All indications going into the NHL’s 2022 free agency period suggested that the Flyers would take a swing at Johnny Gaudreau, the top player hitting the market. Gaudreau, a native of New Jersey and a Flyers fan, notched 115 points during 2021-2022. Though it would probably take a player in the MacKinnon/McDavid tier to give the Flyers the juice to make a deep playoff run, Gaudreau’s signature would have made quite the statement. Chuck Fletcher certainly thought so; the GM brought in Tony DeAngelo and Nic Deslauriers to prove to the star winger that the team meant business and to protect him, respectively. Instead, after failing to even clear enough money to offer Gaudreau, Fletcher watched an offseason built around a star acquisition crash and burn. The disaster is a perfect microcosm for the Fletcher era, an utter failure covered in bells and whistles.
Fletcher has been building a team around a star that does not exist since he arrived in Philadelphia. The analysis for each player he has brought in has gone as follows: good, but will not directly affect the team’s Cup chances. It was true for DeAngelo last week, for Rasmus Ristolainen last season, and for Kevin Hayes as Fletcher’s first big signing. Any of those players would make excellent depth pieces on, say, Edmonton or Boston, teams with high-end stars that need better support. Without said stars, the scrapheap of second-liners Fletcher has gathered amounts to little.
The GM never quite got that, though. There has always been a next scheme to validate his failures and save his butt. Ristolainen’s extension, the DeAngelo trade, and the arrival of big-name coach John Tortorella were the latest examples of his flailing attempts to make any of his moves make sense. It seemed Fletcher would keep paying steeply for 60-point players until the end of time until the golden opportunity that was Gaudreau fell into his lap.
Gaudreau left Calgary for no other reason than he wanted to. The Flames, who had just finished an excellent 2021-2022, reportedly offered the diminutive forward superstar money and tenure. Gaudreau spurned them, tired of life in Western Canada and longing to return to the American Northeast. Fletcher quickly went to work, waving Oskar Lindblom for cap space and signing Deslauriers to discourage the bullies of the Metropolitan Division. All that was left was to jettison enough salary to actually sign the player after DeAngelo’s $5 million AAV deal was made official.
Fletcher dangled James Van Riemsdyk, perhaps the league’s most overpaid player, to any number of suitors. No one bit, the Flyers dropped out of the Gaudreau sweepstakes, and before the opening day of free agency had concluded the winger was a Columbus Bluejacket. Mind, Fletcher could have waived JVR instead of the infinitely more tradeable Lindblom, signed Gaudreau, and secured his job on the star player’s name alone. Comcast’s ownership group has not exactly kept a tight leash on the executive, after all.
Instead, the Philadelphia Flyers got scooped by the Columbus Bluejackets. Maybe that was Gaudreau’s plan after all. He will collect nearly $10 million a year for the rest of his career with minimal expectation of championship success. If outlets including ESPN are to be believed, though, his first choice was to represent the Orange and Black, and the team blew it epically.
Would Gaudreau have dragged the 25-win Flyers to Stanley Cup glory? No, probably not. Still, he could well have won the Hart Trophy this year in a world without Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid. Instead, the Flyers whiffed on Gaudreau, who joins a minnow while Fletcher wonders what to do with a team built around a star who left him at the altar. It should be a familiar position for him by now.
Maybe Fletcher convinced the Flyers’ brass he would sign Gaudreau. Maybe he convinced Gaudreau there would be a red carpet waiting for him on Broad Street. Maybe he even convinced himself he would land the star of the offseason. The reality is that Fletcher had a golden ticket to a respectable 2022-2023 finish and missed the train. If Comcast has a lick of sense (they do not) Fletcher should be in the breadline by the end of the weekend. Frankly, he should not have been allowed to oversee the draft. With Gaudreau in the wind, why let Fletcher sabotage the rest of the offseason? It is high time Chuck Fletcher finds another mark to sell his snake oil to; it has done more than enough damage in Philadelphia.
Photo: WSYX Ohio