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Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher talks free agency, roster decisions and more

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Chuck Fletcher signed eight players to NHL contracts Monday, but none of them are expected to be impact players for the Flyers. (Photo: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images)

For the past few months, Chuck Fletcher has made the Flyers a team of his own. After joining the team as general manager in December, he traded a few players away midseason and identified targets like Kevin Hayes and Matt Niskanen. 

Monday, in the first day of free agency, he didn't touch the NHL roster and almost completely revamped the Lehigh Valley Phantoms with a new cast of veteran players.

Why didn't he spend more money as division rivals did? Is a rookie now set to make the team? What's the outlook with more young players left to sign? Here was Fletcher's full exchange on a conference call with reporters. 

On what he accomplished in free agency…

Today we were able to sign eight players to help bolster our depth both in Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley. Several of these players will probably move back and forth between Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley. One of the important things we were hoping to do was provide a solid, veteran cast of players to surround our talented young players that are starting their professional journey down in Lehigh Valley this year. We feel we’ve added a lot of good hockey players, a lot of quality people and clearly the depth of our organization is much better right now.

On none of the free agents in Lehigh returning…

I think the majority of the players we brought in are upgrades on what we had last year. We didn’t have a very good season last year in Lehigh Valley. In fairness we had a lot of injuries. A player like Phil Varone ended up spending most of the season, at least the last two thirds of the season, up in Philadelphia, which was a big blow for that club. Between the young players that are turning pro this season and the veteran players we’ve added I think we significantly upgraded our talent and our character level.

On if he was close on anything for an NHL player either free agency or trade…

No. We didn’t jump into those waters.

On if any other major moves are planned other than re-signing RFAs…

That’s hard to say. We’ll continue to have conversations with teams and as I’ve mentioned to you guys a few times, it really isn’t a priority for us to add additional pieces. I mean, if we can find a clear upgrade, we will, but today I think what you saw, the majority of the forwards that were signed today were to multi-year, multi-million-dollar deals and frankly we just didn’t want to get into those types of commitments right now. Over the next 24 months, we’ll have several top, young forwards knocking on the door of the NHL. I don’t think it’s a very smart thing to box these kids out and take on additional cap responsibilities when we’re just going to have a lot of good pieces that are going to mature and grow through the system.

On sitting back and watching a lot of money go through the league…

Well, it’s always the way on July 1 and believe me I’ve been an active participant on July 1. We’ve had other years where I haven’t done much. This year obviously we were proactive. We identified the players we wanted to get and we went out and got them early. Again, we felt our priorities were adding a No. 2 center, adding a couple quality defensemen and finding a goaltender to play with Carter Hart. When we went through the lists of all those available players we quickly realized there were very few centers and defensemen in the free-agent marketplace and rather than get into a bidding war over very scarce…in a market where there just weren’t a lot of players, we felt if we could get ahead of it and get the guys we wanted, that would be a smart thing to do. Look, there was over $550 million spent today on UFA contracts and obviously there’s many teams that significantly reduced the amount of cap space they have available to them this year and going forward. Just looking quickly at some of the cap numbers, there’s several teams that will be over the cap once they fill out their roster and re-sign their RFAs. It’s going to be an interesting summer. There’s going to be a lot of teams with a lot of work to do. I like the position we’re in right now. We have some cap space left and we feel it will be enough to cover our RFAs and our hope is to get into camp and we have a new coaching staff and we have a lot of new players and let things sort out in camp and from there we can always make adjustments. Right now, we’ll just focus on our RFAs and don’t forget, we have three RFAs this summer but we have two next summer [he was likely referring to Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom, but Robert Hägg and Phil Myers will be up also] and two more the year after that (Travis Sanheim and Carter Hart). Those are top young players that our staff has worked hard to draft and develop and they’re high priorities for us. You have to be mindful of your future obligations when you go through a day like today.

On the signing of Jean-Francois Berube and a crowded net with the Phantoms…

With (Felix) Sandström, our goal is to get him a lot of games. We’ll find a path for him. I don’t think the goal for Santström was ever to be a backup goalie for Lehigh Valley. He hasn’t played a lot of games the last three seasons. We need to develop him. We used eight goalies at the NHL level last year and we just through it would be prudent to bring in JF and we now have four guys that are quality professional goaltenders and all four of them have played games in the NHL. I just think we’re in a better position to deal with any uncertainty that may come our way next season.

On whether the door is more open now for Morgan Frost or Joel Farabee to make the team in camp or if another move is coming…

I don’t foresee another move as we get closer to camp, but there’s a lot of teams that are going to have significant challenges this summer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many teams over the cap or at the cap, and again that’s when you factor in the future signings they have to make here with their RFAs and to fill out their roster. There could be opportunity (to make a trade) but I spoke with Alain Vigneault at length today and he’s excited about our team and I think we all want to get in and see what we have and how the pieces fit together. We’ll have plenty of time to make adjustments if necessary.

On Farabee and Frost specifically…

It’s more than Farabee and Frost. I think (German) Rubtsov had a tremendous prospect camp here and (Isaac) Ratcliffe is a quality young player and (Mikhail) Vorobyev is a young man that we feel is gonna come back a little bit stronger. There’s several players down there that can play games, never mind (Andy) Andreoff, who is a player that I think will make a very strong push to make our team this season and Kurtis Gabriel is a player that’s played games in the NHL the past few seasons. We have a lot of options. That’s what training camp’s for. It’s an opportunity for players to come in and show that they belong. It should be an exciting camp.

