Chuck Fletcher

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Why Wild are better off being terrible next season

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When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem is that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who are more or less in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Flyers on Hayes talks, NHL Draft approach

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With the 2019 NHL Draft and free agency approaching, the Philadelphia Flyers have their hands full. The team addressed contract negotiations with Kevin Hayes, their approach to the 2019 NHL Draft, and more on Monday.

Hayes situation still hazy

Back on June 3, the Flyers sent their 2019 fifth-round pick to the Winnipeg Jets for Hayes’ negotiating rights. The Flyers bought themselves a window to try to hash out a contract with Hayes, 27, before the big center can hit the free agent market on July 1.

Via a transcription by NHL.com’s Adam Kimelman, Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher indicates that not a whole lot has been discussed yet, but Fletcher expects to have face-to-face time by the 2019 NHL Draft (June 21-22), and also believes that Hayes is “open-minded” about signing with Philly.

“I don’t have a vibe, other than he’s certainly open-minded,” Fletcher said. “You have to remember he’s two weeks away from getting to July 1, so that’s a nice status to obtain in this league. Certainly, he’s earned that right and we are respectful of that. I think we have a lot to offer in Philly. So we will continue to speak to him and I think he’s open-minded to conversations, at least that is what his camp has said to us, and obviously we have strong interest in him.”

Fletcher notes that he hopes that Hayes can help the Flyers with his defensive game, not just with scoring.

Broad Street Hockey also lays out the benefits of a potential ripple effect if the Flyers can sign Hayes.

Most prominently, Hayes solidifying the second center spot could allow Claude Giroux to stay at a more comfortable spot on the wing, allow Nolan Patrick to draw easier matchups as a 3C, and also open up the possibility that the Flyers could earn the depth to have one of the best fourth lines in hockey.

Interesting stuff all around, even if it isn’t earth-shattering. Of course, all of that would hinge on Hayes wanting to play for the Flyers, and reunite with former Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault.

On the 2019 NHL Draft

NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jordan Hall provides an account of the Flyers’ discussions regarding the 11th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, as Monday’s press conference didn’t just include GM Chuck Fletcher, but also assistant GM Brent Flahr.

It’s basically a trope to wonder if a team might trade its first-rounder, and while Fletcher didn’t totally disregard the possibility, it sounds pretty remote, as Fletcher admitted that there “hasn’t really been a big push for the pick at this point.”

To be fair to those wondering about that possibility, the Flyers are likely in a spot where they’d be more interested in chasing immediate gains, rather than developing more prospects. They made great strides in that area under Ron Hextall’s watch, and one of the hopes of hiring Fletcher seems to be making aggressive strides for the present.

So, the lure might be there, but the demand might not.

Flahr grades the 2019 NHL Draft as a “B+,” and Flahr indicated that the team is leaning more toward drafting a defenseman.

“We have a couple of defensemen in our top 10 that we like,” Flahr said.

“We’ve identified probably five or six guys that we think have a chance to be there at 11 and probably some of the other teams in front of us will dictate that. But we’re really confident we’re going to get a good player.”

To an extent, the Flyers are playing the waiting game right now. They need to do their best to entice Hayes to sign, rather than burning a fifth-round pick for nothing. They also must prepare for multiple scenarios, as the 11th pick is late enough where things can play out in a number of ways, while there’s also the chance that a really promising prospect falls that far.

That all might feel a bit unnerving, but with a nice core already in place and a ton of cap space on hand, the Flyers could also make some waves during the summer. If nothing else, they’ve already shown that they’re willing to be proactive, if not outright aggressive, to get things done.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Flyers hire Alain Vigneault as next head coach

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Alain Vigneault is returning to the Metropolitan Divison after the Philadelphia Flyers announced on Monday afternoon that they’ve hired him as their next head coach.

“Alain has always been somebody I’ve admired and respected,” said Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher. ” I’ve watched the job he’s done over the years throughout his career, but particularly in Vancouver and with the Rangers. He’s been what I’ve considered to be a top coach in the NHL. I made a decision that I wanted to speak with him, and during our conversations it just became apparent to me he was the right guy. So once you kind of come to that conclusion it just made sense to pursue it, and we were able to finalize things this morning.”

