Johnny Gaudreau is a player that can change a franchise, and his hometown Philadelphia Flyers badly need some positive change right now.
Instead, he's going to change one of the Flyers' Metropolitan Division foes because of how badly the club mismanaged its "aggressive retool."
There aren't many tools in Philadelphia's toolbox right now, which is tough considering how many pieces the other Metro teams added in recent days. Every team got better, with the exception of the Flyers and maybe the New York Islanders.
At least the Islanders have the salary-cap space needed to improve, though. They could add someone like free-agent center Nazem Kadri if they wanted to.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, is in a cap crunch of its own creation. They are currently $98,107 over the cap and will need to move some pieces around the get underneath the $82.5 million threshold before opening day.
This prevented the team from making an offer to Gaudreau, who grew up rooting for the Flyers. The speedy, playmaking winger signed a seven-year, $68.3 million contract ($9.75 AAV) with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
When Gaudreau turned down an offer with his previous team, the Calgary Flames, citing a "family decision," it was presumed that he wanted to be closer to his hometown in southern New Jersey, right across the river from Philadelphia.
But an offer was never made because general manager Chuck Fletcher failed to clear enough cap space, partially because he couldn't unload another Jersey native, James van Riemsdyk, and his $7 million cap hit.
Instead, he signed Nicolas Deslauriers, a 31-year-old enforcer, to a four-year deal and 35-year-old defenseman Justin Braun. This came a few days after he traded for defenseman Tony DeAngelo, one of the most polarizing and divisive players in the game.
DeAngelo might provide a lot of offense, but his defensive efforts are nearly non-existent, and his infamous poor attitude could clash with a demanding coach like John Tortorella.
DeAngelo wasn't the only bewildering move made by Fletcher. The offseason started off with the club extending defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen for five more seasons with a $5.1 million AAV. Like DeAngelo, Ristolainen is another defenseman that is better going forward than he is playing in his own zone.
"We're out on all the remaining free agents, with the reality of our cap situation right now," Fletcher said shortly before it was announced that Columbus won the Gaudreau sweepstakes.
"It probably precluded us from looking at some of the more expensive options in the market today. Today, to us, was more about depth signings, getting guys that make us a little bit harder to play against and making sure we have some players on two-way contracts that can move between Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia."
This is far from the "aggressive" plan Fletcher and Comcast Spectacor chairman and CEO Dave Scott promised the fans back in January.
No wonder fans are calling for Fletcher to be fired.
"There's no question we'll be a more competitive team this season," Fletcher said in his press conference Wednesday afternoon. "How competitive? We'll see."
This isn't really a ringing endorsement of the 2022-23 squad. The Flyers went 25-46-11 (61 points) and finished last in the Metropolitan Division. "More competitive?" Is a 10-point increase is acceptable?
It shouldn't be.
Fletcher was hired in the fall of 2018 to replace Ron Hextall, and since then, the Flyers have made the playoffs once (2019-20). They played well in the bubble but still lost in the second round to the New York Islanders.
The core aged, and goalie Carter Hart hasn't been the same since then. Coach Alain Vigneault was fired last December, and interim coach Mike Yeo was let go in May.
Captain Claude Giroux was traded at the deadline to the Florida Panthers, and because he had a no-movement clause, he was able to choose which team he wanted to go to.
Tortorella was recently hired, and though his track record is strong, he can only do so much with a subpar roster. That roster is nothing special, and there is little room for improvements.
The Flyers have a lot of money tied up beyond just van Riemsdyk. Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes are each making more than $7 million per year, and while you can defend those contracts, it's tougher to defend the Ristolainen deal and the Ryan Ellis move from last year.
Ellis, a veteran defenseman who was acquired last season in an expansion-draft move, is owed $6.3 million for the next five seasons. He was injured for most of last year, and at 31, it's unclear what the Flyers can expect from him next season.
Defenseman Ivan Provorov regressed last year. Hart doesn't have a proven backup. Aside from Joel Farabee, the Flyers haven't really developed any of their prospects. If any team needs cheap talent on entry-level contracts, it's this one.
This is a team with a lot of moving parts that don't seem to move together. It's a lot of developing young players mixed with some aging veterans who have question marks around their health and around their behaviors, in the case of DeAngelo.
Tortorella will no doubt install his signature defensive structure, but this isn't a roster that is ready to compete for a playoff spot, especially not in this division. And yet the playoffs are exactly what was promised to fans back in January.
"I can tell you, everything's on the table," Scott said. "We're looking at the front office, we're looking at the coaching staff—which we have been—players, investment. Whatever we need to do to improve this team. But I don't see it being a three-, four-, five-year thing. We should get this right, we should be in it next year."
There is little hope that this team can deliver on that playoff promise. Fans have every right to be upset with the direction of the franchise. Gaudreau could have changed the trajectory of the team, but instead, it's stuck in neutral with nothing to indicate that any progress can be made in the near future.