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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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R M

Great article Sam. A couple of observations: First, Farabee probably should retire and enjoy the use of his neck after the surgery he just went through, so I do not believe he can be a core piece. Not anymore. Second, to conduct this Av model rebuild, the first move is to get a competent GM. Fletch has already had five years. He has not acquired one, not one, all-star player, not one stud pillar to build around. Not through drafts, trades of FA signings. He has to go! Third, the strategy has to, has to, be trade any player on the roster right now, except Hart, for first round picks, top first round picks especially. Montreal needs a Center badly. Why not trade Couts and Prov for the first pick of this year’s draft and take Slafkovsky, who is going to be Ovechkin lite? Gotta get real aggressive, trade pearls for top picks and start all over. But first, they need a top shelf GM, which they do not have.

Brett McCartney

Hate to break it to you, but Couturier and Provorov WILL NOT net you the top pick in this year’s draft, which is considered subpar compared to most drafts. Additionally, the best player is not Slafkovsky; it is Shane Wright, who Montreal has made it clear that they are not interested in trading the pick, and will undoubtedly take Wright at #1. Slafkovsky had one good series at the Olympics this winter, but was inconsistent for the most part in this, his draft year. He certainly IS NOT in any way the next Ovechkin, who dominated the opposition his entire draft year in 2004. Next year’s draft in 2023 is where the real prize lies: Connor Bedard, who is a generational player on par with Connor McDavid.

Last edited 1 month ago by Brett McCartney
R M

Bedard is another small player, not what the Flyers need. Yes, a very good player as a complement but is no McDavid. He is another player who may not be able to take a hit and will end up in the hospital. If you are paying attention, the Flyers are loaded with hospital cases, they are too small, too slow, too physically weak, and cannot take or dish out a hit. Slafkcovsky is big, fast and strong, with an incredible shot and puck handling to deke out a goalie. Projection is necessary, this is the NHL, not juniors, and too many Flyer draft picks in the past went off juniors and ignored the projected size, strength, and speed of the pick. As for the trade with Montreal, they need a Center badly. Couts has to give them pause to consider. I would even throw in Konechny with Prov and Couts for that Pick and Slafkovsky. We need at least three young all-star stud pillars to build around for the next 10 years. If we can get our hands on Slaf and Jiricik with this draft, lose another 50 games next year, and get the third stud in next year’s draft, that is worth doing. Time to be aggressive. They traded six players for Lindros, and they should be willing to trade three for Slaf. I do it every day. Wright is going to be a slightly above average player, not a stud. Not one particular great skill. Montreal would definitely consider a package of Couts, Prov and Konechny for that first pick.

Bubba

Trouble with fhead fletch is he’s to arrogant to think his was won’t work even though it hasn’t in Minnesota now in Philly.

Steve Riccio

Hi Sam: Great article. I feel Fletcher doesn’t have the luxury of going through a rebuild given his lackluster time here in Philly. As a big business, Comcast can’t tell shareholders they are going to rebuild and it seems that philosophy has trickled down to our beloved Flyers. Maybe a question for your podcast…When do you foresee Torts selecting his coaching staff? Do you envision a different approach of how he uses his coaches compared to AV and the countless coaches that proceeded him?

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