Vigneault, who’s currently set to lead Canada’s entry at the IIHF World Championship in May, was fired by the New York Rangers after the 2017-18 NHL season. The 57-year-old was behind the bench for the Rangers for five seasons, guiding them to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals and the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. He’s won 648 games coaching three different franchise, earned the Jack Adams Award in 2007, and led both the Vancouver Canucks and Rangers to conference titles.

“It is an honor to be selected as the next head coach of the Flyers,” said Vigneault. “The history they have established and the passionate fan base has made this a first-class franchise. I am excited to work with Chuck, the talented group of players and prospects coming up through the system, in order to return Philadelphia to the top of the NHL landscape.”

It was no secret that the Flyers were hot after Joel Quenneville following his November dismissal by the Chicago Blackhawks. But Fletcher, who replaced Ron Hextall, decided to give the organization’s AHL head coach, Scott Gordon, the interim tag after Dave Hakstol’s firing. Even after Gordon led the team to a 25-22-4 record, it wasn’t enough as Fletcher apparently sees Vigneault as the better option going forward on a “multi-year” contract, which is reportedly five years, $25M, per Pierre LeBrun.

Now that he has a head coach, Fletcher can check another thing off his to-do list after assuming the GM job. The goaltending position looks to be set with Carter Hart‘s emergence this season. Who backs him up in 2018-19 is still to be decided. Up next is working on extensions for some of the team’s restricted free agents like Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Travis Konecny.

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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.

Flyers start search for coach after missing playoffs

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Philadelphia Flyers found a pair of rookies this season they expect to become superstars over the long haul.

The first one is obvious: Gritty, the mischievous furball that not only would win an NHL mascot MVP vote by a landslide, the googly-eyed giant just might win a popularity contest among all of sports’ greatest characters.

The next one is the spark the Flyers need more than a Phillie Phanatic knockoff: a goalie.

Carter Hart gave Flyers fans a reason to tune in when the season was left for dead and showed that – yes! maybe? – the franchise that has foundered between the pipes may have a goalie who can win them a Stanley Cup. Hart is just 20 years old but showed enough flashes of promise from his mid-December call-up from the minors that it convinced the Flyers (37-37-8; 82 points) they won’t have to chase another veteran this summer.

”Am I going to trade Carter Hart? I’d have to be crazy,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Fletcher can scratch ”get No. 1 goalie” off his summer to-do list.

But the list is long for a franchise that has failed to reach the second round of the playoffs since 2012 and has alternated between missing and making the postseason each of the following years.

”We weren’t good enough,” Fletcher said Monday.

That’s why Fletcher was hired after Ron Hextall was fired in November after 4+ seasons on the job in which he tried to revive a depleted farm system and patiently build a championship contender. Fletcher fired coach Dave Hakstol weeks later and gave minor league coach Scott Gordon the interim label. Fletcher and Gordon met briefly Monday to discuss upcoming schedules – but not the fate of the coach. The Florida Panthers took one of the top candidates off the market when they hired Joel Quenneville on Monday. Gordon, who quickly became popular with the players, is among the candidates.

”I had a great time with the group of players,” Gordon said. ”What I liked about it, when I was up front and called them out and was hard and challenged them, I got a response from them. When you try and do that in this day in age and not have them resent you, that’s an important part.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Fletcher thinks it’s important, too.

”My search for the next head coach starts today and Scott remains a candidate,” he said.

Here are some key developments from 2018-19 that will remain relevant for the Flyers:

GETTING GRITTY WIT IT

Gritty was the undisputed star of the lost season.

He made 114 appearances this season, including cameos at the Stadium Series and All-Star weekend. The Flyers sold more than 17,000 pieces of Gritty merchandise at home games this season. The NHLPA voted Gritty the best mascot in the NHL and he was as in-demand as a Hollywood A-lister, with appearances on the late-night circuit with Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel.

The Flyers may have been unwatchable, but Gritty was a surefire smash.

HELP WANTED

The Flyers might continue to try to build from within. There is money to spend, but the NHL free-agent market is thin, with Erik Karlsson, Tyler Myers and Anton Stralman among possible players the Flyers could target.

Possible.

”I don’t think it’s an elite market, but we’ll see,” Fletcher said. ”There are always players that can help your team.”

BAD HABITS

Like many bad teams, the Flyers fell behind first in games and got off to a slow start that left them buried in the standings before a midseason surge offered a glint of a playoff hope.

