Before the firings and the goalie injuries, before the losses started mounting and many of the young players took a step backward, the Flyers were supposed to be in a good position at the start of the All-Star break Sunday.
They would build on a 98-point season and, for the first time since Ron Hextall became the general manager in 2014 and began digging out of the cap mess he inherited, the Flyers had money to spend for a big-ticket player on the trade market. They would be a buyer before the Feb. 25 trade deadline, most suspected before the season, and they would finally be in a strong position to win their first playoff series since 2012.
You know how it turned out, of course.
Hextall was fired Nov. 26. Twenty days later, coach Dave Hakstol was dismissed.
In came Chuck Fletcher as the general manager and Scott Gordon as the interim coach. The hope was that it would be a wake-up call for an underachieving team.
For the most part, the Flyers’ losing continued. As the All-Star break arrives, they are out of the playoff picture, contending instead for the best odds to select No. 1 overall in the draft in June.
Long before the promising draft, there is the business of completing a disappointing season. Watching the development of rookie goalie Carter Hart, seeing if center Nolan Patrick can start looking like an impact player, and some intriguing trade possibilities figure to be the most interesting parts of the last two-plus months.
The Flyers, who entered the weekend 14 points out of a playoff spot and last in the Metropolitan Division, are expected to be sellers in the days leading up to the trade deadline. But don’t use the R-word when talking about the team’s next few years.
“A rebuild label to me is a little dicey – just in the sense that this team was building when I got here and I think we’re still building,” Fletcher said the other day. “We have a lot of good young players. We have to find a way to be competitive in the short term. It’s really disappointing where we’re at right now, and we have to look at all opportunities, not just between now and the trade deadline, but in the summer, to make sure we make the adjustments to get better. I think we’re going to be pretty active between now and the start of next season.”
Fletcher gave the impression he won’t be overly active in the trade market leading up to Feb. 25.
“I don’t know that the trade deadline is always the most ideal time to make moves,” he said. “If we can do things before the deadline, great; if not, there’s a lot of opportunities in the summer.”
Right winger Wayne Simmonds, one of the league’s most consistent power forwards the last eight years, is the Flyer most likely to be traded in the coming weeks. Michael Raffl, who like Simmonds is a pending unrestricted free agent, is also a strong trade candidate.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Wayne Simmonds, but we have to look at our cap situation moving forward,” said Fletcher, who said Simmonds “has been a warrior for this franchise and is still a heck of a hockey player.”
Fletcher won’t allow Simmonds to reach free agency without getting something in return – like the Islanders did last year with John Tavares.
“That won’t happen,” Fletcher said. “The goal would be to either have him signed or moved by the trade deadline.”
Overall, Fletcher believes he has a lot of good pieces.
"There’s been a lot of work put into this team, but clearly we have to make some adjustments here, and the most obvious one is we have to figure out the goaltender situation,” he said.
As long as he keeps progressing, the unflappable Hart figures to be the No. 1 goalie for the rest of this year and beyond. The brass would also like to get a look at Anthony Stolarz over the last couple of months. Injured goalies Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are in the final years of their contracts and will likely play elsewhere next season.
The Flyers’ recent eight-game losing streak knocked them out of playoff contention and took away their urgency to acquire a veteran goalie this season, though one will surely be added before 2019-20.
“We’re still going to need to find some goaltenders this summer,” Fletcher said. “We have some good young goaltenders who are coming … but we’re going to have to add some veterans.”
Like the rest of the hockey world, Fletcher is mystified by the Flyers’ season.
“We do have good players, but we’re not a good team,” he said. “We have to become a better team.”
The pieces look good on paper, not so good on the ice, so changes are coming. Fletcher’s makeover isn’t as difficult as it was for his predecessor, Hextall, because the Flyers are out of cap hell and they seem to finally have their goalie of the future – a year ahead of time.