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As the Flyers rebuild, what can they learn from the teams that did it successfully?

Welcome to Part One of a two-part look at what the Flyers can learn from a few recent rebuilds executed by teams around the league.

Well, it finally happened: the Flyers fired Chuck Fletcher. In a press release, Dave Scott said a number of things about the state of the franchise and where things are headed, and one point stood out:

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.

A “multi-year process.” Without saying it’s a rebuild, that sure sounds like a rebuild, and Interim General Manager Danny Briere came out and said as much. The Flyers, unfortunately, are not in the best position to even begin a rebuild: they have expensive, long-term contracts for players that are not worth the value against the cap, for starters. And aside from Travis Konecny and Carter Hart, no roster players that could be traded for impactful futures. Add in the fact that they’re (currently) not bad enough to draft in the top five in a loaded 2023 draft class, and might not be bad enough next year either, the team has no real path to acquiring high-end, elite talent that could be with the franchise long term. Oh, and under Fletcher’s tenure, the team hemorrhaged draft picks to acquire mediocre players.

One of the key questions popping up now that “rebuild” is being thrown around is: what year of the rebuild are we in? An argument could be made that this 2022-23 season was Year Zero, given a top five draft pick in 2022, but considering the franchise traded picks that same summer in win-now moves, I can’t say I agree—this season has been Year Negative-1.

Still, a rebuild has to start somewhere. There are templates for it from other teams around the NHL and to me, the best example is the New Jersey Devils (ugh), but the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings serve as solid inspiration, as well. There are arguments to be made about when each team officially started their respective rebuilds, but for the purposes of this exercise we’ll say 2018 was Year Zero for all three. For Ottawa, they tore everything down after losing in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final; for Detroit, it was the year Ken Holland saw the writing on the wall and jettisoned players in earnest for futures; for New Jersey, it was the last year they made the playoffs.

Five years on, where are they now? The Devils are one of the top teams in the NHL, and getting better. Even more remarkable is that they’re a year ahead of schedule; they didn’t just squeak open their window for contention—they blew it out of the wall. The Senators are vying for an ever-fading wildcard spot, but with Jakob Chychrun in the fold and the expected healthy return of Josh Norris next season, they’ve become a very real playoff threat in an Atlantic Division that’s on the verge of a serious realignment. That goes for Detroit as well: they acquired two first round picks at the trade deadline as the Yzerplan moves  forward, and I’m betting Yzerman flips those picks for players in the off season as the Red Wings move into contention.

To better understand the positioning of the Philadelphia Flyers and which path they’re most likely to follow, let’s compare facets of what the organization has done since 2018 to these rebuilding teams: their drafts, their key acquisitions, and what their futures look like.

Note: I am aware there are other teams that went through “rebuilds” recently, including the LA Kings, the New York Rangers, and the Buffalo Sabres, among others. However, the Flyers aren’t really positioned to follow any of those three: the Kings still have a few stars from their Cup wins, the Rangers fast-tracked the rebuild when they signed Artemi Panarin, and the Sabres have been rebuilding for over a decade. If anything, the Flyers could fall into the Sabres trap, but I’m hoping ownership isn’t that disconnected.

The Drafts

New Jersey

We’ll go back to 2017 for the Devils, as they won the lottery and drafted first overall. In 2018, they drafted 17th due to a Hart Trophy-winning year from Taylor Hall that pushed them into the playoffs, but after that? They drafted first overall in 2019, seventh in 2020, fourth in 2021, and second in 2022—in six years, that’s four draft picks in the top five. Four! Two of those picks resulted in the 1-2 punch of Jack Hughes/Nico Hischier down the middle, and the other two have yet to make their NHL debuts—though Luke Hughes likely joins the team next season, and Simon Nemec won’t be too far behind. Nemec and L. Hughes are two of the best prospects in the league, to boot.

Also worthy of note was New Jersey’s ability to identify talent deeper in the draft—the prize being Jesper Bratt as a sixth round pick in 2016. Yegor Sharangovich, drafted in the fifth round of 2018, has also been a solid player, and Dawson Mercer at 18th overall in 2020 looks like a good winger as well. The jury’s still out on Alexander Holtz but at only 21, he’s got time.

Ottawa Senators

Since 2018, Ottawa has drafted three times in the top five—and twice in the same draft! Their 2018 fourth overall pick brought in future captain Brady Tkachuk, while their third and fifth overall picks in 2020 landed Tim Stützle and Jake Sanderson, respectively. Tkachuk and Stützle have been electric, and defenseman Sanderson has 25 points in his rookie season and remains a top prospect.

The Senators haven’t had as much luck in later rounds, but Shane Pinto going in the second round at 32nd overall in 2019 was quite a find, and he’s really stepped up this year with Norris out. If we look back to 2017, Drake Batherson has been a steal for a fourth round selection.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings have the most interesting draft picture: they only drafted once in the top five since 2018, but have drafted in the top ten every year since 2017. Their success really speaks to the organization’s ability to identify talent and go for it, best demonstrated by selecting Moritz Seider sixth overall in 2019. Seider wasn’t ranked nearly that high on most draft boards, so the pick was something of a shock—but it has paid dividends to the Red Wings, with Seider winning the Calder last year.

In 2020, the Red Wings drafted Lucas Raymond fourth overall—their highest pick—and he looks poised to be an excellent winger. Their other top picks? Less thrilling: Filip Zadina and Joe Veleno (2018 sixth and thirtieth overall, respectively) have been fine, but nothing earth shattering, and likely end up as depth pieces. Still, Detroit’s 2021 and 2022 top ten picks have yet to start in the NHL: Simon Edvinsson, their 2021 sixth overall pick, is having a solid year in the AHL, and 2022 eighth overall pick Marco Kasper’s competing in the SHL.

