czech Republic next season and told reporters there he wasn’t planning on returning to the NHL if play resumed. Baertschi, who spent most of this season in the minors, is under contract through 2020-21.

”Sven informed us late yesterday that he has chosen to opt out of the NHL return to play program,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. ”It was a difficult decision but ultimately one we respect and understand.”

The Lightning won’t have Stamkos at 100% for the opening of camp because of a lower-body injury, but they’re optimistic he’ll be ready when games get under way in early August. GM Julien BriseBois said Stamkos fully recovered from core muscle surgery in early March but was injured again during voluntary workouts.

”We don’t have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games,” BriseBois said. ”He’s here, he’s skating, he’s been getting treatment, he’s been coming to Amalie (Arena) doing his dry land work. But he will not be a full participant on Day One of training camp.”

While Stamkos has a better chance of being ready for Tampa Bay’s next game than he would have after surgery if the playoffs had started in mid-April, the Flames will have to cope without Hamonic when they open their series against Winnipeg on Aug. 1.

Hamonic became the first player to publicly choose not to play in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Hamonic’s daughter was hospitalized last year with respiratory issues, and he and his wife also have a baby boy. Their health concerns, not the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s impending free agency, led him to opt out.

”I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping my team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said. ”Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have. I love this game and my team. This is a decision that is extremely hard for me to make.”

The Lightning already got a pandemic scare when three players and additional staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. The positive test results forced the team to close its facilities for a brief period of time.

The Minnesota Wild, who face the Canucks in the qualifying round, ruled out defenseman Greg Pateryn indefinitely with an upper-body injury. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Saturday the league will be taking over injury and illness disclosure from teams as a way of protecting player privacy.

”Medical privacy is important in this process,” Daly said. ”Having said that, we understand as a league we have an obligation of some transparency with respect to the COVID virus in particular, so at least for now we’re going to maintain a policy where the league is announcing on basically league numbers and clubs are really prohibited from giving any information with respect to COVID test results, and, for purposes of making the system work, any injury information going forward.”

Lightning’s Stamkos injured again at start of training camp

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Captain Steven Stamkos will be limited at the start of Tampa Bay Lightning training camp because of a new lower-body injury.

General manager Julien BriseBois said Saturday that Stamkos fully recovered from core muscle surgery in early March but was injured again during voluntary workouts. Stamkos is expected to be ready for the start of the NHL’s expanded 24-team Stanley Cup playoffs in early August.

”We don’t have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games,” BriseBois said. ”He’s here, he’s skating, he’s been getting treatment, he’s been coming to Amalie (Arena) doing his dry land work. But he will not be a full participant on Day One of training camp.”

Unlike Stamkos, the Calgary Flames won’t have defenseman Travis Hamonic for the resumption of the hockey season after he decided to opt out for family reasons. Hamonic on Friday night became the first player to publicly choose not to play in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hamonic’s daughter was hospitalized last year with respiratory issues, and he and his wife also have a baby boy. Their health concerns, not the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s impending free agency, led him to opt out.

”I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping my team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said. ”Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have. I love this game and by team. This is a decision that is extremely hard for me to make.”

Flames general manager Brad Treliving said, ”While we will miss Travis in our lineup, we understand and respect his decision.”

The Lightning already got a pandemic scare when three players and additional staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. The positive test results forced the team to close its facilities for a brief period of time.

Flames’ Hamonic is first player to opt out of NHL’s return

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Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic has been the first player to opt out of the NHL’s Return to Play program.

“Earlier this evening Travis called me to inform us that he has decided to opt out of the NHL Return to Play Program,” said Flames general manager Brad Treliving. “Travis explained that due to family considerations, he has made the difficult decision not to participate in the Stanley Cup Qualifier and Playoffs.

“While we will miss Travis in our line-up, we understand and respect his decision. Our focus remains on preparation for training camp and our upcoming series in the NHL Qualifying Round.”

[Full Stanley Cup Qualifying Round schedule]

As part of the RTP plan that was ratified Friday evening, any player can opt out without penalty by Monday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline.

In a statement posted through his agent’s Twitter account, Hamonic cited a respiratory virus his young daughter battled last year and the recent birth of his son as the reasons why he will not be joining the Flames.

“My family has and always will come first,” he said. “Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have.”

The 29-year-old Hamonic, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this off-season, played 50 games for Calgary this season. He recorded 12 points and was second the team in average ice time per game (21:12) behind Mark Giordano.

The Flames will face the Jets in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier series in the Edmonton hub

MORE:
NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
NHL salary cap to stay flat at $81.5M

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.