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Avs’ Climb — From Worst to First — Shows Flyers How It Can Be Done

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Chuck Fletcher Philadelphia Flyers Free Agency
GM Chuck Fletcher has a good role model -- Colorado GM Joe Sakic -- as he tries to mold the Philadelphia Flyers into a Stanley Cup contender.

The Philadelphia Flyers have some models they can follow to become relevant again.

There’s the New York Rangers’ climb from bottom feeder to strong Stanley Cup contenders, as  I outlined here.

And there’s the Colorado Avalanche’s ascension to Stanley Cup champions this season.

The Avs won the Cup by dethroning the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1, in Game 6 Sunday night in Florida.

Colorado should be an inspiration to Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher. After all, the Avs resembled the current Flyers five years ago. In fact, they were even worse than the 2021-22 Flyers if you can believe that.

In 2016-17 Colorado had a 22-56-4 record for 48 points. Forty eight!

The Flyers last season had the league’s fourth-worst record (25-46-11, 61 points). It was their second-worst record in franchise history.

So how did the Avs go from worst to first in five years?

With smart draft picks, quality free-agent signings, and shrewd trades.

Oh, and by putting together a roster that has two speeds: Fast and faster.

The Flyers’ front office, hopefully, is taking notes.

The Makar Factor

Sadly, at least for Flyers’ fans, one of the most important moves the Avs made was drafting Cale Makar with the fourth overall pick in 2017. On  Sunday, Makar, 23, became the youngest defenseman in 52 years — since Bobby Orr (then 22) in 1970 — to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the top performer in the playoffs.

The Flyers, who took Nolan Patrick at No. 2 (much to Bob Clarke’s dismay) in 2017, were one of three teams that bypassed Makar before Colorado nabbed him. The Flyers had climbed from No. 13 to No,. 2 in the draft lottery.

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Makar is now this generation’s Orr, a dazzling two-way defenseman who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best D-man in the regular season before being presented the Conn Smythe Trophy on Sunday.

Earlier in his career, Makar, who starred at the University of Massachusetts, won the Hobey Baker award as the best college player in 2018-19. The  next season, he captured the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.

Makar is the first person to win all four of those awards in his career.

He is Orr Lite.

Avs’ climb

Colorado won the Cup just five years after accumulating 48 points, and Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Erik Johnson, and J.T. Compher are current Avs who were also on that team.

In other words, just because Fletcher needs to do a massive rebuild, he still needs to keep some core players in place.

If Fletcher followed the Colorado model, he would make trades to stockpile draft picks.

It should also be noted that the Avs were bad before they reached rock bottom in 2016-17. That enabled them to draft Landeskog (No. 2 overall) in 2011, Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1 overall) in 2013, and Mikko Rantanen (No. 10 overall) in 2015.

The Flyers need some of their No. 1 picks — guys like Ivan Provorov, Joel Farabee and Cam York — to blossom like Colorado’s first-rounders.

They also need Fletcher to make some wise trades like Colorado GM Joe Sakic did when he dealt Matt Duchene and netted Samuel Girard (now a top-pairing defenseman) and a pick they used to land promising defenseman Bowen Byram, who had nine points in 20 playoff games this year. He also acquired key players like Nazem Kadri in a blockbuster deal with Toronto, and Devon Toews, among others,

More brilliance

Along the way, Sakic has also added some key free agents, such as underrated Valeri Nichushkin, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound winger who had 25 goals this season. Selected by Dallas in the first round in 2013 (10th overall), he signed with the Avs in 2019 for $850,000 after struggling mightily with the Stars.

It was a low risk that turned into a high reward. Nichushkin, who had zero goals in 57 games with Dallas before Sakic signed him, has blossomed in Colorado, and was a second-line right winger on a line with Landeskog and Kadri.

The Avs have also been patient. It would have been easy to fire coach Jared Bednar after the 48-point disaster in his inaugural season. The Flyers, on the other hand, have had seven coaches in the last nine years.

The Flyers have changed coaches instead of the roster and you see the results — one playoff series win in the last 10 seasons.

Making Colorado’s worst-to-first climb even more impressive is that Sakic did it during the salary-cap era. Yes, it won’t be easy for another team to duplicate, but it can be done.

The next move is Fletcher’s.

Actually, the next several moves are his because this organization needs much more than one deal to transform the sad-sack Flyers into a Stanley Cup champion. Or at least a legitimate Cup contender.

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