”We have some bad habits right now,” Fletcher said. ”It’s mindset, but you need the mindset to embrace the habits. It’s about making sure going into camp next year, we have to change some details, change our mindset and have a good start. A lot of reasons we fall behind in games is because we give up easy goals. It’s not about effort. It’s about thinking, about working smart and playing better.”

STEP UP

The Flyers need more out of once-prized prospects Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. ”Ghost” slumped from a career-high 65 points last season to just nine goals and 37 points this season.

Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom and Phil Myers played for Gordon in the minors and there’s hope that the familiarity can help them improve on their 25-22-4 record since the interim coach took over.

”I think we have good players,” Fletcher said. We just need a few more.”

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

After tough start, JVR is showing why Flyers brought him back

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For a while there, JVR felt a little … well, JV for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Two main factors seemed to complicate things for James van Riemsdyk as he tried to justify that five-year, $35 million contract to return to Philly. The first was a freak injury, right in the beginning of the 2018-19 season.

The other was even more out of JVR’s hands than the bad luck of getting hurt: the Flyers were transitioning from Wayne Simmonds to JVR, particularly on the power play, and it wasn’t exactly a seamless passing of the torch.

[JVR came into this season under pressure.]

Bumpy start

Flyers coach Scott Gordon saw JVR’s season firsthand, as he went from hurt and a bit lost to his current red-hot streak, where van Riemsdyk now has 10 goals in his last 11 games.

“I think being out that time and not really …he almost didn’t have a role with the team for a while there,” Gordon said, via Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post. “He wasn’t playing as much power-play time, not playing as much top-six ice time and so now I find he’s skating more consistent, getting involved in the play up and down the ice and just has the puck more often. Getting to the front of the net more often obviously, whether it’s a tip or a rebound, that’s critical for anybody but to do that you’ve got to be around the net and he’s been around the net more.”

The turnaround truly has been remarkable, as JVR now has 25 goals and 42 points despite being limited to 56 games played.

2019 has been kind to JVR, so far

JVR is tied for the second-most goals since 2019 began with 20, and no player has more goals than his nine since the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

As with any sniper who’s scoring at an even higher level than usual, a hot streak will eventually be iced, and that’s true with JVR. His 18.8 shooting percentage overall this season is a little high – even for a player who has a knack for getting to the areas of the ice where you can get quality shots, and one who is among the best at finishing such chances – and his luck has been even better lately.

But, to me, it’s the renewed clarity of it all that bodes well for JVR’s short-term future, and the Flyers’ chances of getting the most out of him in 2019-20.

Yes, scoring nine times on 35 shots on goal (25.7 shooting percentage) is unsustainable, but it’s a great sign that van Riemsdyk is firing the puck that often.

It sure seems like JVR isn’t just getting the green light, but that he knows it. Not only does he have eight goals in as many March games, but after averaging 16:26 TOI or less in previous months this season, he’s averaged 18:18 per game during March. That’s an exciting development for a player who went from heavy usage during Toronto’s awkward years, to being shuttled into more of a specialist role during his final two seasons with the Maple Leafs. The thought was that JVR scored incredibly well considering a bit under 16 minutes of ice time in 2016-17 and a bit under 15 in 2017-18, so imagine what he could do with fuller minutes … but he was sort of relegated to that same, more supporting duty through most of this first season.

If the Flyers carry over this finish to giving JVR a heightened role in 2019-20, they might just enjoy the sort of rewards that would get people to look at his $7M as a bargain.

… At least for a while.

Will it all line up?

Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher faces an interesting question, with an invisible deadline from Father Time: can he put a few more pieces together to take advantage of what this team has, before a decline happens?

JVR is already 29, and will turn 30 in May. Jakub Voracek is 29 as well, while Claude Giroux is 31.

For every Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and other player who continues to play at a high level past age 30, there are scary examples of other steep declines. The stories are especially frightening for power forward-types like JVR. Wayne Simmonds himself has already been showing signs of decay, while Milan Lucic and James Neal rank as some of the starkest examples of how steep the falls can be.

Will the Flyers be able to best take advantage of the remaining high-level years of productivity, however many there might be? As much as Philly can look at many positive developments heading into 2019-20 (and beyond), it remains to be seen if they can make all the pieces fall into place at the perfect time to contend – for real – for at least a few years.

If nothing else, JVR looks far more capable of being a big part of that solution as of today, compared to earlier this season.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.