Of the three teams discussed, the Red Wings are probably the furthest from true contention, but only just. Steve Yzerman has preached patience and a slow build, and the team is ready to take the next steps—and they now have the draft capital to move when they’re ready to take the plunge.

The Flyers

Funnily enough, since 2017, the Flyers have drafted in the top five more than the Red Wings—yet they’re much further from contention. One reason is that Nolan Patrick’s injuries ended his NHL career, and the other is that the Flyers had considered themselves a competitive team up until this year, with the abysmal 2021-22 season being a fluke. We haven’t seen 2022 fifth overall pick Cutter Gauthier at the NHL level yet, but he has 37 points in 32 games at Boston College and had 10 points in seven games at the U20 World Juniors. That’s not earth-shattering, but it’s not nothing, either.

Since 2018 the Flyers’ other first round draft picks have been a mixed bag: on the one side, you have Joel Farabee and Cam York; on the other you have Jay O’Brien, with Tyson Foerster somewhere in the middle. Keep in mind, too, that the Flyers traded their 2021 first rounder to Buffalo for Rasmus Ristolainen.

The Flyers’ mid-round picks have been pretty solid, though: Ronnie Attard (2019 third round) and Emil Andrae (2020 second round) likely become useful defensemen, and Bobby Brink (2019 second round) projects as a decent middle-6 winger. Those second round picks have value, which makes it all the more frustrating that Chuck Fletcher traded so many away. Deeper in the draft, Elliot Desnoyers (2020 fifth round) has been a nice surprise, and Sam Ersson (2018 fifth round) could be an NHL starting goaltender. Those decent-to-good draft picks add up.

The Acquisitions

New Jersey Devils

The forwards section of the roster is largely comprised of draft selections, which speaks to the competence of New Jersey’s scouting, their development team, and the benefit of consistently having early picks. By signing their young stars early to long term contracts, they’ve locked up their core for years and have only had to fill in the gaps. GM Tom Fitzgerald may’ve overpaid for Ondrej Palat ($6 million AAV through 2027), but his veteran presence, Stanley Cup experience, and consistent depth production should make that contract a worthwhile one. With the forward core largely coming through the Devils’ prospect system, the backend has been the priority for acquisitions.

And wow, Fitzgerald swung for the fences with the defense. The Dougie Hamilton contract looked like an egregious misstep after a dismal 2021-22 campaign, but now it looks brilliant as he’s playing at nearly a point per game pace. Bringing in John Marino from Pittsburgh for next to nothing was a great move, and cavalry is coming in Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. Add in the Vitek Vanecek signing, where he’s had a great bounce back season outside of Washington, and the Devils defense and goaltending looks solid.

Still, the best move Fitzgerald made was to bring in Timo Meier to solidify the top six. In a trade that ended up costing the Devils very little, they acquired one of the best power forwards in the league. The fact that Meier is an RFA this summer is icing on the cake: sure, it might cost a lot to keep him around, but at 26 he could easily be a long term piece. And if he doesn’t stay? An offer sheet or trade would net a massive return. The Devils win either way. (Very annoying, I know).

Ottawa Senators

In the last calendar year, GM Pierre Dorion has made some outstanding moves: at the 2022 draft he got Alex DeBrincat out of Chicago for a pittance, and at this year’s trade deadline he won the Jakob Chychrun sweepstakes by waiting out everybody else, and paid next to nothing for his patience. Last summer he also signed a guy you might know named Claude Giroux, who’s at 66 points in 66 games. They also have a feel-good story in Artem Zub, a guy who went undrafted and turned into a solid second pairing defenseman.

The Sens are in a similar situation to the Devils this summer, with DeBrincat being up for a new contract with an exorbitant qualifying offer similar to Meier. Again, though, the Sens win either way: DeBrincat stays and they have an excellent goal scorer in their top six for years to come, or they get a massive offer sheet or trade return.

Detroit Red Wings

Detroit is the most unique of these three teams, with much of their roster depth acquired through trades and signings. It’s worth qualifying that observation by saying the Red Wings were sellers at the trade deadline, moving drafted players Filip Hronek and Tyler Bertuzzi each for first round picks. Expect a very different lineup on opening day 2023.

For the purposes of this though, their “high end” acquisitions last summer were Andrew Copp, David Perron, and Ben Chiarot. Perron has been as advertised for the Red Wings, and Copp has been fine, but the Chiarot contract looks as awful as it did the day it was signed. Thankfully for the team (and Mo Seider in particular), Jake Walman stepped in and got things back on track—and he’s had the best celly of the season.

The Flyers

Hoo boy, where to start? Outside of the Cam Atkinson for Jake Voracek trade, not a single acquisition has really worked out for the Flyers—BSH even graded Chuck Fletcher’s moves during his tenure. Kevin Hayes? Massive overpay and at odds with the head coach. Rasmus Ristolainen? Maybe the most improved player on the team this season, but the bar’s pretty low for a perennial Green Jacket candidate. Tony DeAngelo? Woof. None of these additions pushed the Flyers into contention (okay maybe Hayes for like, six months), and they shipped out one of their most talented players in Shane Gostisbehere for literally nothing.

The most effective acquisition the Flyers have made since 2018 has been Owen Tippett, in a deal that sent captain Claude Giroux to Florida. You would’ve thought trading your team’s captain would signal the start of a rebuild, but no, apparently the Flyers needed this season to “find out.”

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 as we cover what sort of timeline the Flyers are most likely to follow, and what the roster may look like a few years from now.

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