On how much the offseason plans were making sure existing roster players were in more comfortable spots…

It was a major factor. How we develop these young players going forward — and not just these first-year players in Lehigh Valley, but also the young players we have on our NHL roster is likely gonna be a major determining factor of whether we’ll be able to win a Stanley Cup. We have some high-end talent and we have to not only slot them properly, but surround them properly and create the best environment possible not just to develop them but also to win games. I think we accomplished a lot of what we set out to accomplish.

On if the rate of free agent inflation impacted strategy leading up to July 1…

Well, that’s hard to say. We went out and we added Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun and Brian Elliott, so we certainly added some players. I don’t think July 1 is the day you should be building your team. I think it’s the day to supplement your roster and we added some pieces we thought we needed to add prior to July 1 and really the best teams, the teams that win Stanley Cups, seem to draft and develop the key parts of their team. Our staff has worked hard over the past several seasons to accumulate a lot of top young talent and I think it’s incumbent on everyone in the organization to make sure we do our best to develop those players. We have an exciting future ahead of us. We have a lot of good young players and again, I’m not just talking about the players that participated this past week (in development camp). We looked at our team and we counted today, there’s eight players on that NHL roster that haven’t come close to hitting their peak or having their career seasons. That’s the exciting thing. That’s our growth and again, I think we’ve added some quality pieces that will help this team. Make no mistake, our future success is going to depend in large part on how far these young players go, how much they develop and that’s the exiting part for our group.

On whether buyout of David Schlemko was to add a spot for another veteran in Lehigh Valley…

There’s certainly a $600,000 liability that we incurred by doing that for next season, but David’s a guy that spent a lot of time in the NHL. Frankly I didn’t feel that his opportunity to make our team coming out of camp was strong and I thought it was the best thing for both him and the Flyers to sort of deal with the situation up front and we were confident we’d be able to sign players today and we did. I think it was a combination of factors but again, we clearly added a lot of depth on defense today and I think we’re well covered in that regard.

On relationship with Kyle Criscuolo…

He interned, I believe it was three summers ago for us in Minnesota. We had a couple of the Harvard hockey players come in. We were looking for some summer interns to come in and work on some statistical things with our analytics department. He came in and did a great job. He’s a good hockey player in his own right, but he might have a really good future in hockey management when he’s done with his playing career. He’s a very bright young man and a quality hockey player. He’s coming off a season that probably didn’t go as well as he wanted but he’s a player that…you know, high-end, good work ethic and can compete. Good skill and a player that plays the game the right way. Kyle’s a young man I know well and I felt comfortable adding to our group. He’ll add a lot to our organization.

He actually helped sort of go through all the available free agents that summer and did an analysis of the players that were available. With our analytics department he broke down the players that were available and that was the summer we signed Eric Staal. He did some quality work for us. Just a great kid.

On whether the Flyers needed top-flite acquisitions heading into offseason…

I’m not sure how many top-of-the-roster players were available today. You guys can form your own opinions on that but there were very few. We felt that Niskanen and Braun would compare favorably with all the defensemen in this free agent class and Kevin Hayes was clearly one of the top two centers available in the projected free agent class. We felt like we’ve added quality players. Obviously we gave Kevin Hayes term. He’s 27 years old. He’ll be 33 at the end of the contract. We gave him a seven-year deal, but with Braun and Niskanen, they’re on shorter-term deals and that allows us to have some flexibility going forward to allow us to make the adjustments we need to make and make the decisions we need to make. We felt that was a tremendous benefit to acquiring those players. They’re players we wanted and they’re players where we’re not locked into lengthy deals.

On whether he was surprised to see an offer sheet after all the hype…

Not really. Offer sheets have been a part of the game. I’ve been in the game since ’93. I’ve seen a lot of them. It’s obviously a tool that general managers can use. It’s a part of the CBA and I think there was a lot of chatter that this year could be a year where there’s an offer sheet and, who knows, maybe there could be another one or two that happen. It didn’t surprise me. Again, I think it’s a part of the game and something that you see from time to time.

On whether Kasperi Kapanen and Timo Meier are comparables for Travis Konecny’s next deal…

We’ll continue to work on that. I hope to speak with Newport Sports later on this week on both Travis and Scott (Laughton) and try to push that forward. The group of comparables that are out there I think are well known to both sides. The overall AAV usually depends on the term so I think we’re flexible with respect to term. Obviously with Travis Sanheim we did a two-year deal and I think we’d be comfortable doing a short-term or long-term deal with Travis Konecny and it just will depend on the number and the fit. Again, we’ve had good conversations with Newport Sports and we’ll continue to work away at that.

On the forecast for the salary cap going forward with U.S. TV deal up in two seasons…

I’ve heard speculation about that. I guess I’ve seen the past several years that often times the cap comes in at a different number than what you hear about initially or what you anticipate so I try not to have that enter too much into my thinking. I think in the case with Travis (Sanheim), he’s a young man that I guess, to phrase it in a colloquial way, he wanted to put a bet on himself and he feels his best years are ahead of himself and he was very comfortable going short term, having a couple great seasons and then coming in again. From our standpoint, a lower cap number just allows us a little more flexibility to continue to sign the other RFAs we have to sign. I think it made sense for both parties and I think either approach is fine. Our goal is to keep all these young kids, get them signed as quick as we can and continue to build this franchise.

Dave Isaac joined the Courier-Post in April 2012 after covering the Flyers for three seasons elsewhere. Contact him on Twitter @davegisaac or by email at disaac@gannett.com.

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