The newly-assembled front office of the Philadelphia Flyers will set out to mold the franchise into “the envy of the NHL” with the first long-term rebuild in its 56-year history. General manager (GM) Danny Briere and President of Hockey Operations Keith Jones have both spoken about other organizations that can provide a blueprint for the Flyers to build correctly into a Stanley Cup contender.
“Even when I played as a player, I was always someone that studied my opponents, also studied my GMs, and what they were doing and whether the other GMs were doing (it),” Briere told the Philadelphia media at his introductory press conference as the interim GM in March.
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Jones brings experience as a national and local broadcaster while Briere was a fast-rising executive in different realms of business operations. Add 26 years of NHL playing experience between them, and it’s easy to recognize that the new duo has seen a good share of the causes of success and failure around the game. What examples of success will they model themselves after?
The Gold Standard: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the gold standard for team building in the NHL, and Jones correctly acknowledged it during a media scrum when the Flyers introduced the “New Era of Orange” at the Wells Fargo Center on May 19.
“To me, Tampa is the team. They’ve done it right. They brought skill in and then added toughness. I think that’s ideally what you want to do. We weren’t really in a position to do that. We have toughness. Now, we need the skill, so it’s a little bit of the opposite, but… We want to be like Tampa. We want to be hard to play against. We want our top players to be the best in the world. They’ve done that,” he said.
The Lightning built an arsenal of top-end skill players with incredible execution in the draft. They laid their foundation by picking Steven Stamkos with the first-overall pick in 2008 and Victor Hedman with the second-overall pick in 2009. However, the premium picks were far from their only way to find players to contribute at the top of the lineup.
They hit on their picks by selecting Nikita Kucherov in the second round and Ondřej Palát in the seventh round in 2011, Andrei Vasilevskiy with the 19th-overall pick in 2012, Brayden Point in the third round in 2014, and Anthony Cirelli in the third round in 2015.
The Flyers have given up significant draft capital during the past two offseasons, but selling off veterans at three consecutive deadlines has helped offset the costs. They own the Florida Panthers’ first-round pick in 2024, and they will also likely cash in on a compensatory second-round pick. Their accumulation of middle-round picks increases the chances of striking gold like the Lightning did with Point.
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It’s not impossible for them to stockpile a wealth of talent like Tampa Bay did through the draft, but it’s not very probable. They’d need a current prospect like Tyson Foerster, Emil Andrae, or Bobby Brink to shatter expectations by becoming a first-line player and strong development from Cutter Gauthier and the player they take with the seventh-overall pick in June. They would still need a whole lot of luck with their other selections to steal top-end players who can become primary scorers on a team in Stanley Cup contention.
Jones specifically pointed out Tampa Bay’s ability to supplement their top players with depth that made them harder to play against. Julien BriseBois added Pat Maroon before the 2019-20 season before acquiring Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow ahead of the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline. The Lightning won the next two Stanley Cups and 11 consecutive playoff series after the acquisitions.
The Flyers signed Nicolas Deslauriers to a four-year contract in 2022, and they’ve emphasized the value of Scott Laughton’s leadership and grit as a key part of the culture they hope to continue building under head coach John Tortorella. The plan to draft and develop the offensive skill players while the toughness is already in place is a little bit of a stretch considering how interchangeable bottom-six NHL players usually are. Most serviceable gritters play on short-term contracts with inexpensive salaries, so it’s tough to keep them around through a long-term rebuild. The Flyers will have to confront the reality of how hard it is to prioritize strong intangible players and invest significant cap resources in them over a long period of time.
On The Rise: Devils, Senators, Red Wings
Briere spoke on 97.5 The Fanatic in March about his plan for the future in Philadelphia and examples of NHL teams moving in the right direction after bottoming out in rebuilds.
“The (New Jersey) Devils are on the upswing. The (Detroit) Red Wings, the Ottawa Senators, those are teams that have gone through rebuilds, and it’s starting to pay off for them. So we’re probably two or three years behind them, but I think it’s time for us to start looking in the same direction,” the former Flyers playoff hero said.
The Devils made the jump into contention with a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division in 2022-23 and a victory in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They had missed the playoffs in nine of the previous 10 seasons. Some elements of New Jersey’s track have no value to the Flyers. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, arguably their two best players, both fell into New Jersey’s lap because of lottery luck.
However, the Flyers can learn from their former arch-rivals by looking at the allocation of resources that allowed them to acquire important pieces from outside the organization. GM Tom Fitzgerald landed big-name free agents Dougie Hamilton and Ondřej Palát in back-to-back offseasons in 2021 and 2022 and still had enough financial flexibility to acquire Timo Meier at the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline. Logan Horn ranked the Devils with the second-best prospect pool in the league, which is even more impressive considering their high-profile acquisitions didn’t come at the cost of their future.
The Flyers don’t have the luxury of cap flexibility, and most prospect experts consider their pool in the middle of the NHL pack. The extended period outside playoff contention helped the Devils manage their resources and position themselves to make aggressive moves. As much as fans in Philadelphia might not want to hear it, the Flyers might be due for the same type of long-term timeline because of the amount of expensive long-term contracts on their books and their current lack of high-end prospects.
Briere pointed to the Senators and the Red Wings as teams trending in the right direction. However, neither team has accomplished enough to stand out as a true blueprint. Both teams approached the 2022 offseason aggressively after waiting patiently for multiple seasons beforehand. The Senators signed Claude Giroux and traded for Alex DeBrincat while the Red Wings acquired Ville Husso, Andrew Copp, and David Perron. The Atlantic Division rivals both improved in 2022-23, but neither made the playoffs.
Briere hopes that the Flyers can get younger. He will have to wait a few years before making any major moves in free agency that can push the Flyers into playoff contention. The organization faces an uphill battle in getting their long-term salary cap structure in order.
Conference Finalists: Panthers, Stars
The Dallas Stars reached the Western Conference Final with an uncommon mix of age groups making up the top of their lineup. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Joe Pavelski have each played 13 or more seasons in the NHL. A younger wave of players including Jason Robertson, Miro Heiskanen, and Roope Hintz have also developed into centerpieces for the Stars.
The Florida Panthers looked like they had taken a major step back in 2022-23. Their regular-season point total dropped by 30 after their Presidents’ Trophy season in 2021-22, and they barely snuck into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a wild card in the Eastern Conference. The acquisition of Matthew Tkachuk has been invaluable during a tear through the postseason, and they now look like they have a franchise player as important to his team as any NHL player.
Mike Fink recently wrote about the offseason retooling strategies the two conference finalists used last summer. Both teams brought in veteran coaches to change their chemistry. The Panthers hired Paul Maurice, and the Stars brought in Peter DeBoer. Maurice has overseen an unpredictable playoff hot streak just one year after the Panthers went down quietly in the playoffs against the Lightning, their geographic rival. The Stars have benefitted from breakout performances from their young talent that have helped salvage the late years of their veterans for a Stanley Cup push.
The Stars and the Panthers provide some of the latest reminders of how there are an infinite amount of ways to build a Stanley Cup contender. Some fans and analysts might push for tanking to collect draft capital. Some teams might comply while others will insist on competing every single season. Jones and Briere will have to look around the NHL and use their experience in past eras to their benefit and establish a plan unique to the situation in Philadelphia that can successfully turn things around.