The fans didn’t hold back.
As soon as Chuck Fletcher took the stage at the Philadelphia Flyers’ town hall event for season ticket holders last Saturday, the failing general manager was greeted with raucous boos as he prepared to take questions from his disgruntled paying customers.
A few feet behind him? Danny Briere took the same stage. But he didn’t face the same aversion Fletcher did. In fact, he was greeted with warmth as fans audibly murmured “Hi Danny” in his direction.
lmao pic.twitter.com/ERbGL6fFwJ— lex (@jorilextera) March 4, 2023
The writing has been on the wall for weeks — if not longer. Briere was bound to serve as the next general manager of the Flyers at some point, whether it be in an interim capacity or not. And with Fletcher officially relieved of his duties Friday morning, it’s Briere’s turn to try and solve the complex puzzle that is the Philadelphia Flyers.
Briere has his work cut out for him, though. With just one year of experience as a special assistant to the general manager, the former fan favorite (as a player) will be tasked with undoing many of the costly mistakes made by his predecessor. And as Dave Scott noted in his comments Monday morning, this isn’t something that can be fixed overnight.
“Flyers fans deserve a better team than what they’ve seen on the ice over the past few seasons, and a clear plan to return this team to Stanley Cup contention. We know that this will be a multi-year process, and we are committed to doing it right, because we want to put this franchise on a path toward winning the Stanley Cup, period.”
Briere still hasn’t permanently locked up the role as general manager of the Flyers, though there’s a very good chance he’ll be the person to ultimately earn the position. And if/when he is named the permanent GM, he’ll likely have a few key items on his to-do list as he looks to put his fingerprints on the franchise an an executive.
Acquire future assets
Days before the NHL trade deadline, for the first time during his five years as the Flyers’ general manager, Fletcher finally hinted at shifting his ideology to that of someone commencing a rebuild. His goal? Acquire draft capital and young players at the deadline.
Unfortunately, that didn’t exactly happen. Instead, the Flyers wound up landing a pair of late-round draft picks and a fourth-line enforcer on an expiring contract in Brendan Lemieux.
Not exactly the haul Fletcher was hoping for.
But while Fletcher’s execution was poor, his goal was valid. The Flyers do need future assets, and Briere should have his sights set on obtaining them.
At the time of this writing, the Flyers won’t make another second-round pick until 2025 and own just 16 selections in the next two drafts. Meanwhile, the Arizona Coyotes own a whopping 26 selections in the next two drafts, including eight picks in the first and second rounds.
Granted, likening the Flyers to the Coyotes is an apples and oranges comparison. The Coyotes have been rebuilding for years, and the Flyers are just now beginning their new era. But for a team preparing to start a potentially lengthy reconstruction, it’s clear that the addition of draft picks will be paramount — albeit maybe not quite to the extent the Coyotes have gone about replenishing their stockpile of picks over the last several years.
Clear cap space by any means necessary
There aren’t many teams in as big a cap crunch as the Flyers, and frankly, there’s really no easy way out of it.
Despite the team gradually getting worse over Fletcher’s tenure as general manager, the Flyers’ available cap space has shrunk at an alarming rate. In fact, they’re currently spending to the cap ceiling while icing a team that ranks 26th in the league standings. And just about all of the Flyers’ mismanagement is linked directly to the massive contracts Fletcher gave to players who no longer have a place in the team’s future.
In the summer of 2019, Fletcher traded for Kevin Hayes and subsequently signed him to a seven-year, $50 million contract that doesn’t expire until 2027. Now, Hayes’ name is beginning to sprout up in trade discussions.
In 2021, Fletcher traded a first and a third-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres to acquire Rasmus Ristolainen. He then signed Ristolainen to a five-year, $25.5 million extension despite his clear defensive struggles. His contract also doesn’t expire until 2027.
And, of course, back in October, hours before the Flyers’ first game of the season, Fletcher inked Travis Sanheim to an eight-year, $50 million extension, which doesn’t expire until 2031. Sanheim is now in the midst of his worst season as a pro, and was even a healthy scratch last month due to his deficiencies.
For Briere, moving the contracts of Ristolainen and Sanheim will be extremely difficult — maybe even impossible due to the term. Hayes, however, should definitely be movable after putting together an All-Star campaign. The Columbus Blue Jackets are even rumored to be a logical landing spot for the 30-year-old.
Aside from Hayes, there are several other players Briere could move in order to both clear cap space and build for the future. Ivan Provorov desperately needs a change of scenery after seven seasons with the Flyers, and there are sure to be quite a few team interested in acquiring his services as a middle-pair minute-muncher. And if things get really spicy, there’s the possibility of moving Travis Konecny, who was a star for the Flyers all season before suffering an upper-body injury last month that could end his season prematurely.
Briere will have to get creative, but there is a path to clearing cap space. He’ll just need to prepare to make some potentially tough — and even divisive — decisions.
Build through the draft
Building through the draft is typically a years-long process. But this year, teams are getting a rare possibility to completely change their respective narratives in the span of just months.
How? By potentially earning the right to select prodigy Connor Bedard with the first pick of the upcoming draft.
That would require a certain group of ping pong balls to fall just right, though. And the Flyers don’t exactly have the best track record of success in those types of luck-based scenarios.
Still, the Flyers are going to have a pretty high pick in a draft year lauded for its depth. Whether the Flyers pick sixth, seventh or even later, they should have an opportunity to land a very good player with their selection.
Their cupboards aren’t completely barren, either. Several young prospects in the Flyers’ system, including last year’s first-round pick Cutter Gauthier, have been turning heads with their respective clubs. Gauthier has posted 37 points in 31 games as a freshman at Boston College, and Tyson Foerster, who made his NHL debut Thursday night, has impressed in Lehigh Valley with 18 goals in 56 games.
Plus, a few players acquired through the draft are already making an impact as regulars in the NHL. Noah Cates, for example, has become a heck of a find. Selected in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the 24-year-old has developed into an outstanding two-way center capable of generating offense and shutting down opposing teams’ top players.
John Tortorella isn’t always the easiest coach to please, but Cates has become one of his favorites in his first year behind the Flyers bench.
“He’s a complete player. I trust him in all situations, as you see,” said Tortorella after the Flyers’ February 5 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
“I think as his career keeps going, I think he’s gonna feel more comfortable in offensive situations. But the way we’re trying to play, he’s a guy I need. He needs to lead the way that way as far as the checking part of it.”
Meanwhile, Cam York has become a regular in the lineup since starting the year in Lehigh Valley, and he’s shown encouraging flashes in his 37 games with the big club this season. Morgan Frost, after looking rather pedestrian to start the season, has since heated up with 24 points in his last 37 games. In fact, only two other Flyers — Travis Konecny and Scott Laughton — have logged more points than Frost since December 11.
The Flyers have taken some swings in the draft, and they certainly have more than their fair share of misses. But so long as they prioritize building for the future like Fletcher claimed they are, they could accumulate quite an impressive collection of young talent in the next few years.
Add players who can succeed in today’s NHL
It’s almost become a meme at this point. Whenever a player over 6-foot-3 becomes available, a significant bulk of the fan base rolls its eyes in anticipation for the Flyers to overpay that player simply due to their ability to make the team “harder to play against.”
Well, in recent years the Flyers have added several players who make the team “harder to play against.” But if anything, the club has actually ended up becoming significantly easier to play against.
The best teams in the modern NHL aren’t built the same way teams in the ‘80s and ‘90s were. Size and toughness are no longer the end-all, be-all. In today’s NHL, speed and skill are king.
Those are two attributes many of the Flyers’ current players lack. And not-so-coincidentally, the team ranks third-to-last in the NHL with an average of just 2.57 goals per game.
After suffering a 1-0 shutout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes Thursday night, Tortorella expressed his frustration with the team’s complete inability to put the puck in the back of the net.
“I don’t know what else to tell you. We don’t make enough plays. We haven’t made enough plays. And we probably won’t the rest of the year. So we have to play above it, wait for our opportunities, hopefully get some good forechecking and hopefully bang some in.”
In order to get the offense back on track, the Flyers need to prioritize adding players with skill and high-end skating ability. They already have a pair players who fit that mold in Konecny and, as of recently, Owen Tippett, but Konecny is out of commission for the foreseeable future and Tippett is a 24-year-old still learning how consistently produce at the NHL level.
Players with high-end skill don’t grow on trees, and acquiring them won’t be easy. But the Flyers won’t become a competitive team until that box is checked.
Reduce alumni involvement
The firing of Chuck Fletcher was a step in the right direction for the Flyers. Over the last several years, he has proved unsatisfactory as an NHL general manager, and a change needed to be made.
But Fletcher wasn’t the entire problem. Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber and Paul Holmgren deserve just as much blame.
Clarke, Barber and Holmgren, all members of the legendary Broad Street Bullies, serve as three of the team’s four senior advisors (Dean Lombardi is the fourth). And as Fletcher’s tenure as general manager progressed, it became increasingly evident that the three Flyers Hall of Famers had their fingerprints all over the lambasted personnel decisions made by Fletcher.
Three men, all of whom haven’t played in an NHL game since the mid ‘80s, were advising Fletcher on how to build a hockey team in 2023, and it caused the Flyers to flush numerous full campaigns down the drain.
Briere deserves better.
In order for him to succeed as interim (and probably the soon-to-be full-time) general manager, Briere needs to be able to do the job his way without the direction of former general managers (and a former head coach) who seem detached from the reality of the modern NHL.
The grit? The toughness? The size? None of it matters. Briere, who stands at a generous 5-foot-9 and thrived in the NHL as a finesse player, knows it as well as anyone. And if the alumni continue to force their dated ideologies on him, Briere will end up just like Fletcher.
At this point, the Flyers simply can’t afford to let that happen.